Royce Kurmelovs pulls up a chair at Brick City to chat with its patrons about the nature of work in Adelaide and what life will be like when the Holden plant squeals to a halt.
It’s midnight and there are only four of us left in the place.
Connor, a 20-year-old bartender with an Irish accent, says it’s been a quiet night in Brick City. He used to be a regular here before Steve Farago, 40, gave him a job on the other side of the bar, he says and, honestly, if he weren’t working here, he’d probably be drinking here along with us.
“That’s the Adelaide way,” says Kami McInnes, 53. “It’s the only way to get a good job in this town. Even now. It’s who you know.”
Kami is a 53-year-old poet with a bald head and a goatee who, he tells me, used to write bar reviews for Ralph magazine back in the day and helps run the Spoken Slurred open mic night here on the last Sunday of every month. He’s here so often, they keep a six-pack of Southwark Bitter beneath the counter at all times and have the timing down to an art form. Whenever Connor sees Kami coming, he’s already cracked the lid off a bottle and is in the process of handing it to the older man as he takes a seat.
Steve, with his trademark beard and fedora, co-owns this establishment with his brother and a friend who aren’t here tonight. Steve’s family left the civil war in a dying Yugoslavia when he was 15 and ended up here at the end of the world. As soon as he set foot on Australian soil, he knew he was home. He hasn’t been back since and hasn’t really wanted to.
“I just haven’t felt the need,” Steve says.
The bar’s been going for about two years now and none of it would have happened without Holden, Steve says. He’s only ever had two jobs in his life before the bar, the first making pizzas for a couple of Sicilians in Para Hills, and the second, working on the line at Futuris, the largest direct supplier to the car manufacturer.
He heard about the job through his friends’ brother who was a supervisor at the plant. For half his life, the factory paid Steve 30 bucks an hour. In that time he did every job in the place at least once, worked all three shifts and only took a single day off. That was last month and Kami’s fault because the poets stuck around to drink after a show and Steve stayed on to tend them well into the early morning.
Then it’s Kami’s turn to share. His first job was at the sawmill in Mount Burr back before it closed.
“Ash Wednesday,” Kami remembers. “Anybody could get a job. I failed the first time I went there for an interview. I was a skinny little fucker who hated work and they took me to the hardest part of the mill.”
He was 17 then, and too honest. Kami took one look at what they wanted him to do and told them he didn’t think he had it in him, so the managers walked him back to the office and told him goodbye. A friend of his father’s gave him hell after that. A lot of strings had been pulled to get him in there and Kami had blown it in five minutes.
After the region burned, the mill was desperate for labour and taking anyone they could get, including Kami. He spent the next three-and-a-half years at the yard, hating every single minute. Kami’s out was landing a job-for-life with the post office, which meant he had to go to Adelaide for the training. He didn’t last the year though. They gave him the boot after he mouthed off to one of the higher-ups.
“I’m probably the only person to ever be blacklisted from the post office,” Kami says.
I ask Steve what a world without Holden looks like, but he doesn’t have a good answer. Brick City had always been a dream, but everything it makes goes back into the business, so Steve has to pick up a second job. A friend of his paints houses and his parents run a cleaning business, so he always has a fall back.
Others, he says, aren’t so lucky. They’ve got mortgages and families, and they grew too comfortable. Odds are they’ll never find a job as good again. Everyone will just have to find other work, he says. Take whatever they can get.
For now, Steve just plans to keep tending bar at night, and working morning shifts at the plant until it closes and everyone will just have to find other work. When the end does finally come, they’re holding a party in the bar to mark it. After that, who knows?
Kami might. He watched it happen to his hometown when the mill closed in late 2000. Now, every morning at four o’clock, the townsmen get in their cars to drive across the border to their 12-hour shift because it’s the only work they can get. When it’s done, they drive all the way back again, getting home around eight at night. Slowly, the long hours are killing them.
“One of these young fellas fell asleep and went off the road coming back,” Kami says. “Another mate of mine fell asleep on the way home and killed someone else.”
Then the conversation turns to something lighter before people notice the clock’s pushing 2am and Steve’s giving that tired look which says its closing time in Brick City.
Kami holds his bottle up to the light to see how much is left and then downs the rest. He stands, pulls on his coat and says his goodbyes.
He’ll see Connor and Steve next time, he tells them, and then he heads for the door.