This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece, by H.D. Thompson.
Right next to my work in a train station platform, convergences of rats would race down the tracks in every direction, mirroring the people above hurrying about their business. I was startled at first, but as I was working next to train tracks in an underground tunnel it was completely logical. Trains would come and go but the rats were never phased. Only very rarely would they get unlucky and end up crushed horrifically, and I would leave my post to inspect, curious at the carnage. I would watch these rats in a kind of reverie, for it was like seeing city nature, like going on Safari and coming across a herd of zebra. A few minutes of awe was all I was allowed before the moment was lost, because of the crashing of an incoming train, or more likely, a friendly local hobo named Jerry would be yelling at someone.
Upon moving to Melbourne from my small NSW hometown, the first job I acquired to feed my writing dream was as a barista in a coffee chain. The coffee shop I applied for was in Flinders Station and seemed vibrant and flourishing with life – the perfect fuel for potential inspiration. The one I was stationed at however was in Melbourne Central, on Platforms 3 & 4. Or: the deepest darkest pocket of the city. There was no natural light, and the booth was so tiny I could reach out with my arms and touch the other side. I could hug my place of employment if I had the urge.
I was living in McCrae at the time with a family friend with the intention to work in the city and move up there shortly after. It took two and a half hours to get to the CBD. I would disembark my train on the very platform I would work on for the next eight hours, then I would step out of work back on the train and do two and a half hours more. I very rarely saw daylight in these months. I was unsure if Melbourne even had sun, that perhaps the entire city was in fact some kind of subterranean metropolis.
On my first day I was told by my manager that the girl on Platforms 1 and 2 had recently been fired, because she had closed up the shop and gone to the bathroom, unfortunately just as the owner had been walking by. When I asked what I should do in a similar situation, she simply laughed and joked about peeing in a bucket behind the counter. She didn’t seem fazed by the situation but I was perturbed, and not all that sure she was joking.
I had pictured people in cities living a life of frivolity in the bright city lights, not locked in a dark cage next to a colony of rats and made to pee into a bucket.
One thing I learned was that people don’t allow any more time in their commute than precise length of time it takes to catch a train, most of them rush down the escalators straight through the doors. People don’t even have time to say excuse me, where on earth would they find the time to order a double shot caramel macchiato and a chicken schnitzel wrap?
At the end of the day I would wheel a trolley of garbage and containers of wastage to the bins, and in order to do so I had to navigate the gauntlet of commuters. It didn’t surprise me that no one moved for me because I was becoming a little sure that I didn’t actually exist, that I had died there and my fate was to haunt this station for eternity. I couldn’t go through the crowd so I would go around, skirting along the edge of the platform. More than once I was singled out in the safety announcement that would boom out over the PA, “Can the coffee shop worker please set an example and STAY BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE”. People would all look my way, some with derision and shame for my flagrant rule-breaking, but more often than not it was a look of surprise. A look that says, “There is a coffee shop down here? Hm, I had never noticed.”
I took to dropping the croissants and slices on the ground so I could write them off and eat them, not only because I was poor but also because my days were seriously lacking in excitment.
It wasn’t until I told my friend about this that she told me I could just write them off without dropping them. This was revolutionary. People would run up to me and demand I make a coffee in 40 seconds as their train was on the way, as if this coffee was the last lingering thread holding their day together. I would tell them I would do my best then perform an act that looked like I was making their coffee but was really just miming indifference, then I would apologetically shrug and they would curse and shake their fist at me as they ran off to their train.
As writing fuel I spent a lot of time thinking and making up theories in my head about Jerry, the crazy homeless man who was sweet and harmless but very unnerving at first meet. He would ramble and scream in bursts, shocking those around him who had yet to be acquainted. I imagined him as a blackjack dealer at the casino who had crossed the mob; or as a scientist who lost his way. Or simply that he was made up of the rats, one superintelligent hive-mind King Rat who had one day decided to imitate the shape of the people around them, wormed their way into discarded clothing and were now trying to assimilate. Melbourne was known for its multiculturalism, I begrudged them nothing.
I had become very good at holding my bladder as a child thanks to a rumour in school about ghosts in the toilets, but what I wasn’t counting on was the diuretic powers of coffee, and eventually I reached breaking point. My self-esteem had taken a beating, I hadn’t seen the sun in months and I looked out upon the platform before me with an existential filter. Did anything even matter anymore? What even is coffee? Why isn’t palindrome a palindrome? It was time to give in. I unzipped my cheap Kmart pants and peed into the wastage bucket. I served someone a coffee while I was doing this, so small was the space that I didn’t even need to move.
To them I was just a normal barista performing my duties, but in truth I was a young man urinating my faith in the universe into a tub.
The weight of the job and the extensive commute had sapped me of any energy I needed to find somewhere else to live, and somewhere better to work. Eventually, I had had enough and one day simply turned up to work with a suitcase and told my manager that I wasn’t coming in the next day, that I had a train ticket home and I wasn’t coming back. This job had broken me, and any kind of zest for life had been drained out into the same tub I had once peed in.
On that 22 hour train ride home I had a lot of time to think. It wasn’t that I failed and everything was lost, it was just that that job wasn’t for me. Looking back, that job really isn’t for anyone, it probably isn’t really suitable for humans in general. I still feel pretty weird about peeing in a bucket while serving someone a fairly average espresso, but what is the bizarre in life if not fuel for the words to come.
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece, part of a series where writers reflect on the strange, wonderful or just plain-old terrifying things they've done to keep the lights on. To read more like this, click here:
H.D. Thompson is a writer from the gutters of Melbourne. He has clawed his way out of the trash to write words for Junkee, The Lifted Brow, Going Down Swinging, Plaything and SPOOKmag. Can usually be found laughing maniacally clutching wine for dear life, but can also be found regurgitating thoughts here - actuallyharry.com"