The Story of My Life Part 5: Down and Out in Sydney and Melbourne

Sydney, Australia in mid-summer: paradise for someone young, single and out for a good time!  Or at least if not paradise, the nearest I’d ever come to it.  I’d stretched my relationship with a friend of a friend to put up temporary digs at Newport Beach; but he had a fiancée who wanted to move into the unit, so the cordiality soon wore thin.  I held out as long as I could: I’d decided to stay on in Australia for a bit, but my funds were running low; it was the middle of a recession and work was scarce, especially for New Zealanders in summer, on the basis that they regularly and in large numbers ‘crossed the ditch’, took jobs then quit at the end of the season, taking their dollars, tax free, back across the Tasman, along with the skills and experience they might have acquired.

I bought a little 50 cc Moped, got the paper before the newsagent opened, then drove to any jobs going around the North Shore.  I was looking for anything, labouring or factory jobs.  But this was the hard end of the economic downturn; even at six in the morning, there’d be queues of people waiting for the few jobs there were.  Selection was sometimes based on a crude measure of credentials (“Any of you blokes work a jack-hammer?”, “Who’s got a forklift licence?”), but as often as not it was random selection.

One of the shortest jobs I ever had was with Whelan the Wrecker, a big corporate building (and demolition) company.  I ended up on a three-metre high wall, chipping bricks from between my feet with a pneumatic hammer.  When the hammer started, it nearly blew me off the wall.  I climbed down and told the foreman it was no go.  I reckon he’d guessed what would happen and was enjoying a bit of fun.

I widened the field to all of Sydney, but still no go.  By the end of the holiday period things were getting desperate; I was down to my last fifty dollars when I got a contact with a company I’d worked for during my Uni breaks, a book distribution firm that handled most of the magazines, newspapers and periodicals circulated in Australasia.  The contact I had was a supervisor who’d worked in the Wellington branch; we knew some people in common, and after a bit of banter he agreed to take me on, on the packing line.

The only drawback was, the job he offered was with the Melbourne branch of the company. I had a brother in Melbourne.  We didn’t get on that well, but I reckoned that he’d feel some kind of obligation to put me up for a few weeks till I got myself sorted out.  The other issue was money; and here the god of fortune played a part.  On an evening bus ride to the Quay, I spotted a wallet on the floor in front of me.  It was one of the blue double-decker buses that frequented Sydney at that time, and I was the only remaining passenger on the top deck.

I can confess, at this distance of years from the act, that I stole the eighty-odd dollars in the wallet. This is not something I would routinely do, and the fact that I still think about it says something about my discomfiture with what I did.  I took the money but left the wallet and its other content where it was.

After contacting my brother, I hitch-hiked down to Melbourne.  I expected a two-day journey, but early on the first afternoon a guy in a red sports car picked me up. He made the kind of tiresome comments about Melbourne I’d already got used to in Sydney [“Nothing wrong with Melbourne; just a pity it’s so far out of town”, “…the world’s biggest suburb.”, etc.]; but he was in a hurry, and by early evening I was standing outside Flinders Street Station.

I decided to have a bit of a wander through the city.  In one of the lanes off Swanston St there was a crowd of people gathered, in some excitation, round a small portico.  I wandered up for a closer look.  A man – he looked like I’d imagine a snake-oil salesman might look – was haranguing his audience, most of whom appeared to be southern European women, to take a five-dollar gamble on mystery packages he was about to hand out.

When he had a few takers, he handed out the gifts, and I must say I was unexpectedly impressed.  They were luxurious items, far exceeding in value the money paid.  After this demonstration of good faith, he raised the stakes to ten dollars: who would pay $10 for the next round of gifts?  This time there were a few more takers, and when the gifts were opened they created the same incredulous response; not one was less than $100 in value.

The stakes went to twenty dollars, with the same effect.  By now the whole audience, which had grown considerably, was stirring with excitement – a frenzy, I suppose you’d call it.  When the stakes went up again, to fifty dollars, you could almost hear the common thought: If that’s what you can get for twenty, imagine what you’d get for fifty.

The money –  a lot of it – was handed over, and the gifts were hurriedly handed out.  But something else happened: the steel roller-door to the portico slammed down, and at the small doorway beside it a large Maori appeared.

It’s fair to say that the reaction of those opening their gifts was again one of incredulity, but in a negative sense this time: the ‘gifts’ were cheap, useless copper art ornaments, probably around five dollars in value.  The women were distraught, one crying “It was the grocery money! It’s all I have to feed my family.  My husband will kill me!” The Maori remained impassive.

For me it wasn’t so bad: I figured the wire ‘vintage-car’ whiskey decanter that I’d just paid fifty dollars for might come in handy someday.  Like a lot of others there that day, I’d been taken for a ride, a victim of my own avarice, and in other circumstances I would probably have left it at that, too embarrassed at my own stupidity to make a big deal of it.   Besides, it was impossible to deny a strong element of Karma in the situation, payback for taking the money from the wallet in Sydney.  But with my funds now reduced to less than twenty dollars, I thought it’d be worth a shot at getting my money back.

The Maori didn’t look at me or even blink when I approached, but after listening to me for a couple of sentences he looked down, still scowling, and said: “You a Kiwi?”.   I told him I was, and repeated my plea for a refund.  He considered for a moment then told me to wait while he ‘saw what he could do’.  A couple of minutes later he returned and slipped fifty dollars into my hand and suggested I get out quick.  Then he – like the accomplices who had earlier received the bulk of the earlier ‘luxurious’ prizes – disappeared behind the iron door.

The event stands in memory for several reasons.  There’s the Karma thing for sure, and a lesson about national kinship and unexpected generosity.  But there’s something more than that: an understanding of crowd behaviour, something disturbing about the way people can so easily be manipulated, including me: how the crowd changes people.  When I think back on it, I visualise a crowd standing around a booth in a place like Nazi Germany, listening to a whipped-up orator extolling the virtues of national socialism.

Oddly, there isn’t much to tell about the remainder of the twelve months or so I spent in Melbourne.  I worked my job and went ‘home’ to my brother’s place.  The situation there deteriorated rapidly – they were having domestic issues anyway, and my presence simply added fuel to the fire.  After a few weeks I moved out into a small bed-sitter in Hawthorn, not far from where I worked.  I knew no-one else in the city, so amused myself in summer by observing the huge hordes of blowflies that clung to the white shirts of the office workers as they ambled across the park towards town.  In winter I continued to walk to work, often against a biting wind, but got some comfort from the warmth inside the large, insulated packing room.

My lodgings came with plenty of cockroaches; the rent was high and with my wages low, but I didn’t see much point in moving in mid-Winter.  Then, by Spring, I’d decided to move on anyway.   It was the weather that eventually got to me.  There’s a saying about how Melbourne can have four seasons in one day, and there’s a lot of truth in it.  I was always getting caught out, either overdressed and sweating or freezing cold and shivering.  The result was a lot of colds and flu, one episode of which resulted in a bout of pleurisy.  By the time the warmer weather arrived, I’d had enough.  I wanted to get back to the heat, and the beaches just down the road; to the Harbour and the excitement of the night-life.  So I rang the Sydney branch of the same company, and with a bit of help from the supervisor in Melbourne, secured a job in the book distribution arm of the Sydney operation.

Then I caught a train back to the “Big Smoke”.  Turns out that title was fit in all sorts of ways… but that’s another story.


Read  the next chapter here soon.

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