Best known for her roles in Australian classics Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle, Sophie Lee released her first novel, Alice in La La Land, in 2007. Her latest offering, a children’s book titled Edie Amelia and the Monkey Shoe Mystery, is on sale now.
Caring for tourists holidaying in Sunny Sydney is not a glamorous career choice
I sleep in a best canister vacuum cleaner review closet. At present I have nowhere else to go. To get into the vacuum cleaner closet, more of a hatch really, you have to shimmy up the wall a couple of feet. This is a two-person job as the hatch is about a foot above the height of my head. Inside is a narrow coffin-like space big enough for a sizeable vacuum cleaner or one fully grown human being. Once inside the hatch I have to pretty much lie down straight away or I’ll bump my head. I bump my head every morning at five thirty when my alarm goes off. See, I work as a breakfast waitress in a classy joint up the road. Brandon, my room mate, has the lease on the apartment and the room with the more traditional sleeping arrangements. He says waitressing is the best way for me to earn money and still be free to do other things all day.
I work at the Texas Tavern, a second-rate hotel that caters mainly to American tourists. I’m guessing they do pretty crappy jobs back home or they’d stay at a place with a) a less ridiculous name and b) an atmosphere that doesn’t make you immediately want to top yourself. The bowels of the hotel are cavernous and devoid of human life. They seem to go down for miles and to be full of disused white goods behind which God knows what is lurking. I’m too scared to venture to the end of these hallways because I’m scared of just how deep they’ll go and of what I might meet there. Hades comes to mind, with its rings upon rings of sinners eating their own intestines for eternity, except that here the inmates have to make do with instant coffee and jumbo cans of lard.
Even though this is a one-star hotel, come on, let’s just call it a motel, the clientele are surprisingly finicky. People who wear vinyl shoes shouldn’t be so finicky. They demand their eggs “over-easy”. The difficulty I have is relaying such highly specific requests to the Iranian breakfast chef, whose English is so bad he can only just manage the word “egg”. For him there are no such culinary niceties, just eggs. In his tortured English Hasmal has managed to inform me that he is actually a scientist, that he stowed away on a ship from the Middle East to get here, and that having arrived he had to swim to shore through the sharks of Sydney Harbour so as not to attract the scrutiny of other predators, namely the ones working in the Immigration Department. Clearly flipping eggs is beneath him or he’d be doing a better job. In fact, it’s so far beneath him he can’t do it at all. I run into the kitchen every 10 minutes and yell for eggs over-easy because I’m the one who gets chewed out by the fat Americans not him. This bothers me because I’m a good waitress, conscientious and prompt. He takes his time and moseys about, burning toast, serving up mucusy eggs for me to deliver to the man-boys in the dining room.
Hasmal has a pointy, ratlike face and pathetic eyes full of sad memories. He shuffles about his domain without any apparent sense of urgency. He doesn’t shave, smokes Kents with a fumbling unfamiliarity and seems mainly to gaze at me when he’s not ruining someone’s breakfast. I suppose I must be the rare Caucasian female who bothers to give him the time of day. (Early, dude.) Those sharks must have been scary to swim through in the harbour, but I can also see why they didn’t eat him. He looks extremely unappetising to me, especially at ten to six in the morning when he’s tired and unwashed.
Initially I decided to work an early morning shift so my days could be free, but to be honest, I’d probably be better off working at night because I don’t have a lot on during the day. Till recently I was working a grand total of six nights a week at this other joint called Caminos, with a bunch of Turkish men who made pizza and thought they knew every single street in the Eastern Suburbs without ever having to consult a map. Caminos did a home delivery service as well. One time a customer from Rushcutters Bay called to order a large Capricciossa and a garlic bread, gave his address, and the boss refused to home deliver. He was so convinced that the address was fictitious he wouldn’t even consider it. He screamed down the phone to the prospective customer never to bother us again and that in the name of Allah that the given address did not exist. Out of curiosity I checked it out the next day and, sure enough, it did exist. Turkish men can be inflammatory.
The chef at Caminos was convinced he was creating cordon bleu masterpieces. He was a six-foot-five Albanian with enormous muscles, a tiny head and hooded eyes. He looked like a mutant tortoise. Perhaps that’s where they got the inspiration for that famous cartoon series about those mutant tortoises called Donatello and what have you – from observing the appearances of itinerant Albanian chefs. This guy also had a terrible temper and would throw whole plates of food in the bin whenever one of the gay customers complained that the veal scaloppine was undercooked.
Working there became untenable when the chef started telling the others canister vacuum cleaner he’d slept with me and they started looking at me funny and talking in low whispers about zucchinis. Since I don’t fancy even normal tortoises as bed companions I left abruptly, the night before the boss was supposedly taking his first holiday in eight years. He screamed and yelled that I was ruining his life, that now he would never get to the Gold Coast with his wife and children, oh Allah, Allah.
I am absolutely not into flirting with wanna-be chefs in third grade restaurants. The other morning I came into the kitchen to bark out a breakfast order for a good ole boy, and Hasmal was slouching over the grill, flipping eggs and making a mess of them again. But something was different, this time he was talking to them. His pants hung slackly from his behind and he was straining with the effort. I hung back so I could hear him, momentarily fascinated and forgetting the angry clientele. And get this… he’s saying, “I love you, hi le-ove ye-ou, hi LOVE you…”
All at once I have this horrible notion he’s practising his English for me. And believe me I want no part of it. He’s ruining the eggs even further by talking to them in this way, and upstairs there’s a whole army of hungry salesmen in cheap suits wanting their breakfast. “Hasmal!” I shouted, interrupting him, “Table three want to know! What’s the hold-up! Oh screw it, you’re burning the toast.”
“Listen, doll, I distinctly remember asking for over-easy. I dunno what you call these eggs Down Under, but they ain’t over-easy.” Over-easy, sir? We’ve got a guy back there who’s apparently qualified to split atoms, but can’t even crack an egg, let alone cook it to your exact specifications. Just eat your damn eggs and then go sell your ball-point pens or whatever it is you do.
From nine fifteen on, most of them have gone, thank God. I swat at cockroaches with a greasy tea towel, put coffee cups back on top of the coffee machine and pray for my shift to end. At 10am I step out into the dazzling sunlight on Macleay Street and breathe in its sour garbage smells, basking in the rising summer heat. It’s only then that I remember I have only a wall hatch to go back to.