Island Life by David Slack

1

Cock and Bull Story

Going back to Wellington has been a little poignant on my last few visits. If you take yourself up Willis Street to the corner of Vivian St, you can see for yourself. A couple of years ago, they brought in some trucks, a digger and a few blokes with power tools and they pulled down the Brunswick Arms.

Actually, that's not entirely accurate; they knocked over the main building that housed the bars, but they left the drive-through bottle store standing, and as of last Thursday, I can report that it was still there, albeit repainted in avocado green and trading as a fruit and vege store. If I were to spend my money there today, I'd be able to get more healthy sustenance than I ever got over the couple of years I worked there, but being healthy wasn't anywhere on my list of 100 top priorities when I was a student.

That pub put me through university. You went up the hill to learn about the law of Contracts, but you could learn plenty about business - and people - just by watching what happened in those bars.

I got the job because I was upwardly mobile, and by that I mean I was sick of washing dishes in a restaurant. (Which was itself a step up from McDonalds, Kentucky Fried and Homestead Chicken.) I got up one morning, thought to myself: A pub job would be good, and pulled out the Yellow Pages. Alphabetically, the 1860 Victualling Company was first in the listing. Nothing doing there. Never liked that pub anyway. Next on the list was the Brunswick Arms. I dialled them.

Got any part-time jobs? I asked.

Yeah, they said, one of our bottle store guys is starting his holidays tomorrow. Three weeks' work. Have you done this before?

No, I said.

Okay, they said, come on in.

I pulled on my helmet and I was standing in their office three minutes later. The early biker gets to sell the tequila worm.

What do you do? they asked.

I'm a student I said.

We don't usually hire students, they said.

It's worth a shot, I said.

How old are you, one of them asked half way through an unrelated sentence.

Twenty, I snapped back with as much assurance as I could throw into it.

The two of them glanced at each other: Yeah right

But they needed someone right away and I was standing there. So I got the job.

I knew right away this was the life for me. I had product knowledge, could sell the product with enthusiasm, was willing to trial it whenever required, and the staff discounts were most reasonable.

The most bizarre aspect of the job turned out to be that the fulltime job was much less work than the part-time one. If you were a full timer, you came on at 10 in the morning, worked your eight hours, and finished at 6, just as the place was starting to get busy. Even more bizarre, "Smiler", the guy I was filling in for, was spending his holiday not far from work. He was in the public bar each day. Smiling.

It seemed odd then, but it soon came to make sense. This genuinely was a neighborhood pub. The public bar was a second home for a lot of the older single guys who lived in flats all around upper Willis Street and Aro Valley.

There was a bar upstairs - the sportsman's bar. This was the unofficial headquarters of the Wellington Rugby Club - mostly blokes, mostly over 30.

And there was the Cock and Bull bar - the more expensive, more plush, Olde English bar that was home to, for example, the crowd at Colenso Advertising who were in an office just down the road, and the property valuers across the road, some of whom had sensibly taken shares in the business.

Holding the whole operation together was Mr Bill Brien, who is a top sort, and you tell him I said so the next time you see him. Bill was once a detective in Her Majesty's NZ Police, but he'd left the force and been in the pub business for about ten years by the time I came to be working for him at the Brunswick Arms. He was a shareholder as well as the manager, and he had a pretty good knack for hiring good reliable people who could run a tight ship. It was the kind of place where you behaved yourself or you were out the door - staff or customer.

The assistant manager - who actually hired me - was Mike Hubbard. Everyone had a nickname; he was Mother. He was quick with a joke, could size up people very swiftly, and had the kind of firm and fair manner that could keep the crew happy. We hit it off quite well, which turned out handy, because the bottle store manager, a no-bullshit Aussie decided I was a bloody student from up the Uni who didn't speak his language, never would, and could bloody well piss off back there when Smiler had finished his holiday.

So I settled in for my three weeks in the bottle store, keeping the shelves full of Lion Brown flagons, carafes of Blenheimer (the biggest selling Montana wine in 1979 by a mile), and 2 litre bottles of gin which were on special at such an impressive price that people would drive across several suburbs to stock up on it. We also had a few boxes of Baileys tucked away out the back, but you could only sell them to favoured customers on Bill's instructions. Sophistication came in different packaging back then.

The days could actually drag a little. In the middle of the afternoon, you'd be waiting for the next customer to drive in. There would be the old lady who would pull up at the same time every day, all dressed up in the perm and smart suit. She'd pick up the same 26 ounce bottle of gin, bring it over, pull out her purse, lean in to you and say - it's for my friend, you know.

There was the couple running a dairy just up the street. He'd come in for their first flagon of Lion Brown just before lunch. He or his wife would be picking up their third by late afternoon.

No, it wasn't a procession of people with problems. I just remember ones like those more vividly all these years later, because the fact that I sold them grog pricks my conscience a little harder these days.

For the most part, we were just helping people have a good time. Friday and Saturday nights, everyone who came into the bottle store was happy - they were on their way to have fun somewhere, and the mood was great.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The three weeks were up, Smiler came back to work, and my time was up. I picked up my pay packet, thanked them kindly and said goodbye.

But within a day or two, Mother Hubbard was on the phone. Can you work in the public bar tonight? And for the next two years, I was a regular part timer. The more helpful you are, the more people call on you for help. I ended up working there 30 hours some weeks. Sometimes they left me in charge, cashing up all the registers, stowing away a lot of money in the safe and locking the pub up. Once I forgot to lock the safe. Bill rang the next morning. I could hold the phone several feet from my ear and still hear his...observations.

We got on well, but I think our signals didn't always connect. He would often come over during the evening when I was on duty in the bottle store. How's it been? He'd ask.

Oh, quite slow, I'd say, meaning - that's handy, I've been able to study this case.

Oh, he'd say, looking a little deflated. Meaning We're actually here to make a profit. A few more punters is what we're after.

Took me a while to get clued up.

Still, my job was to deliver a satisfying customer experience, not that anyone used that language in those days. It just made sense to be cheerful, helpful and welcoming.

You got to know the customers, and it got to be a lot of fun. You got invited to parties, you got invited home, and you had all kinds of, well, satisfying experiences with the customers.

Having hired one student, they ended up hiring quite a few more. Flatmates, friends, friends of friends, a whole lot of us ended up pouring pints there.

For the most part, I did it all responsibly. You never want to drink while you're working. Not with a bar sitting right there in front of you. But I did spin out a time or two. I turned up one morning still tanked, and did a couple of high-revving circuits on my bike in the drive-through. Bill rang down for me to be sent up to his office.

There's something wrong here mate, he said. What's the story?

I don't know, I said, Got a bit carried away.

Well, you need to knock it on the head, he said, or you'll be down the road.

Fair enough I said.

Then he said I'll tell you what, if you can keep off the grog for a month, I'll give you a bottle of gin.

Somehow it made sense. We both kept our bargain.

In the end, I left for another part time job, and if you've been following the blogs, you'll know the story. But if they ever knock down the building where the ad agency was, I won't feel anything like the regret I do when I walk past that corner on Willis Street.

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