Wednesday, February 17, 2010

between penguin suits and peanut shells

I had to buy a uniform for work for the first time the other day. White, non-patterned button-down shirt. Black pair of front-pleat pants. Pair of leather business shoes, black. All to be returned at Target within 28 days for a full refund. Save that receipt.

I was hired, through casual employment, by a company that allocates experienced food and beverage personnel to various public events or social gatherings.

In addition to the penguin costume, I also have to adhere to strict grooming standards. This would be a tall order for most backpackers, but as someone who has not been completely clean shaven since college, I found it especially difficult. (Actually, that's not true, but it is strange looking in the mirror now).

The formal uniform and grooming regulations had me a little nervous about what sort of clientele I would be serving. I mean I can mix a rum and coke like a champ, but as for Mojitos, Cosmopolitans and Manhattans.... Well, let's just say that to me, a Highball is either a hanging curve or a decidedly unfortunate anatomical deformity. But my misgivings turned out to be a non-issue on my first day when I ended up pouring beer for four hours at a rugby match. It was actually quite a spectacle.

There were dozens of us, all dressed like piano keys, milling around under a circus tent at the beginning of our shift. We were completely clueless. Our manager barked instructions to us. She told us who would be doing what, but not how to do it. I suppose it didn't matter anyway. Only half of us knew English. It was a gong show. I loved it.

The next day I found another job as a barback at a spot called The Mustang Bar. I watched the Super Bowl there and it's just down the road from my hostel. It's sloppy, loud, and a real hot-spot for Perth's younger crowd. It's basically like Coyote Ugly, except without all the hot girls dancing on tables, or the gratuitous pitchers of water.

So three or four nights a week, I wander around the place for six hours collecting empty glasses and tapping kegs. I don't have to worry about mixing drinks, cutting people off, checking IDs, breaking up fights, or throwing people out. Gotta love a a steady wage with no responsibility.

Towards the end of my first shift, one of the more experienced barbacks came up to me while I was sweeping up broken glass in the middle of the dance floor. "Well," he said with a knowing smile, "how do you like it so far?"

I looked up at him, sweat dripping from my face, my fingers sticky with dried beer and wet peanut shells clinging to my shorts.

"It's perfect."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

a selfish child jumps ship

I arrived in Perth three nights ago. A trucker traveling from Melbourne dropped me off in front of a hostel I hoped had an empty bed. He drove me over 700km from Norseman, where I was left by a group of surfers on their way to find the perfect wave in Esperence. They had picked me up in Cocklebiddy, where I spent the night and the better part of the previous day. If you ever find yourself spending more than a few passing moments in Cocklebiddy, Western Australia, you have either been horribly misinformed of the town's attractions, which consist entirely of a gas station and motel, or your car has broken down in the middle of the Nullabor Plain.

Maybe it was the 100 degree heat, or the endless onslaught of hills. Maybe it was the marathon-style driving that was supposed to take me from Ceduna to Perth in one day. Maybe it was because of my tendency to push things a little too hard. For whatever reason, probably a combination of all of the above, Pearl died in a violent climax of boiling coolant and a geyser of steam. Her engine overheated and likely seized, never to turn over again.

The Nullabor Plain, I soon discovered, is a very lonely place for one without transport. It is a 1100km stretch of empty land. The "towns" along the highway literally have more gas pumps than residents. Cell phones only function as clocks and paper weights. Low lying bushes and stunted trees, which survive on 7 inches of rainfall a year, are all that populate the 200,00 sq kilometers of barren desert. It is home to the longest dead-straight roadway in Australia: 90 miles. It is not a place where you want to be standing by the side of the road, with a towel wrapped around your head and neck, waiting for the chance to flag down a car.

Luckily, I was able to get a ride into Cocklebiddy, the nearest town. Soon after I found myself behind Pearl's wheel once more, this time at the mercy of a length of rope fastened beneath a license plate that read: "Cockles" which belonged to a pick-up truck driven by a gas station attendant with several self-administered tattoos. This was not the future I envisioned for my beloved antipodean chariot. You get what you pay for, I guess.

I spent the rest of the day fiddling under her hood, generally clueless, but occasionally investing in the help and opinions of other more mechanically minded people, including the trio of surfers who would eventually allow me brief passage on their quest for an endless summer Down Under. There wasn't much to be done. A tow to the nearest mechanic would run over a thousand dollars. Repairs from there weren't a certainty. It would hardly be worth the chance.

The decision to abandon. It flashed through my head the first time I turned the key to no effect, and gradually became more of an inevitability throughout the night. By the time I had my bag packed the following morning, I felt unburdened. Almost relieved. Once again, as so many times before, I would be relying on the kindness of strangers.

So here I am, comfortably lying on a futon in a hostel in Perth, two nights removed from being dropped off in style by a brand new Mercedes Benz 18-wheeler and a trucker who is back in Melbourne by now. The job hunt starts tomorrow. If I find something I'll likely stay a while.

Pearl still rests in Cocklebiddy, facing East towards friendlier stretches of road and the coast we got to know so well. I left her unlocked, so no one would have to break a window in order to peruse among the supplies inside.

I did keep the keys though. They're now buried somewhere at the bottom of my backpack. Possibly a half-hearted attempt at sentimentality, I suppose. But not entirely. They remind me of a poem by Shel Silversteen:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the lord my toys to break.
So none of the other kids can use 'em.