I should begin by qualifying the above title. For you see, I am in no way a medical professional, far from it, and even further from it for me to insinuate that what I’m doing is anywhere close to being as ‘frontline’ as these people; these doctors, nurses, pharmacists, GPs, paramedics and countless other medical pros are the ones who are doing it tough in order to keep people healthy and alive, and hats off to every single one of them.
No, my frontline activities are far more trivial – I work in the local bottleo, and while the government has deemed this an ‘essential’ service (indeed, woe betide any Australian governing body which sees fit to deny The People a drink, and in a time of crisis, no less), it hardly seems fair to call it, really, ‘frontline’.
So I’m naught but a humble slinger of suds, a bourbon broker, a vino vendor. I am also, for better or worse, a talker of entertaining shit, a sometimes surly retail worker, someone who in order to pay the bills as freelance writing all but dries up, dons a logo-d t-shirt a few times a week, punches a clock and serves the grotty masses their daily swill.
A bottle shop is a decent enough place to work. It is, as you’d expect, a good source of exercise; the money is solid; the hours are fine. It’s also a front row seat to the spectacle that is humanity, in that the constant flow of human flotsam that wanders in through those sliding glass doors provide an unending source of amusement, disgust, of sympathy and displays out outright eccentricity.
The big, burly, shirtless bloke who one would think the quintessential iconography of something like Tooheys New, or XXXX Gold, who is well and truly addicted to Passion Pop. The young surf guys who come in and, between five of them, split a case of Vodka Cruisers. The 19-year-old girl whose taste in shiraz is far more advanced than most three times her age. The older lady who wears hearing-aids but delights in not turning them on and so speaks at top volume, listens to nothing (not that she can), berates you in good humour and waltzes out, leaving those not used to her, in a state of shellshock.
Steve – old and grey-bearded, scrawny and sun-leathered – comes in from mowing lawns all day and walks straight up to me to talk footy. I’m a known Broncos and Queensland supporter among the League tragics in town, and so usually, playful banter is at a premium. In the current climate though, rivalries are forgotten as we commiserate together about how there is no football, and when will the football return?
Old ladies will walk towards me to ask a question but they won’t stop a metre and a half short and so I’m backing away from an old bird half my size, lest she get too close. I back into a shelf and have to tell them to stop where they are. They always apologise and look embarrassed.
Bus driver Dave, with his huge and droopy white moustache, buys the same two bottles of cheap semi-sauv every couple of days and then stays to chat for ten minutes, forgetting that people are waiting for him to move away from the counter so’s they can buy. Alicia, always in big hat and sunglasses, no matter the weather or time of day, buys her two bottles of slightly more expensive sauv-blanc, and always asks how you are.
Max, who used to run pubs, shuffles in for his XXXX Gold longneck and a bottle of chardonnay and cracks jokes but is very much concerned with your welfare. He’s just had a hip replacement, and I ask him how he’s feeling. “A lot bloody better now,” he snaps over his shoulder, “although I can’t bloody well go anywhere, can I? But how are you going? Surviving?”
People don’t read signs. They’re incapable of reading signs. A bank of fridges broke down last week, seven doors behind which sit all the pre-mix spirits and ciders, getting warmer and warmer as the fridge backfired completely and, sometime on the Sunday night, started pumping hot air instead of cold. It got up to 35 degrees in there.
So we put signs, at eye level, on each and every one of those fridges while they were being fixed, a two day operation. I lost count of the number of times someone came up to me, genuinely concerned for the most part, to tell me that they thought the fridges might be broken, and did we know, because everything was warm. I look at them for a second, a long and silent second, before saying, yeah, that’s why there are signs on the doors. They stare at me, and then laugh, and they walk off as I roll my eyes and continue stocking the longneck shelves.
I wear black, latex gloves, the same kind you’d see on a tattoo artist. I stand behind the Perspex screens that have been erected in front of the two tills at the counter. I sanitise the gloves every few customers. If I’m heaving cases, I’ll not wear gloves but I’ll wash my hands ever ten minutes or so. I use my shoulder to heave open the heavy coolroom door.
People walk in and make jokes about Corona beer. There’s a stack just inside the door; people laugh and say they feel sorry for whoever makes it. It’s still selling like hotcakes. Someone says they drank ten Coronas last night and so this morning they had coronavirus (to be fair, that one was pretty good… at least the first time I heard it). Someone else will pick up a case and feint a pass to a mate, “Look out mate, Coronavirus” and they’ll guffaw and I’ll roll my eyes again.
Occasionally someone will get testy about something. (“But the customer is always right,” they’ll say indignantly. “A common misconception,” I’ll deadpan back). I feel, in the current circumstances, a bit of dry humour works well. At least in the main.
To be fair to the flotsam flow, people are generally well behaved and if they fail to follow a sign, or the arrows marked in blue tape on the floor, a quick and friendly remonstration is all it takes for an apology, and an about-turn to follow the correct path.
You’ve got to keep it tight, in the bottleo, people know that, for if they want a drink, well, you need to toe the line. I tell them this, and they look at me a bit worried but I’ll smile and they’ll smile and we’re all good.
Every person is a threat, every piece of money a potential carrier of infection, every cough a gun-shot. But a bottle shop is a decent place to work, and while we’re not saving any lives, life on the ‘frontline’ flows on.