My intended career as a teacher ended two days into my first placement. I was assigned a school in suburban Melbourne in my own area. My first solo class was to enlighten a group of teenagers, including some I knew that were recycling through the system, about the depth of meaning in King Lear. The partially sighted leading the blind doesn’t begin to cover it. That, and the cynical funk that pervaded the staff room, persuaded me, purely on a whim, to join my mate, Barney, on a pilgrimage to Sydney, that fabled city to the north where all things were possible.
On the overnight train, I slept on the bench seat, the other guy in our compartment slept on the floor and Barney was so skinny he slept in the iron luggage rack (comfortable it would seem from the sound of his snoring).
On arrival, we made our way to the share house where two previous adventurers we knew were staying. We dossed on their floor for a few days until the landlord evicted us for freeloading and other nefarious acts and, after a brief stay in a cockroach-infested room in Kings Cross, we ended up in a boarding house in North Sydney.
Two young men in a room, sharing a bathroom with multiple others and feeding sixpences into the metered gas heater that threatened to explode at any moment. We were living the dream. We could tell the days of the week by the cooked breakfast that was provided in a common dining room. Lunch and dinner were our own look-out. Hamburgers, fish and chips, and Chinese take-away were our three closest friends.
At a time when unemployment barely existed, we had trouble in getting a job initially. Barney’s career as a canny judge of horse flesh was short-lived, despite his constant assurances that his system had to work in the long run. The trouble was his wallet existed very much in the short run.
Eventually I landed an interview for a job as a driver for a hardware company in North Sydney. Before I left Melbourne, a friend had given me a 50c piece to keep in my wallet so I’d never be broke. I spent that 50c on the train fare to the interview and had no plan beyond that day. Of course I lied through my teeth about my experience and knowledge of Sydney’s highways and byways and omitted the fact that I had never driven a truck. I was stunned when I was offered the job, starting the next day.
Barney had accidentally bet against his system and was temporarily flush, so I was able to cadge a couple of dollars until payday. Turning up bright and early, I was assigned a loaded truck and handed my delivery schedule. Waving cheekily as I departed the warehouse, I immediately pulled up around the corner and consulted the mangled, ancient street directory in the truck.
It appeared my first run involved taking the Harbour Bridge for part of the journey and then peeling off onto the Cahill Expressway. At my first attempt, I didn’t unpeel in time and ended up at the toll gates at the other end of the Bridge. A sympathetic toll booth attendant took pity on me and allowed me to return for a further attempt at no charge.
Except I missed it again. This time the toll booth guy was mightily unimpressed but must have concluded I was mentally defective in some way and let me go around once more. This time I nailed the correct lane and was about to meet the Cahill Expressway when the engine coughed and stopped. For the first time I looked at the fuel gauge and it was so far into Empty it was practically exiting the dial.
In the rear vision mirror, a conga line of horn-blaring vehicles was rapidly assembling, followed shortly after by a Bridge official. Apparently idiots like me were common, so he resignedly drove me to the toll booths and handed me a phone to ring my boss.
Ken was beyond apoplectic by the time he arrived in his XJ6 Jaguar with a jerry can. As I poured the petrol into the truck’s tank, I asked how far this would get me. Through gritted teeth he guessed enough to do the deliveries but I’d need to top up to return. When I quietly advised him I had no money with which to complete that task, I thought Ken was going to explode as the colour of his face turned brick red. Without a word he grabbed his wallet, stuffed $20 into my hand and stormed off.
Miraculously, I completed the deliveries without mishap and returned to the depot, with great apprehension. Ken was waiting in his office. Instead of the dismemberment I was expecting, Ken asked me to tell my story. I confessed all, including my abject poverty, and he studied me closely for a while.
‘OK, you’ve got a week. Besides, you owe me $20 from today and this $20 to tide you over.’ He slid the note across the desk. ‘Now, get out of my sight.’
That night Barney asked how my first day went. Of course, I lied.
In the 6 months I worked for him, Ken would go on to fire and re-hire me three times. He was a crass cowboy who had inherited a thriving business by marrying the homely daughter of the owner, whom he would later abandon for a much younger trophy wife. But he kept the wolf from the door for a bunch of basically honest but largely incompetent misfits, just like himself.