Creative Nonfiction

Let Me Tell You About Rooty

31 May 2013

A Personal Essay on Part Time Work and Strudel

Let me tell you about Rooty, whose real name is Rudolpho and whose nickname is Rudy. But really, ‘Rooty’ is a better fit.

My dentist’s assistant once told me, giggling with disbelief from behind her surgical mask, that he was a very handsome man in his day. Now, he is a real big guy, and when I say ‘big’ I mean obese, maybe even morbidly.

He owned the newsagency next door, but it was so dead that he spent most of his time with us, in our crappy bakery that teetered between a national park and a highway. It was a gloriously desolate place to be at 6:15am. Here, I would huddle in the empty car park, harbouring feelings of impending doom that grew as the minutes until my shift dwindled. Eventually Rooty would lumber into view. He’d be pushing a trolley of newspapers to unload into his car for the morning deliveries, all the while chanting, “Char-lotte, she’s a good girl!” Rooty’s routine, wheeling his trolley across the cavernous hollows of the underground car park before sunrise, would repeat itself every morning of the year, bar Christmas Day.

Pushing back the dangling plastic dividers between the shop’s front and the kitchen, the first thing I would usually hear was my boss, Andy, sporadically yelling the answers to the early morning radio rock quiz while also violently kneading pastry. He had an uncanny talent for it. No one could do 80s music trivia like Andy.

The rest of his attention was devoted to belittling Ellen, the apprentice baker, and her boyfriend, the delivery boy who distributed Andy’s bread and cakes between his three stores. Ellen told me that Andy was like a second father to her; they spent hours before sunrise baking, squabbling or laughing and they even worked out at Fitness First together. Andy didn’t think The Boyfriend was up to scratch and sustained a concerted effort to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible, once declaring, “Hey tell Ellen to wear a bra next time she works out!”

Perhaps that was Andy’s greatest talent, his ability to leave you speechless with quips that were both hilarious and disturbing. When he was thinking of selling the bakery, he assured me, “Don’t worry, you’ll still have a job. Because I’m opening up a brothel!”

He once tried to convince me that he was a fair employer. “I hire everyone,” he said. “Gays, Asians, Indians, men, women, fat people and skinny people. I hate everyone equally.”

One thing all his employees had in common was an ability to cope with, or at least not be entirely offended by, this cringe-worthy sense of humour. I’m sure that was the main trait he searched for when choosing employees. Mind you, the only reason he hired me was because of my name. Apparently, whenever his wife got hammered in her youth, she would sing an old drinking song that went along the lines of, ‘Charlotte the Harlot lay dying…’ So, in a moment of sentimentality, he chose me. From then on he regularly flourished this elegant nickname of mine with flair.

Rooty rarely came to the rescue. Instead, he entertained himself by creeping up behind me as I was making coffee—an act he was strikingly adept at despite his enormous size. He’d whisper, “Andy wears panties…” into my ear, making me jump and spill the milk. Isn’t it great how the smell of milk on your clothes just gets better and better, blossoming fruitfully as the hours pass? But Rooty was always happy to justify his actions.
“Charlotte,” he would say proudly. “When I walk through that door, the shit just flows.”

To further illustrate his point, he enthusiastically mimed torrents of faeces gushing from his mouth, and I wouldn’t question a thing.

The bakery had only four neighbours: Rooty’s deserted newsagency, a butcher, a post office and an Aldi, so any sort of ‘rush’ would dissipate almost as soon as it began. Andy and Ellen would leave once the baking was done, and I would spend the rest of the day talking in circles with Rooty and latching on to any gestures of friendship from customers.

What I liked about the place was how its very slowness reminded me of the milk bars my dad would take me to for a milkshake and chips as a kid. Away from the hysteria of Westfield, mothers felt comfortable letting their children roam free. Siblings would shyly shuffle towards the decorated cupcakes, following each other like ducklings. The eldest would clutch a $10 note like a diamond. Just opening the pie oven would unleash a hearty whiff of my primary school canteen.

I enjoyed these interactions while lazy hours churned on and on, but there were other days that veered off the usual rhythmic path and deep into actual loneliness. I remember a customer once asking me what my plans for the future were. “Oh, I want to be an actress,” I replied, as I navigated his steak and cheese pie into a paper bag. He pointed to the footage from the previous evening’s Academy Awards flickering on the TV above. “Maybe we’ll see you up there one day,” he said with an earnest smile. When he left after paying his $6.20, more than half my hourly wage, I gave Meryl Streep the finger as she accepted her award for Best Actress. I then solemnly took a piece of apple strudel into the back room, sat down on a stray crate, and ate it all alone.

The worrying thing was that just four months earlier I had just graduated from one of Sydney’s prestigious private schools. All my school chums were at uni, leaping from one achievement to another and I had taken a gap year proclaiming that I was going to live ‘real life’. Little did I know that this desire would manifest itself as me making bacon and egg rolls in the roach-ridden back room of a highway bakery. On top of it all, Andy claimed that they were the worst he had ever eaten. And so began another strudel and crate moment.

Then there was the time that I worked in the smallest of Andy’s three bakeries. It was essentially a dingy triangular room attached to a petrol station that he would affectionately refer to as his “pie palace”. The girl showing me the ropes (a task that took all of three minutes) unsettlingly finished her tour by pointing to a rickety plastic chair nestled next to the pie oven. She confided to me in the most serious of ways, “This is my chair. I sit on it all day.” The bleak sight of that hospital-orange seat seemed like my own horrifying Ghost of Christmas Future.

Here, I remember the early morning conversation I had with a customer who was a contractor for an energy company. I tried to enthuse him about the day ahead by saying,

“All that matters is that you love what you do!”

“Nope,” he replied, “It’s the pay cheque at the end of the week that gets you through.”

It was sobering to say the least.

Growing up, I had been encouraged to believe that sheer passion could win the world over. I suppose I did learn that being able to put time into ‘finding myself’ was a privilege but my assumption that this would all happen by my 19th birthday was romantic at best.

These days I struggle to make it into uni by 11 for my Monday morning History lecture. Other days—at the cafe where I now work during civilised hours—I run customers through the café’s relationships with its individually sourced farmers. I while away hours over coffee with pals, and haven’t seen a steak and cheese pie in months. I guess now we’ve reached the point where I airily, wistfully, mysteriously confess my revelation: It’s not a better lifestyle, it’s just different. But no, not really—I can’t help but prefer life now. Each morning doesn’t affront me with the vision of a trolley full of newspapers in a sprawling underground car park, or a lonely chair next to a scorching pie oven, or a seemingly impossible deadline for bills, or a blaring alarm clock at 4am.

When I told Andy about my plans to leave, as some bizarre way to reprimand me he asked that I write up the notice to advertise for a new employee. We deliberated over the necessary criteria that the next young go-getter was to possess.

“Must have big tits”, Andy suggested.

“Must be willing to accept and enjoy unconventional forms of punishment,” I rebuked.

Rooty heckled me from the entrance of his newsagent when I attempted to stick up the sign, claiming that I had misspelled words and was positioning the flyer unevenly. A small part of me savoured the banter, because I missed him already.

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