I had a SHIT of a day at work today.
Oh, there were the usual self-remonstrations about my current role as political journalist ("Useless! I'm useless!"), but today's problems were in fact real, not just me making mountains out of molehills. They were real, and all directly attributable to my work lap-top computer.
Ever since the damn thing was passed to me in a journo-to-journo rite of passage, it's been giving me trouble. Editing audio is the main problem; it either doesn't play it at all, or it plays, then stops, and scratches, and stops again, then bursts into double speed. It's hard to cut grabs of our Illustrious State Leader when he sounds like Mickey Mouse on helium.
Anyway, the problems were so chronic today, and so frustrating, I wound up in tears on the phone not only to the journos back at the newsroom (I was based in the city all day), but to our head tech, who was - unbeknowst to me until I called - on holiday at Fraser Island. Whoops. Still, he did well to deal with my hysteric rantings. You may ask why said tech has not repaired problems before now. Well, it hasn't been for a want of trying on both our parts. But the laptop is like a trained monkey - it performs perfectly for its master (ie, the tech) when it's in the studio, but out on the road with a boorish technophobe (ie, yours clumsily), it's harder to control than Hugh Heffner at a "Viagra-and-Naked-Girls" party.
Once I'd officially downed tools (and profanities) this evening, I decided only a vast amount of junk food would rescue my bad day. With no junk food in the flat, I drove out to Toombul Coles to stock up on Pepsi Max and Cheezels. Toombul Coles is not the nearest Coles to me, but it is near another venue that I wanted to visit.
Tom's Confectionery Warehouse.
I had two reasons for wanting to visit this magic place - a Brisbane institution. As part of my publicity work with the Briz Improv Fest, I had suggested the idea of selling lollies on performance nights, and had been perculating the idea of talking with Tom for a while. It also seemed like a good opportunity to hunt down some of the few remaining Red Tulip Easter eggs, now sadly gone from supermarket shelves for another year. Little did I know how successful I would be on both counts!
I only found Tom himself as I was leaving the warehouse, unloading some cartons from the back of a car. I introduced myself, and asked him first about the recent post-Easter robbery. Poor guy - he had a safe containing tens of thousands of dollars stolen overnight on Easter Monday - a good deal of his holiday takings. Tom has been really shaken up by it - mostly because he's been in business at Hendra for 25 years, and has only ever had one minor burglary before. He thought he'd done all the right things - installing security doors and grills on the windows, closed circuit cameras, encoded door passes, the lot. But they still got in, and it's left a deep impression on Tom.
Like most people who are robbed, Tom didn't deserve it. For Tom is a top bloke. And I'm so glad I got the chance to chat to him tonight.
I asked him to run me through buying lollies for resale, which he could have done standing outside the store as we were. But instead, he took me into the shed opposite the warehouse, which is one of his production sheds. I hadn't realised how big the business was, but SIX of the buildings around the shed open to the public are Tom's. The one we went into was - the lolly factory. Where the lollies get stored and mixed together and packed.
He kept apologising for "boring me".
"You don't understand, Tom I'm in a lolly factory. Life doesn't get any better than this!"
He showed me the bag making machine, and the lolly sorter, and the printer that can print your own logo on your order of lollybags. Imported machinery, costing over one hundred thousand dollars. Much of his business comes from doing corporate orders - companies that give away lollies to their employees or children for special occasions, or charities hoping to raise funds. He showed me samples of the different sizes of bags. We stood surrounded by boxes of chocolates, and snakes, and Minties and everything nice, and Tom told me about starting his business as a popcorn-making firm back in 1966. "Captain Corn" brand popcorn is still made on-site, but these days he only makes the coloured variety, and he no longer supplies it to the major supermarkets, as their demands for smaller margins wasn't worth the business.
I spot a stack of Red Tulip crates, and tell him about my obsession with the Easter-time-only brand of chocolate. He dutifully grabs about eight of the eggs, and puts them into a box for me. For free.
"Samples, see? You're a potential customer, we've got to look after you!"
We stood at the door to the shed, and Tom told me about the changing nature of the business. The confectionery side only began in 1982, as a sideline to the popcorn. As that floundered, the lollies biz took off. But it's cost Tom. He divorced about ten years ago, unable to pull back from the business his whole life's been built upon. There was no bad feelings between us, he says of his wife, it's just she wanted to live a different kind of life. "I was very generous, though, in the settlement." He says he misses his beautiful old house at Cleveland, although it's not clear if this was a casualty of the divorce. I didn't want to pry, and wasn't in fact prying. Tom was just happy to have a chat, even though he did say he normally wasn't given to rabbiting on about himself. That was what he said when I suggested he'd be a fascinating radio interviewee, anyway.
The cruellest irony for me came with an astonishing revelation: Tom's a diabetic.
Type 2, diagnosed about ten years ago. He tries to manage it, but eating right and exercising isn't easy with his working hours (the store is open 8am-9pm every day except Christmas Day). He's on six different pills a day, the same amount as his beloved dog, Pepe.
Take a moment to consider that - Tom, the Candyman, King of the Confectionery Warehouse. Can't have sugar.
Our conversation ended about an hour after it had begun, there in the carpark of the Confectionery Warehouse. I had been held captive by this lovely man, and his stories of building up a business, and seeing it through despite professional and personal hardships along the way. We all have problems, and sometimes they can seem overwhelming - even if it is just a dodgy lap-top computer playing up on you. But having a chat to Tom was a wonderful tonic to my bad day and bad mood. The simple joy of talking with a man who's had his fair share of ups and downs, but is still plugging away, still giving it his best, worked better than any massage or meditation.
Tom wants to retire soon, but he also wants to expand the business.
At the very least, he's hoping to holiday at Maroochydore in a unit that allows small dogs.
Readers who love chocolates, sweets and popcorn should definitely visit Tom's Confectionery Warehouse. Have a chat to Tom if he's there. You won't regret it. Just don't ask for Red Tulip Easter eggs - they're mine!