Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

20.6.16

A Streetcar Named Acquire.

St Kilda Road was once home to Melbourne's advertising industry. Some of the agency dinosaurs, such as McCanns, remain there, like fossils in a rock.

As well as being Melbourne's most beautiful boulevard, St Kilda Road also boasts the slowest trams, monstrous metal boxes that clatter slowly down the middle of the road powered by steel rods reaching up to overhead electric wires. I've often wondered why tramloads of passengers don't get electrocuted every time it rains.

In the early 1990s, I was working for one of the dinosaur agencies. One day the agency had a visitor, a US agency boss from New York by the name of Stanley. Stanley was on the acquisition trail. He wanted to buy the agency. If only he knew. But that's another story.

Stanley had been scheduled to visit three agencies in one morning, and he arrived at my agency at nine a.m., when our MD led him on a tour of the place. A few account executives were in their offices, beavering away at their core function of sending fawning emails to clients, but the creative department was largely deserted, since creative drift into work close to 10 o'clock on a conscientious day. "They're on a two-day conference in the country," the MD lied.

He and the visitor then went into the boardroom and shut the door. After a while, June the tea lady crashed the door open again with her tea trolley and probably frightened the daylights out of the visitor. He'd have to get used to it.

When they emerged an hour later, Stanley looked at his watch, said he was running late and asked the MD to call him a cab. The MD replied that the last thing you do in St Kilda Road when you are running late is to call a cab, because you will still be waiting an hour later. You're better off going down to the street, and flagging one down. If a taxi isn't going by, you can just jump on a tram. "Oh, you mean those cool streetcars?" Stanley said. Yes, those cool, slow streetcars.

Now it just so happened that I had an appointment that mid-morning at the doctor's (Dr. Headhunter, as it happened) and we took the same elevator down to the ground. Stanley, in a hurry, racewalked off down St Kilda Road glancing over his shoulder for a cab and I kept a respectable distance behind him. No taxi came along, but a tram was lumbering into view. Stanley crossed to the tram safety zone, the tram pulled up, and Stanley got on through the middle door. I followed him and got in the back door. Stanley sat up the front and leant forward impatiently. The tram lurched away. Then it stopped again, having just missed the lights. I hate it when they do that. I'd rather they just sat there for the next round of lights. But they don't. They give a little lurch and get your hopes up, and then they dash them again, and you sit there for another three minutes. Stanley sat on the edge of his seat and checked his watch and stewed.

The tram performed the same stop-start routine for the next three sets of lights; and we were still nowhere near Coventry Street. It had taken fifteen minutes to get from High Street to the old police building that isn't there any more. Stanley was sweating.

The tram moved through the Domain Road terminus and made a false start for the fourth time. Stanley jumped up and strode to the driver. The tram was an old Z-class model with access to the driver through a mesh window.

"Can you drive this thing any faster, driver?" he shouted, but it wasn't a question. It was a demand.

"Yes, I can!" said the driver. "I can drive it at seventy-five kilometres an hour."

Pause.

"But I'm not going to." He had a sense of humour.

Stanley blew his stack. "I'm about to spend several million dollars buying half the businesses in St Kilda Road, driver," he yelled through the mesh, "and I'm late for an appointment to do exactly that. And you're telling me you're going to crawl this tram at two miles an hour for the next eight blocks. Well, I'm telling you, you won't have a job when I own St Kilda Road because I'll tell my employees not to take any goddamned tram to work. What do you think of that?"

The tram crawled forward into an intersection while the driver thought about what he thought about that. Then it stopped again, because a BMW 7-series was late in turning right into Toorak Road, and it blocked the tram. The driver clanged the bell and we sat there.

"What do I think of that?" replied the driver. "This." He pointed to a button. He pushed the button and the front door opened. "Get out."

Stanley's face was so red it was blue. "You drive this tram NOW, driver. And fast!"

"Get out."

He screamed. "Drive the tram, driver. You can't tell me to get out. I'm a paying customer!"

"I can do what I like on my tram, buddy. And right now I'm going to sit here until you get out."

The driver sat. He gazed out the window. The light turned green. The tram sat.

Stanley said some words he hadn't uttered since his agency lost an airline account back in the eighties.

The driver ignored him and continued gazing out the window.

The agency boss glared, hesitated, then jumped up and stepped out the front door. At the same time, I slipped out the rear door. My headhunter's office was just up the road and I would walk the rest of the way. I watched Stanley pull a piece of paper out of his pocket, check the street number on a building, half-run a little way up the street, and disappear inside 320 St Kilda Road. I went on to my headhunter's appointment, but ultimately I didn't take the job on offer, as it was to work on a retail account, and only hacks worked on retail. I did, however, use the offer as a bargaining chip to raise my salary with my then-employer. That's how the industry worked then. Every man was his own union.

*

Later that month, our agency MD made an announcement. The acquisition had not gone ahead.

"The American agency whose CEO Mr Stanley Durstin visited last month has decided to buy several other agencies instead, including Agency X," he said. Agency X was at 320 St Kilda Road.

I was disappointed. I had wanted to see what happened when Stanley tried to enforce the tram ban.