'Roy' the saviour of city's nightlife

Obituary | John Henry May | Roy May

Last updated 05:00 05/01/2012

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John Henry May,

b Melbourne, August 20, 1936;

m Irene Thomas; 1s, 3 stepdaughters;

d Wellington, December 6, 2011, aged 75.

Wellingtonians rarely called John May by his Christian name - he was known simply as "Roy". He was the night-owl low-budget culinary saviour for the city's late night workers and revellers who ran Roy's Burger Bar.

Everyone from the city's rich and famous to taxi drivers, policemen, firemen, overnight garbos, bus drivers, barmen, gamblers, drunks and down-and-outs had a special place in Mr May's late night lifestyle.

From 1973 to 1991 he ran one of the very few places in the city, located next to the old New City Hotel in Kent Tce, where you could get a decent round-the-clock feed. Long before the super-sized multinational burger chains had been heard of in Wellington, Mr May cornered the market with his steak and onion sandwich, hamburger, mushroom burger and fish and chip specials.

From the back of his shop, now part of Bats Theatre, he had a way of connecting with his customers. His servings were mega-calorie and in his early days customers regularly returned to the shop to complain about food falling out of the bottom of the paper bags he served the hearty fare in. He solved the problem by ordering staff to triple-bag everything which went out the door.

A happily married man with one son and three stepdaughters, there was a special place in his heart for members of the city's colourful fringe communities.

A former staff member recalled one particular night when a woman, who looked as though she had just come from the Opera House, arrived in the fast food outlet opposite the old toilet complex known as the Taj Mahal. "What would you like, Madam," Mr May inquired?

The response cracked up Mr May and everyone else in the shop. "Guv'vus a pack of Rothmans, mate," the beautiful- looking, impeccably dressed "lady" with the husky voice intoned.

The firemen based at the Oriental Pde station were more conventional customers. They particularly liked the fact that Mr May had one of the first snowfreeze icecream machines in the city, which provided their dessert requirements.

Mr May was a man with a social conscience. He always opened Roy's on Christmas Day to help feed the homeless. It was no accident that his fridge door was covered in worthless chits from people unable to pay for their meals, pledging undying loyalty and promising to pay him.

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A person who could never resign himself to becoming a wage slave, Mr May entered the fast- food business in midlife after finding himself burnt out of a corporate world environment.

In 1982, he married Irene Thomas, a woman who brought routine to his caring charisma. She had three daughters, who were all willing part-time workers at Roy's. A year later, they had their only son, Fraser.

Before his days at Roy's Mr May, a chemical engineer, gave his all for carpet and cosmetics companies in Australia and New Zealand. His corporate career ended metaphorically in the same way his career at Roy's did in 1991. Put simply, it is possible to be burnt out in more ways than one.

But Mr May, a talented tennis and squash player with the Thorndon Club and a man whose drinking team had a major ski problem on Mt Ruapehu, was not one to allow burnout to get the better of him.

In the early 1990s he opened a bookshop in Lambton Quay and worked round-the-clock in an effort to return Roy's to a state of solvency after a devastating fire broke out in a fat vat.

In the mid-1990s, with the burger and bookshop businesses behind him, Mr May, an upmarket, classy version of Harold Steptoe, turned his hobby of collecting things into a new retirement venture.

An inveterate collector, he naturally gravitated towards work at Downtown Self Storage in Hutt Rd, where he was able to store his own "priceless" artefacts while working the front desk and helping develop the business.

His Wadestown home featured adventure playground-type rickety platforms built at all sorts of odd angles. Family members struggled to reclaim areas of space from boxes half-filled with his "treasures".

He possessed a beaver's special understanding of how a perfect universe should be. There was a use for everything - be it nuts, bolts, screws, paper, cardboard or plastic. Everything had to be kept as it might prove useful one day.

Throughout his life as a hard- working would-be entrepreneur he developed a disrespect for bureaucracy while soldiering on in his many ventures. In the last three months of his life Mr May's anti-establishment leanings came to the fore after he celebrated his 75th birthday.

His eyesight was not great, and despite learning the eye chart in his doctor's surgery off by heart, he was unable to obtain a special continuation of his driver's licence from officialdom. Licence or no licence, Mr May decided he would continue to drive (past the police station twice a day to deliver and collect his wife from work).

Inevitably, the highway patrol boys caught up with him two weeks before his death as he drove along Aotea Quay following a trip to an automotive spare parts shop in the Hutt Valley. His keys were removed, he was driven to his wife's workplace, politely told not to drive without a special licence and possibly ticketed.

Suffice to say the "don't drive" message fell upon Mr May's incorrigible "hear no evil" deaf ears.

The next time he met up with the law was during a routine "sudden death" investigation as he lay dead on the floor (following a heart attack) of his home in the early hours of December 6. Mr May's friends say he would have been happy with the manner of his own departure, for he had remained active and continued to drive until the day he died.

But most importantly, for the proud gold-card holder, this caring family man managed to dodge the possible fine for driving without a special licence. TIM DONOGHUE

Sources: Irene May, Fraser May, Jocelyn Scott, Libbie Persico, Helen Rae.

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