A Writers’ Other Jobs story by Lorelei Vashti
The summer after I had completed my Creative Writing Degree at university I was living with my boyfriend in a perfect apartment in West End, Brisbane. The perfect apartment was so perfect I had my own writing room, and it was there I would embark on my brilliant career as a writer. There were magazines to pitch to, poems to write, writing competitions to enter—my life stretched out ahead of me, a career to begin. Problem was, the perfect apartment was double what we paid at our last place.
I was already working at the cinema in the Myer Centre and, because of our situation, I also started working as the cinema’s mascot, the Candy Bar Bear.
Being the Candy Bar Bear ensured an extra shift or sometimes two during the week, which was the difference between keeping our apartment with my writing room—a gorgeous, rectangular sunroom that gushed with orange light every afternoon—and moving into a place where my boyfriend and I would have to share a workspace and probably eventually kill each other.
To ‘become’ the Candy Bar Bear you stepped into a fur-heavy bear suit, zipped up the back and then held your breath as one of your colleagues stood on her toes and replaced your own perfectly good human head with an enormous ursine one. When you finally took a breath, it was through a suffocating mesh cloth that many others before you had sucked air through too. The years of sweat build-up created a sort of natural anti-air freshener, so that the air you breathed in was automatically filtered through other people’s stale sweat and there was nothing you could do about it.
It was the second-worst animal dress-up available in Brisbane at the time, the very worst of course being the Wilderness Society Koala whose job it was to bounce up and down Victoria Bridge under the scorching sun collecting donations. The Candy Bar Bear was a better gig only because he got to stay inside the air-conditioned Myer Centre.
Being the Candy Bar Bear meant I could take on the world though. Sure, by day I was an enormous, foul-smelling bear, but at night I could exist in my beautiful writing room, the warm Brisbane air pouring through the louvres as I wrote stories, poems and plays. It was worth it.
The Candy Bar Bear’s job was to walk around the Myer Centre, led by a cute female cinema worker who held him by the arm because he was rendered literally blind by his big bear head. He had to hand out movie discount flyers and candy canes and also get his photo taken with children when asked. But his main challenge was to not die inside, both literally and figuratively.
It was damn hot inside that suit and I hadn’t counted on the many synthetic layers that made up the Candy Bar Bear’s costume or the inefficiency of the Myer Centre’s air-conditioning to penetrate through such a costume.
I also hadn’t counted on my chronic nosebleeds.
A quick digression: My whole life I have had a ‘condition’ called hereditary haemorrhagic telangiectasia which basically means I get constant random nosebleeds and it’s my parents’ fault. No one in my family is spared. At any one time, somewhere on this continent, chances are that I or one of my five other family members has a bleeding nose. And, more noteworthy than that, none of them will be even slightly fussed about it. As everyone around them races about, plucking tissues out from hidden places and making well-meaning suggestions (‘lie down quick!’ ‘pinch your nose like this!’ ‘lean forward and let it all drip out!’) my kin and I invariably continue quietly with whatever it was we were doing, with a bloody tissue stuck up our nostril. If we had a family shield it would be a bloody tissue. Stuck up a nostril. But I digress.
By this age though, I genuinely thought my nose had done it all: it had bled on my friends’ pillows at sleepovers when I was a kid, it had dripped out on to school tests during exam week, it had poured out over lovers’ faces during pashing sessions as a teenager. It had even dripped out over my fake moustache when I played the Major General in a primary school production of The Pirates of Penzance. But as I felt the familiar salty beginnings of a nosebleed at the back of my throat that day, I didn’t feel as casual about my nosebleed as I usually did. The hard facts of the situation couldn’t be denied: I had never had a nosebleed inside a giant bear’s head before.
I tried to stall the inevitable and fumbled through my basket, my big, clumsy paws grappling for a miniature candy cane to give to a girl. She finally, impatiently, snatched it out of my basket herself, and at the same time a massive drop of blood plummeted out of my nostril. It dribbled down my chin and slid into the neck of my costume; I felt the warmth and wetness of the blood soaking in to the fur.
It was against the rules to take off my head in public as that would freak the kids out. So I dropped the basket and ran blindly, as fast as my chunky bear legs could go, as the blood kept trickling down my face in the most excruciatingly tickly and disgusting way. I found my way back to the cinema through sheer survival instinct and pushed open the swinging doors of the Candy Bar, past my lucky human colleagues, and into the cinema cold room, and finally extricated myself from my head. I quickly brought my hand up to my nose to stem the tide of blood as the cool air washed over me.
My helper, the girl who led me around, came in. ‘Lie down quick! Pinch your nose! Lean forward and let it all drip out!’ When at last the blood had stopped flowing I peered into my Candy Bear head. The inside of it had a smear of blood on it, thick and damp. My colleague was standing by the door of the cold room, tapping her foot. We both knew there were three hours left of the shift and many more baskets of candy canes left to hand out so I put my head back on and wobblingly walked back out towards her.
This was the first in a long string of jobs I’ve had over the last ten years to support myself as a writer. Some of the others have been similarly ridiculous (running a personalised Christmas bauble stand at a shopping centre; dressing up as a ‘teenager’ at a country festival and running up to punters to get their photo taken with them as if they were celebrities) and others were just regular. (Waitressing. A lot of waitressing.)
For a while, I worked full-time and tricked myself that I didn’t really have to write, but the need always came back and I’m glad I made myself focus on it. I’ve accepted now that writing is my proper job, and everything else is what I do so that I can do it.
The last year has been particularly tough as I’m writing a book and it’s taking way longer than I expected. It’s the same for all writers. I’ve never been this broke in my life, have racked up masses of debt and have had lots of trouble finding work of any sort over the past six months, but finally, three weeks ago, after failing an interview to be a motel room cleaner, I found a job as a waitress again. I’m loving it.
I found that when my anxiety attacks about money stopped, my writing started flowing again. Even just a little bit of money frees you up so much. It changes everything.
Lorelei Vashti is a writer and book editor. With Sofija Stefanovic, she has just launched Paper Trail Tours: writing tours of Melbourne. Her most recent book is Dress, Memory published in 2014 through Allen & Unwin, and based on her popular blog, Dress, Memory.
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