Showtime at the Lady
What’s it like to work at Auckland’s most famous burger joint?
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Metro. Words by Verity Johnson. Photos by Vicki Leopold.
I have always loved The White Lady. I love the way it sparkles with raucous, gritty energy in that grey canyon of strip clubs and neon shopfronts called Commerce St. It has the rough glitter of a big city, Auckland’s own little slice of the mean streets.
The food truck has been around forever. Well, since 1948. It’s been here so long it’s getting close to becoming a national treasure. It’s an icon. “We’re Auckland,” says Max Washer, grandson of Pop Washer, the original owner. “We’ve been here since the beginning.”
I’m not the only person who loves it. Good Charlotte rockers Joel and Benji Madden are big fans, telling a TV interviewer it was their favourite part of New Zealand. Eva Longoria came here at 2am in July and Jonah Lomu regularly brought a dozen friends and shouted them all burgers.
Max’s father, Peter Washer, would ask him, “Hey Jonah, when you’re in Wellington, what do you eat?” He’d laugh and say he didn’t. Even Lonely Planet rated it top of its list of things to do in New Zealand, and number three in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s somehow even gathered a cult following in Germany. (According to Max, German backpackers never fail to lose their shit when they see it.)
It’s the staff that I love most about The White Lady. Those mysterious people, whoever they are, who can beat back drunks, weirdos and whoever else crawls out into the streets at 3am. How cool would you be if you could survive that? You’d have to be one of those smooth-talking, tough-looking charismatic types. People who wink a lot, call everyone “sweetheart” and walk like they’re puffed up on secrets.
I’ve always wanted to be that type of person. But I’m too shy — I’m scared of making phone calls. And like all shy people, I desperately want to be confident. So for me, the people who work at The White Lady are everything I want to be. They’re people who can hold their own on Auckland’s streets at 3am. What majesty.
I sign up to work a night shift on the Lady to watch these people in action. I figure I can shuffle my way through a shift while secretly observing. I can learn their secrets. I want to know how they can be so fucking cool.
So one warm Friday, I head down Commerce St at 6pm to meet Max Washer. Max is tall, blond and heart-stoppingly gorgeous. I turn up to find him leaning against the truck, smoking. I have to circle a few times before I have the nerve to approach. “Heyhow’reyagoin’?” he grins and flicks his fag onto the pavement. He looks 50 per cent surfer and 50 per cent Thelma & Louise-era Brad Pitt.
Max grew up in the business. The White Lady passed from his grandfather to his father, and Max — after a detour into real estate — returned to the family business to run marketing and events, as well as Eve, the sister cart to the main Lady. Eve does the festival circuit. If you’ve been anywhere from the Foo Fighters to the Easter Show, you’ll have seen Eve. “People love us when we turn up,” laughs Max. “They’re like, The White Lady is here?”
But I’m not here for Eve, I’m here to work the night shift at the original Lady on Commerce St. Is it going to be tough? “Aw, ye-ea-ah,” drawls Max, “this isn’t the business for anyone to be in. You have to be quite a character to work here….put up with a few things…”
I must look like a squashed mouse because he grins reassuringly. “But people love working here. As soon as you work here, you become like a celebrity to the public. You feel like a rock star.”
I ask if there has ever been any trouble. “Well,” says Max in an offhand way, “I had a guy jump the counter, grab one of the guys I was working with, try to punch him, run through the back of the cart, grab a knife and chase him up the street.” Sweet Jesus. “It’s an experience down here. It may not always be a pleasant experience, but you are always going to remember it.”
I return for the 10pm shift and I’m jittery. Anyone who’s been downtown on a weekend knows the area gets foul late at night. I was waiting for a bus one night and got caught in the middle of an enormous brawl that swelled through the entire intersection.
One of my most vivid memories is watching a pack of drunks rip the shit out of the wall outside that infamous Maccas at Britomart. I remember seeing the security guard come out to see what was happening and then go back inside. He didn’t get paid enough to deal with that. So I’m not exactly relaxed when I start my shift on the Lady.
Luckily, Anne Washer, Peter’s other half, puts me through the basics of working there with a calm, matronly air. There are only two drunk guys hanging around at this point. They start to come over and Anne hails them with a firm friendliness.
“They’ve been here a while,” she says, punching in their order, “they’ve just come over because you’re a pretty girl.” Oh. Right. Well, um, what do I do? Nothing, it’s just the way it is. “You’ll get that,” she says, nodding to me. Does she? “I get, ‘Yes, aunty’, or ‘Yes, mum’… The worst is when they call me gran.”
It’s dawning on me that I’m not going to be able to shuffle through this shift in quiet, unnoticed observation. I’ll be working hard. I can already feel my stomach curling up; “Let’s go, let’s go, just leave it and go home…” it gurgles. But Anne’s gone and all the staff are watching me.
There’s Eddie, who’s been here 15 years. He’s Chinese, wears a gold chain, and has large, friendly eyes that look permanently amused by whatever you’re doing. His face reacts slowly to things and it makes him seem calm and slightly aloof. He’s instantly likeable.
Then there’s Poonam, the only other girl, who has a lot of metal in her face. It takes a while before we speak. I’m convinced she’s written me off for being vanilla. Then I realise she’s just shy. Hmm, I think, half relieved and half confused, if she’s shy, then how does she work here?
There’s also Felipo, who’s the most silent Italian I’ve ever met. Although to be fair, he’s new too and I don’t think his English is great.
Then there’s Mark, who looks like a metalhead but is sweet, chatty and helpful. He has long, thin hair tied in a ponytail and longer, thinner fingers. And my God, can those fingers move. He plays the flute during lulls in service and they run up and down the instrument like they’re greased. He doesn’t need sheet music, he just plays to the radio.
Mark seems to sense how I’m feeling. He hovers around me, “Are you okay, have you got it? Just remember to hand out the ticket numbers.” Jesus fucking Christ… I can’t do this. “Yeah, of course,” I squeak, “I’m fine!”
Mark frowns and advises me to watch out for the guys later. “It’s disgusting what they say.” He shakes his head. “They come out of the strip clubs… it’s no way to talk to a woman.” Shiiiit.
I’m so busy panicking that I can’t work out what’s bothering me. There’s something about the staff… They’re nice. That’s it. They’re really nice. They’re not lippy, they don’t shout, they don’t banter or slap each other on the back like I imagined they would. Are these the guys who beat back drunks and weirdos and nutters — all those people who collect on the streets after dark?
I don’t have time to work it out. People appear, they just fall out of the night en masse, and I’m suddenly taking order after order. There’s a guy in a long leather trench coat with a jar of pennies. I can’t work out what he’s saying, it’s not helped by the fact he has only one tooth, and it’s an agonising five minutes before Eddie leans over and punches SWEETCORN TOASTIE into the till. Eddie looks at me, “Hey, just calm down, it’s all good.”
I serve a lady wearing nothing but a bra and a crown of flowers, an inked-up silent Korean dude, a steroid-y white guy with raw, scrubbed red skin, some lippy, horny 16-year-olds and a couple of dismissive Chinese businessmen.
It’s going so fast I can’t even stop for a Red Bull. I’m slamming money in, grunting at customers, grease and sweat is running down my neck, and I still can’t work out how to use the till. People get grumpy. I can feel the six luminous green cabbages in the sink watching me like a bowl of eyes. My nose and throat are stinging. Keep it together, don’t cry Vee, you’re fine, you’re fine…
“SHE FUCKED IT UP!” Mark bellows, “SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO GIVE OUT NUMBERS. SORRY BUT SHE FUCKED THE ORDERS UP.” He’s roaring at two drunks, who are apparently missing a milkshake, and he’s pointing at me. I feel my stomach dribble out between my legs.
I forgot to give out the tickets. Oh. Fuck.
Mark is shouting at me. Lovely, soothing, reassuring Mark. The stinging in my eyes is getting worse. I feel like I’m seven again, back at school and constantly being told off by teachers for crying too much.
The drunks reel over. “You fucken… You fucken…” Not the most inspired conversationalists. “You fucken owe me a fucken milkshake you fucken…” I can see tomorrow’s newspaper headline now: Girl, slightly sticky, dies in pool of strawberry milkshake. “You fucken owe me…”
And then I get it. In a moment of hysterical clarity, I understand completely. I look at Mark. He is fearsome, roaring, spitting and taking absolutely no shit from the drunks. He is nothing like the sweet guy who’d showed me how to make tomato sauce stars.
But he is acting. This is a stage. The White Lady is one great, glowing, slightly greasy stage. And this bunch of sweet, friendly oddballs become a crew of cool cats who can handle anything. I get it. It’s all a performance.
It’s dangerous to have an existential revelation when someone’s shouting at you. I return to reality when a globule of spit hits the till. Oh, right. Yes. Time to act.
“You know what, darlin’,” I say, in a Cockney accent that would make my posh English parents weep. “I fucked that up good and proper. Now let me help you out, sugar.” He blinks. “Strawberry milkshake on the house, yeah?” He swallows, “Oh. Thanks.” I hustle up the milkshake and slide it over to him, “a pleasure, sugar, who’s next?”
There’s a reason I’ve morphed into a greasy, girly Michael Caine. I played the cocky Cockney Alfred Doolittle in the play Pygmalion a few months before. I loved the character and really got into it. And now, under pressure, he is rising back out of me unconsciously. I suddenly find myself winking and grinning like Dick Van Dyke on acid.
After that, the night is just magical. They come just as thick and fast as before but now I want them here. This could go on forever.
Four sailors in gold brocade arrive, some lads from the north, some girls who start chanting my name when I give them water. Then there’s the guy struggling to pay with his card. “Just insert it here,” I say, handing him the pad. He snorts. “Insert it here,” he snickers. I lean in, give him a wink and say, “You could insert it anywhere, sweetheart.” He blushes scarlet and giggles.
Then there are the promised strip club boys. They’re lead by a bald guy in a floral shirt and thick Ted Baker frames. They roll up flashing handfuls of paper and shouting.
“Here, darl!” Ah, Aussies. This will be sophisticated. “Can we spend our titty money on you?” Laughter. “Oi, oi, sexy!” Laughter. “Imagine how good you’d look between us, eh!?”
My character slips: “Holy fuck!” I flush. They howl, jubilant that they’ve embarrassed me. Fuck them. They aren’t going to win this.
“Hey boys,” I say, “been at the clubs?”
“Yeah, Penthouse, darl.” I snort. They look surprised. “Don’t wanna go there, darlin’,” I say, drawing out the accent so heavily I half expect to slip into rhyming slang, “you wanna go up to Las Vegas. Oldest strip club in Auckland, the original thing, the real K’ Rd, you know?”
They stare. “How’d you know,” asks floral shirt, “you strip there?”
“Nah, babe, just know my shit better than you,” I wink at him. He’s gone quiet. Yes. We’re even. They hang around for a bit, then just before they leave, floral shirt calls out to me and salutes, “Lady Penelope!”
It is like that for a few hours. I duck backstage for a sneaky Red Bull, then get back up into the throng. The Lady sells about 400 burgers a night and most of those come between 11.30pm and 2.30am. It thins out as you get into the early morning. I’m supposed to clock off at 4am but I keep going. I don’t want it to stop. Max is right; it is like being a rock star.
At 5.10am, I know I have to say goodbye.
As I leave, my head is thumping and my shins feel like they’ve splintered. It’s brilliant.
The White Lady team are such incredible people. I don’t think they are conscious of what they’re doing. I don’t think they realise they are Auckland’s equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. They probably don’t even think of themselves as performing. But my God, what a show they put on. You have to; it’s how you survive.
And I was part of it for a night. I wasn’t my usual shy, awkward and worried self. I, for a few sweaty hours, was one of them.
All the world might be a stage, but we’ve got the best one. It’s a gem, and it’s tucked down an ugly concrete canyon. How typically Auckland.
The White Lady features in the Metro Cheap Eats Top 100 list for 2015.