He was the richest bloke I’d ever met, but if you were to meet him you wouldn’t know it, as he was a walking advertisement for the phrase, ‘Never judge a book by its’ cover.’ And even though the cover of this particular book was pretty tatty, he was far richer than I’ll ever be, and quite possibly much better off than our current State Government is at the moment.
We met in the mid-90’s in Brisbane, when a labour hire firm contracted me to build a picket fence for ‘some old bloke’. Now, when I think of picket fences, I’m put in mind of small, white, timber fences which border neat lawns, under shady trees where cups of tea and cucumber sandwiches are served by well dressed servants. Which was why I was a little surprised an hour later to find myself standing outside a rubble filled, light industrial construction site wondering if I had been given the right address.
The only sign of life was a convulsing bobcat being driven by someone who had clearly overdosed on cough medicine, so I attracted the drivers’ attention, and after it came to a sudden and jarring stop, a very old labourer climbed out. His filthy overalls were made up mostly of patches, and his boots were held together with a variety of brightly coloured electrical tape. “Excuse me mate,” I asked, “could you tell me where to find the boss?”
He wiped his palm against his overalls, which actually made his hand slightly filthier, and said brightly, “Yep, that’s me, you here to build my fence?” I shook his hand, aware that I had probably just been given a potent case of galloping diphtheria, and said, “Mate, stop mucking about, where’s the boss?”
“Well, he’s a bit indisposed at the moment,” he replied and he started to roll what would turn out to be the world’s thinnest cigarette, “’cause it’s his break and he can get a bit tetchy when interrupted.” He lit his emaciated cigarette which literally vanished in a puff of smoke.
“I’ll come back later then,” I said.
“Nah, you’ll be right,” he answered, “I’m the only one round here he treats like a mongrel dog. C’mon, I’ll take you to him.” I followed him through the messy yard, to a suite of expensively furnished offices, filled with numerous, well dressed people toiling away on computers.
Leading me to a plush corner office, which would not have looked out of place in the world of corporate banking, he plunked himself down in a sumptuous leather chair, put one filthy boot on the desk, and said, “G’day, I’m the boss, are you here to build my fence?”
“Struth mate!” I cried, “You’re going to get us both fired! Shouldn’t you get back to work?”
He looked at his watch, “Nah, not for another five minutes,” he said, then yelled out, “Hey Jerry!” A young bloke in an expensive suit appeared magically by my side. “Tell this joker who I am.”
Jerry had obviously done this before, because he rolled his eyes and sighed, “This,” he said in a bored voice pointing at the old man, “is Mr. Joe Crystal, the owner, manager of this site. Would either of you like a coffee?”
Old Joe laughed, “No, my newest employee here is keen to get going, so show him what I want done, make sure it’s done properly, then bring him back here. Is that clear?”
“Clear as crystal,” replied Jerry automatically. I interrupted, “Um, Mr. Crystal, I was told you wanted a small picket fence built, where the hell would you like it?”
He snorted, “I said I wanted a star picket fence built right around the site, you know it’s amazing mate, but for some reason, no one believes a flamin’ thing I say!”
And that was the start of a twenty four carat education.