The personnel officer stared incredulously across the desk, my resume clutched in one of his hands.
"I wouldn't even get out of bed in the morning for this sort of money," he said. "Have you worked out what you're going to take home?"
Before I could reply he rushed from the room, returning a few moments later with the figure.
"You'll get $282 a week," he said with the triumphant air of having just won the argument.
I stared hard into his eyes, wordless. The derisive grin slowly faded from his face. There was silence in the little interview room.
"I need the money," I said intensely.....
The ad was headlined 'Cleaner'. It continued: "Honest, reliable person for approx 20 hours a week... General factory cleaning and preparation of new and used vehicles prior to delivery....Phone Peter between 9.30 and 12.30pm only..."
I was on the phone from 9.28am, but each time I rang, the line was engaged. Calling every 10 or 15 seconds meant that it was easiest to sit in the lounge room, mobile in hand, repeatedly pressing the redial button. After more than 50 tries, I got through. It turned out to be a personnel agency, obviously employed to screen out the total no-hopers.
But if even getting through on the phone was this hard, how many people would be in the interview room?
On the phone Peter was affable and chatty. The job involved sweeping floors and detailing cars in a prestige crash shop. Did that interest me?
I needed a driver's license and to be prepared to get my hands dirty. Fine, I replied. Did I have a resume, and could I present myself to an interview the following Monday?
Yes and yes.
Across the weekend I pondered dress and resume. If I was to be cleaning cars, going to the interview dressed in a suit didn't seem to fit the bill. But wearing faded jeans seemed too far the other way. Always in my mind was the potential number of other applicants - that constantly-engaged phone worried me. And what did I put in my resume? Degree, diploma, secondary school teacher for nine years, national magazine editor for two years?
Or just list the part-time jobs I'd had as a student - including two stints of car detailing? But leaving a gap of a decade in my resume could well give the impression that I'd been in jail for 10 years.... I re-wordprocessed it, emphasising the manual and car-related jobs I'd had.
And what would I drive to the interview? Taken out in happier financial times was the lease on an $80,000 Skyline GT-R, a performance car that sure wouldn't tuck unobtrusively into any job-seekers' carpark. Instead, I decided to take the $40,000 Magna Sport press car that I happened to be writing an AutoSpeed road test on.... The irony of my penniless bank balance - it'd been more than 3 months since I had any cash in my wallet, everything going onto credit card - and the procession of expensive cars that I was driving had long since become a slightly bitter joke.
At the personnel agency I was handed an application form. The way in which it was structured made obfuscation as to previous careers impossible - you simply had to list the last three jobs, complete with duties and length of service. As I filled in the form, I surreptitiously studied the others waiting for interviews.
There was a feeling of quiet desperation in the room, made overt when one of the other applicants was asked to leave.
"I applied for that cleaning job as well you know," she pleaded as she was ushered out. I didn't know whether to feel sorry for the pathetic strain in her voice - or happy that there was now one less applicant for my job...
The interview progressed smoothly until Peter looked at my qualifications and the money that the job offered. But with my "I need the money!" reverberating in the air, he became more positive.
"I can give the crash shop a call now and send you over for an interview," he said. "You're the only one I'm sending - I just didn't think that the other applicants had any b-...."
He started again.
"I didn't think the other applicants were suitable," he said smoothly.
Fifteen minutes later - Adelaide's a small place - I walked in the front door of the crash repair workshop. I was handed another application form to fill in, the photocopied personnel agency's documents ignored. This time, with a foot literally inside the door, I was even more careful in what I listed.
Education? - 17 years of it; no other details.
Jobs? - car detailing for Hertz and Thrifty rentals.
Professional Associations? My pen hovered while I wondered what to put down. I'm an affiliate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and also a member of the Institute of Automotive Mechanical Engineers - both just pay your dollars to gain membership. Would listing these be a plus or a minus? I ended up writing 'SAE' and 'IAME' - if he didn't know what they were it wouldn't matter. If he did, it would probably be a positive.
Phillip-the-boss was a mumbler with a strong Italian accent. Obviously used to speaking without interruption he looked through my (third) written application without expecting any contribution from me.
"Right, I see, done some detailing, oh, right. The last person in this job was singer; we also had a policewoman."
I smiled and nodded.
"They all seem to enjoy the job you know. The singer, she got another job singing, so she had to leave. Before that, we had a bloke whose girlfriend left him. He was very sad; had to go. Mmmm, you live a long way away..." he trailed off.
But then he suddenly stopped his meandering scan of the application and looked across the desk at me, finger anchored on Professional Associations.
"You're very well qualified for this job," he said, after a long pause adding, "But that doesn't matter. You know, we had a guy here once who had a university degree."
I said nothing, smiling and nodding insanely while I thought of my unframed parchments.
He stared across the desk at me in a long silence.
Finally he barked, "Do you think that you'd enjoy this job?"
By that time I was starting to lose it. The accented monotonic mutter relating random mentions of singers and policewomen and depressed men, the strain of applying for a job that it was so important I get - I had the feeling that I wasn't getting through; that nothing I had said or done had made me a standout applicant. There were probably five other desperates arriving that afternoon - Personnel Peter I trusted not at all - and this was the only chance I had to make an impact.
"Can you show me around your workshop?" I asked.
We walked through the large shop. It was crammed with BMWs, Hondas and Volvos - I knew the model names, their engines, their market niches, their sales successes in the Australian marketplace. The crash shop equipment scattered throughout the shop - I could recognise the spray booths, the jig chassis straightening systems, the dollies and the ballpeins and heatlamps.
Desperate now to make a positive impression, I commented on every car, every piece of equipment, everything I could think up about two-pack and file finishing and buffing pads.
And it worked.
"You know crash shops!" said Philip in a surprised voice - and I knew I had it.
"You can start tomorrow, working with Danni," he added.
Danni was small, plump, vivacious - a 29-year-old single mother. She stared closely at me, probably wondering whether I was depressed, could sing, or had been a policeman.
She went through my job tasks at a bewildering rate, the experience of her 14 months apparent but not helpful to me. Cleaning the office, cleaning the toilets, sweeping the floors, emptying the bins, washing the cars - but only washing them when "the guys" had finished working on them. And how did I know when that was?
"Oh, you just keep an eye on the cars and you'll soon pick up when they're finished."
"If you're not sure, just ask one of the painters."
There was a pause. "Some of the men I won't talk to - they're pigs."
We walked back to her tiny alcove, and she picked up an object that had just been placed on her bench.
"See?" she said. It was a large penis, moulded from plastic body filler....
As with any new job, the work was interesting. The workshop was a constant hive of activity as 20 men went about straightening panels, preparing them for painting and then wheeling the cars into spray booths, where, clad in full breathing apparatus, they sprayed the masked panels. Occasionally I'd ask a question about the techniques being used, and in a surprised voice, each time the crash repairer would inform me about what he was doing.
I figured that a couple of questions a day would teach me quite a lot about crash repairing and painting - perhaps I could write a magazine article on it some time.
Along with the cleaning work, one of my jobs was to ferry people around in the shop ute, taking customers back into the city, returning men from other workshops. The first customer that I returned to her place of work was an object lesson in my new status.
A Chinese/Australian businesswoman, young and attractive, she looked askance at the old workshop ute as I opened the door for her, but settled into it calmly, even making a small joke. Doubtful of the best route back to her office, I asked for instructions. She was also unsure, but when she pointed directly away from where the city lay I knew that I could do better than that. Smoothly - and with the normal amount of charm of a man talking to a pretty woman - I suggested that I thought I could find a quicker route, and did a U-turn.
With a real note of panic in her voice, she said, "No, no! I meant in that direction!".
Suddenly I realised that she felt vulnerable, that she thought that I could be taking her for more than just a ride back to her office...
My next passenger was young and surly - life owed him a debt that wasn't being repaid. He came from an expensive car dealership and had dropped off a car for crash repair work. There was silence in the ute until he blurted, "What do you do back there?" pointing at the direction of my workplace.
"I wash cars", I said quietly.
"Yeah, I'm a shit-kicker too," he said. "Used to wash dishes, but now it's cars."
"Which is better?" I asked curiously, "dishes or cars?"
"Oh cars, mate. You should see the crud that people leave on their dishes."
"Of course," he said getting into his stride, "some people are real gross with their cars. The amount of shit that they leave in them. And you know what? It's women too. I always thought that women were a cleaner race, but not any more. And doctors. Some doctors are real pigs in their cars."
I didn't dare ask about women doctors....
I quizzed Danni about the previous occupants of my job. What had happened to them?
"Well", she said. "The singer didn't like all of the cleaning chemicals that we use. Also, sometimes the men spray a car outside of the spray both, when they're using acrylic. The fumes and paint in the air don't cause any harm, but she thought that they might be bad for her vocal cords. So she left."
No, I thought. Acrylic vocal cords might not perform very well.
She became more confident after these exchanges.
"If you find any money on the floor of a car that you're cleaning - and that money could have been sucked up by the vacuum - you can have it," she said carefully.
I suggested that I didn't think that appropriate, and she produced a moneybox from inside her cupboard. "If you're not comfortable with that, put the money in here," she said.
I didn't ask what happened to the contents of the moneybox....
Rather than working out by telepathy when the cars were ready for washing, I visited the front office each morning, obtaining a list of cars that were leaving on the day. Val-the-secretary had been with the company for 10 years; she was a de facto boss. She compiled the list of cars to be cleaned by looking through a document that showed all the cars in the workshop at any one time.
Staggered at the size of the list, I asked how many cars came in each day. She didn't give the question a moment's thought, simply saying, "Heaps, mate. Heaps."
It was a sudden reminder that questions from a mere car detailer were worthy of no consideration - still a shock to me after having a journalist's probings given so much careful thought.
After 15 years of working in jobs where performing extra after-hours work was regarded as the norm, I found it odd how the men wouldn't lift a tool before the siren sounded and stopped work abruptly at the end of the day. On my second day I was detailing a car spattered across the bonnet with insect debris. While the crash repair work had been performed at the rear of the car, I thought how pleased a customer would be to receive the car back absolutely pristine at both ends. When the siren sounded, I had nearly completed a polish of the bonnet, and so I continued to assiduously buff. One of the men - passing the washbay on his way home - stopped in astonishment, saying loudly, "It's knock-off time mate. If that car's not going out today, get out of here!" I muttered something about more hours equalling more pay and continued to work...
But the best thing was that in an odd way the menial job gave me confidence - here I was, cleaning cars at a before-tax rate of $12 an hour. I had found the ad, got the job, and started work all within a week. My employers were apparently pleased with my progress - they said nothing but a kind Danni told me that the blokes in the workshop were blown away with how hard I worked - and I hadn't needed to use any of my formal qualifications or car workshop contacts to find employment.
The job also made me look with new eyes at my other work. I'd been editing a web magazine that covered modified cars, a magazine that I half-owned. The magazine had promised much but so far - after six hard months - had paid nothing. After just the second day of washing cars, my head was clear - I'd sell my half of the web magazine unless I could get paid a salary.
Hell, I'd earned more in two days of no-skill work than I had in months of typing, editing and photographing...
Footnote: The web magazine that you are reading now is the one that author Julian Edgar edits - www.autospeed.com.au. It's the largest modified car site in the world. Julian Edgar no longer washes cars for a living.