During the year off between high school and university, I waited tables at a number of places, each with its own set of characters and stories to tell. One of them was a small cafe in Macquarie St, across from the NSW Parliament and NSW Supreme Court. Thanks to its position and its cutesy setup – it was located in the basement of a historic sandstone building – most of our customers consisted of barristers and politicians.
The food was overpriced by my estimation – a pie 2.5 inches in diameter with some side garnish (what they called ‘salad’ on the menu) cost $9.50 – keeping in mind this was in the 80s – but that didn’t stop these obviously overpaid self-important types from filling the tables every lunchtime. Many lawyers came in still dressed in their traditional garb and wigs, which I thought made them looked somewhat ridiculous. Their conversations often seemed crafted to showcase their wit and intellect, and their laughter sounded loud and forced.
My fellow waitresses were mostly European backpackers – including a cockney-accented English ladette and a Swiss-Italian girl. I found out working there that middle-aged, rich, powerful Australian men really had a thing for European girls – the Swiss girl, Danielle, with whom I became quite good friends, was constantly asked out on dates. She was courted once by this barrister who took her to an expensive restaurant; being a hippie chick, instead of ordering off the menu, she asked for rice with soya sauce, which I thought was just crazy. She dumped him after one date, which made him really mad, and which she thought was very funny.
The manager was a big-hearted Maltese guy called Sam, but he left after awhile to start up his own cafe in Parramatta. The owner was a coke-addicted (so I was told), sports car-driving, thirty-something Aussie guy with a couple of other high-performing cafes. The kitchen was run by a couple of rednecks, but contrary to stereotype, they were pretty cool and laidback and I never had any problems with them.
Our vegetables were delivered daily by this guy who had played one of the main characters in Gallipoli, the Peter Weir WWI movie that made Mel Gibson a star. Whilst tall and good-looking, he obviously hadn’t had the same success as his co-star. Sam’s replacement as manager was this tall, gawky girl called Amanda, who had a live-in boyfriend, though I noticed a blossoming relationship between her and the actor/delivery guy that eventually grew into a full-blown affair right before our eyes.
I remember meeting Don Chipp, the leader of the Democrats, late one afternoon – he’d come in for coffee or tea with his wife. They engaged me in conversation without introducing themselves – they probably didn’t know that I recognised who he was. I thought they were the loveliest people I’d ever met – very interesting, and obviously very compassionate people. I was impressed.
Then, there was this time when our Federal Treasurer and future Prime Minister came in for lunch. We were full, as we often were, and having failed to make a reservation, we didn’t have a table for him. Being an overseas backpacker, our English ladette didn’t know who he was, and didn’t care in the slightest – which offended him sorely – he had that ‘don’t you know who I am’ demeanor about him when she turned him away instead of falling prostrate at his feet. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we finally got him a table outside on the footpath – he made sure we knew he wasn’t pleased – but that was as good as it was going to get, so he took it.
I remember one of the things he ordered was soup, and he refused to budge for me when I brought it out, making my job that much trickier as I had my hands full with plates of food. It crossed my mind that I might ‘accidentally’ spill it on his lap. I mentioned it to the English waitress and she agreed that she’d had the same inclination to mess with his food. Funny how some politicians can rise that high in public office in spite of being so obnoxiously arrogant.