Slavery, Service and Tips

‘Service’ derives from the Latin servitium, slavery, which is of course itself a derivative of servus, slave.

As for the word ‘slave’ itself, the most persuasive theory is that it derives from the medieval Latin term sclava, meaning captive. But it is also closely connected with the Byzantine Greek term for Slavs, sklabos (from about 580 CE). The connection is both one of merging two terms and the political reality of Holy Roman Empire’s policy of enslaving many Slavs from the ninth century CE as a way of securing the German-Slav demarcation line.

Why the etymology?

I was confronted once again with a curious phenomenon in the strangest of countries, the United States of America. Here they obsess about ‘service’.

I had been travelling across North America by train, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. I went via Chicago and took the Empire Builder to Portland, before running down California on the Coast Starlight. All the way I encountered one exceedingly helpful person after another. But it really came home to me in the midst of a lunch discussion as we rolled across Montana.

One of the women said, ‘That would do it for me; if the service is excellent, I’ll go back’.

Why the obsession? I wondered. So much so that it is a defining feature of travel itself.

Indeed, everywhere I turned on my journey, I was smothered in people trying to offer service. In a shop I was asked in a cheery but brittle tone how I am ‘doing today’. If the shop assistant managed to catch my name, I was forthwith addressed as though we had known each other for ages. If I paused for a moment on a street or in a railway station, someone inevitably asked if I need some help in finding my way.

Do not get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. But I remain puzzled.

So I came to my etymological sleuthing.

Service is directly connected to slavery. I mean this not purely in terms of the history of the word, but in the actual practice. When slavery was finally abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘servants’. Lower working class men and women, often from the countryside, would also become ‘servants’ in large households. Perhaps we should say ‘wage slaves’.

Yet, this practice can be found in many parts of the world. So what is different about the United States? I suggest that tipping functions in a way to maintain old patterns of subservience.

In theory at least, the possibility of a tip is meant to encourage greater levels of service. Let us leave aside for a moment the framework of tipping that includes ridiculously low wages, or the assumption that private philanthropy makes the world go around. I am interested in the theory: depending on the ‘quality’ of the service, the tipper may choose to give nothing or give generously, or anywhere in between. The power held by the one tipping lies in the option to withhold or give.

Of course, all manner of cultural expectations and percentages now apply to what is deemed appropriate. But so is the unquestioned assumption that if the service is bad, no tip should be given. Hence the obsessing over service, the entrenchment of slave-like behavior, the etymology itself of ‘service’ and ‘slavery’. It could really only happen in a country with the complex history and continued cultural presence of slavery in its very fabric.

The Crumbling of the USA

Cracks in the ‘pavement’, torn seats, broken arm rests, faded signs, stained carpets, broken taps, and filth in all the many holes and gaps that are increasingly evident. I speak not of eastern Europe, or even of some the poorer countries in Asia, but of the United States of America.

For some reason, I notice them even more now. They had always been there, if one cared to look in the parts visitors are not supposed to see – in the southwest and even centre, of perhaps in no-go zones of the cities where even locals do not dare to tread. But people in these parts have been quite adept at papering them over and presenting to the world – through the extraordinary propaganda system called Hollywood and endless television series – an image of uniform wealth and seamless efficiency.

But now I was in the northeast, which looks with disdain on most of the rest of the United States, quivering with horror at the barbarians within, whether in the rust-belt states, the southern reaches, or the centre-west.

Here too the railing I almost held was bent and loose. The train I caught groaned and clunked and the lights flicked on and off – it had not been upgraded for many a decade. The toilet I used was barely cleaned and the tap spurted uncontrollably. The escalator had ceased functioning some time ago, for dirt had gathered in its corners. And everywhere the footpaths and road edges were crumbling, crumbling.

I am told by good authority that the United States by and large no longer invests in infrastructure. Money is to be made, obscene amounts of money. But people hardly ever get rich these days by gaining lucrative government contracts for, say, a cross-country railway line, or a freeway interstate. Instead, they speculate on the stock market, making money from the misfortunes of others (most spectacularly in the wake of the Great Recession that began in 2008). Ever new and bamboozling ways are found to make money from money – the greatest fetish of all, as Marx already pointed out. So the richest tycoons are those who so speculate, seeking to manipulate international monetary flows for their own advantage.

Meanwhile, the country itself falls to pieces. Those who have lost out – workers of different backgrounds (African-American, Latino, European, and so on) have moved from disillusionment to being openly angry. The cynical political machine threatens to break as people begin to vent their wrath. Killings and regular protests rock the streets, and internal ‘terrorism’ has become a far greater threat. At the same time, those in the northeast and northwest dismiss the disenfranchised as backward, racist and sexist ‘hillbillies’. I have heard a north-easterner opine that those in the centre-west and south should either be relocated, re-educated, die off, or be killed by a foreign power. It is not a country with an existential crisis; it is a country beginning to tear itself apart.

But the cracks have always been here. I have always found negotiating a footpath a tricky business, and if I cared to look I could find plenty of seedy establishments, with infrastructure barely functioning. The reality is that the foundations of this empire have always been shaky indeed, but once upon a time one could easily miss the foundations for the glittering façade built upon them. Yet, even the weakest foundations can bear only so much. Eventually, what is built on them must also begin to crumble.

Crumpled Shirt and Dirty Shoes

Sartorial elegance: the ability to appear stylish and well-groomed without appearing so. Although it applies as much to one’s hair, shaving and smell, its key is the cladding that one wears to cover the body. After all, the word ‘sartorial’ comes from Latin word sartor, tailor.

I had always prided myself on not requiring the usual signals of sartorial elegance. I would wear what I wanted when I wanted, without concern for style or fashion. As long as my single pair of shoes fit the shape of my feet, were comfortable, and could be worn on all occasions – from hiking up mountains to weddings – I was happy. As long as the pants could be worn for a week, be washed overnight and be dry the next morning, I was content. And as long as the shirt was clean and dry, I could not ask for more.

In China, others were not so happy.

For an eternity they tolerated my sartorial preferences. They did so with a glance, a stare, a polite smile. Until at last of them dared to ask.

‘Doesn’t your girlfriend or wife care for you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, standing still on the footpath.

‘Well, your shirt is crumpled’, she said. The others in our group murmured agreement.

‘It’s a t-shirt’, I said. ‘Who irons a t-shirt?’

‘And when you signed the new contract last week, you wore a crumpled shirt’, she said. ‘And it was not tucked in. It was hanging outside your pants!’

‘Are you serious?’ I said. ‘I haven’t owned an iron for more than 15 years and I prefer to wear my shirts out’.

‘What about your girlfriend or wife?’ she said.

‘She is even more scruffy than I am,’ I said. ‘Crumpled shirts, old and torn clothes hanging out, hair messy … a grungy look, we call it’.

This was the moment for genuine consternation. How in the world could a woman not be concerned with creases, crumples, and tucked in clothes?

But that was not the real issue.

‘Anyone who looks at you does not think about whether you can take out the creases in your crumpled clothes’, she said. ‘They immediately think your girlfriend must not really care for you. They will think badly of her’.

‘It has got nothing to do with anyone else’, I said. ‘I prefer not to worry about these things’.

‘And your shoes’, she said.

‘What about my shoes?’ I asked.

‘They are muddy’, she said.

‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘I have been hiking a couple of days ago, so they have some mud left on them’.

‘Your girlfriend really doesn’t care about you!’

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On Visiting a Museum to the ‘Victims’ of Communism

I had come to Transylvania for the last time, for life was calling me to other realms. Part of this visit entailed a return to one of the museums nearby dedicated to the ‘victims’ of communism. I had been taken here some years before, so this was my second visit.

The museum is located in a former prison that had once been a monastery. It is laid out in white paint, with pictures, cells, sculptures, and a distinct story, concerning both the master narrative of the evils of communism and various micro-narratives that are meant to fit within the larger whole. One may spend a few minutes or a few hours perusing the neat and well-designed display. Who could not be swayed by such a depiction, of the misery experienced by those who had simply, for the sake of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opposed the communist ‘regime’ in Romania?

On the first occasion, I was somewhat confronted by it all, wondering whether such treatment of enemies of the state, aided and abetted by foreign powers, should have so. Did it not breed more resentment and resistance? Would it not have been wiser to follow a gentler, but no less firm path?

However, on the first occasion I had noticed a few anomalies in the smooth narrative. To begin with, those who had actually died in the prison were of reasonably advanced age, between their late sixties and into their eighties. Reading between the lines, one gained a sense that they had died of natural causes. And I could not help notice that there was a reasonable number of former politicians (from before 1947), military leaders and church figures. Common people, such as workers and farmers, were distinctly under-represented. How to make sense of all this?

Not until the second visit some five years later did the pieces begin to fall into place. Four features stood out in stark relief. To begin with, the museum is clearly modelled on the style of a Holocaust Museum, with portrait walls of those imprisoned, brief biographies, copies of hand-written materials, and individual cell experiences. One could stand before a touch-screen and select an individual from the picture and read very briefly about his or her experiences. One could go outside and pause for thought among the sculptures and trees of the remembrance garden. One could be brought up-to-date on the destruction of cultural artefacts (actually, only a cathedral) by the communists. Indeed, one could enter one cell and find a display of communist-era activities, such as newspapers, posters, young pioneer clothes and so on.

The intended effect was what might be called the reductio ad Hitlerum. This became clear when I overheard a discussion outside the museum. Three foreign visitors had just emerged from viewing the display, and one of them commented that it reminded him of Nazi Germany and the museums they had visited there. Another observed that they should go and see the graveyard where the victims had been executed and buried. In other words, the communist ‘regime’ was no different from the fascists.

As I stood by, I recalled the many names I had encountered inside, names of those who were released after two, three or five years. Indeed, the majority of those imprisoned had been released at some time (unless they died of age or illness). It was difficult to see how they could also have been executed and buried. Yet, this is part of the reductio ad Hitlerum, in which the fundamental difference between fascist concentration camps and communist prisons is conveniently glossed over. For the fascists, the camp was the first step to death for the majority of those who were irredeemable, whether for political (communist) or racial reasons (Jews and gypsies). For the communists, imprisonment was for the purpose of re-education and rehabilitation. No matter how much the process may have failed to live up to this motivation, it was reflected in the way many were released.

Perhaps more telling was the way fascism itself was airbrushed out of the representations and narrative. For example, the communist revolution in Romania encountered significant opposition from fascist forces, especially in the southeast near Bucharest. Romanian troops had fought with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, many generals felt at home among the Nazis, as did politicians during the second world war. Yet all of these simply became the part of the ‘resistance’ to communism, a resistance that was recast as a desire for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. After all, fascists do make the best anti-communists.

And this brings me back to the former detainees of this monastery-cum-prison. Most, although not all, were what would count as the old ruling class: ancient nobles, landlords, political leaders, generals, priests, and bourgeoisie. They would have been pointedly disgruntled at losing their assumed power under the barbarian workers and common people. Indeed, the period of communism was too short in Romania, and the communists made too many mistakes – such as prisons like this – in their attempt to overcome entrenched assumptions about class privilege. In many respects, this old ruling class is now back in power in Romania, feeling the world is once again as it should be, that Romanian society is ordered for their benefit. And they are the ones who tell the story and build museums like this one.

Throwing Out My Library

In 1931, Walter Benjamin penned his piece called ‘Unpacking My Library’. It is a piece cherished by bibliophiles throughout the world. You know the ones: they collect whatever books they happen to find, whether outrageously expensive or found in a dump. It matters little what the books concern, for it is the nature of the book itself that is the object of desire, if not fetishism. Benjamin himself had a fetish for antiquarian books, first editions that he would caress and peruse before placing them on a makeshift shelf in what whatever makeshift lodgings he found himself.

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Once I too was such a bibliophile. I had books I purchased for a few cents from the library of the high school I attended in the 1970s – by Joseph Conrad or Joyce Cary. I had books I faithfully gathered from a second-hand bookshop in Sydney during the 1990s, on a weekly ride on my bicycle. My panniers would be empty on arrival, overflowing on departure. Later, I scoured the discount shelves as a poor student at international gatherings, seeking a good deal and then hugging the books all the way home. And in my itinerant life, I devoted much energy and time to carting such books from one place to another, packing and unpacking them each time. As a passer-by observed when I was engaged in such a transfer some years ago, the history of my life was displayed in such books.

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But what does it mean when I came to throw out my library, or at least substantial portions of it?

In the past, I had made vain efforts to trim my books, but after hours of perusal I could find only one or two that had to go – strange acquisitions, gifts, or simply bad books. But on a particular day, it struck me: I will never read many of these books ever again. The thought of leaving my children to sort through thousands of books on my death made me realise how unpalatable such a prospect would be for any of them.

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Here were books that seemed extremely important at the time, but whose relevance had swiftly disappeared. Their shelf-life – quite literally – was ephemeral, to be forgotten by history. And upon perusing them again, I realised they were not as good as I thought they were at the time of acquisition. Here was a collection by an author for a chapter of a book I was writing at the time. But upon completing the chapter, I already knew that I was not so taken with the author and would not return to their works. Here was a whole sub-discipline with which I had finished working. I would not read most of the texts again, apart from one or two of greater importance. Here was a whole series of useless books I had to read for another study (on Lenin and Stalin, for instance) – books I read then for the sake of knowing a field, but books that were of not much use in any substantial way even then. And here were the odd books, bought on a whim: on gardening in Europe, on veteran and vintage cars, on Australian poetry, or on non-passerine birds. I had hung onto them to recall the moment they drew me, but they now seemed to be clogging my shelves.

So I began. One or two books soon became a pile. A pile soon became many piles. Shelves were emptied, boxes filled for carting away. Once you begin, you realise how many are simply not worth keeping. Where to take them all? The local second-hand bookshop would quail at thousands of books suddenly dumped on their doorstep. A church book sale? A charity sale? Gifts to students? All of these and more became clearing houses for my library.

At the same time, it was difficult to do so. I felt often that I was tearing out a part of my own history, my own identity. Had not these books defined who I was then, who I had become today? Yet, it was also deeply cathartic. I recalled a moment many years ago, when I was in the process of divesting myself of a phase of life and work. One evening, I stood outside by the garbage bins, having wheeled them out onto the street for collection. On the spur of the moment, I stripped down and threw all of the old clothes I was wearing into the bin. It was cleansing and liberating, for I had cast off of my skin, my old self.

Or, to change the metaphor, it signalled a change of horses, one that I had already made and was now enacting. So also with the books.

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A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

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The Best Cup of Coffee

I’m sitting in the corner feeling glad.

Got no money coming in but I can’t feel sad.

That was the best cup of coffee I ever had.

And I won’t worry about a thing,

Because we’ve got it made,

Here on the inside; outside’s so far away.

These are words from a little known song (at least these days) from 1970, simply called ‘Inside’. Yet they capture a particular intensely felt moment for me, and have done so since I first heard them many decades ago.

I no longer drink coffee, but I used to drink it with enthusiasm and with deep pleasure in my twenties – the same way I approached smoking. It helped my concentration while young children were being born and growing up around me. It helped me stay awake late at night while I continued studying. And it helped me unwind when I had a rare occasion to be away from other human beings.

Out of thousands, if not tens of thousands of cups of coffee, one has forever remained etched in bodily memory.

I was on a solo road trip through the mountains and narrow tracks of eastern Australia. Some parts were barely discernible, where no one had passed for many a year. Other parts left a dust trail billowing behind me. Other parts were worn, rocky and bumpy and required low gear. At nights I camped in remote places, with only dingoes and kangaroos for company. Together we chatted and smoked by the campfire late into the night.

On this particular day, the dirt track had been particularly slow and bumpy, with not another human being within the known distance. I was working my way through a mountain range, bump after jarring bump. By the time the sun was lowering, I began to wind my way down the western escarpment of the range.

A space opened up on the side of the road, with an old fireplace that beckoned me to stop a while. I lit a small fire, enough to boil some water in the blackened and knocked-about billy and make some coffee – as I had so often done before. Nothing fancy, but I poured it into an old and stained enamel cup and rolled a cigarette. I sat quietly on the ground and looked westward over the hills and plains as the sun set, drawing on the smoke and sipping the coffee.

I am not sure quite what it was. Was it the taste of an old and unwashed billy? Was it the fire that burned with eucalyptus wood? Was it the end of a weary and dusty day of driving? Was it the taste of tobacco newly rolled along with the coffee? Or perhaps the view from the height and the joy of being away from other human beings? Probably all of the above, but they still do not capture the feeling. I still recall the taste of that coffee and the act of sipping calmly while the world lay there before me.

It remains the best cup of coffee I have ever had. To be sure, I have tasted fancy, crafted coffees since then. I have bought my own coffee beans and ground them myself. Indeed, I have drunk thousands of cups of coffee since.

But none have been able to come close.