One of the great things about being a writer – in fact, one of the best reasons for becoming a writer in the first place – is that when you get caught doing something weird or embarrassing you can always say, “I’m doing research for a book.” At least it worked for me the other day when my wife came home unexpectedly while I was… Well, no need to belabor the point.
Of course, if you get caught doing something really bizarre and mortifying and need to make your excuse stick, then you actually have to write a book about it, which can be time-consuming. And which is also why we can expect a surge over the next couple of years in the number of books about extramarital online dating.
Until then, here in France we have to content ourselves with a book about an activity that’s neither weird nor embarrassing but not exactly exalting either: street sweeping. As in, for a living.
The title is Il Est Cinq Heures, Paris s’Eveille (It’s 5am, Paris is Waking Up). And the subtitle is not, but ought to be, “Then Scratching Its Ass and Going Right Back to Sleep.”
The author is a 25-year-old Dutch woman who moved to Paris after earning a degree in communication. I’m sure that her career choice came as no surprise to her fellow communication majors, but for the benefit of everyone else she explained her motivation in a recent interview: “I couldn’t find any work in my field, so I decided to take the exam to become a street sweeper. I wanted to know the capital from the inside.”
At this point, I am certain that anyone reading this is wondering exactly the same thing as I did when I saw that quote:
There’s an examination for street sweepers? A written test? In other words, it’s possible to be intellectually unqualified to sweep up cigarette butts and mashed pigeon carcasses?
Here in the country that gave the world the “bac philo,” the answer to those questions, obviously, is yes. And the obvious next question is: so what’s on the test? What daunting mental challenges stand between aspiring sweeper agent and broom?
To find out, I (imagined that I had) contacted city hall and requested (or made up) a copy of the most recent (fictional) street cleaners’ exam, so that, in the interest of public service (and filling space), I can now share…
The Services of Paris Litterworkers’ Aptitude Test (SPLAT)
Check the correct answer to each question. Some questions have no “right” or “wrong” answer, in which case check the best answer. Some questions have no “right” or “wrong” or “best” or “worst” answer, in which case we’re just messing with you.
1. Do you enjoy being outdoors?
2. Would you enjoy getting up at 4am day after day and going to work outdoors in weather that’s often cold and rainy?
3. Okay, let’s put it this way: would you be willing to begrudgingly tolerate getting up at 4am day after day and going to work in weather that’s often cold and rainy if it meant getting hired?
a) Yeah, maybe. I guess.
b) Only if I can complain about it bitterly and incessantly to everyone I know and most of the people I don’t.
4. Do you look good in a fluorescent green and yellow plastic jumpsuit?
a) No, of course not.
b) Yes – I am from another planet.
5. Do you have at least one of each of the following? (Check all that apply.)
6. Do you know which end of a broom goes down?
a) Yes, the skinny part.
b) Yes, the fluffy part.
7. Can you tell a sewer drain from a hole in the ground?
a) Yes: the sewer drain has a metal grid over it.
b) No, but for this job it really doesn’t matter.
8. You know those street sweepers who get to spray the sidewalks with that super-high-pressure hose attached to a truck with a water tank? (Like this one:)
a) Yes, I have seen them.
b) No, but I have now heard of them. And seen the photo.
9. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
a) I’ll say.
b) Oh man, I’d love to do that.
10. But could you resist the temptation to spray passersby?
a) Oh – ahhh, yes, certainly. I would observe the most stringent professional standards of comportment at all times.
b) Yeah, what he said. Now gimme that hose.
11. Even if you happen to cross paths with your ex?
a) Hmm. Can’t make any promises there.
b) I don’t have any exes, so yeah.
12. Do you know what the current minimum wage is in France?
a) Yes, it’s €9.67 per hour as of January 1, 2016, based on an average of 151.67 hours a month, for a total of €1,466.65 per mensem.
b) No I don’t.
13. Do you know the legal maximum number of hours that a French public employee can work per week?
a) Yes: 35 hours, in accordance with the Work Time Reduction Act adopted in February 2000.
b) Nope – no idea.
14. Are you aware that all French employees have the right to join a union and to go on strike?
a) You bet. The right to collective action is enshrined in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.
b) “Union”? What’s that?
If you answered “b” to questions 12, 13 and 14, please report for duty right away. If not, you must complete the rest of the test.
15. If a street sweeper expends 3.7 joules of energy with each 39-centimeter stroke of the broom, applying 4.5 foot-pounds of force and 2 newton-centimeters of torque to a handle 1.6 meters long at an average rate of 28.4 strokes per minute, how much of an airborne sex act will he give about math, or physics, or whatever this is, after working a double shift of 14 man-hours?
b) There is no b).
16. Given three quantities, A being less than B, B being less than the sum of A and C, and C being greater than A, can you think of any even faintly logical reason why Parisian street sweepers’ brooms like this one…
… have “straws” molded in the shape of the tree branches that they used to be made of 200 years ago, even though the modern ones are made of day-glo green plastic?
a) Beats me.
b) Me too.
Aw hell. We were hoping someone’d be able to answer that one. It seems like a needless complication to us. Where were we? Oh yeah – reading comprehension. Read this:
“After that, I thought about what a proposition generally needs in order to be true and certain because, since I had just found one that I knew was such, I thought I should also know what this certainty consists in. Having noticed that there is nothing at all in the proposition ’I think, therefore I am’ [cogito ergo sum], which convinces me that I speak the truth, apart from the fact that I see very clearly that one has to exist in order to think, I judged that I could adopt as a general rule that those things we conceive very clearly and distinctly are all true. The only outstanding difficulty is in recognizing which ones we conceive distinctly.”
17. Essay question: on the back of your test paper, write a 500-word explanation of the text that you just read. Your essay should address the following key topics: “Huh?” “WTF?” and “I wonder if I can see what that smart-looking Dutch woman across from me is writing and copy her answer…”
18. All right, so what would you rather do right now?
a) Answer a bunch of abstruse philosophical questions about Descartes.
b) Sweep up cigarette butts and mashed pigeon carcasses.
19. We thought so. When can you start?
In many ways, sweeping the streets of Paris is not a terrible job. Somebody’s got to do it. Plus it’s steady, secure work that comes with lots of benefits. Which I would enumerate, except that right now I have to go knock out a chapter of my next book. The working title is Ashley Madison: It’s Not What You Think.Favorite
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.