Friday, September 4, 2015

Soggy Smokes

Auckland, New Zealand, 1970
Some things are bound to happen. Why resist? 
When I was seventeen-years-old my journey from boy to man took the inevitable, some might even say false, first steps through the doors of a pub. 
The pub I refer to was the public bar of the Poenamo Hotel. The Poe was a workingman’s pub. It was filled with laborers and lorry drivers and men who made things with their hands or with their backs. Men who built things. Men who were physical. 
Our sort of place. Just a quarter-mile from the depot, it was alluringly close. 
The depot I refer to was the Northcote Depot of the Ministry of Works. The M.O.W. was widening and extending Auckland’s Northern Motorway, from its beginning at the foot of the Harbour Bridge all the way to Tristram Ave and Sunset Road and beyond as far as Albany.
It was a man’s world of earthmoving machines, dust and hard labor. And when the workday was over, there were always a few from the depot who went to the pub to unwind or blow off a little steam. I would conservatively estimate it to be about ninety to ninety-five percent. Allowing for five to ten percent error. 
Marko, for instance, went to the pub every night, usually walking the short distance still dressed, as he was now, in his work overalls and gumboots. Marko was a terrible drinker with a big thirst, so he usually wouldn’t wait for a ride, but started walking, head down looking at his dusty boots, the minute work was over.
Tonight though, we were all getting a ride. 
Marko, David from Fiji who was called that because there was another David at the depot who wasn't from Fiji, and myself whose nickname at the time was Whitey because of my very blond hair, were waiting for Arthur. Arthur was the gang boss. He gave the orders and drove the truck.
Arthur and Tom-the-Pom pulled up in the big Bedford dump truck. “Climb aboard, boys!” called Arthur.
We climbed into the back. 
Tom-the-Pom, seated inside the spacious cab next to Arthur, turned his pasty face around and grimaced at us through the window, gesticulating obscenely and mouthing profanities. He was Arthur's little toady and perpetual echo, always sucking up to the boss. Most of the men at the depot thought him an irritating little pipsqueak, myself included. He laughed at us through the window. There was no real malice in his actions though, he was just having fun. The gang was on its way to the pub, no need for insults, he just couldn’t stop himself from any kind of show of disdain towards his inferiors, as he saw us, the lowly fools who had to ride in the back. 
It wasn’t enough for Tom-the-Pom to have got the best seat, you must be seen to have got the crappy seat.
I could see Arthur inside next to Tom-the-Pom, laughing at these antics, his shoulders shaking convulsively. It was a joke of his to say that the cab was full, with just the two of them in it, and make any other riders climb into the back, where who-knows-what kind of crud or dirt had been carried earlier. 
Truth to tell, Arthur took excellent care of the Bedford and the debris from the day was hosed off nightly, but it was hardly the ballroom of the Ritz back there. Those of us interested in trying to stay clean during the short ride to the pub simply stood up, swaying and clinging to the steel mesh that protected the cab, with our faces to the wind.
In a minute we were there, joined by other workmen spilling out onto the gravel parking lot from every type of truck and car. We hailed “G’day!” to each other and lit our smokes as we sauntered through the doors into the cool interior, past the wholesale counter with its dozing attendant (he’d be busy later, at closing time, when customers purchased their take-home supplies), and into the bustling public bar itself. 
The public bar was a large room, the side opposite the entrance through which we’d come completely glass from floor to roof. The remaining walls were papered in a swirling pattern of what appeared to be highly stylized, purple flowers. 
Wooden tables were arranged about. Jugs and half filled glasses of beer cluttered the orange tabletops. 
Every tabletop or counter surface was the same shade of orange Formica, contrasting biliously with the psychedelic purple walls.  
On the opposite side ran the bar itself, also rendered in orange Formica. Patrons crowded and elbowed their way up to be met by efficient bartenders smiling behind dewey silver spigots.
Jugs of beer by the hundreds passed over the bar. 
Behind the bar neon signs beamed hideously out, casting a freakish, circus clown glow on the expectant faces of the customers, whose calloused hands, some clean and some dirty, reached out across the orange Formica exchanging money for drink. 
Beneath their feet was a beer soaked purple carpet, dotted with black cigarette burns. I say purple, but that’s just an approximation, because it was a ghastly mosaic of truly hideous hue whose pattern, thankfully, was long ago trampled into oblivion by thirsty workers' boots. 
Orange and purple, then, was the color motif of the Poenamo Hotel public bar, a design scheme whose very biliousness guaranteed to test the intestinal fortitude of its patrons, before even a single glass of alcohol was ever consumed.
When one felt the urge after a few libations, they put down their beer, unsteadily crossed the purple carpet and pushed through the men’s room door to the urinal. It was the usual contraption, a chest-high wall of stainless steel and running water against which you peed. It was usually occupied by at least three or four other patrons, standing side by side in the peculiar spread-legged way that men do while urinating. 
Being young, it only took a couple of beers to find me headed that way. 
I entered and stepped to the urinal, where I planted my feet, unzipped my overalls, and after making sure of my aim and that everything was flowing nicely, idly scanned the graffiti-covered wall in front of me.
I’ve always been an avid reader. 
I’ll read anything my eyes fall upon. 
The wall in front of me was decorated with graffiti of every possible persuasion, some with illustrations. I read a few, laughing inwardly (which is the safest place to laugh, standing at the urinal with your dick in your hand in the men’s room of a workingman’s public bar). I casually noticed the pattern certain repeated words made against the wall. Some words and phrases were repeated a lot. And written larger.
A professional looking, carefully printed sign at eye level asked;
Please don’t throw your cigarette butts in the urinal, 
as it makes them soggy and hard to light.
There’s always a comedian, I thought, laughing inwardly again.
I looked down at the drain. 
Sure enough, it was jammed full of cigarette butts.
None of which appeared in the least bit smokable.

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