Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bad Jobs No. 2

The original plan was to come back to Orange County after graduation and get a place on the beach. Nothing beyond that. I'd get some kind of job, but I had no idea what kind. Something where you sit in an office and dress nice.

With all of this in mind, I probably shouldn't have been too surprised when that particular dream fell apart. I had decided in my mind that I would get this beach house with Uncle Sam, fellow Santa Clara Class of '87 grad and OC kid, and supposed that merely hinting at this was enough to cement the deal.

It wasn't.

The place we found was right next to the Newport Pier, on the sand. Uncle Sam and I measured the distance to the water: 117 steps. But then, suddenly, Uncle Sam had other commitments, which reminded me of the folly of this particular plan. It was never designed to work, because it'd never gotten past the "wouldn't it be cool" stage of development. And so we moved on.

The white liberal arts cliche is Europe following graduation. It usually comes inspired by the semester spent abroad, learning how to smoke, junior year. I'd been an Resident Assistant my junior year and went nowhere except back to Santa Clara, and smoking was my mom and dad's vice, not mine, and besides, Prague hadn't happened yet. So I really had no reason to go to Europe.

My sister, Noodles' Mom, had been in Australia the previous year, and had loved it. And it was already August. Fall and Winter in Europe could be so cold. It would be Spring and Summer in Australia. Plus, my mom had begun appearing at the foot of my bed each morning and bellowing, "HAVE YOU GOTTEN A JOB YET?"

That cemented it. I sold my Tercel, put Newport Beach in the rearview, bought an open-ended plane ticket and left from LAX in late August, 1987.

Understand now that the Lefty presented to the world today isn't quite the same as the one on display in 1987. This was almost twenty years of hard knocks ago. I still had some strut.

Two months into my trip, I strutted into Tully, Queensland with Rick "The Sponge" Soukup, of Des Moines, Iowa and the University of Tulsa. Infatuated with the idea of going native, and completely forgetting who I am, I'd let Soukup talk me into becoming an illegal alien, er, "undocumented worker." We got jobs on a banana plantation in Tully, a small town near the coast.

I listened to and trusted Rick even though the previous week he had swooped in and stolen Soibhan, this English girl, that I was trying to impress by playing "American Pie" on my guitar on the porch outside my cabin at the Jungle Lodge in Cape Tribulation. It was midnight, and I had just hit the verse where the marching band refused to yield when Rick, who I'd been hanging out with for a week, walked up to us, leaned over and whispered something in Siobhan's ear and off they went. I sat there, guitar in hand, friendship bracelets quaking with wannabe rage.

Still, I thought, how great to be here in the jungle and have Rick Soukup, University of Tulsa wide receiver, walk right up and throw a big wrench into your efforts at seducing an Englishwomen. How great to be in the jungle trying to "American Pie" your way into an Englishwoman's heart. How great to cast your lot with a girl named "Soibhan." Twenty-two years old, long hair, hoop earrings, a bunch of Greatful Dead (did I misspell it? Good.) bracelets up and down both wrists, Chuck Taylors and big green Army surplus shorts. I was at least 500 miles from the nearest person who could tab me instantly as a pampered Jewish prince, I thought.

But you know, as I have said myself on many occasions, being a Jew means you can run but you can't hide. More accurately, being a pampered Jewish prince means you can run, but you can't hide ... from yourself.

Rick and I rode the last 50 miles into Tully lying in the back of a pickup truck, playing guitars and inhaling the sweet smell of sugar cane burning off the fields. Rick Soukup was a good influence. We got to Tully, called the guy at the banana plantation and rented a trailer.

To digress, my infatuation with blue collar drinking establishments is near legendary. However, my inability to engage with actual blue collar guys without stammering, sweating and then later making rude remarks about them to my friends continues to dog me. So it was with life as an illegal alien. The romance wore off the minute I stepped into the trailer.

It was a small room, one actual bed and a big foam slab. The windows barely opened, which was okay because that at least kept the flying cockroach population in check. As it was, Rick Soukup had a parlor trick we used on visitors. "Go ahead, open any drawer. I guarantee you'll find three cockroaches in it. One ... two ... three!"

There we landed, excited at the next chapter of our adventure. Rick Soukup had already picked tobacco in Western Australia, but I was a complete neophyte. I had no idea what to expect, but was already a little miffed to find that our work day began at 6 a.m. Soukup quickly dropped off to sleep, leaving me with my Walkman playing a cassette of Echo and the Bunnymen, reading "Portnoy's Complaint," trying to fall sleep.

The banana plantation completely takes care of you. A "combi-van" arrives at the trailer park, right outside the store where you can buy peanut butter and jelly, to take you to the field. Our "combi-van" was a Toyota van, one of the pioneering minivans of its day. It was white and had 8 seats, plus the combined body odor of 15 field workers who don't bother to shower because why shower? You're going to be covered with banana sap within minutes, anyway.

The Jewish prince was horrified. Despite my Che Guevara-esque rhetoric and aged, often bartered-for clothing, I was not all about B.O. and broken jump seats in Toyota vans. Especially not at 6 a.m. And I didn't appreciate the fact that my PBJ contained raspberry jam, the closest thing the trailer park store could approximate to my beloved grape jelly.

A half hour later, we arrived at the plantation. Keith, our foreman, showed up. He was a "POM" (Prisoner of Mother England), he told us, a cheerful, straw hat-wearing, moustache-cultivating guy who assigned us jobs. Something about Rick Soukup screamed enthusiasm and competence, so he was assigned to the fields. Something about me whispered lazy wannabe, so I was led to the packing shed -- not really a shed, more of a covered, open-air carport of sorts -- where I would make boxes, hand them to the women who packed the bananas, then carry the now-full boxes onto pallets. I would do this over and over until lunch, then lie alone and brood for an hour because who wants to talk about cricket and pretend like it's baseball when actually the guys wear white v-neck sweaters to play, then go back and make and carry boxes until quitting time?

Six thousand years later, Keith came back to the shed and told us to shut down for the day. Exhausted, Rick Soukup and I retreated to our trailer, where we made a very long list of slang expressions for breasts and reminisced about fraternity parties we'd gone to.

The other workers, we later learned, went into town and drank Australian beer until they passed out. They did this six days a week, somehow making it back to the fields in time for the next day's work.

One day, I overheard Ron, a guy probably in his early-30s, talking about how he'd curbed his drinking. "I used to really go at it," he was telling everyone at lunch. "Now I just drink 6 or 7 a night, and then a case on the weekends." But Ron was a nice guy, which naturally was impossible for me to notice at the time.

I hated the boxes. I hated the combi-van, the B.O., our trailer. I hated everyone in the shed. People tried to be nice to me, but I was too full of just-graduated from a private college arrogance to notice. I just stood there, complaining to myself, unable to fathom how these people could not only continue to work in this packing shed but also not see that I was getting killed over here.

Bananas rolled down the belt in waves as I struggled, Lucy Ricardo-like, to keep up. I was the sorcerer's quasi-hippie apprentice, shaking my then-fashionable mullet out of my face as I feverishly assembled boxes.

I started reading Hemingway at lunch. I hate Hemingway now, and frankly hated him then, but I wanted to make sure that the lowly field workers knew that I was American intellectual slumming it to get some real-life experience.

If I had a time machine, I'd set it for 1987 so I could slap myself.

One day, Rick and I decided to go into town after work to check things out. It was only mid-week, so we didn't bother to shower. If they could stand it, we could stand it. We thought about changing out of our banana-stained shorts and t-shirts, but worried that it might kill our momentum.

When I was 9, my sister, Noodles' Mom, told me to never eat the tip of a banana because that's where Tarantulas lay their eggs. She did not tell me that bananas, when handled by the ton, produce a sap that is as plentiful as it is permanent. One hour at the plantation, either in the fields or in the shed, and you were covered with this sticky, brown banana tar. It was a badge of honor. "That's right, I'm in bananas, just like you."

Into town we trudged. The bar, to our utter shock, was packed. Full of banana guys, in their banana gear, so wasted that they were breathing out of their eyeballs. Fights, off-key singing, terribly clumsy passes made at banana-stained women they'd known all their lives. It was worse than any college party I'd ever seen. How, I wondered, do these people make it back to work every day?

The weekend came, but we decided to work Saturday, to make some real money. We were making about $60 a day during the week. Saturday added another $80.

There we were, a motley duo, Rick Soukup and I, waiting for the combi-van at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. It arrived, a little less packed than usual, and we rode off to the plantation.

About halfway there, we came upon a Jeep turned on its side. It looked just like the scene from the Jungle Cruise, except without the gorillas looking through everyone's stuff.

The combi-van slowed. Then, from behind the van stumbled a field worker named Cono, a younger guy, lanky, with a black beard, who was rumored to be a legendary drunk.

Cono walked up to the now-stopped combi-van in his Blundstone Australian field worker shoes, scratched his head and asked, "Do any of you know if I was driving last night?" Nobody knew. They'd seen him at the bar, but no one knew if he'd been behind the wheel, presumably of the Jeep that now lay on its side. Finally, an older lady who gossiped about everyone at lunch spoke up: "I think young David was driving, Cono, not you."

He seemed relieved, but everyone agreed that it'd be best if he hid somewhere until we could locate young David and check his story. We drove off, narrowly dodging a Kangaroo that had hopped into the road.

I lasted an entire two weeks at the banana plantation. Though I'd caught on enough for Ron to announce, one day, that I was "working like a stromtrooper!" I couldn't shake my deep-seated tendancies toward laziness and unwarranted complaining. One night Rick Soukup told me that someone at the plantation had asked if I was from a wealthy family. I thought it was a compliment.

I gave notice to Keith on Wednesday of my second week. "We'll hate to lose you," he said jauntily. I figured he was lying. I still didn't get it. On Friday, at quitting time, Keith rode up on a tractor and threw me a Foster's. A few of us stood there, drinking our beers next to the packing shed. These people had done their best to ignore the fact that I was an unappreciate little snob, and now, with the benefit of nineteen years to consider it, I'd like to thank them.

That night, completely without warning, this guy we knew, a sweaty, pale New Zealander named Hugh, suddenly appeared at the door of our trailer. He was down to his last $10, and homeless, but his timing was great. He slept on the floor that night, along with the cockroaches, and then took my spot on the giant foam pad the following day.

I left on Sunday, heading into Tully to pick up my paycheck. Because I had thought I was clever, I had told them earlier that my name was Larry Tate, who you may remember was the obsequious, amoral name partner at McMann-Tate, the ad agency that employed Darren Stevens, who really should have figured out that being married to a witch can have a huge upside. I also claimed an exemption for my wife Natalie, as I was a big fan of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs at the time.

I was paid in cash. They gave me an envelope filled with colorful Australian $20s. On the outside of the envelope was written "Michael Pate." I went back to the trailer park and said good-bye to Rick and Hugh. We planned to meet up in a few weeks, back in Sydney. I never saw or heard from them again.

Nineteen years of hindsight later, I figure I dropped the ball badly in Tully. I had a chance to make a break with the princely path I'd taken up to that point, but instead, I whined and complained and got out of there as soon as I could.

After Tully, my Australian adventure went south. I had planned to ride freight trains across the country to see the Australian Grand Prix in Adelade, but instead I just went back to Sydney, got a horrible stomach flu, and cashed in my plane ticket early. It was as if Tully had reminded me that I wasn't a world traveler or a young artist searching for truth. I was a 22-year-old, middle-class English major looking to kill some time before the world got ahold of me and did with me what i wished.

I got back to Orange County in December. It was stil 75 degrees and sunny, but somewhere between Sydney and Santa Ana my OC dream had faded. I didn't know what I wanted to do next, but I knew that I didn't want to live on the beach and work in an office. It would take several months (and two more bad jobs) to get me out of there, but the following August I left Orange County one more time and headed North.


Anonymous flush puppy said...

Oh my. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Picturing you doing that kind of work when currently just wearing work boots is as close as you come to manual labor is almost too much to bear. Then again, it is a story with a bit of a sad ending, isn't it. At least you got to try. I don't even have a freaking passport NOW let alone 20 years ago.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Zin Gal said...

Hey, Cape Tribulation! I have been there. Stayed in Port Douglas for two weeks. Couldn't find any Fosters beer only VB. I remember thinking how strange it was since Fosters seemed synonynmous with Australia. I spent five weeks in Australia & New Zealand in 1993. I did do the obligatory Europe after graduation in 85. But the majority of that was hanging out in Santorini & Crete. Good times, good times.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

what, you can't blog from the inlaw's?

10:56 PM  
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