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  • John Gascoigne

Why don't ya get a proper job!


Between summers, a man's still gotta earn a buck ... This job was no walk in the park.

It’s 20 years since the Australian Football League played its final fixture at Mulgrave’s justly tagged Arctic Park.

Officially, the ground had seating for 72,000 patrons. For the final AFL premiership season game, between home team Hawthorn and Sydney in 1999, 72,130 patrons packed in. The Waverley Park stadium wasn’t always that popular with the punters, its negatives clearly outweighing the positives. The 25,887 hardy souls who watched the park’s first game in April 1970 represented an attendance much closer to the ground’s crowd average than the record 92,935 fans who turned up for a Collingwood vs. Hawthorn fixture in 1981. Lack of public transport and undercover seating, poor spectator facilities, minimal corporate attraction, and the park’s location in an often chilly rain belt meant few lamented the ground’s sale to developer Mirvac in 2001. That, in turn, helped pay for the roofed Docklands stadium, which provides much of what Waverley-cum-Siberia lacked.

If the MCG is cynosure of the AFL’s billion-dollar clublands, the folk who parked cars at Waverley through its 30-year lifespan were, and remain, at the bottom of the league’s food chain. I plead that I lived nearby and needed extra cash to support a new family, but I remain a perversely proud member of that parking sub-species.

Apart from being my workplace for three years, Waverley Park tested my general knowledge, daily, sometimes hourly, with the question: ‘Why don’t you get a proper job, ya f—in’ idiot!’ Or variants of that rhetorical. Over five hours or more, thirty of us, in our sweaty plastic macs trudged eastward, in line across a green sward that masked glutinous mud, herding a line of cars to the west of us, parking them row upon row . . . then turning back to do it vice-versa.

Game-playing helped fill my hours of tedium. Coming up trumps in my number plate challenge never failed to deliver a hit of adrenalin. The game (anyone can play) had me looking for a registration plate whose letters and numbers were in ascending order. Like, for example, AHK 379. After 300 cars, there’s one! Whoopee!

In the early years, I manned one of the least accessed of the eight gates admitting cars – up to 25,000 of them — to the approximate seventy hectares available. At the time, public transport, except buses, was still two postcodes away. On the park’s eastern boundary, the Jacksons Road, Mulgrave, Gate 8 entrance was a distant, lightly trafficked outpost. So there I practised my cricketer’s bowling action, crunching on gravel unsuited to my run-up, and tried to identify cloud types.

On big-game days, non-football patrons, minding their own business as they approached my post, would be swept unwittingly, inside a line of roadway cones, and made to turn left, being pushed and honked into the park by footy patrons behind them. Only then would I earn my $47.50, by stopping the cars surging into the park behind this prisoner of circumstance to let him do a U-turn and escape.

A wooden rail beside this entrance and driveway prevented patrons turning right into the bowels of the park. And in my second year, supervisor Maurie strung orange twine along the left-side driveway perimeter, barring entry to a no-go zone. Bless it, the AFL left me at my Jacksons Road redoubt. All that winter, on Saturdays, I sat in my car in a corner of the entrance, waiting only for the rare and hapless, non-footy punter to be corralled by the freeway cones, so I could release him. While, elsewhere, other parkers trudged the hard yards along the serried rows, I sat in my car reading the Saturday Age, occasionally flicking a wrist out the window in a ‘keep it moving’ sort of way. Between the twine and the timber, there was only one direction for the traffic to go, so the job seemed as necessary as an appendix transplant.

Yet, there were challenges. People tend to imitate possums and sheep, often simultaneously, so whenever a single driver at Gate 8 found a way into the no-go zone, he instantly became the Pied Piper trailing a line of rats, as I perceived them. Despite Maurie’s orange string, drivers would set their gaze on the off-limits DMZ, roaring through the opening, parking then hastening on foot to the stadium, some three-hundred metres away, while I hollered empty threats across the grass. I had taken to listening to my mobile phone during my Jackson Road idyll and now, infuriated by the Pied Piper leading his retinue, I broke into a sprinted pursuit. Squelching across the sward, I gained yardage on my XXXX can-clutching quarry, who feigned deafness as he parked, locked and left his car. ‘Oi, my friend, just a word of warning,’ I shout to him. ‘How about you do a U-turn and return to the driveway. Or I call the tow truck to get you removed!’ He halts in his tracks, turning to see a yellow-clad AFL flunky (me) with a transistor radio held to his ear, its aerial extended. From a distance a tranny looks pretty much like a walkie-talkie, I figure. How is he to know I’ve just added anger to necessity as one of the mothers of invention.

For the last half of our five-hour shifts, the league allowed us, with all the cars parked, to sit in the stadium and watch the footy. It remains the best deal I ever struck: on Sundays, I collected a wage, with penalty loading, to cheer on my beloved St Kilda on its home ground.

Soon these would become the good old days. Following the global trend to economic rationalism, the league contracted out its parking, and our ranks were decimated by our new Buffalo, USA-based employer. Now we actually worked, and word was out that, on the grandstand roof, binoculars of one or more time-and-motion cadres would be sweeping the broadacres to weed out idlers.

The new employer had us patrolling the ranks of cars looking for (and hoping not to find) people in the act of breaking, entering and stealing. Knowing that potential cost-cutting retrenchment placed a bounty on our heads, we never did seek recompense for our new role as security officers. But we never nabbed a ne’er do well, either, so that worked out pretty well.

In my final year, for a pre-season night grand final, the ground filled quickly. Again, I was back at Gate 8, alone and sweating under my reflector-taped mackintoshes as scores of drivers, having paid their $4 entry fee at Gate 1, crawled through the park like a funeral cortege in search of non-existent spaces. Exiting in a fury 20 minutes later at ‘my’ gate about a kilometre away, most wanted to vent their spleen, and I was their man.

With the umpires about to bounce the first ball, I was still on my own, flat out stopping traffic in the Jacksons Road service lane from entering the park; stopping, too, the non-football traffic in the same road to let the frustrated Gate 1 footy patrons (‘You gonna refund us, mate?’) exit from the very park where they yearned to . . . park. Meantime, I was shouting into the breeze for reinforcements. Where were they? Where were they at Mafeking or Wounded Knee! For twenty-five minutes, which felt like an entire shift, I conducted the work of at least two traffic policemen, all the while glancing over my shoulder lest the threats of thwarted footy fans be unleashed. This, I reflected, was payback for the lotus years.

Then a blast of wind signalled a police helicopter overhead. In a trice, motorcycle cops had taken over. They had flashing, red torch-wands, two-way radios and knowhow. I thanked them like an alms-receiving beggar, proud and relieved I’d been no panel beater’s friend.

That year’s big wet in Melbourne and the league’s reluctance to lavish money on its rightly-maligned park meant an absence of the 100-or-so tonnes of gravel that might have reduced car-bogging and opened up the broadacres which drivers demanded entry to – while we gamely held them back, knowing two sets of spinning wheels would quickly turn the firm-looking sward into a swamp.

So, like the settling of the continent itself, we parked the people at the edges, keeping at least one set of tyres on the gravelled skirts of driveways, and regularly copping abuse for it (‘I mean, you’d have to be a moron to do this kind’a work’). My excuses: I needed some extra cash, and a 200-plus waiting list to have this experience made me perversely reluctant to give it up.

Police, working under stress, find comfort in their solidarity. Me and my fellow parkers were similar, comparing notes at the end of the day, finding pleasure in simple things: like the know-better motorists who ignored our directions then got bogged.

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