The first job I ever had was in an establishment that fancifully called itself a gourmet fish and chippery. It basically consisted of being a regular fish and chip shop with some rustic anchors hung on the wall. The gourmet part was that the salad menu included a bowl of bright yellow sauce with some bean sprouts and potato slices floating in, which was optimistically called “gado gado”. That’s Indonesian you know. Gourmet. And you could also buy jars of mussels off the counter (which had been bought that morning at Safeway and then marked up 50%).
Yabbies was run by a couple called Fred and Rob.
Fred was a terrifying beast who looked like an 19th-century circus strongman. He wore a striped butcher’s apron and walked around violently sharpening two enormous filleting knives against each other. It was his job to fillet all the fish, and he made it clear that he took an adjunct responsibility for filleting any staff members demonstrating damaging fiscally irresponsibility through the overly liberal application of chicken salt.
Maybe this actually is Fred.
I immediately did a defensive knife-block when the picture opened up
in my image search.
Rob was dwarfed by Fred in every sense – about 15 years younger, 1.5m shorter and 65kg lighter. Rob wore little denim shorts and platform shoes with his Yabbies polo shirt. His job was to design the menus and occasionally do some burger assemblage.
Rob working the bun station.
The most disturbing element of their relationship was that Fred picked up Rob when he was an employee at a school camp Rob went on when he was 12. I know this is true because they told us. Why would you tell anyone that? It made me feel sick. And this one time, Fred dropped a piece of whiting on the filthy dirty floor underneath the fryers, picked it up and slapped it “clean” against his apron and fried it and served it to a customer. This also made me feel sick. Though it’s completely irrelevant here.
So, when I was a couple of years older than Rob was when he was seduced by Fred, I got my very first job at this joint. For two years I cut uniform potato wedges, shelled innumerable mussels, constructed perfect towering barramundi burgers, and did sundry other sous chef jobs while ostensibly employed as a cashier and being paid about $6 an hour. It was a workplace that reeked of fear, exploitation, and unrefrigerated seafood products. If Fred had gestured with a pointy paring knife for me to go down to the Moonee Valley Creek and fish out a yabbie with my bare hands, I would’ve done it. I never complained about my cheap yellow polo shirt, garishly embroidered with an electric blue yabbie on the right boob, that retained the fishy stench no matter how many times it was scrubbed. We were a crew of about 15 local kids in the shittiest job in Moonee Ponds. If FML was a thing then, we were totally manifesting it.
And no-one was many-years-pre-emptively thinking FML more than me when I was SACKED for allegedly swearing at a customer. All the evidence points to this being a factual circumstance (ie I love swearing, I hate customers and…people) but believe it or not it’s not actually my style to get my fuck on in front of ‘stomers. A vindictive assistant manager reported the outrageous accusation to Rob, who ordered me upstairs to the den he shared with Fred above the store. There I cowered in abject terror all by myself as Fred sacked me out-of-hand and then stood over me and bellowed for 10 minutes. When he let me go I fled downstairs to collect my things (silver Mambo satchel, early model Discman – see 1995), whereupon I was told I couldn’t exit by the front door lest I galvanised my co-workers to my cause on my way out through the restaurant. Instead I was dumped unceremoniously out the back through the loading bay. At 8pm on a Friday night. There I stood, in the unlit warren of back alleys that wends its way behind Puckle Street, weeping, too scared to walk out of the lanes into the safety of the street lights and pay phones of Puckle Street proper.
After my parents were dissuaded from attempting to take on Fred in the most unfairly matched street fight in the history of hand-to-hand combat, we hit upon the cleverer idea of consulting my godfather Shane, who conveniently is an industrial relations lawyer. The next day, a letter was couriered to Yabbies advising them of my intention to contest the dismissal at the Industrial Relations Commission. On the appointed date, we all turned up. The Yabbies lawyer (and how’s that for an inhouse counsel position to aspire for) immediately took Shane to one side and attempted to conspiratorially engage him in a pre-hearing settlement with a line Dennis Denuto would later wish he thought of: “I’m sure we both have bigger fish to fry.”
F3? What the fuck is that?
Shane coolly rejoined, “I don’t, actually” and then proceeded to take up the cudgels for downtrodden gourmet fish and chippers everywhere, and for JUSTICE. In one of the most straightforward hearings ever, we won. Fred and Rob were ordered to back-pay me for the two months which had elapsed since my termination, plus another $1,000 gratis payment, and give me a glowing reference highlighting in particular my expertise with the lemon-wedging machine. They were also forced to reinstate me whereupon I resigned, gloriously, on the front steps of the Commish. The $1,000 would have taken me 183 months to earn as an actual employee of their under-paying establishment, and I quickly realised the value of litigation over hard work. Since that day I’ve been a militant unionist and can be found every afternoon soliciting passersby to make a small tax-deductible donation towards my quarterly publication, Fish and Chip Workers Unite: Don’t Get Fried.
In conclusion: happy birthday to Shane, champion of unfairly dismissed god-daughters everywhere