Rubbish Collector; Barman


Odd Jobs

Detail from Jean-François Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure, 1855, oil on canvas.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Sophie Cunningham: I was once a “Do the Right Thing” girl for the Environment Protection Authority. This meant that I roamed the beaches of Victoria for an entire summer in, I think, 1985, wearing a “Do the Right Thing” T-shirt, with a robot rubbish bin controlled by a puppeteer hiding behind trees. The robot would say, “Please put your rubbish in me,” or, for larks, “Fuck you.” I would smile and hand people a “Do the Right Thing” rubbish bag.

Michael Cunningham: I worked in bars for years. Most prominently, a gay bar in Laguna beach, which featured bartenders who all looked more or less like Michelangelo’s David and wore only slightly more by way of costumes. I, however, did not look anything like any sculpture I had ever seen.

I learned early on that the bar manager always hired one odd man out—specifically, a boy who was more clever than he was beautiful, who functioned as comic relief, who was, as I gathered, meant not only to entertain the patrons but to assure them that the wall of air between them and the men behind the bar was at least semipermeable; to be their animal familiar in a world of robust male camaraderie they were invited to observe but not ever to enter. My predecessor had been a sweet, Rubenesque boy they called Bubbles.

The bar sported a South Seas theme. Brown palm fronds strung with white Christmas lights curled down from the ceiling. Tiki heads scowled from the walls. The bar top was made of glass and, under it, bug-eyed Japanese goldfish swam in listless confusion over a bed of blue gravel. Every now and then one of the fish expired, which would not be good for business in any establishment but was especially unfortunate there, where reminders of mortality did not play well to the generally elderly crowd. If one of the fish went belly-up during a busy night, as they were mysteriously wont to do, we covered the corpse with a pile of napkins or a dish of peanuts, though throughout the night it was necessary to keep moving the napkins or peanuts, as unobtrusively as possible, because the deceased tended to float in unpredictable directions.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.