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Inside Job: underground bike watchman

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing, this month: full-time bicycle guardian


Thankfully I’m on the day shift, having descended the ramp to the bike garage for an 8am changing of-the-guard that’s signalled by swapping the nightwatch lady’s cushion with my own. (If I’d known to bring one.)

My cycle management mentor on the day shift is already there as she sleeps in the underground garage. She has a board to keep her off the concrete – right at the back near the e-bikes.

This bike park is beneath a high-end apartment complex, hence the full-time staffing. People are bringing their bikes down the ramp past our reception desk and yucca plant.

We have a signing-in book for visitors, but everyone arriving knows my instructor and trundles by with their bikes and a few breezy words. A quick check and I find that based on previous record keeping, we might be signing in one or possibly even two bikes during the 12-hour shift.

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My boss’s friend calls in for a chat, though soon has to go up above where she’s a maid in one of the apartments. She has a shopping bag with the food she’ll cook for her employers and will bring some of it down to the garage for lunch.

We take a tour of the bikes as water gurgles through pipes around our heads. I’m not fully suited to the role as many of the bays are only five feet high. Everything seems to be in order so we return to the desk and talk about life in Henan compared to here.

More and more people bring in their bikes as it turns out almost all the bikes belong to people who work in the building, not to residents.

After listening to the clock for a little while, I ask my instructor if she has a radio. She’s on her feet immediately and heads to her sleeping area, returning with a little red radio.

‘Are we going to listen to music?’

‘No, I don’t listen to music,’ she says as she switches on… Chinese opera. I’m glad that it’s not just me who struggles to classify it as ‘music’. I wasn’t sure we’d get signal underground, but she’s thought of that as it turns out the radio comes with some classics preloaded. And not the Peking opera nonsense. This is the much more pleasant Yuju Henanese variety.

By lunchtime there aren’t so many people to watch coming through and there’s a change to people collecting their bikes and heading up and out.

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We can’t leave the garage while on duty, but we can go up to the top of the ramp to sit in the doorway for
some daylight and to get some air. Thankfully it’s a day when the air is eminently breathable, plus there are more ground-level workers to say hello to and get a bit of a status update on their workdays. On average, everyone is doing fine and no one is too busy today.

Later on, it’s time to have a bit of a tidy of the bikes themselves. We arrange them into neater rows and where a lot have been leant against the walls, we untangle them and stand them in an evenly spaced row so that they’re easier for the owners to get to when they collect them. We don’t move any of them too far otherwise the owners won’t know where their bikes are.

My boss’ boss comes down to make sure everything is okay. As all is under control, he heads off again and I do a bit of a calculation to work out the hourly wage. Based on working a 12-hour shift, seven days a week, the 1,400RMB monthly salary works out at under 4RMB an hour.

We listen to some more opera and, as everything is done for the shift, my supervisor lets me go home early what with it being my first day.

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