Invisible Hand – Chapter Twenty-One: Applying for Work

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In which Enid finds something for Niall to do.

Niall was rather looking forward to his next encounter with Enid. She’d taken his mind quite off the threat posed by the computer system. But whenever he went into the living room and saw that TV screen on the wall, the memory of the danger returned. He still needed to think.

Everything that Enid had talked about had some surface plausibility to it but it was just theory and philosophy. In the real world, if you put 10 people to work on the same project together and didn’t organize them, you’d get chaos. That or some natural leader would emerge and dominate the rest. Just look at boys’ neighborhood gangs. There was always a leader, wasn’t there? Sure there was. Some kid would be the boss and woe to any underling who didn’t toe the line. Enid tried to make him think that somehow this new money business changed human nature. But people were still competitive and selfish and territorial regardless of what kind of money they used. There just couldn’t be any way that the folks who controlled the computers wouldn’t use that control to make people toe the line. She could talk independence all she wanted but that didn’t make it true. A job was just a job no matter what kind of fancy talk she used to dress it up. She could go on about how people worked with other people but Niall knew that there had to be a boss and bosses were the same the world over.

If he argued with her, it would just put her back up and she wouldn’t help him find a job. As old as she was, she had to have contacts all over this town. He’d play along and see what she could do for him.

On his way to Enid’s he saw the boy from yesterday pulling his wagon with several sacks in it. Niall shouted hello at the boy and got a wave and a “Hi!” in return. That kid really ought to be in school, he thought. He’s being seduced away from school by this money thing. The Payers would pay anybody even if they were underage. They ought to do something about it. Pass a law or something. Well, it wasn’t his boy and he’d probably not be in town for long anyway. Still and all…

Enid was on the porch again with a dirty plate, glass, and silverware on the small table beside her. Apparently, she even lunched on the porch.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Lee. Ready to go back to work?” Niall used a big smile with that one hoping to start out on her good side.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Campbell. Indeed I am. Shall we go inside this time?”

“Well, I must have come up in the world. An invitation into Ms. Lee’s parlor is not to be sneezed at. May I bring the dishes?”

“You may. Just put them in the sink, I’ll get to them later.”

Niall put the dirty dishes in an otherwise immaculate kitchen and returned to the living room that functioned as her office.

“Step over here to the computer and see what I’ve found for you.”

Niall joined Enid in front of the TV, which was displaying several entries.

“Several of these are just farm hand work. You’d get a strong back but you really wouldn’t learn much about your new situation.”

“This next grouping represents work to be done in some of the local stores. I think they would require a bit more knowledge of how we do things than you have at present. So let’s bypass them for the time being.”

“Most of the work providing services is completely beyond you. Of course you could probably offer to teach whatever languages they have in Afghanistan or wherever it is you were working before but I don’t think there’s much market for that here.”

“Your best bet would appear to be as a driver for the TDP plant. That has several advantages. One is that you won’t have to know much about the economy and the other is that if you ask a few innocent questions you can find out quite a lot about the local people. Nothing like getting to know the people you live among.”

“Yes. It does seem to fit my needs rather well. Ah, I thought we were going to let you see my work reputation.”

“Very good, Niall. You’re learning. Now see if you can figure out why I gave you this information without seeing your history.”

Back to school. I knew I should have read the assignment. “Well, let’s see. If you asked to see the information first that would indicate a lack of trust on your part.”

“Why do I have to trust you? I don’t need anything from you.”

“You need me to do a good job or it’ll hurt your reputation. I know that much.”

“It’ll hurt my reputation only if I recommend you. Merely letting you see these work opportunities would hardly be held against me, as you could have easily found them for yourself by asking your computer.”

“OK then, how about you gave me the information because it isn’t any good to me unless you recommend me, so you were risking nothing.”

“Much better. At least it reveals some knowledge. But though it was a safe thing for me to do, what gain is there in it for me?” She was peering at him over her spectacles.

Niall took quite a while considering and then said, thoughtfully, as if thinking aloud, “You are trying to teach me about attitude toward work. That attitude is one of cooperation, of independence, of understanding one’s role. I must take responsibility for my actions. I must not wait for others to tell me what to do. I must take initiative for myself. I already knew you needed my work history for a recommendation, so I must take the initiative to offer it rather than waiting for you to demand it. If you were to demand it, you would be acting to force me to give you the information. You would be taking the role of boss rather than being given that role. So you are waiting for me to show that I have learned to take responsibility for myself rather than passively waiting for you to direct me.” Niall finished in something of a triumphant rush, feeling a little proud of himself.

“Mr. Campbell, you do seem to be learning. OK. Let’s see that work history.”

Niall, half expecting it to fail, addressed the TV. “Jeeves, please make available to Ms. Lee my work history.”

“Very good, sir.” It worked! How did Jeeves get to Ms. Lee’s TV? He would have to investigate that later.

The display this time included items for the Declarations from the Middle East. As usual, it included his account total but it also indicated each payment and the rationale given for the payment. There was some description of the nature of the work, though it didn’t go into detail.

“Looks like you had some responsible positions. Indications of honesty in the face of temptation. A certain amount of unexpected ingenuity. You seemed to do better when you were on your own with just general objectives rather than narrow limits and detailed directions. Yes, I think you are qualified to drive a garbage truck.”

Niall almost fell off the couch with that last line.” A garbage truck? What kind of job is this anyway?”

“Niall, it isn’t a job at all. It’s an opportunity to for you to work with some other people. You’ll be meeting a lot of people for whom you’ll be doing favors by taking away things they want to get rid of. You’ll see all kinds of people engaged in all kinds of work. You’ll drive all over this part of the county. You’ll be on your own in a lot of ways, but your contribution will be obvious. You’ll also be able to easily trace the consequences of your actions, so you should be able to show your stuff, if you have the right stuff.”

“A garbage truck. You really want me to start at the bottom, don’t you?”

“Niall, there is no bottom. You’re self-employed. You’re an independent entrepreneur. Nobody is better than you. Nobody is your boss. You’re dependent upon no one on Earth. In other words you’re just like everybody else.”


Niall caught the bus the next morning to ride the two miles out of town to the TDP plant. The plant covered several acres and there were several trucks of various kinds parked around the main building. Several large storage tanks at one end of the plant appeared to be for oil and natural gas. The office (according to the sign) was in a separate building and Niall reported in at the front desk.

The person behind the desk was a young woman of about 18 or 19 years, wearing a pony tail and jeans. Niall said, “I am Niall Campbell, that’s N I A L L pronounced Neil or Nile. I was told there was work here I might do.”

“What did you have in mind? Oh, I’m Jessica Fontaine. Pleased to meet you.”

“I was told you could use another truck driver out here.”

“Sure, we can always use another driver. Do you have a truck?”

“Well, no. I assumed that someone here might be able to provide a truck for me to use.”

“Some of the guys should be in shortly. Maybe one of them will have something for you. You can wait over there if you like.”

Niall shrugged and walked over to the two chairs near a coffeemaker by a sink. There was a box with about 10 homemade doughnuts, some packets of fake cream and others of sugar. Between the chairs there was a small table with some magazines on it. Lacking anything else to do, he picked up one of the magazines, which had a football player on the cover. He started to thumb through it. The first thing that struck him was that there were no ads. The photographs showed game action and close-ups of faces but everything on every page was about the sport. According to the date it looked like the magazine had been printed several months ago when the football season had been in full swing. He read some of the articles and learned that neither the college nor the pro game had changed much. They were still playing for championships and most of the teams were the ones he was familiar with as being good teams when he’d left the country, years ago. The editorial was about replacing hard helmets with some that had impact absorbing materials on the outside as well as the inside.

A couple of women came in, also wearing jeans, and approached the desk. They reported that their loads had been discharged into the holding tank and they would be on their way after they got some coffee. Niall stood as they approached and said, “Good morning. I’m Niall Campbell. I was told I might be able to find some work here.”

The short young blonde smiled and said, “You sure can. Have you got a truck?”

“No, just a willingness to work. I was hoping there might be a truck here I could use.”

The stocky, matronly brunette with greying hair said, “Too bad. I think Jerome may be able to help you though. He should be in shortly. He’ll be empty in a few minutes.”

“Thanks, ladies.”

The women got their coffee in large insulated cups and went out the door. Niall sat again and began to look at the next magazine. Before he could get into it, however, a young man in his middle twenties wearing a leather jacket came briskly in. “Hey beautiful, where do I go next? That hopper’s getting low.”

“We got a call from a project near Dulles. They have some trees, brush, and stumps they want to get rid of. They estimate about a dozen loads. Think you can get some of that?”

“Sure. Tell Bart where it is. Did we get any response from our availability notice?”

“We did. That’s him,” she said nodding at Niall, “but he doesn’t have a truck.”

“Hey there. Are you here to help?” the young man said advancing with outstretched hand.

“I sure am. What’s needed?” Niall tried to match the young man’s apparent enthusiasm.

“We need another truck but you can sure help even without it. You ever done TDP work before?”

“All I know about it is that the letters mean Thermal Depolymerization Process and I only know that because it’s on the sign there,” Niall gestured toward the sign on the front of the desk. “But Enid Lee thought I could do the work so I came out to do what I could.”

“Enid recommends you? That’s good enough for me. Come on out to the truck and I’ll show you around,” and he started for the door without even looking back.

Niall caught up with him outside and asked, “Aren’t you going to check with Enid?”

“Jessica will do that. If Enid gives you the thumbs down, Jessica will call me and I’ll dump you out of the truck where ever we happen to be and you can walk home from there.” Jerome was grinning as if there was no way he thought he would need to do such a thing.

Niall shrugged and moved right along to keep up with Jerome’s quick pace.

“OK, here we have the input hoppers. Each kind of waste we get goes into one of the hoppers. The biggest profit is on the rubber and hard plastic but we can take almost anything. That last hopper over there is miscellaneous. If it isn’t right for one of the main hoppers we put it in there. Naturally that’s the low profit one ‘cause you can’t really tune it. Of course sometimes the residual Non-organics we get from that one make up for the lower energy.

“Next we have the grinders where we shred the big pieces like those tree stumps we’re going to get. Then the ground-up material is mixed with water to form a slurry that is heated under considerable pressure. This breaks up the longer organic molecules and kills anything that might possibly be alive in the slurry. That’s why we can take even things like hospital waste that’s contaminated with all kinds of bad stuff. We won’t handle that stuff ourselves; there’s a special truck for that. It wouldn’t do to have that truck in an accident.

“These cylinders here are where the slurry is flash-dried to get the volatiles off. We use the natural gas from that to burn for energy to keep the process going. The excess gas from that we burn to make electricity, which we send into the grid.

“From the flash tanks the remaining liquid and solid parts are sent on to the next stage where they are heated even more. This drives off the water and separates the lighter oils from the heavier. Then the various parts of the organics are separated into various weights of oil and some gas. The result we pump into those tanks. We distribute a lot of it locally as heating oil in the winter and ship the rest off to petroleum refining plants. Of course, they don’t do petroleum any more since TDP plants like ours keep them busy enough.”

“So what we’re doing is making oil out of garbage,” Niall summed it up.

“OK, yeah, you could say that. I like to think of it as recycling, myself.” Jerome grinned at him.

“Yes, it does sound better that way,” Niall acknowledged.

“We do get garbage, right enough. The trucks from several towns around here dump their loads in the miscellaneous hopper. But most of our source comes from the farms around here and the town sewage. That’s why most of our trucks pump into tanks. We can clear septic tanks and liquid waste from farm animals with those. We have several trucks with regular routes to the farms. My truck is more a general purpose dry organics truck. We get a lot of tree debris and construction site waste. The problem is usually getting the stuff into the truck. We have a small grabber for light stuff but for something like big tree stumps we have to coordinate with a pickup machine of some sort. Worst case we can use the winch and an a-frame and lift it in that way.”

For the first time Niall began to understand what it meant to be an independent worker. Jerome clearly wasn’t expecting anyone to take care of things for him. He was viewing everything about his work as his own responsibility.

“Ready to roll?” Jerome was already turning toward the trucks, one of which was his, presumably.

Jerome’s truck looked like a dump truck with a long bed. At the front of the truck, just behind the cab, was a small crane-like device with a set of claws on the business end. It appeared to be several years old, but other than some mud splashes, looked quite clean. It was obvious to Niall that this truck belonged to its driver.

Jerome said, “Climb aboard,” and swung quickly up into the driver’s seat.

Niall walked around the truck and did likewise into the passenger seat.

It was quite comfortable. The truck was already running but made very little noise. There was no gearshift that Niall could see.

“Back up, Bart,” Jerome said and pressed the accelerator and the truck backed out of its parking place. “Talley ho, Bart,” and the truck moved forward.

“Don’t you have to shift gears?”

“Bart will do that for you if you tell him. Otherwise you have to use the keyboard but that’s a pain. Haven’t you driven a truck before?”

Niall smiled and said, “Not like this one. I drove some light trucks over 15 years ago but most of them required that I use a gear shift. What we used to call a standard transmission.”

“You must have been driving something really old. Nowadays the computer does all the gear shifting. I just tell Bart when I want forward or backward and he does all the rest. If I’m coming to a big hill or if there is something special about the cargo that Bart needs to know, I can tell him extra slow or something like that but mostly Bart does what we need.”

Niall thought, they’re going to replace the driver next just like they did for commercial airplanes.

“Bart, where are we going to get those stumps?” A map appeared on the dash showing where they were and where they were going with the route marked.

“I’m surprised you still have to steer,” Niall commented.

“In an emergency Bart would stop the truck and get it off the road if possible but there’s just too much to take into account on these back roads. Some of those big Interstate rigs go on autopilot for hours, though. Hardly seems worth it to pay those guys. They’re mostly computer hackers anyway, I think. But we really earn our money with what we do.”

“Is it more than just driving, loading, and unloading?”

“Where have you been, man? There’s lots more to it than that. Every load’s different. Some are high profit and some are almost a waste of time. If I get a full load of old tires, really packed in there, that load is worth maybe $100. The plant can process that old rubber really efficiently and we get a lot of value from it. It costs us the gas for me to go get the tires but we get a lot more oil from those tires than they do from a load of hog or chicken waste. Then there’s the time it takes me to get a load. If we have trouble with those stumps, I could spend all day just getting one load. If they have a lifter for us we can do maybe 10 trips in one day. We can build up a backlog for that wood/paper hopper that will take a couple of days to process. It really hurts to have an idle hopper. It reduces the efficiency. That’s why we need a couple more trucks and drivers. Last week we had to shut down two lines for a couple of days. Makes you sick to think how much money we were losing.”

“So I guess these stumps are just what you need, ah what we need.”

“Only if we can load them quickly.”

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” Niall grinned.

When they reached the construction site, it looked more like a destruction site. Bulldozers and other large Earth-moving machines had obviously been at work on what had been a forested area. There was a pileup of branches and tree stumps. It looked like the logs had been removed but all the branches and stumps had been just piled up to get them out of the way.

“Isn’t that beautiful,” Jerome crooned as the pile came into view. Clearly where others saw trash, Jerome saw wealth. “There’s tons and tons of the stuff.”

“Can we just take it?” Niall asked.

“It isn’t ours yet. We have to find the owner. They knew we were coming so they should be somewhere around. Let’s park the truck somewhere prominent and see what Bart can do for us.”

Jerome directed the truck to a spot with some elevation and a good view of the pile of debris.

“OK, Bart, ask Jessica to send the owners to us.”

“Is that all there is to it? That’s easy.”

“No, that’s just the beginning. When the owner gets here the real work starts.”

Bart Simpson’s voice came from the dashboard speaker, “Jessica says she’s given them your location. They should be with you in about 20 minutes.”

“OK, that gives us some time to get our act together. Now what we have to do is convince the owners that the smartest thing they can do with their pile of trash is to give it to us to convert to oil. What we have going for us is that the pay for oil is relatively quick. Within six months almost every bit of the oil and gas and electricity we produce will be consumed and the benefits realized. Also, this eyesore pile of tree parts will be removed. The owner can be almost certain that they’ll be paid for the oil, since it has very little down side. On the pollution side, it’s carbon that’s already in the environment, so it won’t add to the greenhouse. By making oil of it we reduce the amount of oil and other carbon fuels that have to be produced from fossil sources. Since we make lubricating oil, as well as heating oil and electricity, we get almost pure profit with low risk. Of course, if we were exporting this oil or shipping it cross country the risk would be greater since it might be spilled. But we can use just about everything we produce locally.”

“The other side is what can he do with this stuff besides give it to us that’ll make him some money? We know it isn’t good for lumber since they already removed all the logs. They could use it to make dirt but the payoff there is much later. In fact it might be several years before they would get anything for having made the dirt. Anyway, we’ll get quite a bit of fertilizer from the part that doesn’t make oil or gas, and that’s almost as good as dirt. The owner could give it to a different TDP plant but we’re the closest and we have a good return on investment rating.”

“Wait,” Niall held up his hand. “What’s that rating all about?”

“That’s an index of how much net benefit is derived from the resources invested. It takes into account both the material resources like the wood and this truck, and the human resources like you and me. When you compare how much money is paid to the folks contributing to a certain project over a certain time period with the amount of resources it took to generate that pay, you get a pretty good idea of where to invest.”

“I seem to remember from a college economics course that return on investment was the amount of money you got back for the amount of money invested.”

“We can’t invest money now, can we? So we invest tools, materials, and our own time and energy. We just updated the concept of return on investment to make it work for us now. For example, if your project has a real high ROI, and you and some other project both want the same resource, and their ROI is a lot lower, then the resource owner is almost sure to give the resource to you. It’s like you were paying more for the resource back in the old days.”

“Why do we need anything more than that rating?” Niall asked.

“Come on, man. There’s lots more to it than just the averages. They’re all from the past anyway. Circumstances change all the time. Different people may find different things to do with the resources. Somebody might get a great idea for something new to do with tree stumps, or whatever. If you want to make good money you have to stay on top of things. Now this project here obviously has a lot of resources committed to it. That means that the folks who put it together have great reputations for getting the most out of resources. That means that they’re sharp and really on top of things. They may have some new idea for what to do with this stuff that we never thought of.”

“So what you’re saying is that we need to sell ourselves and what we do to the owner, so the owner will trust us with his stuff.”

“That’s the idea. We also need to find out about loading old Bart here. If they can help us load it, their profits go up.”

For the rest of the time before the owner arrived, Jerome showed Niall how to work the crane and claw loader attached to the truck. It turned out to be quite easy. Bart helped by not letting the crane hit the truck itself and otherwise it was just like using your own hand. Niall put his hand in the control glove and watched the crane “hand” mimic the movements of his hand in the glove. He was able to reach down to the ground and pick up a stick no thicker than his thumb and place it in the far corner of the truck bed. He would have enjoyed playing with it longer but a couple of people arrived in a small car.

Everybody got out of their respective vehicles and introduced themselves. The owner was in her middle thirties and wearing jeans. Niall wondered if jeans were the new uniform for business women. It turned out there was no need for a sales pitch from Jerome as the owner had already decided to give them the stumps and brush pile. She and Jerome got in the truck, leaving the doors open, and transferred ownership of the stumps and brush to Jerome, complete with a camera shot of the pile and an estimate of its weight in wood. Bart confirmed the identities of all parties and registered the transfer. There were handshakes all around and the owner got back in her car. Jerome asked if they had any equipment that could help load the stumps on the truck. It seems they did but it wouldn’t be available until they quit work at dusk. Also, they doubted the regular driver would be willing to stay.

Jerome looked at Niall. “You don’t happen to know how to drive that cat of theirs do you?”

Niall allowed as how he had never used any such equipment. Jerome said that was OK, he would do that part. He asked if they could use the loader overnight. It was agreed so long as they gassed it up before they left. With that settled, Jerome and Niall got back in the truck.

“Are you up for some night work?” Jerome asked.

“Well I have nothing else on my agenda so I might as well.”

“Right. Then let’s see if there is anything else in the area nearby we could get and then head back to the plant. Bart, ask Jessica what we could pick up on the way home.”

There was a pause then Jessica’s voice said, “We still have some downed trees over in Pleasant Valley – they’re on Grove Street. I’ll tell Bart.”

Jerome sighed, “OK. It’s tedious but it’ll at least pay for the gas.”

Bart popped up a map again and they drove about two miles to another small town. Grove Street proved to have some piles of brush on the street in front of many of the houses.

“There isn’t much weight to these and they’re tedious to pick up but at least they’re something. It should give you a chance to practice with the grabber as well. I’ll steer, you grab. Load in layers and put the bigger stuff in the middle.”

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