Thursday, December 15, 2005

the cinemas of summer hill

All over the inner city of Sydney, and especially in the inner west, you find derelict cinemas or ghosts of cinemas. In Petersham there's one that was a skating rink before it closed down; in Haberfield there's another that is a supermarket, at least on the ground floor; in Enmore they saved theirs and it's now a classy venue for music, drama, comedy. Both next door Ashfield and Summer Hill had several cinemas but these are all now ghosts.

The Victoria Theatre was built on Lackey Street, #16-20, around 1911; it was first known as the Rugby Theatre but this name only lasted a year. Before that, as early as 1905, films were shown in the Methodist Church. The Victoria was an odd though not untypical structure, its arched façade, in the only surviving photograph, looks more like a bridge than a theatre, and the screen was initially at the street end rather than the other. This changed just after the war, when it was extensively remodelled. Victoria Pictures, which was always connected with Marrickville to the south and east and was owned by the (probably Lebanese) La Hood family in the 1920s, did not survive the advent of the talkies.

In 1929 building began on a new Summer Hill Theatre at #1 Sloane Street, on the other side of the railway lines from here. The architect was Emil Sodersten and his folly has been described as Spanish baroque frivolity derived from Hollywood; in some views it looks as much arabesque as baroque but it was certainly Spanish in inspiration, with a kind of galleon's poop looming at the front, with the statue of a naked goddess in an arched alcove within.

The Summer Hill Theatre, aka the Grosvenor Theatre, opened in October, 1930. It was one of the largest, if not the largest, cinema in NSW at the time, with seating for 2043 people. Most of the plaster work had been done locally, in Newtown: … extravagantly ornate & eclectic … soaring façade with protruding upper section intricately carved in filigreed plasters … Gothic arches & embellished columns … proscenium and side walls with false boxes, large carved urns and columns ... gargoyles and imitation leafwork … from a dome in the ceiling hung an enormous chandelier, removed ‘for safety’ during WW2 & never put back …

In contemporary photos, looking eastward from Ashfield towards the city, you see this bizarrre, extraordinary palace floating on the skyline. None of the photos I have seen are in colour but I assume it was ochre-coloured, or perhaps, like Petra, rose-pink. The interior was remodelled in 1939 (Gunga Din played at the Gala Opening), and during the 1950s, Cinemascope was installed.

But, like so many other suburban theatres, it did not survive the coming of television. The Grosvenor closed in 1959 (last features: Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and The Heart Within) then lurched, re-opening and closing, through the 1960s. Late in that decade it was used spasmodically to show foreign language films (Bergman? Fellini?) before going dark forever in 1969. It was demolished the next year and the site remained vacant for 15 years. Now, there is a low, oblong, glass box on that corner with, I guess, offices within.

Both of these cinemas are commemorated, if that's the word, in a rather crass mural on a wall in Lackey Street opposite where the Victoria used to be. What's poignant to me about this mural is that it wouldn't be there at all if the 19th century Department Store owned by C. Hodgson & Co., General Importers, that used to stand in that section of the street hadn't been demolished for a carpark, also in the 1970s. There's now an attempt at a park where it used to be, used mostly by the local drunks and druggies and residents of the various halfway houses in Summer Hill.

It's curious to reflect that both the Grosvenor and Hodgsons missed their moment by just a few years. The sensibility that would have valued and preserved them hadn't quite developed by the time they were knocked down but, only a few years later, their loss was felt with intense regret. Me, I try to rebuild them in my mind every time I pass and other times as well; there are days when I come out of the tunnel under the railway line and truly am surprised the Grosvenor is not there where I imagine it to be, a dream palace in which palatial dreams are entertained.


The doorbell rang last night while I was watching Donnie Darko on dvd. Wasn't expecting anyone so answered it with some trepidation. My next door neigbour is hypersensitive and has sometimes knocked me up late to complain about my stereo, my TV, even my children ... no, it was Philip, an English guy, a song-writer, who lives in the next building. He was asking me to join him and his son for a Christmas barbecue, which was a kindly thought. We had a drink and the conversation turned to G, the hypersensitive. Philip told me she has complained to and about every other resident in this building and also some of those in the adjoining building. She writes letters to the Real Estate about our several sins. I was, how shall I say, relieved? Yeah, relieved. It's not just me. G is a classic grievance-monger, you can see by the way she walks that she holds a grudge against the whole world and is always seeking targets against which to discharge her spleen. Live and let live, I say. I've tried to accommodate her, moving the stereo into the study, sometimes not playing music when I want to, keeping it turned down low when I'd rather have it loud, missing dialogue on the TV because it's so muted ... but when she started screaming at me that it was my fault that I had children, something snapped. I'm not, simply not, going to shush my kids for her sake. They're country kids, they're exuberant, they laugh alot, they prefer to run rather than walk down and up the stairs - what's wrong with that? What kind of misery wants to suppress childrens' joie de vivre? Besides, they're only here every second weekend. Now, having heard what Philip had to say, I don't care any more ... today I moved my stereo back into the sitting room, where it belongs.

sign on the corner

For the last week there's been a sign propped up against a lamppost on the corner of this street, Morris, where it meets Smith Street, just opposite the main drag, Lackey Street. An old, frayed, oblong piece of plywood, it has painted on it For Sale, $200 and a mobile phone number. Several times it has fallen down into the gutter or flat onto the footpath, each time someone has picked and propped it up again. But what is for sale? The sign itself? The telephone pole? Or something else? Each time I pass it I'm tempted to ring the number, just to satisfy my curiosity. Until today ... when I saw that it has migrated up the street to where the rubbbish bins stand outside the wall of the medical centre that occupies that corner. Does this mean the sale is over? Is it too late to solve this particular mystery? I feel something has been lost, something perhaps that never was ...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Coledale & Beyond

A friend was over from Auckland for the weekend so on Sunday we decided to take a drive down south to see mutual friends living in Coledale. On the southern edge of Sydney is the Royal National Park, beyond which is a narrow coastal strip beneath a towering scarp. Along this strip is a line of small towns, some of them built where coal mines were, which have, over the years, joined up with each other to make a kind of extended semi-urban strip. Usually when I go down this way I like to cut through the National Park and drive down the strip from the north but Sunday, at the last minute, something made me veer away from the turn-off at Waterfall and continue on down the freeway. It wasn't until we'd gone over the Bulli Pass, down the scarp and driven up the strip from the south that we realised something was up. There was bunting and balloons outside many of the shops and businesses, lots of roadside stalls, brass bands playing, a generally festive atmos ... but not that many people. When we arrived at our friends' place they explained that today was the completion day for a two and a half year long project to replace a narrow stretch of cliff-haunted road with an elegant off shore raised highway structure called the Sea View Bridge. The old road was so vulnerable to rockfall it was closed every time the rainfall gauge went above 20mm and there was a local legend that surfies who wanted undisturbed possession of their beaches used to piss in said rain gauge to make the closures happen. Ten thousand people were alleged to be walking across the newly opened bridge, hence all the excitement further on down the line. But already, at about 1 pm, it was clear the promised bonanza was not going to occur. How could it? Anyone who walked the bridge from north to south wasn't going to keep on walking the extra ten ks or so to Coledale; they were either going to walk back to their cars or catch a return train back or further down the line. By late afternoon, as we returned from a stroll along the shore, the kids at the roadside stalls were looking disconsolate, while the locals gathered in the beer garden at the RSL looked increasingly, though not aggressively, pissed. They'd thrown a party and no-one had come. When my friend and I came to leave, we drove north in the hope that the bridge might still, or already, be open, but no, it was all heavy machinery and officiousness. Later we passed by the turn-off to Cronulla unaware of the race riots in full swing down there as Shire locals defended 'their' beach by insulting and beating innocent fellow Australians just because of they way they looked. And later still ate at a pub in Newtown then had a night cap in the Zanzibar round the corner, still unaware that not far to the south and west, armed gangs were roaming the streets randomly bashing both people and cars in retaliation for what had been done at Cronulla that afternoon. Just south of Coledale is Thirroul, where D H Lawrence lived for a while in the 1920s and wrote his novel Kangaroo, the title of which does not refer to the big marsupial but to a fascist leader of an organisation based upon the New Guard. It's possible, as I mentioned a few posts ago, that John Howard's father was a member of the New Guard. Whether that's so or not, Howard's instincts are fascist and his methods entirely unscrupulous. He attempted in the 1980s to gather electoral support by denigrating Asians in Australia and has spent much of the last five years shoring up his postion via a subtle and not so subtle series of measures designed to bring White Australia together behind him in opposition to Muslims, or People of Middle Eastern Appearance, or Arabs or ... well, anyone who's not us. His immediate response to the riots in Cronulla was to refuse to make a statement. When he did, the next day, the point he chose to emphasize is that Australians are not racist and that this is not a racist country. Why? To reassure those that perpetrated the outrages on Sunday, and those that support them, that he is still their man and that the things that were done there were done in his name too. Most people here think that what happened on the weekend is only the beginning and that the long hot summer that is beginning will be riotous and bloody. The wistful, decent, neighbourly folk of Coledale and beyond might be lucky to miss out on more than just a few sight-seers coming over the Sea View Bridge.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I went to the City of Shadows show on Sunday. It was a disappointment. Instead of what I expected, an exhibition of discreet photographs, most of the works on display had been themed and montaged and were presented in mural form. It was very distracting and also meant that individual images did not usually have individual captions. One whole room was given over to a cartoon strip version of a famous murder, drawn in sequence around the walls with various supporting documents, and some photographs, below. Again, not a clear presentation, or not to me. The only thing I liked was a series of audio-visual pieces running in a loop, with a generous selection of images and a good informative commentary by Peter Doyle, the guy who did a similar thing live at Gleebooks last week. Trouble was, I had my boys with me and they were never going to sit down and watch something like that. Instead, we rambled through the rest of the Justice & Police Museum, which has a number of permanent displays. The kids liked two of these: one, a small room in which are displayed a truly astonishing variety of weapons confiscated by police over the years, most, or all, of which were used in the commission of some gruesome crime or other. The other room they liked - although 'liked' might not be the right word, perhaps I should say were impressed by - was a cell restored to what it would have been in 1890 or so. Cold stone, wooden pallets on the floor, a grim bucket in the corner and nothing else except the heavy steel door with a massive iron bolt on it. This was a holding cell, up to twenty people might end up in there of a night. So, anyway ... I'm going to have to go back, maybe next weekend, and sit there and watch those a/v shows, listen to the commentaries, trying to imagine life in those decades, especially the 1920s and 1930s, for something I want to write ... next year ...

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

City of Shadows

Went last night to a presentation related to an exhibition currently showing at the Justice & Police Museum ... haven't managed to penetrate the security at the Museum and see the show yet, though I've tried, haven't brought the book that goes with the show either, I've just been monitoring the publicity thus far; this was the first chance I had to see some images in a decent format. It was extraordinary.

A few years ago someone found out that there was, stored in a warehouse in Lidcombe, a complete set of photographic negatives taken by police photographers over a period of about six decades. These had somehow become detached from the case notes or crime reports that they illustrated, which have since disappeared, so it is in many cases impossible to discover exactly what or who or where had been photographed and why, increasing the mysterious aura that surrounds many of these images.

The early negatives are on glass plates or on acetate. Crime writer Peter Doyle, who delivered the presentation, has spent years going through some of the ten thousand or so that survive. About three hundred are in the exhibition; one hundred and seventy odd in the handsome book that accompanies it; of the rest, Peter reckons at least three thousand are just as good as those he chose to represent. It is a social cache of unparalleled richness. And this refers only to those that come from the period 1912-48.

It was from this cache that he drew the images he projected last night. He's a relaxed and witty guy, extremely locally knowledgeable about inner city Sydney and he'd had the bright idea of using pictures that had been taken in the immediate environs of where we were, Gleebooks in Glebe Point Road. This meant plenty of people in the audience recognised places he showed and, remarkably, that some could even add information to what was already known.

For instance there were a couple of shots of the small park in the churchyard opposite the old Gleebooks, near the corner of St. Johns Road. Peter thought they represented a murder scene but he didn't know for sure. However, a woman in the audience noticed a gate leading from the park into the churchyard and that tweaked a memory she had of a conversation with a 91 year old local woman who lives in the retirement home behind the church. She'd been asking why there wasn't a gate into the churchyard. The old lady said there was, but they took it away after a murder in the park. We all looked at that gate, half hidden under dark bushes, with an undefined but unmistakable menace in the air.

These were beautifully composed and technically superb photographs. Black and white, natch. Stark, eerie, monumental, grim, tragic, fantastic, haunting. The street scenes particularly. And the portraits. Peter offered a possible explanation for their perceived high aesthetic quality. He suggested that the deliberate choice of directors and cinematographers who made the noir films of the 1940s to imitate the conventions of police photography might account for our response to these images. Retrospectively investing them with qualities aestheticized by Hollywood in the '40's in other words. Interesting suggestion, which he did not insist upon.

He also remarked that police photography between the wars attracted young tyros of the kind who perhaps go into IT these days. Young, hungry, talented go-getters who were at the cutting edge of the art/craft. Someone else pointed out how many times the photographer will compose the photograph so as to catch his or her own image somewhere in the picture: in the round of a hubcap, or a mirrored in a window. These self portraits are always faceless. I just thought the images had been made with skill, passion and a sophistication we sometimes deny the past at the same time as we inflate it in ourselves.

I didn't know that the old Sydney morgue was up at the Rocks, where the Tourist Help Centre is now (ha!). Peter said this morgue wasn't the kind of sanitized place we see on CSI, all bright lights and stainless steel. No, he said, it had in fact a slatted wooden floor, with quite wide gaps between the boards, and in those gaps pieces of viscera or flesh or bone or whatever got caught and there they stayed. The smell was indescribable. A woman sitting just in front of me popped up her hand then. She'd worked in the Justice Department in the 1950s and 1960s and remembered how newly appointed magistrates were always given a tour of the morgue. It was a rite of passage. Oh, Sydney ...

I could go on ... but I won't. One final, astonishing, image. It was of a human skull, with the cap sawn off - expertly trepanned. Inside was what looked like a dried brain, but oddly angular, not the round folds and curls of grey or white matter. What on earth ... ? Peter explained the skull had been exhumed for forensic purposes and inside they had found ... a white ant nest.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Taverner's Hill

Just walked over to Leichhardt to see if there was a de Chirico book in the second hand section at Berkelouw Books ... alas, no, though I saw other wonders: the Zukofskys' translation of Catullus in a handsome Cape Golliard paperback, a Life of Francis Drake, Dylan Thomas's Collected Poems, which I used to own, a first edition ... came away with Michael Jackson's Pieces of Music, a friend's copy of which I read years ago, been looking for one ever since.

To get to there from here you have to walk up and over Taverner's Hill. I was thinking only about Giorgio on the way there (yes, I'm in the grip of an obsession) but on the way back I suddenly realised where I was, in another lost suburb of the big town. I believe the name came because there was a watering hole at the top, where weary carters could rest their horses and wet their whistles on the long haul to or from the City. There's still a pub there, so I went in, just to have a look and a beer if I liked the look. It was full of guys with tats and pony tails, hard-bitten women, watching a boxing match on Sky TV, so gave it a miss.

Coming out I saw the Victorian-Italianate Brighton Hall, 1884, its facade beautifully restored, and wondered briefly what used to happen there; crossing Parramatta Road a little way down I noticed the curbing stones, those old, oblong, roughcut sandstock pieces you find along all the early roads. Remembered one in Chippendale that had the word K I L L cut laboriously into it. Always gave me a chill. From there, you get a lovely view down down to Summer Hill, the church steeple rising above the green trees on this rainy but clearing afternoon.

Walked past Petersham Oval, where Bradman made his first century in Sydney club cricket, 1926. Mean SOB that he was. (Stating that opinion could get you killed some places, including the pub with no beer.) The hillock next to Summer Hillock is Dulwich Hillock, which you can also just see from Taverner's Hill. Where John Howard grew up, the fourth son of an embittered garage owner laid off as a fitter and turner at CSR during the Depression. There is speculation that Lyall Howard was a member of the New Guard, a fascist organisation that flourished in Sydney in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The New Guard were scary: mostly ex-servicemen from WWI, they were a kind of militia, fifty to a hundred thousand strong, with all sorts of daft schemes. One was to kidnap the Labour Premier of NSW, Jack Lang, in 1931 or 2, and hold him prisoner while they took over the government. This plan was thwarted because the Big Fella, courtesy his police chief, had infiltrated the New Guard and knew of the plan. While they waited for his limo on Parramatta Road, Jack drove his own car through the backstreets home to Auburn. Gives a whole new dimension to Howard's nickname, Little Johnny Jackboot; and perhaps also explains his malign obsession with grinding unionised workers into the dust. Or, really, anyone he doesn't like.

But I don't want to linger there. No, it was just at the bottom of Taverner's Hill, as I was turning off the main drag towards Petersham Oval, where a luxury car dealership now stands, I saw shimmer into view the matter of an old photo I once saw, of shops that stood on that corner. Walls thin as paper, pole verandas leaning crazy, dust in the street where a pony stood head down before its cart and spectral children wearing boots and hats bowled a hoop up Flood Street. It was there, just for a moment. Then it wasn't.

Monday, November 21, 2005

man hits dog

Driving over to Randwick last night, stopped at a set of lights, idling, I saw a couple of guys passing round the back of a small flatbed ute parked off the road and crammed with tradesman's gear: a generator, tool boxes, other stuff. There was a dog chained up with the gear, a blue-heeler cross by the look of it, and the guys must have done something because it was going off, yammering, snarling, straining at the leash. The guys stopped, came back and then one of them shaped up, in jest I thought: but no, he took a swing at the dog, clouting it on the side of the head. It was an ugly, hard blow and he did it again and then again, somehow eluding the snarling teeth and the dog's frantic attempts to bite. His mate, who was carrying a long necked bottle of beer, tried to drag him away but he was enjoying himself too much and wanted to do it some more. Just then a big bloke in crisp blue denims and cowboy boots came onto the scene, yelling: Fuck off, you fucking cockheads ... The boxing guy all of a sudden didn't seem so brave but I couldn't see the next bit properly because the lights changed then. Last image, in the rearview, was of the two drunk guys scattering back the way they'd come with the big bloke in denims in pursuit. That's life in Waterloo I guess. Returned the same way some hours later, the ute was still parked in the same place but I couldn't see if the dog was still there or not. Probably was. Poor dog, just doing its job.

Monday, November 14, 2005


... to report that Mary Poppins is back on her plinth in Ashfield Park, bird-headed umbrella, crazy-pattern handbag, scarf, umbrella, boots and all. Dr Rizal, within hailing distance down the way, looks pleased; but I thought I saw a glint in Mary's eye. Despite the extra bolts, rods and bars anchoring her down, and the metal weights rumoured to have been set inside her legs, I suspect she might yet fly again. And, next time, I don't think she'll leave her boots behind.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

heard in the street:

Look at us, coupla sad cunts, walking through Summer Hill. Fuck me ... (laughs)

Friday, November 11, 2005

I washed the car this week. I washed the car! I WASHED THE CAR!!!

(it goes even better now)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The White Lady

Wild in the streets in a white Falcon ... way back in 1991 I think it was, I bought, for $800.00, an off-white 1965 Ford Falcon XP, a model I've always admired and associated with lux and style. Actually running and maintaining a classic car is not the same as admiring one however; now, fourteen years later, while I still own the car, I can't pretend to have restored her to her original glory as I always intended to do. She's out the back as I tap, covered with purple flowers fallen from the jacaranda tree in the next door yard. Mechanically, in pretty good shape: I've had both gear box and engine reconditioned and kept up with all the other dramas associated with old cars bar one: rust. Never sleeps, as we all know. Not sure how bad it is, last time I dared to get a quote it came in at about two and half grand. Plus the interior, apart from the re-upholstered front seat, is a mess. My relationship with this car is complex as any love affair. Many are the times I've thought to sell her; have never in fact even placed an ad. Sometimes she seems almost a part of me; other times, an entity sent to capture and torture me. Despair and exultation in about equal degrees define my feelings towards her. Anyway. The other night, after driving my friend home after the movies, I took the White Lady for a spin. The newly opened and controversial Cross City Tunnel is free for three weeks and I was curious to drive through it. It was dull and even rather tatty for something 'new'. In parts the white tile cladding does not even reach the roof and you can see the deeply scored sandstone that underlies our city. But the car ... went like a dream. Beautiful to drive. When I got the engine reconditioned I found out that she is probably an ex-undercover 1960s police car, because external details re: engine size do not conform to the big 6 motor that's actually under the bonnet. Well, that night, we owned the streets. I felt like just tooling on, south to Eden perhaps, or anywhere really. Now I think, no, whatever happens, I won't sell. I can't. It would be like letting a member of the family go.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

"Bad Faith"

Couple of weeks ago I wrote a fairly disenchanted piece about the exigencies of applying for grants and the awkward consequences that can follow both success and failed attempts; but I didn't post it. The reasons I didn't were partly superstitious, partly rational: I didn't want to spook the progress of the applications I currently had before funding bodies; I didn't want anyone in any way involved in assessing those applications to read what I might have to say about the process. The piece was predicated upon failure because, let's face it, most applications fail. The success rate is usually below twenty percent and often way lower than that. Well, I was wrong. One of my applications succeeded and the amount I'm offered is most generous. This is the first time in this country that I've been given money to pursue a literary work after perhaps a dozen failed attempts; but, while naturally I'm happy about that, the immediate joy is for the fact that I will not now have to go and drive a cab over Christmas, which is what I was going to do. I was dreading it, but had already begun the process of psyching myself up for it; one of the oddest things about the last few days has been realising how difficult it is to de-program myself away from that intention. Guess I'll manage. Other reactions are simply absurd: driving home the other night from The Rose in Chippendale where I'd had a couple of drinks with a couple of friends, I found myself in a mood of intense regret that I wouldn't be wild in the streets in a white Falcon any time soon. I'd gone from unholy dread to piercing nostaliga in a matter of a few days! My original piece about grants was called Bad Faith; should I now admit to that, not only with respect to the things I do to get money, but also towards my own untrustworthy emotions about those things? Probably.

Friday, October 14, 2005

B, D & M

At Births, Deaths and Marriages you have to take a ticket specifying which of these categories you are interested in. I go for Births : A 42 is my number. It is called almost straight away, there's hardly anybody here this wet Wednesday morning. I show my letter of authorisation to the kindly older woman and explain my mission. She demurs. The letter is not enough, I need three forms of ID from the next of kin if the inquiry is to proceed. We spar companionably for a few minutes then I ask if I can see her supervisor. I'm not trying to cause any trouble, I say and I know she replies. While we are talking a startlingly beautiful young woman dressed in purple and green, heavily made up, passes behind and smiles at me. I sit down to wait, wondering who has left their reading glasses on the grey unbacked courtesy couch nearby. An old woman, thin, dark, on crutches, labours up the stairs with an attentive young man beside her. She also smiles, dazzling, she looks excited, she might be one of the Stolen Generation about to solve some mystery of origin. A very tall young man appears behind the screen in the booth with A 42 above it, he is the one who might be able to help me. I explain my mission again, in more detail this time, encouraged when he takes a sheet of paper covered with squiggles and begins to write the information down. The beautiful young woman passes and repasses several times while we are talking, each time with that wonderful smile. The tall young man says he has to copy my ID and, further, I will need to pay a fee so my query can enter the system. How much? I ask. Thirty-one dollars, Boss, he says. I have a weakness for people who call me Boss. I fill out a form while he goes away to check something. The glasses belong to a distracted, middle-aged Asian woman who is also filling out a form at one of the stand-up desks. The atmosphere in the grey anonymous room is full of hope, a buoyant, almost effervescent sense of possibilities about to be fulfilled. The tall young man returns, he says my inquiry can proceed but, if it is successful, I may then, perhaps, he isn't sure, need to get those three forms of ID from the next of kin. He refers my case to another clerk, a balding man in his thirties with a moon face. I don't understand the instructions given this clerk, although I know all the words : some kind of bureaucratic arcana. The clerk processes my form. I give him a fifty dollar note and a one dollar coin. He puts the money in the till but does not offer any change. I wait. After a while I mumble something about my change. He smiles, he hasn't forgotten, it seems the procedure involves an inexplicable delay between receipt of money and the tendering of change. He completes his task and takes from the register a twenty and two fives. I am unsure if he has deliberately undercharged me or made a mistake, but I don't say anything. The beautiful young woman passes for the last time, for the last time I am gifted that gorgeous smile. I want to leap the barrier and embrace her but I don't, I fold the money away in my wallet, thank the clerk and turn to go. I am sure I will see her on the way out, she must either be in one of the other booths or behind the reception desk at the front, there's nowhere else she could go, but no, I'm wrong, she's not, it is as if she has passed into the air. Perhaps she was never there at all I think, going outside into the brightening street and walking away. The tall young man said they would call when and if they found something. So far, two days later, I have heard nothing; yet the trace in my mind is indelible.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Presents Social Dancing and Fellowships At It's Best
Modern, Latin, New Vogue and Old Time.

VENUE: Petersham Town Hall
107 Crystal St. Petersham.

Great Music
Continuous Music
Spacious dance floor
Ample of off-Street Parking

Slow Foxtrot
Cha Cha Cha
Barclay Blues
Tango Terrific

(& on top of the pile of signs not currently in use the word):


Sunday, October 09, 2005

there is joy in being where the angels are

Just took a drive out to Rookwood, the cemetery a few suburbs west of here. It goes Ashfield, Croydon, Burwood, Strathfield, Lidcombe. Running more or less along the southern side of the Western line the whole way until you hit Centenary Drive, a major north-south artery and go left and then right. Through a works depot, past the Lidcombe mail exchange—I nearly got assigned there once years ago when I worked as a postal officer—and in the ornate sandstone and iron lace gates on to fetchingly named Necropolis Drive. Rockwood Necropolis is the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, my Sydway says. It is the final resting place of nearly one million people. That's a lot of bones I think as I drive slowly through open grassy fields where tombstones stand, lean, or topple in all directions. It looks like some crazy chessboard, endless, as if a forgetful god were playing an infinitely complex game with himself before losing interest and going off elsewhere. The day is warm, blue, blustery, a buffetting wind blows from the south west, strong enough to rip small branches off the eucalypts and strew leaves along the paths. I'm not here for any special reason, it's just a recce, I'll probably come back with actual questions to ask some other time; today I just want to get a feel for the place. I go right to the end of Necropolis Drive until it turns into Necropolis Circuit, with the Martyrs Memorial in the middle of it. Round the circuit and there, on the left, I see the old section I've sometimes looked at from Railway Street at night when I've been out in the cab. Down here the tarmac is pot-holed, the seal is disintegrated, it's like being on some country road in the backblocks. I park the car under a tree, get out and start walking amongst the graves. They're mostly from the 1880s, English names ... later I find out it's the Anglican sector, maybe even Old Anglican, because Rookwood is demarcated along religious lines. There seem to be a lot of people native of Manchester. Even the impressive and intact white marble column of the paterfamilias of a Greek family, native of Athens, turns out to have had a Mancunian materfamilias. One of their daughters was Aphrodite, she died young. There are odd names: Glasscock strikes me strangely, as does one Tan Dann, whose monument is so faded I can't make out anything else about him ... or her. As I walk the landscape becomes wilder, the trees bigger, the gravestones more tumbled or, in many cases, missing altogether. I come to a place where a swarm of honey bees has made a hive in a crack in the bole of an old blackbutt tree. Bees start flying into the back of my head as I stand there looking at it. Not far away is a set of commercial hives, about a dozen of them, which seems curious: who harvests honey from the fields of the dead? There is a metallic smell, clean, antiseptic, emenating from these hives, I don't know why. Here's a pond with the headless statue of a young woman in the centre; the water is cloudy with yellow weed and there is a new, newly abandoned brickwork canal leading to and from the pool, which is old. I wonder if this is the bed of a natural stream? Past the pool it's starting to look like real Australian bush and I recall that, when the local authority announced they wanted to clear the bones from some sections so that they could be re-used, conservationists answered that there are unique relict stands of the original flora of the Cumberland Basin in Rookwood, plant communities that no longer exist anywhere else. I turn and go back a different way, walking through fields of knee-high brown grass and wild flowering ixia and spraxia, thinking about snakes. A hare breaks from under a tree and goes drumming away down the hill. I see it sitting at the bottom of the hollow, its long ears raised up. I come to a grave that has been paved with very beautiful old ceramic tiles, some of which have broken or come loose. I pick up a couple of fragments, then very carefully replace them where they were, remembering the last line of Shakespeare's epitaph: Cursed be he who moves my bones even though these are not bones, just tile fragments. Near an enclosure fenced with heavy iron chains, anchors as posts, where sailors are buried, I find the daisies I've been looking for and pick half a dozen. Stark white with purple centres that crimson as they age. I take them back to the car and drive away, randomly. Near the Chapel for the Independents, someone has been practising topiary on the shubbery, cutting the bushes to look like tombstones; they are truly bizarre. Then I'm in the Catholic section, which is shiny and bright and busy, like an open air mall. Later I pass by the crematorium and with a pang recall that I have been here once before, Maundy Thursday, 2003, when Paul's body was burned.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

doubting thomas

When I started to become a taxi driver this time, back in December of last year, on my first day at the school Andrew handed me a Sydway, subtitled Greater Sydney & Blue Mountains Street Directory inc. Picton, Helensburgh & North to Hawkesbury River. I love this book. So much so I will not ever leave it in the car, preferring instead to bring it inside every time I park. Actually, while I always take it out on a taxi shift, I don't usually carry it with me in my own car because I mostly know where I'm going and more or less how to get there. What I love about it is that EVERY STREET is in it. It's like the solution to any mystery can be found here ... I'm aware that only urban geographical mysteries can in fact be solved there, but I have quite a lot of those these days, especially now I am consumed by Local History. However ... one geographical mystery that has intrigued me ever since I came to this town will not be solved with reference to Sydway, although there is in it ample evidence to support the claim of ... mystery. The first street I lived in was Thomas Street, Chippendale. Number Nine (say it backwards ... ) I was astonished one day soon after moving in to find in nearby Ultimo another Thomas Street. And then another in adjoining Haymarket. Sydway lists 27 Thomas Streets and that's not counting the Thomas Places, the Thomas Roads, the Thomas Avenues, the Thomas Lanes nor the solitary Thomas Way. And this pattern of repeated use of a few names is re-repeated, not just in the Sydney metropolitan area but throughout Australia. The Goulburns, the Elizabeths, the Victorias, the Wentworths, the Edwards, the Georges, the Jameses, the Darlings, the Philips ... go on and on. And on. And that's just a few English names. But this is perhaps the point: esteemed and loquacious author Thomas Keneally was in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day wittering on about the fact that Sydney is a Georgian city. Though I find Tom's chipmunk avuncularism hard to take (reminiscent of John Howard's chipmunk deceptionism), he's right and I think in that identification a solution to the mystery of the repeating names might lie; not least because they all have a whiff of the stark descriptive realism of Cook's names which, as time has passed, often reveal a strange poetry: think of Inscription Point, on the southern head of Botany Bay. Think of Botany Bay, for that matter. That repetitive use of street names, in Sydney as elsewhere in this almost-fictive land, seems to suggest that individuality has to be sought elsewhere, not in the nominal but in the - what? The emotional? It could just as well be the experiental. The callers of jobs on the old taxi network would say Thomas Street, Paddington in such a way as to suggest the kind of thing that might happen there was qualitively different, to the nth degree, from what might occur in Thomas Street, Ashfield. Except there is no Thomas Street in Paddington. There is in Ashfield, but. My boss, Chinese Bob, lives just off it, in Alt Street. In a cleft that's christened Alt. I might have to give him a call sometime soon.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Signage in Trafalgar Street


Romantic Furniture/Lounge Manufacturing


Mekarnavale: a Masquerade ball in Three Acts

German Shepherd Dog League


McCallum & Co Pty Ltd/Sintered Alloys Pty Ltd



Annandale Saw Works


Greer & Greer/Estate Agents/560 5000

Petersham Assembly of God/Your Local Australian Christian Church


finish first with Du Pont Du Pont Car Paints/le Mans Car Bay Body Repairs finish first with Du Pont

City Tiling Creations/Bathroom Renovation/We Create Your Dream Bathroom/Fully Insured

This Wall Is Dedicated To Legend - Werd - Unique - Outlaw - & Spence ... Music Boy 2003




Fine Quality Master Print

Enjoy Coca Cola

Colonial Castings/Casti Wrought Iron ... Spearheads Letter Boxes Security Door Panels Rating Panels Furniture Outdoor Lighting Columns Corners Frieze Gates

Glass Reflections/Glass Cut To Size ... Glass Replacement Custom Made Mirrors Car Mirrors Sash Cords Fishtanks

No. 1 Nelson Place/Beware of the Dog

Black-Eyed Peas/Special Guests John Legend/Ru C L/Katalyst


Lanatex Pty Ltd Weaving Mills

Smile Embroidery/Reception Please Enter


& O

Breakthrough Lose Up To 5 Kilos in 30 Days



Tuesday, July 12, 2005


The day after Bob rang to try to persuade me to work in lieu of the mourning Indians, he rang again ... three times. I didn't answer the first two calls, because I suspected I knew why he was calling (he only has my mobile number). And I was right. One night about a month ago I copped a fare on Parramatta Road, going to Narrabeen. It was late, about 11.30. A young woman going home, probably from work. I don't know - she sat in the back, which usually means Not Inclined To Talk. I went the back way through Mosman, quicker at rush hour but not much odds at that time of night. I didn't know there was a speed camera on that stretch until the double tungsten flash - pow-pow! - caught me. Shit. Ever since then I've been waiting for the blow to fall. Bob said it was $75.00 plus (or rather minus) 3 points. They recently reduced the fine and upped the points lost, which I guess is better for cash-poor but points-rich me - I've never lost points before, have had the full 12 forever. Until now. Part of me wants exculpation, to find a way of getting off. I'll tell any lie I have to. The fare was ill, in a hurry, going home to a sick baby, about to give birth ... I thought I was in a 60 k zone (I was in fact doing 61 kph in a 50 k zone) ... there was no-one else around ... anything. I once did elect court for going through a red light camera, pleading poor brakes. And did get off. But another part of me says, ah, fuck it, cop it sweet, pay up, forget. I'm not sure. It isn't the points, it's the fine sticks in my throat. The fare to Narrabeen was a big one, about sixty bucks as I recall; and the miser in me simply does not want to surrender that money to the government. There's time: Bob will call it a 309 and return the ticket to the authorities, who will then write it out in my name. Meanwhile, I have to make up my mind. What should I do?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A phone call this morning from Bob, sounding sombre. How's it going? I asked. Not good, he said. One of his drivers fell off a balcony yesterday and died. An Indian. All his other Indians have gone out in sympathy, as it were. He wanted to know if I could drive today and tomorrow. I said no, I couldn't. And I can't. Bob often says his group of drivers is 'like a family'; now there is a family funeral. I'm trying to think who it could be. The only Indian I recall is the dignified Sikh who drives one of the Legion cabs. Surely not him? Falling drunk off a balcony? Maybe one of the guys out of Ashfield? I may never know.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Lenny's Lawyer

Looks like this will be the last post here for a while - I'm taking a month off driving to finish a writing project. But before I go ... it was interesting watching Bob change the broken wing mirror yesterday afternoon. There were about a dozen facets to the break and together they looked like one of those expanding/contracting aperture mechanisms you find in older style cameras. Each shard crescent-shaped as it fell onto the roadway and was left there to be crunching by passing traffic. I wasn't driving that car last night, and the one I was driving didn't arrive until well after the nominated three o'clock start, so I didn't get on the road until about quarter to four. A late start usually means a slow night but in fact it went like a rocket. I felt oddly nostalgic, it was like being transported back into earlier times when Sydney was a freer, more relaxed and certainly more louche city than it is now. Part of this feeling came from a fare I picked up near Circular Quay around eight o'clock. I was ducking down Albert Street towards the Quay to avoid a traffic jam in Macquarie Street when I saw a couple trying to hail the cab ahead of me. The driver was oblivious, so I sounded my horn and got the fare. A man of about seventy in a suit got in the front, a young black woman in the back. She was laughing at my stratagem, he was fairly well shickered but almost frighteningly coherent. I drove round to the bus station at the Quay, about a hundred metres, and her with the big mouth, as he described her, hopped out. We continued on towards Mosman. He said he'd had a helluva day and I replied that I hoped it was a good one. I'm being blackmailed, he said. These arseholes don't think I know, but I do. Have you ever seen a movie called The Godfather? Well, I'm the guy in the Godfather. He didn't say which guy but later did an excellent imitation of Brando's Don Corleone. It was the speech to the undertaker whose daughter's been raped. You haven't found a horse's head in your bed, have you? I asked but he didn't think that was funny. You probably don't know who Lenny McPherson was, he went on, but I acted for him for thirty years. I learned a lot off Lenny. He said to me once: If I was going to have you killed, I wouldn't tell you. Christ, I thought, I've got Lenny McPherson's lawyer in the cab. Lenny was Sydney's Mr. Big for those thirty years. An old style crim, a hard man, legendary, fearsome and, paradoxically, loved by as many as went in fear of him. According to this guy, he got his start in the illegal casinos that flourished in Surry Hills way back when. Lenny would just walk in and take the money. A guy by the name of Taylor - I missed the first name - decided that, instead of having Lenny on, he would make him part of the organisation. And so it went. There were more stories, which I won't go into here. They were delivered with a precision of speech that had only minimal difficulty overcoming his considerable intoxication. The thing about this guy was that he came from a different world and knew it. Hence his melancholy. Whatever he was being blackmailed about he didn't say, only that he was going to defeat, humiliate and destroy his enemies; but even this rhetoric, delivered with many obscenities, had a kind of weary resignation to it, as if he were making moves that he had long since lost the logic or the passion of. At one moment during the ride, he made a point of looking right at me so that I could see who he was. He had a long hooked nose like the beak of predatory bird and bright dark eyes, also bird-like, set close together, intelligent, bleak, utterly without illusion. They were eyes, I thought, perhaps melodramatically, that were looking death in the face. He was going for dinner with a woman near Spit Junction. When we stopped outside the building, he pulled from his pocket a battered wallet full of nameless bits of paper and many large banknotes. Separated out a twenty then showered a whole lot of shrapnel into my hand. Forget everything I've told you, he said. I'm just an old man reminiscing. And walked off towards the fluorescent lit, blond brick units with his suit jacket hanging down off his thin stooped shoulders the way my father's jackets always fell when he was old.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

between showers

Last night as I drove a couple of hospo nimrods up Devonshire Street in Surry Hills I saw a small car, perhaps a BMW, coming very fast down the hill towards me. And too close, way too close. There was a loud bang and all three of us cried out at once. But all he'd hit was the wing mirror on the driver's side. Those mirrors are sprung, so it snapped inwards. When I wound down the window and snapped it back, I realised it was broken. The glass was still in the frame but there was a four or five facetted star in the centre of the mirror. I called my boss, who suggested I drive out to his place in Ashfield so he could replace it. Take two minutes, he said. Bob's minutes are generally quarter of an hour, plus it was another half hour to get out there. He probably would have given me fifteen dollars downtime, but I could make three times that in an hour, so I decided just to keep going. But the car ... went out in sympathy. Every time the revs dropped, it stalled. If you put it in gear, it would take an age to engage, if it engaged at all. I limped with a fare to Elizabeth Bay then called Bob again. He suggested I look at the hoses under the bonnet. One was a bit loose, so I fixed it on properly but the car still wouldn't go. Take a walk, he said. I wandered round a park down there, smoking a gadang garam. It was greeny dark, everything dripping, the white lights glimmering like in a Delvaux painting. There was a van full of sleeping hippies, the only one awake was the woman at the wheel, reading a book. A guy sitting on the backrest of a park bench talking on his mobile. An old gent in an overcoat, with umbrella, who looked like the fare the radio had just offered me. When I returned to the car it fired up normally and behaved itself until I knocked off about one thirty. A mystery. But for the rest of the night my rearview was a cubist composition of headlights in the rain, distracting both because it was difficult to judge exactly what cars were there and how close they were and also because it was visually intriguing. I kept drifting off into speculative reconstructions of exactly how the shards reflected the images ... perhaps not the best way to negotiate a rainy night in the old town. Nonetheless, the image has stayed with me, as if the composition in the rearview was somehow analogous to the way we see the past, trying to make sense of what's back there in a broken mirror.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

solstice/full moon

Last night I saw a woman sitting in a gutter weeping. I saw another woman, beautiful, heartbreakingly thin, dishevelled, screaming You don't own me! to a man in an Hawaiian shirt. The doorman at the residential hotel sorted him out. In the rearview mirror she was huddled up like a child against a wall, also weeping. I drove down an immaculate nighttime street where outside every other house were placed deck chairs, easy chairs, arm chairs, sofas, as if for a colloquy of ghosts. I heard a man tell his mother she was already at home and, as it was twenty-eight years since he left, no, he would not be back tonight. Then he returned to the difficulties of selling novelty ice-creams. Another man crunched ice cubes so loudly it hurt my ears. A third carried a loaf of sliced white bread in a plastic bag all the way to Lane Cove, returning me to where that ghost furniture was. I thought she said: Take me to L.A. but she was only going to Balmain. All the loonies were out, gnashing their teeth, shouting at the sky, gesticulating ... it was very cold. The music on the radio was atrocious until they started playing the Blues. No-one was being served at the Hungry Wolf. I heard a worker tell the Boss at Teachers Hand Car Wash to slow down or he'd get a heart attack. The woman who sleeps in the bus shelter on the Hume Highway has doubled or maybe tripled her collection of stuffed rubbish bags. It was impossible to descry a human form among the massed shiny lumps piled up and over the shopping trolley. Why was she weeping? Had something happened at the Hospital? I wanted to stop the cab, get out, lift her up and help her on her way, but when the lights changed I just drove on into the other side of midnight.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

strange attractors

One of the odd things about cab driving is that, on any given night, the fact that you have gone to a particular suburb, sometimes a particular street, seems to increase the probability that you will return there. This is something I've noticed often and other drivers have remarked on it too: one guy told me recently he once had three fares in a row to the same street in Paddington. It happened to me yesterday: my first fare of the shift was to Mortdale, where I have never been before; afterwards I drove up the main drag of nearby Penshurst, again a first. About four hours later, there I was again, in Penshurst, dropping off in the exact place I had paused to look around in the afternoon. Both fares I picked up in the City, within two blocks of each other. The logic, or perhaps I should say the mechanism, of this escapes me. Why? Is there some ineluctable convergence at work, some larger, inscrutable, perhaps ultimately meaningless but nevertheless operable, fate determining our movements?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Queen's Birthday

Back in the phantasmagoria ... some Irish chippie who's lost, or left, his tools in the Blue Mountains wants to find a hardware store before tomorrow. A pregnant woman in a hurry to catch her ferry at Circular Quay pours all her change into my hands, including some francs. Three French people at the Avis depot in William Street harrass me all the way into town about the fare on the meter. I pick up a chatty, somewhat troubled guy in Rose Bay and take him into the Star City casino. Turns out he's a cop taking three month's stand down. He says he once had to arrest a guy for a murder way out west somewhere. It was a mafia crime. The guy was packing the .38 he used for the killing, with three shots still in it, and had a loaded .22 automatic in the back seat of his car. Since then, this cop always goes to work with a bullet proof vest on. He says he couldn't do my job without his 9 shot Glock pistol. I say I couldn't do it with one. As I drop him off (he's meeting his 'business partner') he says he won't gamble tonight. Later, much later, on my way back to the depot, I see a Silver Service cab refuse a fare and take it instead. A wild looking Indian guy and a lumpy young woman. They want to go to the McDonalds in Stanmore, the same one where there was a shooting in the carpark not so long ago. I wait among the usual suspects while they pick up their order then take them back to Leichhardt. In Norton Street the guy wants me to stop again. He comes back from the Medical Centre with a packet of condoms. I already know it's a seduction, from the conversation. At the block of flats he wants me to drive into the narrow alley running down the side of the building. He doesn't have the money for the fare. He'll get it. I stare into the bare, blank, fluorescent stairwell while strange electronic music plays on the radio. What'll I do if he doesn't come back? The timer light in the stairwell clicks off then immediately on again. That means he's on his way. With elaborate courtesy, he counts out the fare ... I drive away with the image of his girlfriend's face in my mind: pulpy, bruised looking, as if she was taking psychiatric drugs, her look mingles apology and resignation. A bouncer outside a pub up the road hails me, a little guy in his sixties, maybe, wearing a checked jacket comes puffing down the street. I take him to Rockdale. On the way back up the Princes Highway, at a red light, two homeboys come over to the passenger side window. They're Indian too. Can I take them to Kogarah Station? I can't, it's late, I'm too tired, I'm nearly out of gas ... I abandon them to their fate, whatever it may be. At the late opener in Ashfield I allow myself an after work beer. A very drunk guy playing pool asks for a Gadang Garam then insists on paying 50c for it. He goes on and on about how sweet it tastes. The Greek bouncer and the Chinese bar girl are playing some complex game of flirtation and threat with each other while young hoods confer in the booths. When I finally get home it's after 2 am and the late night movie on ABC is Emir Kusturica's Underground. It's a wedding sequence. Everyone is drunk and abusive. The band revolves on a stand, blowing mad brass riffs. There's a military tank in the cellar. A monkey climbs into the hatch. The monkey's climbed into the tank! someone yells ... I can't handle this. Is it life or art? Or some third thing, made of both? Or of neither ... ?

Saturday, June 11, 2005


Philip Glass's accountant caught a cab one night in New York City. He was astonished to find that his driver was ... Philip Glass. Who explained he needed to get out at night and meet more new people.

An earlier experience with Mr Glass as taxi driver is here ...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Green Cape

I gotta write about this other guy I met yesterday. I was at the rank on Bondi Beach, my favourite rank, you can lean on the sea wall and look out over the ocean towards Aotearoa. There's never anybody there, any other cabs I mean. So I got out to light up a gadang garam (yeah, I cracked, stressed out, bad news ... ) and there was this big guy standing there in a T shirt, sky blue shorts, runners, a milkshake in one hand and a mobile in the other, speaking very loudly about those fuckers in the Immigration Department. Our eyes met and I wondered if he wanted to go somewhere. He was quite dark, black curly hair, maybe Arab, maybe not. His accent though had that wonderful familiar Maori cast to it. Anyway, I smoked and eavesdropped, he talked and then, eventually, having made an arrangment to go round and see who he was calling, cut the connection. Do you want a taxi? I asked. Yeah, man, but finish your smoke. There's no hurry. He was Brazilian. We talked about Césaria Évora. He remembered his grandmother listening to her just a few weeks ago. And other things. Fado. The Cape Verde Islands. Easter Island. He'd been in Australia since he was eleven. Still on a Brazilian passport, but he wanted to go back for a visit, first time since he came, seventeen years ago. Nothing violent, but I've done a few things. B & E mostly. A year inside. Now the fuckers are trying to say if I go back to Brazil, they won't let me in again. But I've sorted it out. It's sweet. He spoke like he did because he works with Maori and Islander guys, fitting steel plates for tunnels and other major constructions. When we got going he said Don't turn the meter on, man, fucking Howard can't tax what he doesn't know about. I know how much it is, it's always four bucks. This is an old Sydney custom, fast dying out ... you decide beforehand what the trip'll cost and travel without the meter ticking. It changes the whole relationship, you instantly become friends sharing a ride, not customer and service provider. The cab turns into a Gypsy Cab, there's a low grade licit thrill even in that. I took him up Bondi Road a ways, stopped outside the Royal on the corner of Denham Street. He produced five bucks from somewhere. We shook hands. Rapanui, he said. Miles from fucking anywhere. How'd those Maoris get there? They paddled, I said. We laughed and said goodbye.


I was at the Bondi Junction rank last evening when a young man in a suit rapped on the boot of the cab. I opened it. He and another guy in a white chef's jacket manhandled an oil heater into the boot. I thought I'd be taking the suit home with his purchase but it was the other guy who got in. We were replacing a defective heater bought that day by a woman in Double Bay. She needed a new one urgently because she was having a dinner party that night. Her place was full of heavy antique furniture and she herself was Austrian or German, about sixty, hair in a French roll, cheerful ... she knew the guy who was delivering the heater because she'd bought some cheese off him that day as well. He was Bulgarian and the buyer in the cheese department at David Jones. Don't ask me why it fell to him to deliver a replacement heater. We talked cheese all the way back from Double Bay to the Junction ... fetta, gorgonzola, stilton rolled off our tongues ... as well as discussing the habits of the wealthy. A nice guy. And a happy man, as happy as only twenty years buying cheese could make him. When he got out, he left me with a blank, signed cab charge docket and a dilemma. How much should I charge David Jones for this service? The $25.25 on the meter or ... something more?

The night before I'd picked up a young fellow at The Object House in Surry Hills, going to Homebush Bay, where he lived in one of the units built to house the contestants at the 2000 Olympics. In his case the Nigerian athletes. He too was travelling on a cab charge docket, as he divulged almost as soon as he got in the cab, which is of course a mistake. This gradually became clear to him while, driving west, we chatted. He realised that the $80.00 fare for the same journey another cab driver had charged him was at least double what the trip was worth. That cabbie had detoured through the North Shore. He was a sweet young guy, just twenty, with a soft, furry attempt at a beard on his chin. He worked for Alpine Offset, who print many of the glossy mags from Kerry Packer's empire. Alpine Offset are notorious in Australia because of a fire at their Homebush plant in 1993. It turned out the facility had just been insured for a sum vastly in excess of its actual value; the owners, a 'prominent' Labor Senator, a 'colourful' stockbroker and one of Packer's executives, banked their shares of the insurance money in numbered Swiss accounts ... millions and millions of dollars.

Anyway. The young guy filled out the cab charge docket for an amount about ten dollars in excess of the metered fare, but still only just over half of the eighty bucks he'd been charged last time. And the David Jones one? I wrote in the sum I needed to make up my pay-in for last night without contributing any actual cash to the envelope ... in other words, I gave myself a tip of about $15.00. Do I feel guilty? No. Am I worried about being caught? Yes. But after all rorting ... is the great Australian sport.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

ghost cab

The first time I drove cabs, back in the 1980s, there was a live radio network, since replaced by computers. Some nights, a chilling voice would come onto this live network. It was low, male, guttural, almost unintelligible and its discourse consisted entirely of threats and obscenities. Perhaps some of these vocal qualities arose out of a desire to alter or disguise the voice - I don't know. There was a sinister chuckle in it that always raised the hackles on my neck. This guy, whoever he was, could not have been an on-the-job cabbie, because the network operators would have found him and thrown him off. He must either have been a disgruntled former driver or a working cabbie on downtime with grievances who, using some kind of CB set-up, had found a way to access the network. His intention was to drive the operators crazy and in this he was entirely successful. They used to become apoplectic when he showed up on the airwaves. I remembered about this guy the other night because of the legend of the ghost cab. The ghost cab is a rogue cab, out there somewhere in the darkness, picking up people who never arrive at their destination. Who is the driver? He's a man without a face and a voice borrowed from hell. There's a black hole in his back seat. He charges everything and gives no change. The number of his cab is 666. And so on ... well, there I was on the Bondi Junction rank, vaguely entertaining these gothic notions, when I looked up and saw a cab hurry past the line of us waiting. Number T666. It was an ordinary white Falcon with the yellow and black livery of Combined Services, which is the company I drive for. High-tailing up the hill with that peculiar kick-up-the-heels look of a taxi in a hurry. All I could see of the guy behind the wheel was a shadow hunched under a cap. He was Vacant. I nearly pulled out of the line and followed him ... & then decided, no. Some things are better left alone.

Friday, May 27, 2005

bracket creep

The other night after finishing work I called into the bottleshop of the Summer Hill Hotel to buy a bottle of red. The woman who serves there noticed my new cap and spoke to me in Greek. I laughed and shook my head. I just like these Greek fisherman's hats, I said. I paid for the wine with some of the massive amount of silver I'd gathered during the shift - one guy made up most of an eleven dollar fare with 50c pieces - and as I piled the coins onto the counter she smiled and said: Getting rid of the bracket creep, eh? Isn't that brilliant? I'll never be able to think of it simply as change again.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


I was at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Crows Nest, waiting for a guy to collect his X Rays before taking him on to Royal North Shore Hospital in St. Leonards, when a radio job came through at the adjoining Royal North Shore Private Hospital. A Greek couple, going to Killara. By the time I got there, they'd gone. A woman eating an enormous sandwich came over. Was I her cab? She was going to Narrabeen. I said no, then, not very long after, yes. She apologised for eating in the car, saying it was two days since she had. Fasting all the previous day, in hospital all today, giving blood tests, waiting for her Op, which was cancelled at the last minute ... just ten minutes after her husband, who'd waited with her all day, had gone home. The surgeon had rung from the operating theatre where he was cutting out someone's cancer to say his present job was going to take another couple of hours and it would be better if she just went home. She was quite upset, she said, then apologised. It was to be her fourth Op in two years, she'd really had to psych herself up for it, now it was cancelled, she didn't know when it would be re-scehduled for, she'd used up all her sick pay ... I'm sorry, she said. I shouldn't be telling you all this. I'm sorry. She never said what was wrong with her, only that it meant she and her husband would never be able to have children. She was fearful of just about everything, yet oddly resigned as well. Those parts of Mona Vale Road where it narrows to two lanes and passes through dark eucalypt forest on either side made her particularly afraid. Well, she explained, I'm not really worried, it's just that these days I expect anything can happen. Anything bad, she meant. I took extra care on those bits. We were coming round a bend in the dark carriage way when I saw a sandstone dome floating against the night sky. As if disembodied there. A blue light shone from the apex of the cupola. Then it was gone again. We came round another corner and there, shining straight down along the road, was a huge yellow moon, slightly gibbous, a day or maybe two after full. You could see all its craters and seas. Oh, the moon! I said. She did not reply. She was holding herself against the dark places on the road. The dome reappeared on the left, much larger, enormous, as if a piece of London had come down here. It was the Bahai Temple I have seen many times from the train on the Central Coast line, from where it always looks white like a mosque. I wanted to pull in and stop the car, get out, with my fare, and ... I don't know, not pray, just seek a little calm I guess. Some grace. We hurried on, down the hill to Narrabeen and through a maze of brand new streets, brand new identical brick houses, until we got to where she lived. The house was dark. Her husband was out. She had no key. She had no money or cards either - you can't take anything to hospital, she apologised. I saw her bent over the flower pot by the front door, a grotesque shadow. She was only stroking her cat. She crossed the road to a neighbour's house, the neighbour came out with a credit card and paid for her. The cat almost got under the wheels of the car as I pulled away, driving on into the yellow of the moon that was smaller already, whiter, casting a bony light down over the black glinting sea.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

slow night

First night back at work last night after my two weeks off. Well, actually, it was more like three. I knew it would be hard ... such a slow night. No cigarettes to mark the breaks between fares. A different cab, which had something wrong with its electrics, meaning I couldn't risk turning the motor off after the first time, when I only got it started again with the help of a guy on the Park Street rank, rocking the car up and down as I worked the ignition. A succession of blank fares, first time I think I've ever had a night without at least one person wanting to engage in conversation. And bugger all money ... if it wasn't for a guy I took out to Pennant Hills, and another, a sweet young American/Polynesian who was farewelled by her boyfriend at the Opera House and wanted to go to Regents Park, I would have come home out of pocket. As it was, I was passing my base about 10.30, on my way back to the City from Regents Park, when I decided to call in, fill up with gas and see what was the story with the electrics. Couldn't get the car to start again. I called my boss, Bob, who came straight down to check it out. And, since he didn't seem to be getting anywhere, bailed and came home. He called me later to say the cab was fine, no problem, just don't use air conditioning, too much for battery ... we'll see. I have to drive the same car tonight.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


... . A few years ago, brain scans of London cabbies showed that the detailed mental maps they had built up in the course of navigating their city's complicated streets were apparent in their brains. Not only was the posterior hippocampus - one area of the brain where spatial representations are stored - larger in the drivers; the increase in size was proportional to the number of years they had been on the job.

... there is also accumulating evidence that the brain can change autonomously, in response to its own internal signals. Last year, Tibetan Buddhist monks, with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, submitted to functional magnetic resonance imaging as they practiced ''compassion meditation,'' which is aimed at achieving a mental state of pure loving kindness toward all beings. The brain scans showed only a slight effect in novice meditators. But for monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation, the differences in brain function were striking. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the locus of joy, overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the locus of anxiety. Activity was also heightened in the areas of the brain that direct planned motion: ''... as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress ... ''

from the NY Times

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Crook as Rookwood

No d(é)rives this week - I've had to take the time to try once more to whip this screenplay into shape. Given how much I complain about the job, if mostly only to myself, it's surprising to feel some regret as the phantasmagoria recedes for the nonce. How perverse ... meanwhile I console myself by drawing up a book proposal based partly around cab-driving. I've been plotting it for a while, thinking it was a film, but it crystallised the other night in conversation with an amused and amusing Englishman, from a village near Leeds, whom I took up to the Gordon railway station. I was telling him about Chinese Bob, my boss, whom I like a lot, and his mate Frank, whom I've also worked for, and a third, even more shadowy character called Tony. They're all Chinese. Tony, like Frank, runs his cabs out of the carpark of the Ashfield RSL club. He's quite stylish in his dress, apart from the Andy Capp he usually wears pulled down over his eyes; and somehow sinister. Frank has missing teeth, is handsome and plausible but untrustworthy. Bob's a straight up guy, or at least I think he is. I tried to sketch these characters to the guy from Leeds and he went off on a jag of his own, about how their operation was a front, they were money-laundering, it was really a drug business. And I thought, why not? That's great. It fits in with the plot I'm developing, about a cab driver who goes missing and another cabbie, his mate, who sets off to find out what's happened. There's other elements: a failing script consultancy business the disappeared cabbie ran; a complicated family situation; the old mental asylum at Rozelle, which has something to do with the last job (script consultancy, not cab driving) the guy had and may be the actual place he went missing; the necropolis at Rookwood, which I drove by on my last job Wednesday night. Felt the chill air rising over the old graves as we whistled by. Would be great to get the phantasmagoria, which it truly is, somehow into words ... then I could call my darg, research. And feel like I was being paid twice. But no, that'd be two jobs for the one wage, wouldn't it? Oh, well ...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

mighty dread

I never go out to drive without a sense of dread, even impending catastrophe. Why is this? Nothing bad has happened to me yet and I trust will not. No, it is more psychological, some deep conflict between how I would like to imagine myself existing in the world and how, incontrovertibly, I do. And yet the feeling soon passes, I settle into the rhythm of the shift, the rhythm, let it be said, of the pursuit of money. Plus the ancillary social research I cannot help following. Every fare is a question or a conundrum. Who are they? Where are they going? Why? I am always trying to find out as much as I can about the Other(s) in these relatively brief commercial transactions. Because I work through the evening rush hour and also because I pick up most of my fares in the City, I get a lot of business people in the cab. Most of them do not interact with me in any meaningful way. Mostly they use the travelling time to catch up with calls on their mobiles. Or, if there is more than one of them and they are colleagues, they discuss work matters between themselves. The language of business is at once highly metaphorical and deadly dull. Phrases recur ... 'up to the next level' (architecture?); 'driving the process' (transport?); 'put our beefs on the table' (culinary?); and so on. What is perhaps interesting is that this language is almost entirely uninflected by whatever line of business is being pursued. In fact it is sometimes difficult to discover the line of business at all. Whether it is sports promotion, health care products, banking, travel ... does not matter much insofar as the language itself is concerned. The universal subtext, largely assumed, almost never explicitly discussed, is the acquisition of wealth by means of struggle. 'Teams' use 'strategies' to 'get a win'. The sporting metaphor, derived ultimately from the practice of war, is ubiquitous, overarching. It too is never questioned. It is also, obviously, deeply implicit in the way we conduct politics in our so-called liberal democracies. Sometimes this world of contending factions in pursuit of wealth can seem very strange, sometimes I start to see it as if from very far away, like an alien observer of an equally alien culture. Every time I drive over the Anzac Bridge, which is a magnificent structure, and see the car-choked lanes of traffic heading towards and away from the lighted towers of the City, I experience a kind of vertigo, as if I really were from some other planet than this and could see with completely different eyes. The massed, serried ranks of red tail-lights heading one way, the similarly massed yellow-white array of head-lights going the other, can look very weird. This strangeness, this stimmung, is crystalised for me in an image: away to the left if I'm going to the City, on the vast flat wharfs of the Glebe Island Container Terminal, sit hundreds, perhaps thousands of brand new vehicles, cars, utilities, vans, all painted white, all awaiting their turn to navigate the already terminally hardened arteries of this steel and concrete body, whose heart, the City, is made neither of stone, nor light, nor even language, but of some ineluctable substance, some ether or electricity, of which we humans are also a part. Then my feeling of dread returns, no longer for myself but for all of us; and, mixed in with it, a sense of wonder.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

high on the hog

Aaaaaahhhh ... the weekend. Is blessed relief. However. I seem to have arrived at a way of working that works. Three nights, about nine hours a night (3 pm - midnight) during which I don't stop for anything except the odd cigarette, usually on a rank so that I'm still in contention. This because I found that every time I made a pitstop it took up to an hour to rediscover the serendipidities - or stochastics - or whatever. Every night is the same, only different; or different, but the same. The thing I'm most pleased about is that I'm managing to keep my resolve to be pleasant to my fares no matter what the provocations may be ... though I nearly lost it the other night. I picked up three people on Macquarie Street. Two men and a woman. They'd been to a restaurant, were fairly well liquored but clearly used to it. A big, bluff, red-faced man got into the front seat, the other two in the back. That took a while. They were old and unsteady. Once in they began to discuss who would be dropped off first. That took even longer. I didn't mind - the meter was running. He in the front was going to Darling Point. He in the back, a little old guy clutching a biography of newspaper magnate Conrad Black, lived in Elizabeth Bay. She, tiny and elegant, with an accent that might have been Viennese, was from Bellevue Hill. The obvious way to do it would have been Elizabeth Bay, Darling Point, Bellevue Hill. But he in the back was having none of it. He wanted to escort her home. So that's what we did, dropping first in Darling Point. The two men were well-heeled, complacent, with the braying Brit accents of the born to rule. Doctors or lawyers, or at least those they talked about were. London, Morocco, the south of France ... flitted by. Darling Point, Woollahra, Bondi Junction, too. The old couple canoodled in the back seat for a while outside the mansion in Benelong Crescent. They were sweet and tender, like young lovers of another era, with a curious formality to their endearments. But as soon as she had gone, he changed. He became querulous and demanding. He was too hot. 'Turn on the air conditioning, driver,' he ordered. I did. But still he wasn't comfortable. Not surprising - he was wearing a three piece suit on a sultry Sydney night and the air-con still isn't working properly. 'The air-con's not working properly,' I said. 'Why not?' he said. 'Probably the fluid needs replacing,' I said. 'You could try opening the window.' He grumbled as he did. Next: 'Are we going to Elizabeth Bay?' I didn't answer that one. As we entered Oxford Street, Paddington, he began muttering. 'Oh I see. We are.' Then: 'This is a very long way.' He had a point - I was using the old route, as I often do, not the new, slightly quicker one. On the other hand, there isn't much to choose between them. Two sides of a trapezium are much the same as the other two sides. And at that time of night ... At the end of Elizabeth Bay Road he said: 'Number 93, driver. On the corner.' I couldn't see any corner - the road ends in a semi-circular turn around. '93!' he shrieked. 'On the corner!' I saw the big bright numerals on the gates to the mansion and pulled over. We did the business. 'Goodnight,' he said. 'Goodnight,' I said. But he mustn't have heard me. 'I said, Goodnight!' he repeated, in his imperious accent. It was at this point I nearly lost it. I turned round and looked him in the eye, making sure he could see me too. I'm capable of a cold imperious gaze myself. 'Goodnight,' I said. He got the look. A moment of uncertainty, perhaps? His own unpleasant behaviour reflected in the eyes of a servant? Perhaps not. He was still muttering as he trailed off into the night, Conrad Black tucked under his arm.

Ninety Years On

Because it was a Monday this year, and I do Mondays, I worked Anzac Day. A big night for cabbies. Cash flying all over the place, sometimes seemingly unconnected to human hands or pockets. Couple of things struck me: the City was full of young guys in suits wearing medals. I picked up several of them. One of them told me he was 34 but didn't say which campaign he served on. If he was born about 1970, what could it have been? The First Gulf War? East Timor? Iraq? Another one said that Anzac Day was the best day of the year, better than Christmas. He and his wife had woken at one am, too excited to go back to sleep. He said last year he was crawling on his hands and knees back to Cronulla by 6 pm but was pacing himself better this year. These young guys - in their twenties or thirties - were extremely polite no matter how drunk they were, they had a strong sense of entitlement, though friendly they all had a remote quality, as if they breathed a different air from the rest of us. They were part of a self conscious elite I guess, a military caste. Later on I took a couple of truckies far out west. They said the same thing: Anzac Day is the best day of the year, better than Christmas. They'd been to the Dawn Service at Brighton le Sands, then played two-up somewhere else, then gone to The Rocks, where I picked them up. It wasn't clear if they'd served or not. But they were part of the emotion of the day, no doubt. At one point in the evening, waiting on a rank mid-town, I watched a young Aboriginal woman in a party dress savagely kicking a full water bottle the length of Park Street. By that time the whole City looked like a vast open-air public bar, drunks everywhere, men and women in uniform clasped together staggering by, old diggers threading their fragile way through the melee to their rides: was the war over or had it not yet begun? Or is it some kind of perpetual state now? I couldn't help thinking of Our Leader, driving in his limo down to Anzac Cove on a road specially constructed for him by the Turkish Government ... over, literally, the bones of the dead.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Total Recall?

This week, for the first time, I achieved my target amount within the hours I’ve allotted to cab driving … a celebration is in order perhaps? Instead, I thought I’d attempt an account of the last night, Wednesday, of my three day week. For what it’s worth …

The air-con is still not working. The day driver had an accident on Saturday and now the cab’s a mobile sauna. The internal light’s blown and there’s a headlight out as well. I’ll have to drive with the windows down which means I won’t hear the radio as well as I’d like. Oh, well.

About 3.30 pm I pick up a Pommie chippie outside Central Station and take him to Kings Cross, where he lives. He tells me that when he started working in Australia, his first pay packet came at the end of his first week, not after three weeks as it would have in England, plus one week’s Australian wages was double what three week’s English wages would have been. In ten years, he’s never been back. Why would he? ($10)

Around the corner are three Japanese tourists, young, well-dressed men. I take them to Circular Quay. ($12)

At the rank in Chifley Square, from which you can see, surrounded by palms, the giant, perforated metal cut out sculpture of Ben Chifley – as if shot full of holes by all that has happened since he proclaimed the light on the hill – I get a fare to Market and Kent. A businessman making a delivery. He speaks confidently on his mobile to an associate he’s meeting in ten minutes at the Niko (?) Hotel then confesses to me he has no idea where it is. Nor do I. And it’s not in the street directory either. ($8)

At the Park Street rank I pick up a guy going to Lindfield. Overweight, black – or rather light brown – American, he's in IT. He spends the trip making work calls on his mobile. He pays with an Amex and when I cheekily ask him for a tip (the request comes up automatically on the terminal menu) he says crisply, no. ($40)

A young couple, seeming diffident, hail me as I drive away after dropping off the IT guy. Turns out they’re hiding a trolley full of shopping, thinking no cabbie will stop if he sees it. I don’t care – a fare’s a fare. I take them to Roseville. ($10)

I’m being harassed by the computer over a couple of small jobs in Chatswood, which I don’t want because I don’t know where they are and would take ages to find. But I head for there anyway. In Archer Street I get offered a job in … Archer Street. A diminutive, roly poly country doctor, a Pacific Islander by the look of him, perhaps a descendant of someone blackbirded out of Melanesia, he’s from the Northern Rivers and has eye trouble. I take him from the surgery to a private hospital in Killara. ($20)

Another radio job … Killara to the Airport. One of those plums cabbies dream of, worth at least fifty bucks, specially welcome since I would probably otherwise have driven back to the City vacant. She’s a nice woman, a South African, who starts out asking me about the safety screen I sit within, like the Pope in his Popemobile, and ends up receiving a full confession of recent complications in my personal life. I can’t believe I’m telling her all this, some of which I’ve never articulated to anyone before. She’s a psychologist, she tells me finally, almost apologetically. As she hands over the money I think I should be paying her; I feel so much better. ($60)

On the way back up O’Riordan Street, heading to the City, I cop a hail to Alice Street in Newtown. A young guy going home from work. Nice guy. ($10)

As I’m dropping off another radio job comes through. Newtown to the City. It’s the Street of Crooked Houses a friend showed me when we were tripping one time. Unseen again from that day to this. But I don’t have time to look around, this couple booked the cab for the wrong time and they’re late for dinner. He gives me meticulous, even pedantic directions all the way and keeps changing his mind about what route he wants to take. She gives me a large tip when I let them off at Circular Quay. ($25)

Back at Chifley Square I don’t even have time to stretch my legs. A sweet young woman going home to Mosman after work climbs into the back seat. When we get close she says turn left at the next lights, by the Caltex Station, but there are no lights there and no Caltex Station, just a derelict yellow Midas sign. ($25)

I head straight back to the City and pick up a hail in Bridge Street. A businessman going to the Airport, a young guy who seems inordinately pleased with himself. But I don’t know why because he doesn’t speak to me. ($25)

I’m out of cigarettes so, back in the City, I stop off and buy a packet of Gadang Garam at the Chinese tobacconist next to the Kebab place by Scruffy Murphy’s in Goulburn Street. I go looking for a rank where I can have a smoke and still stay in contention for a job, but I’m hailed outside a pub almost as soon as I get back in the cab. Guy’s a bit drunk. He makes a call on his mobile, speaking baby talk, so I think he must be talking to his kid. When he gets off he says, in a normal voice, shit, I’m in trouble. It was his wife he was talking to. She’s Thai. He’s from Clapham, London, and works for Ernst Young. We talk about real estate values and immigration issues all the way to Bronte. (There’s been computer messages all night about a fare someone dropped off in Bronte yesterday. Sounds like a police matter. I was working in the Eastern Suburbs at that time but I didn’t pick up at the Coogee Bay Hotel. I’ll never know what this is about.) ($20)

I go to the Bondi Junction rank where I finally get a chance to smoke a cigarette. The rank is packed, and slow-moving. I watch a young couple manhandling a huge fluffy toy, a brown bear, into a Tobacco Station across the road. It’s bigger than she is. Reach the head at last and take a seemingly unhappy woman in her thirties to Vaucluse. She’s very nice to me, the way unhappy people sometimes are nice to strangers. ($15)

A radio job, Vaucluse to Rose Bay. I take it. But I misread the map and end up in Watsons Bay instead. Vaucluse is a maze and I get hopelessly lost. I’ve just about sorted it out when the walkie talkie crackles into life. A truly absurd dialogue ensues, with the despatcher trying to find out how long I’m going to be and me trying to tell her I’ll be there as soon as she stops hassling me. Turns out I’m nearly outside the house anyway. Three scantily dressed, heavily made up, violently perfumed teenage girls trip down the path from a mansion. Young as they are, they already assume the incontrovertible authority of the wealthy. The one in the front asks me to turn on the internal light so she can check her look in the mirror. They argue about the route. When we get there, one says, stop before the party; another says, no, drive past so we can get a look. There’s nothing to see – just another mansion. They dispute amongst themselves about the fare then underpay. ($8)

Another job off the radio, Bellevue Hill to Bondi Beach. An older guy, smelling of sweet port wine. ($10)

A hail on Bondi Road. Two English women, also going to party. We stop at a servo so they can buy cigarettes along the way. ($6)

I go back to Bondi Beach, intending to park on the rank, have another smoke and listen to the ocean for a while. As I pull up a young guy opens the door. Thanks for stopping, he says. I hadn’t even seen him. I take him to Redfern. ($25)

I’m very tired. You can’t really do this sort of thing on five hour’s sleep. Plus I haven’t eaten. My last job last night I nearly went through a red light in Enmore, could have killed both my fare and myself. She was talking about Rotorua and I was thinking about Tarawera. I go up to The Rocks, have a pee in the Hero of Waterloo and stop outside for a while, smoking and listening to the pianist doing Tom Waits’ "Jersey Girl" then Dylan’s "Make You Feel My Love". He’s a shit singer but plays piano nicely.

I get a hail in Bridge Street, a non-descript young guy with a packet of white sliced bread in his hand. God knows why. He’s going to the Park Hyatt in College Street. ($9).

I really should head home now but, after leaving the Hyatt, I have to turn left into Oxford Street, where I’m hailed straightaway by two young dudes. They’re drunk but not aggressive. There is a lot of clinking from their bags and I figure that they’ve probably been pinching glasses from wherever they’ve been drinking. They’re work mates, one more senior than the other, and they have a startlingly explicit conversation about the women in their office. Detailed discussion of anatomical features plus lurid scenarios of possible action … I tune out. One gets off at the tennis courts in Rose Bay, the other I take to yet another mansion in Vaucluse. ($25)

That’s it. 11.30. I’m definitely going home now. FBI are doing a Crosby, Stills and Nash special on The Bug-Eyed Highway, their late night country music show. I turn it up full blast as I roll through Double Bay. "We are stardust/Billion year old carbon/We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden …" I couldn’t do this job without the radio. The City’s full of cabs cruising vacant, all the ranks are jammed up. I get another hail on Parramatta Road, two young blokes who’ve been at a gig. They’re cool. And Stanmore’s on my way. ($12)

I have to fill the tank up with gas - $20 – and put aside $130 for Chinese Bob, whose cab it is I drive. I’ve travelled 230 kilometres and made $375, which means my take home is $225. Or thereabouts. The young Iraqi guy, always so immaculate at the beginning of a shift, now looks tired and rumpled. We exchange mute, weary smiles. I buy a bottle of beer from the Summer Hill Hotel and go home to make myself some salami and tomato cheese melts.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Not so much feeding my head perhaps as unloading it of random images of nights in the life. Writing as a process of forgetting, in the way that the character of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", a malign immortal, records phenomena so that they can then be erased forever from the memory of time. Images without provenance, without explanation ... a curly-haired man lying face down, possibly dead, on a concrete slab in the lurid yellow neon light of the next door Church of Christ, Rockdale, with desultory police gathered and a slow ambulance on the way ... while down a nearby alley a man runs hectically toward the scene of the crime ... a Silver Service cab (they are the elite among taxis, immaculate Fairlanes with liveried drivers) stopped on Broadway with the back left hand door open as a young woman in a party dress bends over a pool of vomit glittering like jewels on the kerb and in the gutter ... a young Japanese hooker with meaty thighs striding towards an apartment building in Ward Avenue while her sixty year old John, who looks like Norman Mailer, pays off the cabbie and follows her in ... four drunk people in Kings Cross, three women and a man, throwing balled up paper bags at the cab in front ... they have been celebrating a day shooting a low budget movie, maybe a porno flick, and want to go to Paddington ... a couple having a leaden, nasty fight in the back seat after attending the World Premiere of the new Nicole Kidman film "The Interpreter" ... she fell asleep ten minutes in and snored and blames him for not waking her ... a man standing in the middle of Darlinghurst Road at the corner of Oxford Street, arms raised in praise at the way the night wind moves in the dark leaves of the trees outside the old jail ... the car-wash men, Arabs stripped to the waist with fags stuck in their mouths, manically hosing and soaping and wiping down and polishing the once grimy cabs under stark white fluorescents at the Ampol Station in Five Dock ... the guy who sleeps sitting down and bolstered in a complicated arrangement of bags while leaning forward into a shopping trolley in a bus shelter on the Hume Highway, whom I pass every night on my way home ...

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Last night, late, I took a young woman up to St. Ives on Sydney's leafy far north shore. She paid with an Amex card and a strange twist to her face, half apology, half pride. Perhaps she thought I'd rather have cash. As she was getting out, she looked back and found something sitting on the back seat. It clearly wasn't hers so she handed it to me: a small oblong wooden box with a marbled inlay top. As I drove away through the white-lit yet somehow dark, deserted streets - like a Delvaux painting perhaps - through which occasional sleek expensive cars hissed, I picked the box up and gave it a shake. It rattled thinly. I got momentarily lost; I was running out of gas; so I put it aside until I found a 24 hour servo on nearby Mona Vale Road. While the car was filling I took another look at the box and discovered the sliding mechanism that opens it. Inside were pills: one and a half of them. They are pale green, smaller than an Aspro but not quite as small as a Valium. On one side of the whole tablet are the letters APO; on the other, WAR 2.5. What are they? Who left them there? Shall I try one? Maybe the half, on the weekend? The box is nicely made, with a small heart burnt into the base; inside there is a residue of pill-dust, as if it has been used to carry supplies of whatever it is for a long time. When I was lost up the wrong end of Warrimo Avenue where it turns into deadend Timbarra Road, a rabbit skittered across in front of the cab and disappeared into the darkness of Kuringai Chase, a wilderness of bush stretching all the way north to the Hawkesbury River. Must have been the coincidence of rabbit and pillbox, plus I'm reading Alice in Wonderland to my sons, that gave me the song I can't get out of my head today:

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice
When she was just small

When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's off with her head
Remember what the doormouse said:
"Feed your head
Feed your head ... "

Monday, April 04, 2005


In the previous post I probably should have written 'psychogeography' instead of 'social geography'. Which term comes out of Situationist practice with a provenance going back to the Surrealists, especially Breton's 'Nadja' and Aragon's 'Paris Peasant'. Current practitioners include Iain Sinclair with his exploratory journeys about London and the wild texts that document them. Probably John Birmingham's 'Leviathan,' a biography of Sydney which I still haven't read yet, is an example of the genre too. The dérive ('drift') as I understand it is a random walk in which you notice and interrogate everything you come across, consciously tracking your way through a forest of signs. Every night driving is a kind of inadvertent dérive (d'rive?) during which your unstructured bounce around the city and suburbs is at once both utterly meaningless and deeply meaningful ... trouble is, there's never enough time to reflect upon those signs you do manage to see, as opposed to merely encountering. I remember how I used to make a point of recalling in detail each night's peregrination at the end of a shift, but I'm too distracted at the moment to do that, so I just bring home those bits and pieces that stay with me, for whatever reason. So much of the city has altered in my time away from driving that I'm constantly finding myself at dead ends, in blocked off streets, taking turns I can't take or else driving along roads I don't want to be on. Other times, when I'm vacant, I'll visit parts of the city I love to see how they're getting on; it's surprising how often these random quests do result in fares. You find these dark solitary figures down dark solitary streets who want to go back to the bright lights. But it can go the other way too. I took a small risk yesterday, doing a U turn across traffic lights to pick up a couple of blokes in Bondi, one of whom said, in a thick, maybe Scottish accent, 'Pyrmont'. So off we went crawling through the atrocious after-football traffic all the way across town - third time in a row for me. I thought they seemed rather sanguine about the way the fare on the meter was climbing and I also wondered what they were muttering to each other in their unbreakable accent code which was hard even to hear with them both in the back seat and both fairly well shickered too. Anyway, Pyrmont ... I used to know it intimately and in fact in my last book, 'Chronicle of the Unsung', I practised a bit of psychogeography upon its then mostly derelict streets ... before I'd ever heard the term. It's unrecognisable now, casinos, hotels, TV studios and apartment blocks have replaced the vacant lots, crumbling industrial sites, disused churches, grimy pubs and marginal squats. Jones Road used to lead to the quarry where much of the stone for Sydney's grand Regency and Victorian buildings was cut but now, when I finally found it again, it's a street of brand new apartment buildings with a leafy park and a sandstone massif at the end. These guys didn't look like they lived in this kind of place and nor did they. As I pulled up and switched on the internal light they each popped their respective doors and took off into the greenery, skinny arms pumping. Shit! Thirty bucks just ran away, I thought. The bastards. In the instant I realised they'd not only planned it but must have tried it before. It was a perfect spot to do a runner. I didn't follow them - that'd be asking for trouble. I just turned around and drove back to the corner, where four young English women were waiting with a quite incredible amount of luggage to go to the Goldsbrough building ... which used to be the largest woolstore in the southern hemisphere, owned by the wonderfully named Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort but is now another luxe apartment building. So I didn't make the rent last night. I was thirty dollars short.