Just One Of My Many Jobs
I cut my teeth in life doing many jobs. I’d just left one in Brisbane (Mailroom Clerk) and rode out on a motorbike. I hoped to make it as an artist in Melbourne. It didn’t take long to fail and run out of money. The shit-show started right after that. This is my story of when I joined an Australian circus to stay afloat during that period. The names of the people I met have been changed along with the name of the family circus. The rest is true down to the detail. Enjoy.
Way back then it was December 2004 and I was only 22. I’d turned 22 with a lonely six pack of beer and no one to share with. I was riding out of Melbourne and I saw many people camped on the banks as I glanced over each connecting bridge. Rural Victoria was green and there were small rivers to cross and it was New Year’s Eve, again. It was early morning when I left the city. The ride would take only four hours, so I’d be able to do the countdown, I thought. I just didn’t know who I’d be doing it with. I was out of money. My last twopence went on a battery for the bike. Two days earlier I had held a ticket to Tasmania on the barge and the battery went flat an hour before I needed to be at port. I missed it. Now I was heading to Harley Brothers Circus in Lakes Entrance. I’d called the ticket line looking for work. They had interviewed me on the phone.
“Are you strong?”
“Will you stay for at least six months?”
“Do you have transport?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
And then I was in the seafood capital, standing on the Showgrounds watching the tent blow in the breeze on a cricket pitch with two Australian flags flapping. I met Carroll first; she wasn’t the owner, she just happened to be behind the first caravan door I knocked on. She was pregnant.
“I’m Carroll. My husband’s the dog trainer. Mr. Harley is training the alpacas. Speak to his wife, the fat one with the kids.”
She gestured to a fat woman with kids. I walked past caravans ranked on the circumference of the grounds. At the boss’s home the fat woman was breast feeding. Two of her kids were juggling. One bowled a tennis ball sized sack at me. It was packed with rice. It hurt.
“Are you Gene?”
“Why are you joining a circus, love?”
“I got to Melbourne and ran outta money, and—”
“D’ya have police troubles?”
“The last roustabout we had left after two weeks. His girlfriend tracked him down. He’d knocked her up then run off. He was seventeen. We can’t be having boys leave us willy-nilly because they’ve got stuff popping up.”
“Well, I don’t have any kids or pregnancies. I just want a job.”
She told me the pay was three hundred dollars a week, and I’d get one caravan to myself on account of being the only roustabout.
“You don’t pay any rent and you don’t pay electricity ‘cause we plug into the council grid. Do you want to start tomorrow, or now?”
I felt obliged.
“I’m right now, Miss, if you need me.”
I threw my pack in the caravan they gave me and she introduced me to Bilky.
“This is Bilky. You just do whatever he tells you now, Okay?”
Bilky was half my height, portly, and reminded me of an inflatable Bop-Bag with the sand in the base. The ones with the face painted on them that you could punch over and they’d just wobble right back up again. He told me he had webbed toes and not to comment if I ever saw them.
“The others here think they’re webbed because I’m from Tasmania. Tasmanian’s have webbed toes. It helps us swim to the mainland.”
I laughed at him.
“That’s not funny, that’s why I told you not to comment!” Bilky was a sly combination of really friendly, in a girly way, and really irritable like a troll from under a bridge. He was laughing as he yelled at me, like friends do, which was odd because he struck me as a man that’d never known real friendship. An outcast. I liked him straight out of the gate. He showed me the wheelbarrow and where they kept the shovel. I shovelled the horse manure and took the wheelbarrow to the edge of the pitch where Bilky put a sign on it. FREE COMPOST.
“We have to dump the dung before we leave. Council won’t let us leave it on the pitch, so it’s better if townsfolk claim it. Better for you, anyway.”
“Why for me?”
“Because you’re the roustabout, Einstein. You’ve gotta do the dump runs.”
It was 7:30pm when the show started. They had thrown me in at the deep end. I learnt my role on the go. It was fast-paced. Backstage the ground was coated in sawdust. Performers streched their legs. There was a pony standing patiently. A horse. 3 alpacas. I watched the show through a split in the canvas. Someone would just pass me a glitter covered, wooden chair as we stood in the wings and say— “When the clown whistles, that’s when you run the prop to centre stage—oh and as you leave, he’s gonna kick you up the bum, just go along with it, the kids love that, O.K., Gene?”
The clown and I were a hit. Then there was the dog show. I ran a miniature baby pram out and watched a Chihuahua hop in while a Jack Russell pushed it 3 metres across on hind legs. They played Barbi Girl by Aqua and the crowd screamed. A dog walked across a tight rope 2 metres high and Carroll’s husband threw treats to the Shih-Tzus when they pulled off a back flip.
I got this tap on the shoulder. “Are you, Gene?”
“The juggler’s sick. I’m taking his place. I’ve decided to do my flaming quoits routine. Haven’t done it in years.”
He passed me a 2 metre length of thick brown rope with a metal quoit tied to each end. They were heavy. He showed me a tin bucket with kerosene in the base.
“When they’ve finished introducing me, you dip each quoit in the fuel, then Bilky will light them.”
He stood behind me and took my hands like he was showing me the correct way to hit a golfball. He motioned my arms side to side, swinging the quoits circular.
“Now they’ll be on fire, so you don’t want them touching anything but air. Swing ’em wide. You see?”
“I got it.”
Then it was time, and the guy was waddling onto stage to the sounds of an excited crowd. I dipped the quoits, Bilky lit them. I could feel the heat. It was no act. Real fire. Blazing at the ends. I swung them round and round and burst through the curtains and across the stage. That part was easy. Passing them over was the trick. The guy’s just got his hands out and knees bent and he’s telling me not to swing them so hard, and I’m circling the air just praying not to hit my legs with the rings and end up on fire myself. I reached my hands out and kinda dropped the rope into his. Success!
“At the end of the song, come back out and take it from me, mate.”
So the flaming quoits were pretty popular. The act was short. The song ended and there I was again, on stage grabbing the rope and swinging it like mad at my sides while I tried to run, hiking my knees high like I was wearing lead boots and spinning circles of fire. It was awkward. I made it back stage. There was only sawdust.
“WHERE DO I PUT THEM?!”
“Drop ’em, drop ’em!”
Circles of fire. Performers ducking for cover. The Pony kicked, shat.
“In the sawdust? You sure?”
I couldn’t slow the spin without hitting myself. they became uneven. I just kinda let ’em go and watched the quoits tangle in the air and drop in a flaming heap.
“NOT THERE, DIP SHIT!”
I’d flung the rings of fire next to the tin bucket of fuel.
“Kick dust on them! You wanna burn the bloody lot of us?”
Bilky dashed the bucket through the back entrance. I panicked; dived on the fire chest first. I rolled around in the wood chips pounding on ground like a chimp until I was covered in sawdust, oil residue and a touch pony shit. The fire was out.
“What’s wrong with that kid?”
At half-time they taught me to put up the lion cage. It had to be built in panels. The things were three and one half metres high made of wire and solid metal. Apparently, it was normal for six roustabouts to do the job but they were down five men and I was the only shit-kicker there so the male performers had to help. I quickly figured it was a task the artists thought was beneath them. They resented helping Bilky and I. The panels took two men to lift and the wire cut our fingers like razors. You’d have to balance the piece against your chest with arms spread as you hooked the joint with the one standing erect beside you. The weight made it bloody difficult. The panel swayed the wrong direction, and then you’d overcorrect and she’d sway the other wrong direction. Every direction was wrong but IN. It took a few goes each time, and it felt like the wire was making its way through my digits like they were bread dough. I waited for them to snip off and drop into the sawdust. Pretty soon the whole stage was hedged in by the cage and Bilky and I fastened the final bit. I was on the inside when it connected. Then the men walked off and left me in the cage and Bilky banged on the opening of the lions trailer. They roared through the wall. “Release the lions!” he said, and they laughed at me.
At 9:30 the show finished. “It’s a large town so we’re doing a show here tomorrow, too, which means we don’t pack down tonight, it’s an easy one,” said Bilky. I rolled up the trapeze net, swept the bleachers and we laced up the four entrances. The place was dark and the crowd had left. The Ring Master joined us by the tent wiping off his makeup. He was fat like Bilky but much taller and better looking. I’d observed him during the show. What a voice he had, a true professional. I recognised him from an old carwash commercial that played on weekend TV years beforehand. I wasn’t sure if becoming a circus presenter was a step up or a slide down for him.
“Well, you bloody queen, when were you going to introduce me to your new friend?” said Ring Master.
“He’s, Gene, aren’t you? Mr. Young and Tall.”
“Well, hello there, Mr. Young and Tall. I’m The Ring Master. Are you coming to watch our Phuket holiday video tonight?”
“It’s New Year’s tonight, darling. We celebrate every year by going to Thailand. The whole show shuts down while we go for two weeks. This year, though, the boss wanted us to work the holidays, so we’re left watching home movies of last years trip on tape, instead.”
Then I was showered, and I found Bilky’s caravan easily. Then there was Charlotte. Charlotte was a cute 19-year-old acrobat and she was inside along with Bilky, Ring Master and Derrick (another acrobat). Derrick was really the LEADER of the acrobats. He was the guy that swung on the opposite side of the tent, dangling from his knees that were wrapped around his swing, and he’d catch the trapeze artists as they’d fly across the air to him, then hurl them back again to complete the trick. The guy was extremely strong and lean. He was about 35, and I thought that was very old and I knew straight away he was banging Charlotte. However, she seemed to like me quite a lot. We chatted over a drink next to the caravan’s kitchenette and she told me they homeschooled her in the circus and she’d been doing trapeze her whole life. Derrick didn’t take his eyes off us. I lit a cigarette and Charlotte sneezed in the smoke.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry about that.” I put my cigarette out.
Derrick slapped his drink on the bench and stepped between us.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re all really impressed how nice you are, new guy, and that you’re looking out for Charlotte. What a gentleman. Gene’s a bloody good bloke, isn’t he Charlotte? Good on ya, Gene, ya hero.”
Charlotte giggled. I stepped aside. He led her by the arm out the door with their drinks.
“Bye,” said Charlotte.
“Oh, fuck off! Don’t say bye to him!”
He lectured her as they walked across the pitch.
“Don’t worry about that bloody little slut, Gene. She’s been ridden by the whole trapeze troop. That useless, vagina,” said Ring Master. Bilky laughed at him.
It was Bilky, Ring Master and myself—that’s all that was left. The other twenty members of the show had gone into town to run amuck in the small-town pubs. I sat on a little pink couch and both of them sat either side of me. We watched a VHS taped episode of Kath & Kim first. I’d never seen the show. Then the men played Kylie on CD.
“Oh my God, Kylie’s just gorgeous,” they’d say, getting up now and then mixing a massively alcoholic drink for me. I don’t know what time it was when they played the Phuket video. A home video of their adventures in a Thailand nightclub with a ladyboy cabaret show. Those Asian guys really looked like the real deal. As an inexperienced young man, I’d laid down some fairly average girls, but these ladyboys made them look like hogs. I thought about how I’d feel if I was a woman outdone by a bloody dude with a breast job.
“God, it’s just lucky we didn’t go to Phuket this year.”
“Don’t you watch the news, honey? A Tsunami killed four thousand of them on Boxing Day. Just five days ago. We’d normally have been on the beach sipping cocktails.”
“God, all those beautiful boys. So sad.”
I had been on the road most of that week, I hadn’t seen the news.
“Have you ever tried Rush, Gene?”
“Nope. I don’t even bloody know what that is.”
Ring Master took the cap off a tiny brown glass bottle and held it under one of my nostrils. Bilky, whom was on my other side, closed my opposite nostril with his index finger.
“Don’t fret, darling, take it in.”
“Take a whiff of the magic.”
I sniffed it.
“More than that. Take a breath, you’ll love this.”
I filled a lung. It burned my nose. Then—ecstasy. The chill moved through, then the warm moved through, then the laughing. I just laughed and laughed and Ring Master and Bilky laughed at me and then with me and then we watched more of their video. I got a headache only moments later. The whole euphoria wore off in only twenty seconds.
“What was that stuff?”
“Makes your sphincter loose, honey.”
Bilky laughed at Ring Master. It was clear he looked up to him. The Master had a charm that Bilky lacked. He was smooth like Elvis. Bilky was a little rough around the edges, and God he was ugly.
“Prepares you, Gene. Gets you feeling wonderful and you feel the vibes— the Kylie vibes.”
“I think I liked it.”
“You ever been hugged by a bear, Gene?”
“He’s from the country, Bilky. He doesn’t know about bears, yet.”
“Fags, Gene, big ones, with big bear arms to give big hugs with.”
I laughed, but this time because of the drinks, then I slid off the couch and crumpled on the floor. The green chartreuse they’d been feeding me had completely caught up at that point. Ring Master got upset at Bilky.
“Did you have to use that word?”
“Oh, fuck off, Gregory! That’s what they called us at school in the eighties. We may as well be what we are and show them it doesn’t hurt.”
“I’ve told you many times, I’m so offended by that word. You sound like my father, Bilky. Call me a poofter while you’re at it.”
I was getting my bearings on the floor while they fought.
“I’m a loud and proud poof. You hear me world? Loud and proud and swinging it around!” said Bilky.
“You? You couldn’t swing that little stump if you tried.”
“Yes, I could, you bitch.”
“Well, go on then.”
“I bloody will if you’re not careful.”
“Oh, God please don’t, honey. I couldn’t bare seeing that bush, again.”
I wasn’t familiar with their banter. I decided it was playful and felt at ease. Ring Master helped me up.
“I’m going to sleep.”
“Stay, Gene, more Kath & Kim coming up.”
I stumbled out the door, thanking them for the drinks. I think I thanked them. I fell on the foam mattress in my caravan. I missed the countdown for the third year running. And then it was 2005 and I was shovelling horse shit again.
Entire story ©Gene Head 2020
I Used To Be An Illustrator Named Donnie Daytona
Before writing, I was drawing. It was 2016. I was working as a produce manager in a country super market; cutting cabbage, wrapping capsicum, quality checks, strawberries, melons. I was in charge of ordering; an undeserved stress on my meagre salary. There were few perks. I didn’t even get discounted cigarettes. It was shift work. They docked my first few paycheques to cover my uniform and training. It was my third job that year. I would have done anything to get free of the daily grind. Do something creative for a living. I had an unused Bachelor of Illustration degree on the shelf. I thought I should be a freelancer. Auspicious move? I had a friend in a city send me some illustration board and pencils. I set to work in every spare hour making some posters. I’d created a poster 3 years earlier and I thought it was a promising first go.
I thought I had a knack for poster art. I wanted to produce a whole bunch of them, to sell. The plan was simple: produce a pencil drawing; photograph it; add colour; send to print and sell a thousand of them online. I’d be a millionaire. After three drawings, I needed more equipment. My mate had trouble getting it to me. The town was 2,100 kilometres from where he was and there were no art stores within 300 clicks of its four exits. I was wasting away in the outback, a heat ripple mirage; a long way from culture. The culture I wanted, anyway. I quit my manager’s position. Lost the glory that came with it. Moved back to Melbourne. I picked up work as a furniture removalist and busted my arse for two years, lifting couches up stairwells. Then I went into desk repair and delivery in a cold warehouse in Oakley — and then became a package delivery driver for a small office stationary company; what ever would get us though and pay rent. I didn’t stop drawing. I worked on the art each afternoon; I got several pieces done; printed off some posters (full colour).
I put word out – I’LL DRAW FOR MONEY: BAND POSTERS; BIRTHDAY CARDS; GRANDMA NEEDS A PORTRAIT? – CALL NOW. The last thing I needed, according to the pros, was a brand name. I sold out! And I don’t give a shit either, F.Y.I. When you’re desperate for cash and you’re returning home each day from jobs that leave you in bruises, blood, sawdust, dry glue and paint, and you have a back like a geriatric, you give zero shits what anyone thinks. To hell with the snobs. You just do what you have to do. Sell your damned soul. Make a buck with your talent; take an ad out on Facebook and draw stupid shit for peoples bedroom walls. Join ranks with all the other stiffs. I was already a stiff. This way I’d at least be happy stiff?? Maybe??
I called myself DONNIE DAYTONA. On the surface, Donnie was a cool dude. A pro artist; had his shit together; lived in a bohemian studio warehouse somewhere like Los Angeles, warm, near the Californian beaches; created high quality work, available for a nominal fee. Donnie was the man! But behind his name was that stiff we were just talking about, and I had an addiction to cheap piss-water beer, and the reality got colder each day when I’d roll into three layers of jumpers, shivering through Melbourne’s chilled, rain soaked weekends, trying to dream up exotic Tiki Art for cocktail lounges. A joke. But there I was.
I printed more, never sold a thing. I lacked the marketing skills. After a while Leonie and I were sick of the posters hogging wall space in our apartment. Sick of the sight of them. She knew she was living with a failed artist, she was supportive through it all.
One day, I was short on cash and couldn’t afford a professional model. Leonie squeezed herself into a sexy halloween costume and posed for the poster. I’ll show you the drawing [Below]. I wish I could show you the photo. She was a knockout.
Leonie posing as the model for JAIL BROKEN poster
We’d moved to North Richmond. Not the nice part of Richmond, take my word for it. The newspaper said there were more drug overdoses in that suburb than all of Melbourne. A methadone clinic had just opened up around the corner from us. We found victims sleeping in our carport. Had addicts breaking down the front entrance because of a dealer in our building. The damned guy was picky with whom he’d buzz in. The others were left circling the property and climbing the walls.
Cheap living was all we could afford. There was a single mother nursing a baby a couple of windows down. She had it worse. There were families of 4 making do with one bedroom appartments the size of ours. “One day we’ll be on a beach. We’ll sip beer in paradise,” I’d tell Leonie. It was hard to stay positive. Those days weren’t joyful. Those months were long, and hard. I continued drawing. I hoped it wouldn’t be for naught.
I scraped cash together. Made an online store. It got no traffic. What the hell’s traffic? I was asking. Apparently you need lots of it. We had visitors to the apartment. Friends. The posters were popular with them. But they never bought one. Art was a worthless commodity. You’ve gotta be really good to sell artwork. Hats off to those artists out there turning a profit. I mean that. Good show old chaps. It’s a hard racket. I had some talent. But I wasn’t the cream. My stuff just wasn’t the high quality product people would part with their capital for.
After that I tried for some basic illustration jobs. Thought I could do some little gigs for chump change. I made some fake ads, band posters and faux commercial work.
I’d lost interest. I just wanted to drink in my spare time. By August 2018 I’d failed to get any work. I spat the mouth-guard. Leonie and I moved to the beach; failed dream or not. Fuck it! Donnie never sold a print; but we were happy. We tossed our winter wardrobe in goodwill bins and split with some books and Leonie’s best swimsuit. North. For days. Then we were in Brisbane. Tropics-palm trees, and no hypodermic needles. At least not on our doorstep.
California Beach Race (Oil Painting)
Credit where it’s due, I didn’t drop the ball when it came to effort. I worked my fingers to nubs on the art. But the bottom line is I failed because of a lack of ability. Those among you who can’t draw a straight line are angry at that comment, but it’s never been about who can draw a pretty face. There’s a ton of that out there. This is the real world, man, arses get fucked here all the time. I said it earlier, If you want to sell it, you’ve got to have that X-Factor. You’ve got to have a genuine interest in what you do. You’ve got to love it. Need it. If you’ve got love, if you’ve got candor, it shows in the pencil strokes. It’s the difference of millimetres, but it’s those subtleties that seperate the men from the boys. And I never loved it. Never went to friendly exhibitions. Never had any artist friends. The thing never suited me. In fact, the only time during the art crusade I remember feeling good was when I wrote and illustrated a 75 page graphic novel during university. And if I was honest, I’d say it was the storyline I enjoyed doing. Suffering through the drawing of each panel was the heartache. The writing has always called at me stronger. My blood finally has the right paper to stain. I threw out the drawing board. I set to work on some novels. Never looked back. All the itches that couldn’t be scratched, year on end… relieved. They come back now and then, when I’ve gone 3 days without writing. My only other obsession would be Leonie, and the way she looks in a shoulderless dress with a flower in her hair.