When people ask me about my strangest experience, it is usually my early days in New Zealand that come to mind. It was a very hard story to tell because it is simply too bizarre to be believable. For years I never told anyone because they were sure I was making it up. It is a great story, however, because it exposes several basic facts of life (as I see it). The first is that city life and country life are totally dissimilar – and attempts at transitioning from one to the other are bound to be challenging if not almost impossible. Next is that basic life experiences are shaped by prevailing gender norms, meaning put a man and a woman in similar circumstances and they will react and be reacted upon completely differently. Finally, the American dirty word, socialism, is everything that is right or wrong in a society. Socialism protects. Lack of socialism, means unfair competition, inequality, dog eat dog lifestyles reign. In short, take a big city gal, throw her into rural, small town culture on the flip side of the planet from where she grew up, and her street smarts won’t help at all – but a socialist, protectionist system will, and did, come to her rescue.
I arrived in Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand on 31 Dec 1979 at about 8 pm. With no accommodation lined up and no connections, I took a bus downtown from the airport hoping to find a cheap hotel or backpackers. Instead, all I found were dark streets. After walking for what felt like hours, I saw a light and headed toward it. It was a café, already closed for the evening but the owner was still there cleaning up. I knocked on the glass. The middle aged Greek opened the door and asked if I needed anything. We got to talking, he made me a quick dinner of a burger and chips and offered me the bench to sleep on for the night. He was back the next day at 6 to prepare to open, made me a pancake breakfast, and sent me on my way with a warm fuzzy feeling about New Zealand.
I needed work since I had all but run out of money, picked up a local paper, and called the Manapouri Motor Inn in application for the bar maid they were looking for. I was told to come right over. Since I didn’t have much money, I took a bus to Te Anau, then hitchhiked to Manapouri. The 12 mile distance took quite a while to cover since very few cars passed by.
Manapouri was a pretty little town in Fjordland National Park on a lake. Population was 200, most of whom were male and worked at the power station across the lake. The Motor Inn Pub was pretty much the center of life. I started work the next day; was provided with a camper home free accommodation in the woods behind the pub and all meals through the pub and restaurant. Perfect. I’d earn a salary but have nothing to spend it on. Pub opening times were by law, limited to 11-1, then 5-10 which gave me a nice 4 hour break in between to do whatever I wanted.
Prior to arriving in New Zealand, the Kiwis I knew in London had warned me to keep away from the Maoris because they were violent, drunk, rapists, and liked to beat up on women. On what I think was my first day bartending (pouring piss in local lingo) a Maori shearing team came in for beers. Since they were the only people in the pub at opening time, I walked over and sat with them. Alan was a shearer and awfully good looking plus he seemed the most willing to be engaged in conversation. I knew nothing about New Zealand, the South Island, the area, or shearing so I had lots of things I wanted to learn. Alan even invited me over to the place where they were currently working to watch. Shearing teams are migrant labourers that travel around the region providing the essential service at sheep stations. They work hard, and they play hard, sleep rough to save money and get by any way they can until the shearing season is over.
I did go to the station where they were working the following day during my after lunch break and they immediately put me to work as a rousey – the person who collects and separates the fleece as it is shorn. The full fleece needs to be rolled in a particular way and put aside, the top of the head wool is separated as best quality, and the dag wool is the dirty bits with sheep shit stains and remnants. This New York City gal was handling shit for the first time in her life and loving it! The lanolin that is naturally excreted onto the wool is fabulous for skin so it was customary to work in underwear only. Them in knickers, me in knickers and bra.
Just before the pub was to reopen, Alan rode me back on the farm motorcycle, my arms around his waist for dear life and because he was just so cute.
Being one of the very few women and the only new one in a tiny country town very clearly got me noticed. The pub was jam packed every evening and the guys were literally fighting for my attention. Not a few fist fights actually broke out. I never really knew what was going on. I was doing my job, politely refusing any offers of dates or drinks, and simply assuming the guys were being aggressive because they were drunk or bored or jerks.
Alan and his team came back that night and at closing time, I invited him to my home where he stayed the night. The team had only one more day in the area so the next night was our last, never to meet again – unless I was still in Manapouri next season. Rule number one on how to survive in New Zealand happily broken.
Over the next few weeks not many memorable things happened but a few did. I did my job, kept to myself mostly, made friends with a lesbian farmer and spent many very enjoyable afternoons working at her farm, driving tractors, haying, rounding up sheep for market and more. It was great! I was so excited as a native New Yorker to be learning to work a farm! She leant me a bicycle to get around on and I would go biking around the countryside quite happily when not working.
One night I actually went to a party I had been invited to. I biked the 4 miles over, had way too many beers, and when I was biking back on dead silent, country roads, lighted only be the clearest most vivid stars I had ever seen, something strange caught my attention. Huge, bright red fingers were slowly reaching across the sky. My brain had no way of grasping this. As I kept peddling forward, my head and body of course were held firm by this bizarre anomaly. I literally flipped backward onto the asphalt as my bike moved forward without me for a few feet than fell over. I was flat on my back, arms outstretched absolutely captivated by the beauty of this strange event. My immediate thoughts were: nuclear holocaust. We would all be burnt to a crisp and life was soon to end. I didn’t mind, I wasn’t scared, I was just mesmerised by the elegant magnificence of the phenomenon. I don’t know how long I lay there watching but what broke me out of the reverie was the sound of screeching breaks and headlights. I still hadn’t moved. Someone was going home from that same party and luckily saw me lying in the road and stopped before running me over! Sam and Vicki ran over thinking I was maybe dead, and in a panic tried to feel for a pulse.
Hey, what are you doing? I shouted.
Fuck me! I thought you were dead!
NO! I was watching the end of the world!
What the fuck are you on about girl??
Oh fer fuck sake dimwit. That’s the Aurora Australis. We see it all the time here.
Oooooh. Shit. Help me up.
I guess I was almost disappointed but kinda glad too I wasn’t about to be burnt toast.
Sam threw my bike into the back of the ute and he and Vicki drove me home having one helluva good laugh.
Following a few more weeks of nothing beyond working the pub and afternoons at the farm, late one night I was suddenly awakened by some crazy furious woman grabbing me by the neck, yanking me out of a sound sleep and punching me repeatedly in the head. My nose was bleeding and my left ear was ringing so loud I could hear nothing out of it for two days.
WHAT!!!! Is all I could shout.
Where’s my husband?
How the fuck would I know? Who’s your husband?
They said he was here. Where is he?
Look for yourself. Nobody’s here
Vicki let go of my neck and I slumped to the floor, gasping for breath, and noticing my blood hitting the floor in patterned drips. She stormed out after rushing through my two room camper home, clearly finding nothing. I climbed back into bed in a daze. The next morning my pillow was covered in blood.
When I finally got up to see what I looked like in the mirror (ouch!!! Dried blood everywhere, black eyes and I still couldn’t hear out of my left ear). First things first, make a cup of tea. I heard a knock on my door. Sigh. What now? I opened it to two very embarrassed looking police officers.
Oh, are you OK? You look awful. I didn’t respond. I just stood there at the door, anxiously needing that cup of tea.
Uh, we hate to do this but we have orders to arrest you for prostitution and for running a brothel out of this camper.
In utter disbelief, I shut the door and went back to make my cup of tea.
They knocked again and this time, pushed their way inside.
We need to talk.
About what? Speak to my right side. I can’t hear anything out of my left.
Do you need medical assistance? Should we take you to a hospital?
No! I need a cuppa tea. PLEASE just pour it for me and for yourselves.
They needed to be sure my name was Helaine Berman, USA citizen, and employee of the Manapouri Motor Inn. To which I replied yes. They wanted my passport. Fine.
OK, do you understand the charges raised against you?
Honestly, we didn’t think so either so we took the liberty of calling the Hospitality Workers Union of which as a pub worker you are automatically a member. We’ll just wait outside for them to arrive ok. You should clean up your face and get dressed. You will have to come with us to Invercargil.
Over the course of my 3 hour drive to Invercargil for the charge to be processed I found out that guys all over Manapouri had been bragging about scoring with the new barmaid. Their stories were increasingly wild and stupid but any time someone was not where they were supposed to be, it always came down to being in the camper behind the pub. The few women and wives in town heard too. That night Sam got drunk and passed out at a friend’s house, Vicki immediately assumed he was with me, stormed into my camper and beat the shit out of me. Something like 12 women had agreed to get rid of the danger I presented to their menfolk by having me arrested and removed as a prostitute. Naturally, I was 100% in the dark about all of this.
Following my processing with the police, I was turned over to the union lawyers who were in a pickle over what to do with me. There was no way I could go back to Manapouri but I had to stay nearby for my court appearance in a few months’ times. Women were threatening to lynch me if they found me and what the heck was I to do for the months I was required to wait. They called the THR Hotel in Te Anau, the only good hotel in town in 1980, and found an opening for a house maid. Out of all the people I’d met in Manapouri, only Sam remained my friend, utterly horrified and sorry for what his wife had done.
As much as I thought the job of house maid demeaning for a university graduate, I actually grew to love it. It was the first ever job that I could do with zero interaction with other humans. It was perfect and I learned to clean a room quickly, efficiently, and pleasurably – except for that one time somebody rubbed shit on the walls. Yeah. People really do that. I cleaned that too. When they asked for a volunteer to do breakfasts, that is, collecting the room service requests and bringing them to the kitchen, I happily volunteered. It meant I would start work at 5 am and finish by noon and have no other people around at all. The breakfast shift also required cleaning the toilets in the public areas, the lobby and the pub/restaurant. I truly enjoyed this work. I loved the isolation and the walking meditation it became for me.
One morning when I was cleaning the lobby toilet, I found a roll of bills on the floor behind the toilet. I grabbed it, saw a $1 bill on the outside and stuck the roll in my uniform pocket. I didn’t think about it again until I finished my shift and was back in my room. I remembered the roll and took it out, pulled off the rubber band and counted out $675! Holy shit! I don’t know if I am ashamed or proud but my very first thought was to turn the money in to my boss. Luckily, Sam stopped by for a visit. When I showed him what I’d found he told me in no uncertain terms that I was being an idiot. I was more than owed that money for what I’d been through and if I turned it in, how do I know that they wouldn’t then keep it themselves? It all made sense but I still didn’t feel right about it. We compromised. I would report that I had found some money and if anyone had lost it and could tell me the right amount, I would return it. No one ever did.
Over the next month, life was pretty calm and quiet. In addition to cleaning rooms, I started waitressing too for extra cash. I was busy; life was OK.
When my trial date finally arrived, I was collected by the union lawyers and brought to Invercargil. I was told to sit outside the courtroom and never did actually get called or get to see the inside of that room. After only about 20 minutes, the lawyers came out smiling, handed me a check for $3000 as compensation for unjustified dismissal and unpaid wages. They drove me to the bus station and I moved to Queenstown.
But that is a totally different story.