This longish poem, Seventeen in 1962, is a pretty accurate description of my first job in Nundah, Brisbane, in 1962. I was a stranger in the city. My family came from around Sydney, and had just retreated, nearly bankrupt, from a failed migration to north Queensland where southerners were unwelcome. The bitterness of tone persisted for much of my first ten years in unskilled jobs after leaving high school, partly perhaps from disappointment after having topped the school academically, then colliding with the incomprehension of working class parents and the indifference of general Australian culture. The people I knew or met seemed to resent intellectual curiosity. They wanted to be respected vegetables in a very small garden plot. As a complete outsider without money or any social skills at all, it was a friendless time.
Seventeen in 1962
The wait was over, the growing done,
Just the filling out to come;
Time of promise, time to fear,
First job, be-clerked, minnowed and shoaled
With the eight o’clock tide, be-tied.
And the manager, Minikin, said marry yourself
To the company, boy-man to be made;
Tuck in your shirt and swear
Here will be done as your elders have done,
Let all debtors be blessed, amen
And wipe the smirk off your face.
He watched them parked, bum to chair
Head to harness, ear to phone,
Smiling brightly right on cue.
Selling paint was the mission here;
Salesmen had all claims to glory.
He the sludge, untouched by praise –
Add the numbers, count the hours,
Keep you head down boy!
They put him there one sultry day
And shrugged; did Benson err?
He always got the numbers right, that man,
And chose the boy for brains, he thought,
Or marks at school, or maybe his big ears –
It didn’t work …
For brains are apt to think, and thinking dream;
And boys are apt to drown
When tides of years come in upon the man.
Nine months he watched the numbers drift
In spiky, ink-stained lines, and wondered
This boy-man, what thin life
Could come from cans of paint; could almost understand
The fleeting pain in harried salesmen’s jokes,
Or pale Benson, boxed in glass and brilliantine,
The dour mentor, office manager and guide,
Rushing to his Baptist god for hope.
Was this all? Was this ambition’s end?
The bleak routine of cataloguing days
That fled on unmarked feet? Should he court
And marry such a fate, then marry
bed and breed with some slim, simple-minded girl
To pass on the ledger’s pen before he fell?
He wept. It had to stop.
The wait was over, the dying done;
Just the killing of dreams to come.
Stripped of promise, stripped of fear,
Armed with doubt, he snarled
And slammed the door. Threw the dice,
Picked up the card: it shouted
Break out of jail !! Be damned…