In the early days of the new year, the sixth of February loomed like a golden opportunity I didn’t quite know what to do with. It is, above all, Waitangi Day – as New Zealand’s quasi-equivalent of Fourth of July, it more or less celebrates the signing of a treaty which made the country official in British terms. It’s not exactly another Independence Day, yet it’s important all the same and my first instinct was to head up north to the actual Waitangi Treaty Grounds to be where it all began so many years ago. Yet when I looked into flights and rental cars and all that jazz, I decided it wouldn’t be entirely financially feasible – rather, the two or three days I’d actually have to spend there wouldn’t be worth the expense.
There was another option. As if the holiday isn’t enough, the International Rugby Sevens are coming to New Zealand on the 5th and 6th of February. As I’ve said before, tickets for the rugby tournament sold out in record time this year, eliminating my chances of going and being a part of the crowd. But just when I was having to resign myself to yet another normal day at the restaurant – all the while wishing I was at the Treaty Grounds or Westpac Stadium – I got a text from a temp agent asking if I wanted to work in a corporate box for the Sevens tournament. My first thought was no, but when I mentioned it to my friend Aimee from work, she said her flatmate said it’s a job temps often line up to fight for. Seriously? I asked. It didn’t take me five minutes to get my phone out and tell the agent I’d changed my mind.
And like I’ve also written, I initially got the okay from my boss at the restaurant, meaning I could essentially have my cake and eat it, too – keep my job, yet have the two days off to witness something incredible. But I knew things were too good to be true – a week later, Marcello came back to me saying that he hadn’t realized what day it was, he needed me at the restaurant, etc. The next few days were filled with deliberations and decisions – talking to my temp agency about whether or not they thought I could get enough work from them in February, trying my best to negotiate with Marcello, sorting through my savings to see if I could very well make it if I left the restaurant yet didn’t get enough temp work.
In the end, I knew what I had to do. In the same spirit in which I left Christchurch for Queenstown, in which I left Queenstown for Wellington, in which I’ve constantly had to evaluate my moves in New Zealand, I knew I had to do it for the experience. I couldn’t see myself going home having turned down the opportunity to not only go to the Sevens, but get paid for it. What was the alternative? An extra five weeks or so at an Italian restaurant? Some story there, Candace.
But when I took the train on my overnight trip to Auckland last week, I thought I had another two weeks of work at the restaurant left. I thought that if I lined up my exit from Vercelli’s to the day before the Sevens, I’d actually only have about three weeks after the rugby gig in which I would need to rely on temp work. So therein lay the source of feeling so gutted after that fateful phone call telling me not to bother coming back. Words like panic, stress, and what-am-I-gonna-do filled my head on the plane back to Wellington on Sunday morning. As I sat in my flat when I should’ve been at work, I scoured TradeMe, the main classifieds website in New Zealand, and my hope grew a little at finding a couple of ads for “fast and furious typers” and temporary data entry positions. One was even for a four-week, Monday-to-Friday assignment in the city – perfect, right?
I sent off my CV on Sunday and had nothing left to do but wait. Monday was a public holiday in Wellington, so I knew I couldn’t expect to hear from anyone until at least Tuesday. And sure enough, Tuesday morning, at 10.34am, an email from a woman informed me that they had chosen someone with a “more qualified” background, with more “specific” work experience. Of course, all I could think was, it’s typing. Just how much experience and qualifications do you seriously need? But that was that, and I kept my chin up, grinning and bearing it…this was, after all, a choice I’d made, even if I had been let go earlier than I expected.
Three hours had barely passed, though, and I was at the library when the temp agency called, asking if I’d be interested in starting work…immediately. “How fast can you be here?” a woman asked. “How does two minutes sound?” I packed up my laptop and sped to the agency and then to a clothing store to pick up the appropriate clothing I’d need for my temp assignments. It was haphazard and a little bit manic, but one bus ride and an hour and a half later, I was at work again, this time at the Wellington airport.
For three days, I’d be helping out at the domestic Kiwi Club, a high-class lounge designed by New Zealand’s national airline, its members mostly businessmen and women who fly throughout the country on a regular basis. With ceiling-to-floor windows that stretch around the entire lounge and overlook the runway, the lounge provides a place for travelers to escape the typical turmoil of airport terminals and work and relax in style before boarding their flight. There’s a special check-in desk, free wireless internet, free copying services, televisions and telephones, newspapers and magazines, and – what I’d be most stoked about – an unlimited buffet of food and drinks, including soft drinks, tea and coffee, beer, wine and spirits – so worth every cent. And it’s posh enough that the Prime Minister himself is often a guest – would I get my chance to bask in the glory of a political-celebrity?
The lounge itself is expansive, with a large number and variety of seating options. It felt almost like a big house in which you could find the spot you felt most comfortable in, circling around the lounge like a dog before settling in just right – there were couches, booths, rows and rows of wicker chairs with cushions and side tables, armchairs, a big wooden dining table, several café tables with silver bartstools, and long sleek tables with built-in power outlets. If I was a club member there’s no telling how early I’d arrive for a flight. Men would walk around with a beer in their hand and ask a colleague, “Was that our flight that was just delayed?” not sounding the least bit annoyed, and why would they be? It was all business suits and Blackberries and briefcases and reminded me of Vercelli’s in that respect, the corporate crowd milling about with that buzz of officialdom.
But I found it slightly weird going to an airport without a ticket in my hand or someone to meet – just going there…to work. There wasn’t that excitement of a far-off destination or long-awaited reunion about it, but nonetheless, I loved the job. The entire extent of my duties included walking around the lounge with a wet cloth in my hand, wiping tables, clearing away empty glasses and plates onto a trolley, rearranging cushions (to be set on a diagonal angle against the left armrest, like so) and collecting scattered newspapers and magazines to be returned to their appropriate racks. It was an utter dream for anyone with a shred of OCD in them – I got paid for doing what my sister always yells at me for, “Why are you straightening up again?”
And of course, being a hospo diva-extraordinaire and trained server, my instinct was to go the extra mile. All I wanted to do was ask the members if I could get them another coffee or refill their wine glass or if they enjoyed their cheese and crackers – but I didn’t have to. Sometimes I couldn’t help it – I’d ask them a question just to have some human interaction throughout the day. “Have a nice flight,” I’d say, or “Where’re you off to today?” But in reality, I was to be nameless and faceless, so it made me laugh when, as I cleared their plate or picked up a glass, a man would say, “Thank you so much, that’s great service,” or a woman would thank me “for the hospitality.” Service? Really? And to think of how hard I worked at Vercelli’s… and here I was simply puttering about at a leisurely pace.
I’d see other workers carrying stacks of five or six plates to the trolley and I wanted to tell them to slow down, mate! We’re here all day! Might as well spread out our work load, if you know what I’m saying. Because, trust me, there was no possible way that job could ever be stressful (knock on wood, I know). But I cracked up every time another worker would remark “Gonna be busy tonight,” and all I wanted to say was, “So?” We pick up plates, trust me, this isn’t stress. When I finally had a chance to catch up with Aimee at the end of the week, she had tears in her eyes from laughing about my new post. “If I could be a fly on the wall of that lounge…and to think of all your talents going to waste!”
When I first arrived, I was shown around by a short and stocky Maori guy named JT who seemed to function as a manager of sorts for the lounge’s catering company. Judging from his build and demeanor, I wasn’t surprised to hear he spent the last three years in Ireland playing rugby – “It’s weird being back home, nothing’s changed, I don’t like it.” I told him I understood – you’ve been away and when you return, you expect home to have changed like you have.
I then met Calvin, a young, smiling Maori dishboy who’s worked in the kitchen for five months. As I sat reading on one of my breaks, he popped his head in the staff room and said, “Should be a quiet night.” “You think?” I asked. “Oh, what do I know? I just do whatever comes my way.” Don’t we all, Cal, don’t we all. Then there was Bourey, a Cambodian man who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. But he walked with determination, like a man twice his size, in shiny black leather shoes with a pointed end and silver buckles. “How long have you been here, Bourey?” I asked but he misinterprets, saying, “Since this morning. I’m working ‘til nine tonight.” When I clarify my question, he then informs he’s worked there four – and I repeat, four – years. No wonder he always seemed to find the empty plates before me, like the lucky kid that makes out in the Easter egg hunt every year.
There was a girl my age named Bess who told me she is dating a member of the airport fire department. I asked if they met at the airport, expecting that that would surely not be the case, just a coincidence in occupation after they started dating. “Yeah,” she answered, much to my surprise, “We have an emergency fire exit here in the lounge and the firemen come and check it.” Romantic, eh? Of course I didn’t press for details, but I did try to imagine how it might’ve unfolded. One minute you’re showing where the emergency ladders are, the next minute you’re asking about dinner plans and swapping phone numbers. Everyone who worked there, Bess especially, talked of quitting and getting a new job with better pay. I wasn’t fussed, through, and more than enjoyed my little stint.
My absolute favorite person I met there, though, was an older woman named Catherine. Catherine worked at the exclusive club check-in desk, welcoming customers into the lounge and helping them arrange early flights home, if such was possible. Again, I asked her how long she’d been there. “Forty years,” she answers, with that pride you hear in the voice of a new grandmother or homeowner. “This weekend they’re flying me to Singapore to receive an award.” “I should think they would,” I said, thoroughly impressed – I can’t physically fathom being anywhere that long. “I take it you like your job, then?” “I love it. Best party in town. We’re the best airline in the world.” I asked her if she got to know many of the regulars and she responded – a little too emphatically for my taste – “Oh yes, you get to know all about them.”
My second day on the job, I asked Catherine if she’d had a good day. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Every day’s a great day when you work for Air New Zealand,” in that unnerving, put-on-the-spot way as if I was the teacher and she the student, reciting the memorized answer to an important question. I couldn’t help but laugh as I walked away, thinking, “Man, you just can’t make this stuff up.”
On my dinner break, I was sitting out back with Calvin and Bess and we were discussing the new SkyCouch the airline had just revealed. The SkyCouch takes up the space of three regular economy seats and has been aimed at attracting couples. All I knew of it was from a clip I’d seen on the news showing a couple spooning on it mid-flight. “They’ve come out with all sorts of new things ever since they won that award,” Bess said. When I asked which award, she tells me, “Best airline in the world.” “Oh,” I said, “Is that why Catherine says it all the time?” “Oh God,” Calvin and Bess exhale simultaneously, rolling their eyes. “Every time a new customer walks through the door, she tells them about her trip to Singapore.” But, I told them, as full of you-know-what she may seem, you’d have to believe it to stick around with a company for forty years. That kind of loyalty can’t come from nothing, after all.
At the end of my last night, things had finally quieted down after the last rush. I was doing exactly what you do when there’s nothing else to do – pretending to wipe down tables that had already been cleaned, when JT walks over and says, “See those security guards over there?” I look towards the door and see a few wearing suits. “What are they up to?” “Well, behind that column is the Prime Minister.” He was so incredibly laidback about it – which, I guess, is a very Kiwi way to be in the presence of the Big Kahuna. Key himself was criticized for being too laid-back while entertaining Prince William at a barbecue, swigging his beer from the bottle itself…gasp!
Yet I, in all my American-ness, more than made up for it. I quickly found another “dirty” spot on a table much closer to the PM and moved in for a good look, a gawking smile on my face and all. He wasn’t there for long so I was only close enough to hear him wish Catherine at the front a good night. But what will remain with me is watching him walk out the exit, only to stop in his tracks and reach for a handful of mints we keep in a glass bowl. It was that small moment of humanness that I will remember. Hey, prime ministers are people, too.
And when I wasn’t watching my first episode of the Ellen Show since leaving the States, or reading the news headlines so many times I had them memorized – “US President Barack Obama took surprising measures today, curbing bank bonuses” – or watching Andy Roddick lose to Marin Cilic in the Australian Open, I was watching the planes. There’s nothing better than seeing them take off; from little four-seater prop plans to mammoth grey Air Force ones, I watched them queue on the runway, one after another and noted the distance they need to take off is relative to the size of the plane. I loved watching the infamous Wellington fog roll in, how fast it could take over the airport and erase all sign of sky and sea. It was a job blessedly free of all Vercelli’s-related stress I’d been so used to. No more walking on emotional eggshells or tip-toeing around bosses. It was a job – I showed up, did it, and went home.
It turned out to be the same on Friday, as well, when I was placed at the Wellington office of Delta, a large international accounting firm, for their monthly after-work staff drinks. I arrived to meet two of the other temps, a German girl named Izzy and another American guy named Kevin. I found out later that Izzy and Kevin have been together for two years, having met at Oktoberfest in Munich. What a story. They now travel the world together, and will be heading back to the States in a few months to try and find work there.
The other temp, Sophie, was an English girl from a small town halfway between London and Cambridge. She had a small, thin frame and wiry ginger hair she wore in a small pile on top of her head. She told me it was her first placement with the temp agency and seemed incredibly nervous. When she met Izzy, Sophie alternated between crossing her arms and wringing her hands, unable to decide on the most comfortable position, and when I told her Kevin was from Las Vegas, she asked, “People actually live there?” She told me she studied fine arts – “Not that I can really do anything with that in the real world,” she said with a laugh that seemed again more apprehensive than reassuring.
Sophie had only moved to New Zealand a few weeks ago and was still living in a hostel in Wellington. When I asked her how that was going, she answered, “It’s nice, like a house, but with strangers. You make friends, then they leave, you make friends, then they leave…Have you had much luck finding work?” There was a change in tone in this last question, a sort of urgency about it that I didn’t quite know how to respond to. Do you answer “Yes” in hopes of coming across as encouraging yet potentially mistaken as bragging? Or lie with a “Not really” in hopes of coming across as sympathetic yet not entirely truthful? Either way, I just wanted to reach out and give her a hug – the phase she’s in is my least favorite, that “unsettled” period with no flat, no steady work, no steady money, and the world looks permanently dark, as if it will never open up to you. “I was actually quite intimidated when I showed up,” Sophie said, “I assumed everyone knew each other. It appears I was very mistaken.” I told her I was nearly in the same position as she and not to worry.
The job itself was rather anticlimactic. I’d been perhaps more excited than I should’ve about my return to bartending – for it wasn’t that. It was popping open bottles of beer, pouring glasses of wine, and clearing glasses. I soon discovered the success of a bartending gig depends very much on the bar which you are actually tending. There was no atmosphere and certainly no buzz. There was a spectacular view, to be sure, which a window-lined room on the 16th floor of a building should guarantee – a remarkable 270o view of the Wellington Harbor, Somes Island, and Oriental Bay where the manmade beach teemed with ant-sized people and poetic-looking yachts sailed through the water. But in a situation like that, you were not a bartender – you were a means to an end, another nameless face to get you the next drink. There were no lights, no music, no scene.
The closest I got to feeling like I was back at Wattie’s was bantering with an old man over promising to cut him off after three glasses of wine. Each time he came back he’d ask, “How’m I doing? Not yet, eh?” And I’d play along, laughing, “Oh, no, one more left.” And with the personality of the place and people lacking, I found the job just as boring as a supermarket checkout shift, popping bottle tops just as repetitive as wiping tables. Izzy informed me, having worked at Delta before, that they were all snobs, that the women all compete to see who has the best clothes and that the men all look the same in striped button-downs and dress pants. “The women wear sneakers to work, then change into heels when they get here. It’s how they do it here. But if you’re gonna wear them, wear them all day, you know?” At least I got to take half a bottle of pinot gris home with me – every job has its benefits, right?
But a couple of hours at an accounting firm was nothing compared to the wedding I worked at on Saturday. Being told I was booked in from two in the afternoon to one that morning, it was only a little intimidating showing up for work. What I’d wondered was, how does a wedding go on for so long? I arrived on by far the most beautiful day Wellington has yet to see this summer. With temperatures in at least the eighties and not a hint of wind, it was near torture having to go into work, but thankfully the reception site for the wedding was in a venue called the Boatshed right on the Wellington harbor. We propped all the doors open and tried our best to catch the breeze as we rolled out seventeen round tables, flung table clothes across them, and set out 140 table settings for the guests that would arrive a little after five that evening.
I was technically working for a catering company, co-owned by a man named Nick and his wife Suzie, and what I found perhaps most amazing about the job was getting to watch the definition of efficiency at work. One of the girls who works for the company permanently told me several chefs had recently left. “We’re looking for new ones, but thankfully we have a good system in place and when you have a system, it all works okay.” And system indeed. After the chaos that mass crowds could engender at Vercelli’s, I marveled at the way Nick orchestrated the staff. Each of the servers was assigned two or three of the tables, which meant we were responsible for keeping full bottles of water and wine on the table and for taking their mains order. Once we had ticked off whether they wanted beef or fish on a separate little order form for each table, we then tallied the orders up and handed each form back to Nick.
When it came time to run the mains, we lined up like you might in kindergarten to get your napkin-full of animal crackers or juice, except here we were handed steaming dishes – “Fish-beef-fish” or “Beef-beef-fish,” Nick would call, dictating the exact order in which to set them down. We were standing on one side of a window, and on the other, the kitchen staff prepped each dish. There was one team for the beef dish, another for the fish, and it was like watching the wedding of poetry and the assembly line. Culinary creativity meets efficient mass-production. It was a seamless affair, with a dish in front of every guest in less than ten minutes.
And when the mains were cleared, that’s when the real fun began. We’d hardly set down the last of the dishes in the kitchen when Nick said, “Alright girls, grab yourself a plate and eat up.” In a back room they laid out everything that hadn’t been eaten by the guests – a whole try of hoki, several beef filets, mashed potatoes, potatoes au gratin, stewed tomatoes, crispy twisted breadsticks, and red peppers stuffed with wild rice. At the end of the night, there was even a whole tray of baked alaska’s leftover from dessert, which Nick promptly popped in the oven for us to eat ‘til our hearts were content. And as if I hadn’t already been transported to another level of bliss by the plate in front of me, we were able to sneak out back and sit on the deck – escaping the heat of the venue for the cool evening air, savoring the meal and the sunset. Nick had told us we’d only have about twenty minutes until it was time to run dessert out, yet twenty minutes came and went…as did forty…and fifty…
It turns out it’s quite a thing at Kiwi weddings for multiple people to give speeches during the reception. I’d been accustomed to the best man and maid of honor doing so – and occasionally one or both of the fathers – yet in New Zealand, they add to that list, with parents and other bridal party members and even the bride and groom getting behind the microphone. Apparently, though, the particular couple whose wedding we were working for, erred on the side of having too many say something. What should’ve taken about fifteen minutes stretched into an hour break between the main and dessert. Not that I cared, of course, as breaks were covered by the catering company and I was more than happy to continue soaking up my sunset reverie, but what was hilarious was how not happy the guests were about it. A couple of men walked out of the building and I overheard one say, “If I hear one more sh**ty speech, I’m gonna kill myself.” A mother and her small children passed by and when she spotted us, she said, “Trust me, you’re having the better party out here.” Another woman whispered, “Shh, we’re escapees.” Is it really that bad? I wanted to ask. Finally, though, the speeches came to an end and we were back on our feet, running, clearing, wiping, and packing up ‘til the job was done.
Walking home that night, I thought of how just as I showed up at the airport every day simply to work – not to fly anywhere nor to meet anyone – so did I go to work at the wedding, without a connection to anyone actually involved in the nuptials. So often with weddings, you arrive at the reception with everything in place, tending not to realize all the varying factors that go into making it happen – the caterers, the florist, the venue staff. As I folded my 128th napkin in preparation for the big event, I watched the florist bring in the centerpieces for each table, making last-minute adjustments, and I looked up as a long-haired guy walked into the room and introduced himself to Nick. “We’re the band,” and just as I was beginning to imagine him and his two friends as sort of serial-cover artists, relying on a bank of cheesy sing-alongs to get them free booze and easy women, he was asked if they’d had a busy wedding season. “Nah, this is our first. We’re actually an original band, but the couple wanted something different.” And like that, he had my respect back. But just as the airport assignment had let me into a lounge I would never frequent as a traveler myself, so did the accounting and wedding shifts make me privy to worlds I wouldn’t see on my own. I decided that therein lies the “fun” of temp work, the secret thrill of being given access to places previously inaccessible, bearing witness to events or locations usually out of the public eye.
But as grateful as I am for the temp assignments, for the new stories and new characters, it’s hard waking up each day not knowing if I’ll have work, if I’ll get a call. It’s hard going through each day as if on pins and needles, wondering if today will be the day. But then again, I think of how my situation isn’t quite so unique. I think of a good friend in Christchurch, going through a similar period of learning to trust, who, after living in the same house for twenty-three years, her parents have finally sold it, leaving her to find her own flat for the first time, at the exact time she’d chosen to go part-time at her job to free up her schedule for other new opportunities to serve in the community.
It’s that same situation of scary-but-good, of less-security-more-opportunity, of having to bid farewell to everything-you’ve-ever-known. Maybe it’s a mother faced with an empty house after twenty-odd years of raising children, maybe it’s a business faltering and new directions having to be considered in light of a worst-case scenario. It’s that situation of feeling like the rug’s been swept out from under your feet, like a flood’s come in the house, lifted the furniture off the ground, and now you wait to see how it’s all going to settle, where the pieces are going to fall.
On my way home from the airport one night, I happened to see a chainlink fence through which pieces of paper had been tucked, spelling out, “It will all be ok.” I’d seen something similar done before, only with plastic cups stuck through each hole in the fence. But I thought, what a message for times like these, what a reminder – it will all be ok. And so here I sit, last week’s work finished, now two days into a new week and no call yet. My phone doesn’t leave my side, plans lay unmade, all in the hope that work will come. I’ve got the Sevens job to count on, thankfully, but the rest of the month is vague and open-ended…not exactly the way I like my source of funds to be, but I suppose this is where my self-professed mission of living a life sans cubicles, corporate suits, and steady paychecks gets challenged and put to the test.
This is where trust takes over.