There's no room for prejudice in the Centrelink queue

29th Apr, 01:23

That’s me. Standing in the Centrelink queue with my two eldest sons, thinking how fleeting the passage of time is.

It feels like “yesterday ago” I was in the waiting room at the baby clinic with six month old twins. My deepest thought: Will Twin Two weigh more than Twin One?

But now I’m wedged between my 18-year-olds, transfixed by the 30-something man ahead of us who’s chain smoking, pacing, and swearing his head off.

He’s swinging a Big W bag around, narrowly missing the security guard who tells him, “Please, stop.” My deepest thought: Is the man going to talk to me? (Many strangers talk to me. That’s because I apparently have “resting friendly face” which is a blessing and a curse.)

Lining up at Centrelink *with their mum* is not the most humiliating thing my sons have endured. No, the prize for that award goes way back. July 2013: crying at their year six assembly when they sang Katy Perry’s Roar.

So we stand in the queue. My tall, handsome, loquacious sons with the world at their feet waiting to sign up for Youth Allowance, fresh out of high school and just a few weeks of uni life under their belt.

Mid-pandemic, it was near impossible to score a casual job, so a visit to Centrelink was on the cards.

When I broke the news that we were off to Centrelink, Twin Two brightened up. “Cenno?”  he asked, as though it were a mystical place.  Dressed in trackie pants and a hoodie, with a three-day growth and no shoes, he added, “I reckon I look the part!”

He was soon to realise that everyone looks the part. Nobody is too good and nobody is too bad, either.

There were already 20 people in the queue, standing in the car park on a cold Monday morning, white cockatoos screaming in the sky above. When the door eventually opened, only one person was allowed at a time; we were clearly in for the long haul.

The first 30 minutes in the queue was an eye opener.  Not so much for a middle-aged journalist whose career has spanned the lows of catwalk modelling (crap work, great money) to the highs of being a Beijing TV correspondent (great work, crap money).  But it was definitely a good lesson for my sons.

Pretty much everybody there was “just like us.”  People who consider themselves the average Aussie family who’ve worked hard, and need extra help from the government to make life a bit easier during a pandemic.

Of course, it was easy to see that some people in the queue needed more assistance than we did, but everyone we spoke to had a very similar story to ours.

There were people of various ages, wearing hoodies, smoking, and making small talk with strangers. It made me think of something an American friend said: "Aussies would talk to a pole."

A metre away, a man looking all rough and skin and bones paced back and forth, muttering to himself, agitated. He kept shouting "when the fuck am I going to get in the fucking door?!" We were all thinking the same thing, but only he had the guts to say it.

A security guard stationed at the front door stood next to a sign that read: "Due to social distancing rules only two people will be allowed inside at any one time." Any time we caught his eye he pointed to the sign and grinned.

Walking up and down the queue, asking everybody if they were OK, was a 60-something Salvation Army woman. I heard a man tell her "I'm OK until I get corona."

A woman told her, "My dog's run away and I reckon he knew I couldn't feed him anymore."

The woman ahead of us turns around to say hello. She tells me she has five sons, she used to work in retail, and things went downhill when her partner disappeared.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Where did he go?" I ask.

“I have no idea. He disappeared,” she explained.

So, he’s officially a missing person.

It reminded me of my days as a crime reporter when “Missing Person’s Week” was one of the saddest days to cover.  I still remember the pain on the faces of people who are still searching for loved ones.

“This pandemic” she says, “It’s a total shitstorm and I hate its guts.” She’d come to Centrelink for the same reason I had– so her sons could apply for Youth Allowance.

The man behind us chimes in to say he also hates the pandemic. When I ask him what he’s here for he tells me he needs money so he can see his son.

“His mum won’t let me see him until I’ve got food. Right now, I’ve only got baked beans and tuna. She said I’ve got to buy fruit and veggies and I can’t afford that,” he said.

Twin One mentions something about blueberries being “really cheap” at Coles this week and the man nods at him before answering his mobile phone which he puts on speaker, not giving a toss that we can hear his conversation.  

Meanwhile, the man is still swinging his Big W bag around. A pair of sneakers fall out. He drops the bag, picks up the sneakers which are attached to each other with elastic and, holding the elastic, he starts swinging them around.

I’m worried he’s going to whack someone. But then the door opens and he goes inside. “Those shoes look way too big for him,” said Twin Two.

“Yeah, he should have gone down a size,” agreed Twin One.

Eventually, it was our turn, and we were lucky to be served by Mara, a small brunette lady wearing glasses.  She is sweet and patient, calmly answering all our questions and setting our minds at ease.  When it is time to leave, she tells me I’ve raised lovely, polite young men. She also says, “Don’t worry, everything looks fine. And if it’s not, you know where to find me.”

She was just the angel we needed that day.

Walking home, we passed a pair of new-looking sneakers, discarded by the road.  Of course, we’ll never know if they belonged to the man in the queue, but seeing the shoes triggered a conversation I’d never had with my sons: regardless of any grossly cliched  “usual suspects,” Centrelink was filled with a cross section of society, (minus the wealthy!) but most people there were just ordinary families like us.

It also opened my sons’ eyes to the fact that life is filled with twists and turns. Regardless of global pandemics, anybody can find themselves needing to rely on the government to help.  

If that happens, let’s hope we all have a bespectacled angel like Mara to help pull us through. And if not, may we treat each other with the compassion and kindness she offered my sons.