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While I was studying at the University of Queensland in the mid-1960s I travelled Interstate during the long vacation seeking holiday jobs. In January 1965 I arrived in Melbourne. My previous job was working night-shift in a fruit factory in Berri, South Australia. By the time I arrived in Melbourne I was fast running out of money. However I could afford a cheap boarding house in St Kilda. It was a run-down, ramshackle place, but at least I had a single room with a sturdy lock on the inside door. Breakfasts were provided – an added bonus. I was the only female. In my first week one of the residents, a physically handicapped man, was murdered. The night of the murder, I had awakened to the sounds of voices shouting. The next morning I noticed blood on the concrete paths close by.
Terrified I might be the next victim I gave notice as soon as I found somewhere else to live. The most suitable accommodation was a bedsit in a house owned by a widow who lived on the premises. She would only take females. I paid a week’s rent in advance. I was told I was under no circumstances to have any gentlemen callers. Did she think I was a prostitute? The rent was higher, but as I was increasingly conscious of my personal safety I took the room. It was nicely furnished in an old-fashioned way.
As luck would have it, a vacancy for a Car Hop Waitress at Rob’s Drive Inn, Queen’s Road came up. It was in the vicinity of Victoria Park, and within walking distance of my new accommodation. I applied for the job. My having a reference from The Travel Lodge, Brisbane helped. I was to start the following morning. That was fine with me as I had practically run out of money. Not even enough to buy lunch or dinner. Famished, I walked around the CBD of Melbourne, with my stomach audibly growling. A newspaper boy caught my eye and asked me would I like some plums? How did he guess of all the pedestrians going past that I was the one who was hungry?
‘Yes, I love plums,’ I said enthusiastically as he obligingly handed over a large brown paper bag full of the fruit. I immediately bit into a huge, ripe plum, so luscious that the golden juice dripped down my chin. The newspaper boy grinned. He had picked just the right person. Now I had food to tide me over for the next meals.
The following day I started work. I was to be an‘outside waitress’. That meant I would wear the most ridiculous kind of army uniform: I looked more like a Mexican soldier from the 19th Century wearing gold braids and tassels, a bolero with epaulettes, tight striped trousers and a pillbox helmet. High heels were compulsory for all female staff. In contrast, the inside waitresses’ uniform was more conservative; their uniform consisted of stylish, crisp white blouses, frilly aprons and clinging black mini skirts. All sported beehive hairdos.
My job was to wait on the occupants of cars. My customers were mainly families with young children who were more comfortable eating inside their cars – a trendy custom in the 1960s. I was shown how to attach trays to car doors. Then I was shown how to accommodate three dinner plates on one arm. The ideal number of plates was four: I could never manage that.
One of the perks of the job was that I could order a meal from the menu for my lunch. The cost was deducted from my salary. We were charged about 2/6 – far below the menu cost. I chose flounder every time. The kitchen staff was so impressed with my habit of leaving only the head and bare bones on my plate. As it was my sole meal for the day until I received my first pay, I made the most of it. ‘When are you goin’ to eat the eyes, darlin’?’ Mischievously the kitchen staff would call out to me.
‘Not yet!’ I’d reply.
As I became more experienced, I was placed in the kiosk during slack times. That job was more leisurely and I usually had a chance to chat with the customers. In my lunch break I loved to wander around Vic. Park and watch the golfers in action. It was a beautiful area in which to work. Weekends were the busiest. One evening a car with about eight people pulled up. They selected about six courses from the menu, including Oysters au Naturel. I was so naïve I didn’t know that oysters were served at the beginning of the meal. In blissful ignorance I served the other courses until finally I emerged with the oyster tray.
The customer’s face grew purple with rage as he shouted, ‘Finally, finally the oysters have arrived. We’ve been waitin’ on ‘em for hours and now here they are at the end of the bloody, fucking courses! I’ll never come here again,’ he pronounced as he angrily counted out the bills into my bewildered hand. ‘Too right, I’ll never bloody well come here again!’ He was in such a rage he drove off with the tray still attached. The chef called me in and asked what all the fracàs was about. I told him I didn’t know that oysters in Australia were eaten at the beginning of a meal. I had read that in China people preferred to dine on them at the end. Thankfully the chef had a good sense of humour and laughed. ‘Have you ever eaten oysters, Karen?’
‘No, I’ve never eaten them in my life,’ I admitted. ‘Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll dish you up a plate of oysters –on the house -so you’ll know the taste. And then we shall go through the menu item by item so you’ll know which item is Entreé, Mains or Dessert.’ He chuckled as he said, ‘There’s no doubt about you ‘Banana Benders’not knowing about oysters. Now remember you are not in China, you are in Australia and this is the order in which we eat our food. At least, in Melbourne anyway.’
Of course, the story went round the whole establishment and there were many jokes about oysters. Even the hoity restaurant waitresses dropped their snooty façades and laughed. Those waitresses considered themselves to be the ‘crème de la crème’ in their personal presentation. Extremely fashion conscious, they were all peroxide blondes; their hair was coiffured into the latest beehive French rolls. They went to the same hair salon. The girls vied with each other in having the biggest hairdo. To augment hair height, cottonwool was stuffed inside the hairy mounds. Should a strand fall away, they plastered it with hair spray to solder it into position. The girls went for ten days without washing their tresses. (I assumed they slept on neck blocks like the Japanese Geishas to preserve their hairstyles.)
One day, while a waitress was serving lunch in the dining room, blood dripped from her head onto on the customer’s table. Clasping her face and holding up a napkin to stem the flow she fled the room screaming her head off. She was absolutely distraught. I felt so sorry for her. Unbeknown to her, the cottonwool used to bulk out her hair was contaminated with cockroach eggs that had hatched and the baby cockroaches nibbled her scalp for sustenance. Over the next few days other waitresses suffered the same fate. I did not dare ask anybody whether the health authorities were contacted about the contamination. The result was the beehive style was abandoned and the waitresses’ hair was teased into big bouffant styles– without padding.
In all, I worked at Rob's Drive Inn for two months. As I gained more experience I enjoyed the work and received many compliments and tips. On my days off I delighted in exploring Melbourne. It was a fascinating place – so different from Brisbane. Its one drawback was the weather – four seasons in a day. Just like Tasmania as I would learn on my arrival there in 1974.