Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Youbert Hormozi

Today I set in process the things I need to do to renew my taxi driver licence. It will take a few months and cost half a grand but I feel I must keep that option alive, even though I've not had to earn money driving for the last six months and won't have to for the next six either. Was disconcerting to turn on ABC news tonight and see/hear the top story was about a disabled cabbie beaten to death last night at Canley Vale in the south west of the City. He seems to have been an unlucky man, having been in trouble several times before - we don't know what it is that makes some people vulnerable to this kind of violence while others escape the dread consequences of being out and about in the big shitty late at night. The boss of his network said: The guy is not really healthy because he had a stroke on his left side ... he was a lonely man actually, he was living on his own, and he was a very simple man. He was robbed at gunpoint a few times and he was still going on working because he had nothing to do but drive cabs. His name was Youbert Hormozi. He was 53 years old, Iranian, separated, with two children. He lived in Summer Hill.

Monday, January 30, 2006


After the Chinese New Year party on Sunday me and Liamh drove to Strathfield to catch the train to Woy Woy. On the platform a madman in a stained suit with missing teeth thrust his face right up to mine enunciating soundless words accompanied with florid incomprehensible gestures. When we got on the train, Liamh was still clutching in his hand the red envelope he had been given at the party, with a golden ship on the outside and a gift of money within. On the two seats opposite were a young man and a young woman; he, thin and dark with a narrow beard running from the centre of his bottom lip to his chin, cried out when he saw us: That's one of those lucky envelopes, isn't it? Did you get it at Darling Harbour? No, I said, we've been at a friend's place ... He was exuberant and charming and the conversation between us continued intermittently for the rest of the hour's journey to Woy Woy. Sometimes his girlfriend wanted a cuddle, sometimes they conversed together in low voices, sometimes he stared out the window; most of the rest of the time we talked.

He lived at the top of the ridge above the quarry at Wondabyne, in a camp where he had a tent, a fireplace and a stretch of open ground that he cleared himself in the Brisbane Water National Park. The tent was recent, he'd inherited from someone who had, he said, gone down the river with a hole in the back of his head; before that, he'd lived in a cave where quolls ran over his body at night. Wondabyne is just a trainstop on the Newcastle line where it winds up the western shore of a long inlet off the Hawkesbury River called Mullet Creek. No roads go to Wondabyne, there are no shops or public buildings of any kind, just the sandstone quarry and a few dwellings, most of them on the other side of the water and accessible only by boat. This guy had been there six months, since last August, waiting until a house came up, though he never said exactly what that meant.

His routine was, to get up every morning and come down the hill to the station and catch a train into town. He'd spend the day in the city - doing what, he never said, beyond mentioning that he asked people for money and when he had enough, ten dollars, he'd use that to get a feed - then catch another train home. That morning he'd been late and had run down the hill in his boxer shorts carrying his clothes in his hands ... until brought up short by a brown snake, one of the most poisonous reptiles in the world. This one, he said, didn't want to move, not even when he poked a stick at it, so he'd had to wait. It was too early to go home today - Sunday, 5.30 or thereabouts - so they were going up to Woy, to a mate's place, and would go back to Wondie later. He'd light a fire, to keep the dogs and bad spirits away, and be fast asleep by ten.

Climbing up to the top of the ridge in that country isn't easy. I haven't been in the bush above Mullet Creek but I've wandered all over the Hope Range, on the northern bank of the Hawkesbury just east of there, and it's the same kind of terrain. Basically all those ranges consist of three massive tiers of sandstone, like three giant steps. It's generally impossible to go straight up, you have to go along a diagonal and even then there's a lot of scrambling over crumbly outcrops to do. This guy reckoned he could make the four kilometre climb in about forty minutes in the dark, using the flashlight on his mobile phone for guidance; he said he could come down, like this morning, snakes permitting, in eight minutes.

We talked about the fires that burned through a lot of that country on New Years Day, reaching the ridge next to the one he's on before the change came through; about the wild dogs that haunt the National Park; the varieties of snake, both venomous and not, you find up there; other wild life, like the extremely annoying brush turkey and the sweet and affecting Echidna, a monotreme like the playpus, covered in spines ... he has a cross bow, with a licence, with which he once shot a Big Red, that he butchered and gave to his mates in Woy for their dogs: dogs love kangaroo, he said. I was left unsure if he also has a gun, because when I asked him he said he didn't have a licence for one and left it at that.

His only problem was with the old bloke who lives in the house next to the quarry, who wants to move him on. He said: the only thing that'd move me on is if he killed me ... and ... he's not going to do that, I said. Earlier I'd heard him telling his girlfriend that because he was half Aborigine the land was half his anyway, that's why he felt he had a right to live in and off it. Just before we entered the last tunnel before Woy he pointed out the deep green pool at the very tip of Mullet Creek which some old white guy had shown him, where you could fish for mullet and blackfish and bream and always come back with something. Ate so much fish I'm sick of it, he said as the train flashed out of the light and he turned his attention back to his dark and silent girlfriend.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Marco Polo Motel

The new screenplay I'm about to start drafting opens in a room at the Marco Polo motel, a real place just a few blocks from here on Parramatta Road. I chose it because of the name, of course, but until yesterday had never actually been there. I walked over in the misty afternoon rain, weather I find so much pleasanter than the dry heat we were having in the last days of 2005. The motel is big, oblong, set back slightly from the road, four or five storeys high, built, as some prisons are, around a central courtyard which is also a carpark. It's made out of brick, not quite blond, not red either, some umber in between colour. The office is on the right just as you go in. There was an overweight person sitting on a bench outside whom I took to be a woman because of the size of (her) breasts; only later did I realise he was a bloke and they were man-breasts. Walking into the office was like walking into a John Waters movie. Tiny, it was, and full of people. The first one I saw was a woman straight out of the early 1960s: stark white pancake make-up, inches thick, black bouffant hair so lacquered it looked like one of those plastic Beatles wigs, black slacks, slip-on shoes: a classic Widgie look. She smiled at me and I saw with a shock that she was about seventy years old. There was a child, whom I never quite saw, and then another woman swam into view, with the same make-up, the same hair, the same black slacks and slip-ons. Except she was twenty or thirty years younger. There was also a big bloke with a piece of carved greenstone round his neck, working at a computer and a dapper older gent with a sly insinuating smile which was the result, I learned when I spoke to him, of oddly fitted false teeth. All of these people were swirling around the tiny space, all talking at once; and then suddenly the room cleared and I was left with the younger of the two widgies. I explained that I was thinking of booking a room for friends coming to stay from London and she gave me two electronic keys to view a couple of rooms. It always shocks me, when I haven't been in one for a while, how small and mean motel rooms are. These were umber brick on the inside too, cell-like, with the bare minimum of space, the tiny bathroom, the double bed you have to edge around to get to the window, the garish bedspread, the ubiquitous TV ... out the window was a desolate view of the back yard of a business where rubber dinghies and aluminium runabouts called Tinnies were made. There was nothing to look at, nothing to see, and I felt disconsolate, trying to fit the activities I had imagined for that first scene into such a miniscule place ... back to Reception I went. There, the little bloke with the false teeth was behind the desk and the big bloke with the pounamu was still hanging round the computer. We got talking ... they were all New Zealanders: the guy with the false teeth was married to the elder Widgie, the younger was their daughter; the big bloke was a guest, over from Hokitika. We talked about the South Island, because Teeth was originally from way down that way, from Riverton, west of Invercargill. Well, it was pleasant enough and I was soon on my way, back through the rainy streets ... there's no way I can use the actual location for the motel room scene, although the carpark is interesting, but my dilemma now is, can I use the name? If I hadn't have gone in there I'd have no qualms but now, having met the owners, having looked a little way into their lives, I feel implicated, I feel unsure ... I don't know ...

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Rio

On the corner of this and Smith Street is a Medical Centre, owned by someone my friend M calls the Little Mogul. He's a Portuguese who also owns and operates the pharmacy in Lackey Street, above which M and her partner J live. He also owns a fair amount of other real estate in Summer Hill. Above the Medical Centre is a pathologist's office. Next door, is Francois's International Hair Salon. Francoise, who surely is not French, parks his car, a silver Holden Astra, at the back of my building. He's a big, gloomy man who looks like he comes from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Next door to his establishment is the Rio, a milk bar. Next door to that there's a bespoke tailor, a cafe - Muse - with a photographer's upstairs, Ellen's (trissy) Interiors and Flowers, a mysterious, always shuttered office which purports to belong to a courier business, then an art gallery that shows oddly retro art, the kind of thing I used to see in Art Society exhibitions in Wellington, New Zealand, in the 1970s, when it was already old-fashioned. (This is a real connection, since one of those 1970s Wellington artists, Shay Docking, has been exhibited here in Summer Hill.) Then a plumber, a garage, a laundry (Nice & Clean, it's called, run by a Vietnamese couple with two young children; I get my washing done there) and finally an orthodontist that advertises mouthguards in any colour you choose. The first two buildings, which include in their frontages all the businesses mentioned as far as the plumbers but excluding the Medical Centre, are old (1893) two storey brick constructions, with residential apartments upstairs. I never see anyone coming or going from these residences, nor have I ever seen anyone on the balconies or at the windows of what look like spacious and probably quite elegant apartments. With one exception - the Old Man who runs The Rio.

I don't know his name. I've never spoken to him. M told me he's from Eastern Europe, probably the Balkans, probably from what used to be called the former Yugoslavia. White-haired, slow-moving, intent, I see him sometimes moving round his shop when I pass by. The Rio is a classic 1950s milk bar, not the kind with tables to sit at, the kind where you used to buy your sweets and drinks, your milk-shakes and ice-creams, over the counter and then go somewhere else to consume them. It's painted blue and white on the outside, the paint is old and tacky, the signage ancient. Sweets, Smokes it says. In the window, cut out pictures of novelty ice creams pasted onto a piece of styrofoam. Some tattered silver tinsel frames half the glass. An Australian flag in one corner. There are coloured stars stuck here and there. Inside, large bottles of soft drink are placed at intervals along the shelves. The shop, which is always half-dark, has a high counter along one side, and on the shelves behind it, more wares are placed at careful intervals. A step leads up to the door that goes into the room behind the shop. The Rio opens regularly each morning except Sunday, and stays open until the early evening. It is usually empty of both customers and owner. In fact, apart from the owner, I have never seen anyone in there at all.

I've only been into the shop once myself. It was last summer. I had my sons with me and two colleagues were visiting to talk about a screenplay. One of them had her two children, older than mine, with her. So there were seven of us, three adults, four children, going to get ice creams. A bell rang as we entered the darkened shop. We stood at the counter, waiting. Nothing happened. No-one came to serve us, there was no sound from the back room, no movement. We stood. Waiting. It was as if we had stepped into some other time, perhaps a January afternoon in 1958. It was endless. Nothing kept on happening. Eventually, we left and went across the road to the shop on the other corner, a mixed business run by a Chinese couple, Tom and Tina, and bought our ice creams there.

J, who has lived in Summer Hill for longer than I have, says the Old Man buys his supplies in bulk from the local Franklin's supermarket. He is of the opinion that the Rio is not really a shop at all, but an art installation. That makes sense from one point of view, but is it the point of view of the Old Man? No-one knows. M has another story about him. She observed, one Christmas morning a few years ago, a large group of people of all ages crowding into the shop and then upstairs where the Old Man lives by himself. They were his extended family. The sound of celebrations continued for most of the day. He takes such care of his business, eccentric as it is. He works hard at it, if by work we understand the attentiveness that he surely gives it. The time we stood waiting for the ice creams he had decided not to sell to us, I never for a moment thought that he did not know we were there. I could feel his presence in the back room, monitoring us, waiting for us to go. That I haven't gone in there again is, I think, out of respect. I think that's why none of the locals go in there. Yet the Rio is always open.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Iron Cove

Christmas Day, we (my sister, her daughter, my two sons, me) had a picnic in Callen Park, which is a former 19th century estate re-invented as an insane asylum and now uneasily poised between three functions: the rump of a psychiatric hospital, housing mainly dementia patients, in ugly mid-20th century buildings; an Art College in the beautiful old sandstone edifice of the original asylum; and public land, used mainly by exercisers and their dogs. The NSW Writers Centre is also to be found there, an adjunct to the Art College.

We sat under an old elm tree at the edge of a playing field with an arm of the sea across the open grass arena. There were a few other picnickers around, and, behind us, in the nearest building, we could hear a Christmas party going on, with table tennis being played by kids on a veranda. When I went over there with my elder boy to find a bathroom, these people turned out to be a large extended family of Spaniards, some of whose members were perhaps employed as nurses in the institution.

It was hot and dry and, after lunch, I thought we might perhaps go for a swim. Me and Jesse and Liamh ran over the spiky grass, jumped a ditch, crossed the road and then went under trees down to the water's edge. There's a low sea wall running all along the eastern shore of Iron Cove. We took off our shirts and climbed down using the gaps between the sandstone blocks as foot and hand holds. So far so good. But the sea bottom was rocky and uneven and almost every rock encrusted with oyster shells, some live, others broken open and razor sharp.

I carried Liamh out, trying to find a path that Jesse could follow into the deeper water but somehow we both got cut: me with a series of parallel grazes along the top of my left foot just back of the big toe, he with a short deep slice right in the meat at the head of the same toe on his right foot. As we all three drifted out into the bay, Jesse was cross, blaming me for his injury. It wasn't that serious, more bantering, as we decided to swim, not for the island in the middle of the Cove, but to a point east of where we were.

Then he said (dog-paddling and spluttering): Unlike you, I know my purpose in life, and I value it.

Wha ... ? I was silenced. What the hell did that mean? He's just turned nine.

Subsequently we made it to shore and inspected our wounds, which weren't too bad. His reminded him of those devices in which you swipe credit cards and mine, though superficial, produced far more blood and so looked a lot worse than his did. Then an obliging dog came along and both boys started throwing sticks out into the water for it, which it expertly retrieved. I went back to the picnic.

Later I asked Jesse what his purpose in life is?

It's to show my father that I'm a serious person, he said, silencing me again.

Monday, January 02, 2006


New Year's Eve had the bright idea of walking the kids down to Ashfield Park where, from Ormond Street running parallel on the eastern border, there is an improbable view of Sydney Harbour Bridge, around which the annual fireworks display is concentrated. Having discovered they were not interested in Elvis (there was a re-run of the excellent program Classic Albums on TV), at about 8.40 we gathered up our sparklers and went out. It was a balmy night, heavy with the scent of frangi pani. We crossed Liverpool Road and went up Pembroke Street to the park, to find an amazing scene in progress. Ormond Street was packed with people who'd had the same idea as we did ... and the playground in the park adjoining, the one presided over by Mary Poppins, was packed with children, lithe dark shapes swarming in and over and around the equipment. The crowd was about half Indian and half Chinese, with just a sprinkling of Anglos and one or two Polynesian families. I was surprised by the number of Indians, only because in Ashfield itself I'm less aware of their presence than I am of the Chinese and Polynesians. Anyway, it was a very nice atmos, about as far from the usual boozing, boasting and brawling as can be imagined. The fireworks display itself, at that distance, was as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope: perfect, far away, miniatures. The much vaunted heart on the bridge we could not see at all, or perhaps that went off at midnight, whereas this was the nine o'clock kid's show. After it was over, we lit up our sparklers, giving one to a small Chinese girl of about two who had perhaps, from the way her eyes shone, not seen one before. Then my boys dispersed among the great crowd of other children. Jesse soon linked up with a Polynesian kid called Dillon, then they were joined by a chubby Chinese boy and started roaming round in a gang; while Liamh tagged along when he could, with frequent visits back to home base for reassurance. I was sitting up on a bank on some grass under a tree when a young Indian couple with two kids came and sat down nearby. I'd been watching the father helping his son onto the flying fox, just as I'd been helping mine a few minutes before. He made a greeting, I replied, saying I hoped 2006 would be a good year for him. He laughed. I've been hoping that for ten years now, he said. For me, it's longer than that, I said. That is what we live on, he went on, hopes, and laughed again. His wife, who was plump as he was thin, gathered her sari around her. Their children were small and it was time for them to go. We hung around for another hour or so I guess, before ambling home again. It was such a calm, happy, even joyful, occcasion. Pure joy, like you don't often find.