Thursday, October 30, 2008

wrong side of the tracks

Where I live is bisected by the railway line, the Great Western, that goes all the way to Perth. Some days I see the Indian Pacific pulling through Summer Hill station at about 3 pm - a long silver train that might have a truck or two of new cars or tractors behind the eight or ten passenger carriages. Naturally I always want to jump on it but it doesn't stop here and anyway I don't have a ticket. It's probably cheaper to fly. Certainly faster. My trips are more local. Today was good. I went out in the misty rain at a few minutes after eleven and bought a Croydon return for $3.60. Actually I got off at Ashfield, to return some library books - 4 Asterix, 1 Alexander the Great, 1 Paraguay. I always scan the new books rack for interesting titles but today, nada. As I was going out a woman behind the desk hailed me. That was unusual, librarians usually only do that if you're breaking some rule; but she wanted to talk about my umbrella. It's a 'pard umbrella and she's a 'pard fanatic. Even has 'pard candles. I couldn't really imagine what leopard skin candles are like but there you are: the rich tapestry of the quotidian. I was actually on my way to buy a Bible, which was exciting in itself. The New Testament in the New English Bible version. I'd found it Monday ($9.00) in a 2nd hand shop in Croydon called AB Books but had asked the guy to hang on to it while I investigated the possibility of an Old or a volume that included both. The Old, found on the internet, arrived by courier this morning so naturally I was keen to get the New. It wasn't until I got home that I realised that neither includes the Apocrypha, which I may have to get next in a separate volume, I don't know. I've wanted to own the New English Bible for quite a while now, because that's the version that Colin McCahon used for most of his text paintings from about 1969 onwards. His wife Anne gave him a copy. There's two second hand bookshops down there, just past the Ashfield pool where I swim, and I'm always likely to visit one or both while the endorphins are still percolating through my system. I bought the New off the old English hippie guy, said hello to his wife who might be stroke-impaired, but didn't stop in at the bookbinders ... he is an American but for some reason I always think he's Dutch and last time I was in there he had an assistant wearing a yarmulke so there must be a Jewish connection. He, the American, came out here in the 1960s or perhaps 1970s with a whole collection of contemporary American poetry, some of which is still on his shelves - he was a Charles Olson fan; perhaps he'd lived in Worcester. Anyway I kept on walking up to the shops on the wrong side of the tracks at Croydon which are an enduring fascination. There are all sorts of strange fly-by-night businesses here in the shadow of the Presbyterian Lady's College . . . an art gallery that has exhibitions on the wall but is never open ... some artist's studio across the road with street windows you can look into to see the works in progress ... a school teaching make-up for film and TV ... various disreputable looking lawyers and accountants offices ... an old-fashioned watch-makers that is also never open ... a place painted shocking pink where they make cakes but not for sale to the public ... some kind of Greek hall from 1915 that still operates but as what? This is Edwin Street where an epochal battle took place a little while ago as a brothel at #93 sought legality and was bitterly opposed by local residents and businesses. Far as I know it still operates, without the appurtenances of legality but with the stunning publicity the case gave them. Round the corner is, to my mind, the strangest building of all: a classic old deco brick pub from the 1930s that has been made over as a facility of the aforementioned Presbyterian Lady's College up the road a bit. I always want to blunder in there for a drink until I realise I've never seen a pub this clean ... oh, well, I have a Bible in my bag and a train to catch. I go down onto the station to wait, reading, to pass the time, a bit of Revelations: Behold, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye shall see him, and among them those who pierced him: and all the peoples of the world shall lament in remorse. So it shall be. Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Take me now ...

I have a good old friend recently returned to Sydney after quite a few years away. Without going into detail I can say those years were not easy for her, not easy at all - now that she's back perhaps things will improve, who knows. Anyway some of us put on a dinner for her Saturday night but in the end she couldn't come - a major cleaning blitz at her new place led to an attack of sciatica so that was that. When I heard she wouldn't be going I thought, just for a nano-second, that perhaps I shouldn't either. The sore throat I'd had for a couple of days hadn't got any worse but it hadn't gone away either. But off I went and had a great time, only to find, on leaving, that the sore throat had turned into some kind of inferno which made breathing unlikely and speech impossible. I was walking home from Marrickville at about 2.30 am through surreally darkened and beautifully deserted streets and all I could think about was lozenges. Picked some up at the all night servo on the corner of Wardell Street before staggering the rest of the way to Summer Hill. Well. I've had sore throats before, who hasn't? Never had one like this though. All day yesterday I thought of what my friend says when the question of aging and all of its indignities comes up. Take me now! she says and laughs her silvery laugh. The fact that last week I had a check-up and all of my results came back disappointingly normal seemed beside the point: I could hear my train a-comin' ... The perhaps comical side of this is that I'm off to NZ for ten days on Thursday, during which time I'll do a few readings: how do you read without a voice? How do you even go to the bank? Thought of pushing a note across the counter, then thought better of it. Sometimes, on random occasions, I open my mouth and attempt speech: nothing comes out that anything except a toad would respond to. Call me toad, then. And take me now.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Peculiar Human Race

This particular story begins last week when my younger son Liamh calls me and asks if I want him and his bro Jesse to spend next Sunday with me or can they go on the City to Surf? Takes a while to work out what this means but in the end I do. We arrange that they'll come here for the weekend as usual Friday arvo and then early Sunday morning I'll take them into the City to rendezvous with their Mum and a few other people so they can do the run - or rather, for their group, the walk. I don't really want to surrender the Sunday with them but nor is there any tiny part of me that wants to join the race to Bondi ... so ... Saturday I call their mother to confirm the arrangements for Sunday and find out that she's sick, a headache or something, and isn't going. When the boys hear this their faces both fall and Jesse almost starts to cry. Funny the way they always look like their mother when they cry, is that because they've seen her do it when they've probably never seen me? Even tho' I like to think I'm a New Age Guy and can, and do, cry ... ? Anyway, I say - knowing it's stupid, knowing I'll regret it - that'll I'll go with them. Smiles all round and we fall to the happy work of planning. Next morning we cram into the carriage of the 8.02 to Central along with various athletic types with their Numbers and Uniforms and Water Bottles and Heartbeat Monitors and Portable Entertainment Systems. They look weird in amongst the hungover Goths and other Party People sagging on the seats all mascara and sweat-stained after their night out dancing. There's even a guy dressed in red as some kind of super hero reading the Sunday paper and he's not a party person, he's going in the race. Apparently dressing up is one of the things people do ... we get to the Archibald fountain in Hyde Park a bit before 8.45 and stand around with the all sorts that we'll be walking to Bondi with ... two people dressed as FEET (a right and a left) with an escort of Ninjas, for instance. A couple of ANZ ATMs. Someone done up as a Purple Star who at one point takes the costume off and lies by the fountain panting even though it's a chilly morning and the cloud hasn't burnt off yet. She's a bit chubby and is with the Starlight Foundation. Our party of about a dozen, it turns out, is representing BDSRA - The Australian Chapter of Batten Disease Support and Research Association. I know nothing about this beyond the fact that my kids have been doing a bit of collecting for charity in Pearl Beach with a fellow named Philip. I meet Philip, who's in his thirties perhaps, a paediatrician at Newcastle Hospital and a tireless campaigner in support of those who have Batten Disease. You always wonder about adults that your children hang around with so I take a good look at him. He's personable and friendly enough and reminds of an over grown kid himself. That's clearly how the other children relate to him - my two, a 12 year old called Cody who had a brother who died of the disease, another about 9 called Cameron. Philip's parents are there, he's like a big kid with them too. Also Cody's mother Vanessa, she has a sweet face and reminds me of my friend Jean from Norfolk Island whom I haven't seen for years. A couple of blonde women who might be mother and daughter. I smile at them but somehow fail to introduce myself. It takes bloody ages for our 'race' to start, we sort of mill around for a while then queue with literally thousands of others outside St Mary's cathedral while some loud smarmy voice through a vast PA tries to ginger us up for what's ahead. Even before we reach the start line this voice tells us that the first of the runners has already crossed the finish line at Bondi, 42 minutes after the real race began at 9.00 am. Oh well, doesn't matter, we finally reach the corner of Park and William and we're off ... ! Straggling down the main drag towards Kings Cross. First thing I notice is the trail of garments littering the road - Paradise for Hobos, Jesse shrills and it turns out he's right. One of the traditions of the race is that you discard your over garments as you run and the Smith Family follows up later and collects them to give to the poor. This is not the only litter trail of course, there are the plastic bottles and plastic cups, millions of them and then there are all sorts of other strange things. Liamh finds a tiny running shoe, about an inch long, and each of the kids manages to souvenir one of those reflector / lane divider things set into municipal roads to guide traffic. I like looking in the tarseal for the things that have become trapped there - coins, keys, a padlock, the tines of a metal fork, a defunct watch face. It's actually quite fun to be swinging along the highway where usually only the vehicular traffic goes, the wrong way through the tunnel under Kings Cross and on down the hill to Rushcutters Bay. Funny people though - every dagg you never saw is out today with their dream of an athleticism that, for most of us, our lumpy bodies can do nothing but deny. There's a couple ball room dancing the whole way, that looks tedious beyond belief but they seem determined to stick it out. There go the ATMs. There go the FEET with their escort of Ninjas, it seems to have something to do with a podiatry clinic. There's a Viking all in black with two women in lycra bodysuits as an escort, I can't work out what that's about. I hear a sound like birds twittering and four Japanese women dressed as Geisha go by with running shoes instead of geta showing incongruously on their feet below their kimono. Philip is collecting for Batten Disease along the way, he likes to have a kid or two attending when he asks for money so we keep stopping to importune the rich partying on their balconies in Double Bay and then again in Rose Bay. At the drinks stations the gutters literally flow with Gatorade, something I never imagined I would see. Coming up Heartbreak Hill on the other side of Rose Bay we are ambushed by an offensive - in both senses - group of twenty-somethings working for RSVP, the dating agency. They have water-soaked sponges in the shape of purple hearts that they try to stamp you with. I avoid them by heading for the footpath but Liamh finds one of the purple hearts on the road, sneaks up behind me and gets me between the shoulder blades. That white long sleeved cotton T shirt I've kept pristine for about a year now will never be the same again but the kids are so excited and having so much fun it'd be pointless getting angry. And anyway I don't feel angry. Somewhere round about the top of Heartbreak Hill, we look back and see the vehicles that are bringing up the end of the procession and realise we are running just about last. I don't really care but Jesse suddenly starts to feel competitive. He forges ahead, loops back once to check in with me and then says he's going to speed up for good now. Off he goes into the distance before I can say anything about a rendezvous point. We're only at about the halfway mark, which seems unbelievable given the state of my feet and knees but it's true, there's the 7 K marker. I've kind of used up my store of conversation with Philip, his eyes glaze over when I tell him a bit about what I do and then, later, when he says so long as you're not making things worse and I quote First Do No Harm ... back at him, we reach a wordless agreement to walk the walk not talk the talk. Vanessa I get on much better with but at a certain point, and I remember this from my brief career as a teenage cross-country runner, a sort of grim determination takes over every other thought and emotion and you just keep on keeping on going. By the time we turn from New into Old South Head Road and then into Military Road I'm suffering from pain in my hips as well as feet and knees and starting to fall behind. Liamh loyally keeps me company for quite a while, we chat about this and that, mostly how tired we are, and then he says, oh, I think I'll catch up with the others now and off he goes too. I can see them all ahead for a while and then, and I don't know when this happens, I can't. By now the weather, which has been fine and cool for most of the walk, is starting to pack up, you can see long ragged brown-grey clouds raining over the City and darker ones above the beach ahead. By the time I'm plodding down towards Bondi, with about two kilometers to go, it's raining, lightly at first then more and more heavily. Cold wet rain. I've got a denim jacket in my bag so I put that on but what about the kids? Their hoodies are in my bag too and suddenly I realise I don't know where either of them is. I'm not worried about Liamh, he'll stick close to Philip and Vanessa and will be fine - but what about Jesse? As I come round the bend in North Bondi and see the beach spread out before me I feel the first twinge of panic: the place is in absolute chaos. Thousands of people are leaving the actual beach, either because they've completed this dumb race or else because it's rained on their picnic/sunbathing/posing or whatever. Most of the participants in the race have fled to the other side of the road to get under cover of the shop awnings there while the brave or foolish few continue in the designated corridor for runners. I've forgotten my pains now, I don't care about the rain, I want to find my kids. Coming along Campbell Parade I overtake Vanessa and Cody and Cameron and she tells me yes, Liamh's ahead with Philip but no-one has yet seen Jesse. I keep company with her for a while, just as well, because I think the queues for the buses up Bondi Road are the finish line when it's actually down the other way by the old Bondi pavilion. Vanessa tells me that, although she's Sydney born and bred (Terrey Hills, in the north west) she has never been to Bondi Beach before. I congratulate her for walking here the first time then forge ahead to find my boys. You go through three barriers but I don't know what any of them are for except that at the last one you can get a medal but I don't bother, it seems as futile as trying to get money from the two bedraggled ATMs standing forlornly back there, too wide to go through any barrier. Bona fide participants in the race are issued with an electronic device that they attach to their shoe and this has to be detached too. None of us has one of these apart from Jesse, who's travelling as someone called Matthew Love, a boy who couldn't come for some reason. That'll make for nice complications if he really is lost. Just beyond the third barrier I see someone waving frantically, it's Philip and there's Liamh standing with him. In the flood of (partial) relief I finally track down a resemblance that's been nagging at me all day - what Philip looks like is a Teletubby though I'm not prepared to go any further and try to work out which one. I go over. Seen Jesse? I ask as casual as I can. No. Vanessa and the others, I tell him, are just coming. So that's good. I put Liamh's hoodie on him and check if he's okay. He is. I look around: where do you start? There's a lost boy, about Liamh's age or younger, walking around crying. No-one's taking any notice of him and I think, I would, but I can't, I have to find Jesse first. There's no sign of him. We discuss the desultory rendezvous point, McDonalds at Bondi, that we made before setting out but I can't remember if Jesse was a party to that discussion or not. Anyway he doesn't know Bondi and I doubt if he'd go there. What I think he'd do is wait at the end, wait exactly where we are. So why isn't he here? We've been standing around for about ten minutes, not really knowing what the hell to do, when he saunters up as if he's just got back from the loo or something. His new #5 haircut all starry with raindrops. I've been on the bridge, he says, looking for you. I'm not in the least bit angry, just relieved ... really, really relieved. Apart from everything else, I haven't emptied my bladder since leaving home at 7.45 and the pressure is beginning to make my balls ache. There were queues at all the portaloos along the way and I simply refused to stand and wait. So off we go, all four of us, Me and Jess and Monkey and the Teletubby, to the line of queueless portaloos past the long Gatorade stand covered with full plastic glasses of yellow liquid looking exactly like urine. Staring down at the bizarre and unseemly human waste in my receptacle for a very long time, I think what strange and uncomfortable people we are, how meaningless our rituals, how false and hollow our enthusiasms, how meretricious our wants and insatiable our desires. But I forget all about that once I'm done. The sun's coming out, the green-blue water of the ocean is beautiful, my kids are found and they are just so proud of the medals around their necks that there isn't anything else to do but praise and celebrate all the way home. Later we hear that someone, a 26 year old man, collapsed and died about 200 metres from the finish line.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Cut Price Mirror Sale

Mark Young's extraordinary Otoliths imprint is this month publishing a collection of shorter prose pieces of mine, most of which have appeared here or at one or other of my two other weblogs over the last year or so. The collection is available at a reduced price until the book goes officially live at Otoliths - if you want to get in early, go here:

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Weapons of Young Destruction

My friends are coming back from Cambodia on Friday and then I will return to them the car they so generously lent me for the year they've been away, so I book it into European Motor Works in Rozelle and this morning drive it over there for a full service. The guy looks like a Sumo wrestler and has a voice that reminds me of the stone crusher that used to make gravel out of river stones a couple of doors down from where we lived in Burns Street Ohakune but he's jovial enough and is perhaps an honest man too. I leave the car with him and decide I'll walk into the City over the Anzac Bridge to pick up a couple of Sidney Nolan books from the library in the Customs House at Circular Quay. It's a beautiful morning, not cold at all and everything is sparkling as I go by the old power station at White Bay that's been derelict as long as I can remember. As always, I'd like to climb the hurricane wire fence and explore that massive industrial ruin but I don't, I just check out the grove of banana trees growing improbably amongst the weeds in there and pass on, remembering briefly the party at Graham Street, just there across Victoria Road, where in 1987 I met the mother of my children. The White Bay Hotel is closed as well but I do recall when it was open and also the old woman who always used to stand on that corner selling newspapers. There was a song about her. Long long ago, before they built the Anzac Bridge aka the Ironing Board, which I've walked over once before with my kids. Just a few months back. There's dusty trucks coming out of the huge concrete silos which used to belong to the Wheat Board and maybe still does, I don't know. Lots of building going on down there. Pigeons and gulls on the old Glebe Island Bridge and what look like tugs or barges moored alongside and I try to remember what the company was called that used to ply these waters in their green and brown liveried boats ... Harbour Lighterage. All those new cars on the flat wharves and, yes, they are about 80% white. The bridge is so high, so wide, so handsome that it gives me a lift just to be up on it on such a gorgeous morning. A motor scooter passes on the footpath, a few bicycles whizz by, there's a fellow fixing a puncture just by the statue of the Digger. When I'm about halfway over I notice that the old buildings that used to be squats, though derelict, are still there on Bank Street and a sudden vision comes to mind of the seated Buddha I saw sitting down there on a sunny wall one day. There's a Buddha at the mouth of the bay ... I wrote but that's all I recall. There's the green mound where the Bone Char Mill stood with its piles of bones. There are the three palms planted next to the Pyrmont Incinerator: it's gone too but a photo of the shadow of those palms on the north wall will be on the cover of The Evolution of Mirrors when it comes out in a few weeks or months, I'm not sure exactly. Someone is reading a book while riding an exercise bike in the bowels of the big apartment block they erected in place of Burley Griffin's magnificent folly. Funny, I used to lament the passing of these edifices but now, today, like a new emotion, I feel that it's enough that they exist in memory. Thread my way through Pyrmont which is also full of ghosts of buildings and of people I used to know. Passing Paternoster Row I wonder whatever happened to Wayne Tallowin who used to live down there. He was a tearaway guitarist in a band I used to work with, they fired him because he wasn't good enough but I always liked his playing. He sold me a bike once, stolen from Sydney Uni by a gang of Pyrmont street kid thieves he knew. It's solid yuppie territory now. There's the street where a couple of Pommie sailors did a runner on me one night when I was driving a taxi. There's the pub where they used to have topless waitresses, at which I once picked up two guys who had a cardboard box with canaries in it - one of them escaped into the cab and I caught it and took it home and then let it go again. I remember it flying away into a sky as blue as this one is. It's in Miller Street that I pass the first band of Christians, big solid Polynesian boys from one of the islands, maybe Tonga. There's more on the old Pyrmont Bridge, one party stopped, the other walking past them: they both cheer then ask each other where they're from. Then they Hurrah! again. I'd say the United States and Japan or Korea respectively. More Islanders, this time girls, at the City end of the bridge; and up in town there are roving bands of them everywhere, grouped together by nationality, some of them wearing uniform jackets or the same hats. A group of Latinos in red and green, a beautiful girl smiles at me and I'm so startled I almost forget to smile back. I remember that cretin is said to be derived from Christian but the thought seems unworthy. They're like sports teams going about in their groups of ten or fifteen. Italians, Mexicans, Africans, even a bunch of Kiwis, they wear blazers with Tihei Mauri Ora stitched under the breast pockets. Outside the QVB I see a 2 dollar coin lying on the ground and pick it up: a lucky day! Feel like I should give it to the fellow selling The Big Issue outside the Supre store that used to be Gowings but I don't want to read The Big Issue so I don't. Lenny Henry at the State Theatre, he was really funny on Good News Week the other night. Going up Pitt Street Mall I see that half one side of the street is now a building site and there's nobody much around in the darkened cavern of the street. Come out of the murk into Martin Place and there's another band of cretins having their photograph taken in front of one of the public monuments there. They are all wearing stupid felt cowboy hats and are so uniformly blond and blue-eyed I think they must be Aussies ... but then this thin blond blue-eyed older woman in denims comes up to me and asks if I'll photograph her with her group, she has an accent so they probably aren't Aussies after all. I take the pic and hand her back the camera. Where are you from? I ask. She dazzles into a smile and says Germany. I nearly say something about the Nazi Pope but think better of it and give her a pat on the arm instead and say auf Wiedersehen. Her face wrinkles into comic surprise and then the dazzle comes back: auf Wiedersehen! And so it goes, I'm thinking about Apollinaire now, and then about Frank O'Hara and then, outside the back of the Customs House, I see the scooter that passed me on the bridge parked up beside a waiting taxi in the alley there. That's strange. Both the Nolan books are on shelf which makes me really happy, there's also a book of NZ Painting that I leaf through, looking at every image, before leaving the building and going across to Circular Quay to catch the train back to Summer Hill. The quay is awash with cretins of all descriptions, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, with their lumpy bodies and funny hats and invincible cheerfulness. I remember someone saying that the last time they staged something like this the City ran out of condoms and then I see a headline in The Australian where silly old George Pell is telling us we must populate or perish, presumably so we can outbreed the Muslims and the heathen Africans and the Asian hordes. I'm sick of them all now with their self-conscious cheeriness and unctuous smiles, I just want to look at Sidney Nolan. His Inferno frieze, painted in the Chelsea Hotel in about '64, inspired in the first instance by Robert Lowell's version of The Trojan Women - wow! It's amazing. Some of the Gallipoli paintings which I've never seen even in reproduction, so dark and foreboding, pale or roseate faces coming out of a sort of clotted khaki miasma. In the other book there's a quote from Cynthia Nolan: We live on a thin crust over a bubbling mass of molten lava and the fuel of hell. What's marvellous is that, in spite of everything, we're alive. Do you understand? To make up for the suffering of the living, there's the joy of life. She became a suicide but still, what a good and brave thing to say. That'll do, I think. That'll get me home.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Outside the Nelson Hotel in Bondi Junction, as I'm dropping off, two fellows wave from the other side of Oxford Street, where the bus depot is. Tall, maybe 40s, wearing jackets without ties. They're agitated, or perhaps I should say excited. One in the front, one in the back. Ebley Street. A short trip. They immediately start discussing the fare with each other, as if it is a matter of great moment, but I already know it's only about five bucks so I don't pay that much attention. Don't even really look at them. At one point the bloke in the front takes a five dollar note from his pocket and hands it to the bloke in the back. I know the way but Front Street Guy insists on directing me, wrongly, and we end up at a left turn only a couple of blocks from where they're going. They're tetchy as they get out, but do me, or her, the kindness of drawing to my attention a young woman waiting on the other side of the road. They go, she gets in, we drive down to Elizabeth Bay. It's dusk. She's in the back. I pull up in Ithaca Road, opposite an apartment block I once lived in, turn on the interior light. As we're doing the exchange I see, improbably, that there's a wad of banknotes on the front seat. Fifties. I know at once that it's a least a grand. You'd think maybe I'd be happy but in fact what happens is my heart sinks. Oh no ... I drive down to the end of the street, where they've blocked off access to the sea for some urban renewal, turn around, park, and under the curious eyes of a woman waiting on a neglected corner (already I'm paranoid), count it up. Twenty fifties held together by a single rubber band. Funny how the loot shrinks once you've reckoned its finite dimension. Has to be a drug deal or similar. Who were they? Amateurs, I think, not serious players. They were so dumb about the ride. He must have spilled the wad when he took the five from his jacket pocket. Anyway. How would I ever trace them? How would they ever trace me? No way they would have noted the taxi number, they were too distracted. So. Put the money in my wallet then change my mind and slip it in the small bag I use for car keys, food, authority card, cigarettes. The zip is broken. I'm driving through the back of the Cross, trying to fix it, with the wad between my thigh and the seat. Confused. Why does money bring with it guilt? By this time I'm outside St. Vincents and I still haven't sorted myself out. At the lights on Oxford Street, a pretty young Asian girl climbs in the front seat and wants to go to Redfern. How's your night? she asks and, I can't help it, I tell her the whole strange tale. She's very sweet, perhaps she's a Buddhist, anyway, alive to the karmic implications that bother me too. She's a waitress in a cafe, has just worked seven day's straight, this is her day off, she spent it window shopping and having coffee with a friend. Tried on a $600.00 dress and made believe she owned it for the several minutes she wore it. She sympathises with me! Sydney is such a curious and beautifully serendipitous town sometimes. After that I try out the dilemma on several other fares. An Irishwoman, moving house, with lots of bags, wonders if I might give it to the police. Nah, this is NSW, they'd probably just keep it for themselves. A cute young thing from Perth suggests I give it to her. A drunken lawyer, also Irish, commends me for having saved any number of innocent babbies from corruption by drugs. She gives me her card and invites me in for a drink. This is in North Bondi. I feel weird every time I go near the area where I picked up and dropped off the guys whose money it was - what if I see them again? It can happen. After a while I realise it was probably The Cock and Bull they were going to; plenty of deals go down there. They must be spitting. After that the whole night becomes provisional and peculiar, I don't know why I'm doing this, or what I'm doing ... alternative scenarios run me ragged. I go home early. Count the money again. Hide it. Next day, I change its hiding place. Ring a couple of cabbie friends. One says: Half your luck, mate! Spend it on on your kids. The other advises against giving it to the Taxi Company (it never occurred to me to do that) but recommends the police option. Apparently after three months, if no-one claims it, they give it back to the finder. Yeah, right. When I start driving again, about two o'clock, I resume my straw poll. A student, a young woman, says I should open an ING account and give the interest to the homeless, while keeping the capital for emergencies. She likes this idea more than I do. Later on, in George Street, I pick up a dishevelled Persian man who is a talker. He's a dental technician, he's made plates for Rene Rivkin, whom he liked a lot. They killed him, he says. The media, everyone, they killed him. He tells me the fate of Walter Franklin, dental technician extraordinaire. It's quite a story. He's a Nietschian and a Zoroastrian. A vehement man. He expounds The Holy Yes and The Holy No. Kafka chose The Holy No, he says mysteriously. I like this guy, so I try out my dilemma on him. He says it's too little money for a gun so, yes, probably it was for drugs. What you must do, he goes on, is hide it away somewhere, just keep it, until the next time you see them. Then you will say, I have your money. Just before he gets out, he adds: There is no peace in this world, it is all struggle. Whether you decide yes or whether you decide no, it is struggle either way. There is no peace. I don't ask any more passengers after this, I let him have the last word. The night is even scrappier than the one before, I don't make any real money, and go home early again. My local bottle shop is still open so I drop in to buy some wine. There's one on special, I've tried it before, from the Margaret River, it's not bad, so that's what I get. It isn't until I arrive home and take it out of its paper bag that I look at the label and see what I've bought. It's called: Catching Thieves.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

some mother's son

Friday night, about eight. Or Eight-thirty. After a busy few hours I hit a lull. Drive up George Street, which I usually avoid, towards Circular Quay. Cabs are copping hails all around but I seem to have become invisible. Then, just past Wynyard Station, an arm. He ducks behind some mail boxes on his way to the car so I don't get to check him out properly until he gets into the front seat beside me. First impression, of a young clerk or some such, is completely wrong. In fact I don't know who this person is, he escapes all my casual categories. He is young, early twenties perhaps. Grossly over weight but in an unusual way - he seems lumpy, with strange protrusions all over his body, rather than the more typical rolly polly gathering of surplus flesh at the waist. The skin of his face is mottled purple and brown, and also seems afflicted by that same lumpiness. He's clutching two enormous bags of McDonald's takeaways and wants to go to Botany Road in Mascot. That peculiar odour or stench fills the car and my heart sinks. Is he going to eat all the way to Mascot? I don't think I can stand it if he does. It's not that I'm hungry myself, rather the opposite - I've just eaten a homemade sourdough roll with cheese and salami and tomato on it, followed by an apple, a crisp Fuji. Anyway, we're going round the block so I can head south again, he's sneaking a chip or two from one of the bags and I'm thinking, I don't care, for twenty bucks, it's not worth it. You're not allowed to eat in cabs, I say. Why don't you hop out, finish your meal, and catch another cab afterwards? I slow down next to one of the blue benches at the bus terminal but he isn't interested. No, no, he says, seemingly in a panic. I won't eat ... Then, abruptly, he goes to sleep, or seems to, with his eyes closed and his head leaning back against the headrest. Those huge greasy bags in his lap. Must have been the stress of possible eviction, I suppose. We mosey on down George Street, and towards the bottom he wakes up. I hear the furtive rustle of his fingers in the brown paper bags and then, slowly at first, but then shockingly fast, he begins again to eat, his head tilted to one side, tearing at the buns like a famished animal tearing at meat. He crams handfuls of chips into his mouth as well then, periodically, pauses to fumble in his pocket for his wallet. I realise that he's been doing this compulsively since he got in the cab, fumbling for his wallet I mean, which usually signals an anxiety about paying. He has money though, I've seen the corner of a fifty dollar note poking out. We're going down Elizabeth Street now, through Surry Hills and into Waterloo and suddenly I can't stand it any more. Listen, mate, I say, I told you, no eating in the cab, ok? Just put it away and wait until you get home, alright? I realise I sound quite stern, I'm using the voice I use to tell my kids off. He reacts in the same abject way as before ... sorry, sorry ... crumpling up the tops of the bags and replacing them on his lap. I feel bad but I feel good as well, or at least, relieved. There's only one further piece of conversation, when he mistakenly suggests I should be turning into O'Riordan Street, not Botany Road. Then the ride is over. Or is it? He can't find his wallet. He's getting really distressed. He climbs out of the cab and I turn the internal light on. There are woody chips all over the floor and he starts to sweep them out onto the road with his hands. But no wallet. I look across his seat, spy a corner of yellow paper poking up on the other side and reach across to pluck it. It's that fifty dollar note I saw before, damp and slightly greasy from his fingers. Is fifty alright? he says, beseechingly. Is that enough? There's only eighteen and a bit dollars on the meter but I, cravenly, feeling really awful - but why not? - say, Yeah, fifty dollars is fine. I look over into the back seat and there, on the floor, beside another chip container, amongst more spilled chips, is his wallet. I give it to him. And the chip container. Thank you, he mumbles, thank you ... as if I've done him some huge favour. He shambles off into the night and I roar away myself, almost weeping at the spectacle this ruined person has made of himself, while also trying to rationalise the implications of my own predatory behaviour and at the same time clear the clammy, disgusting, miasmic atmos in the cab by opening all the windows and driving at speed through the dark and deserted streets of Zetland. But it can't have worked because my next fare, a thin-lipped, stitched-up-looking, possibly Kiwi, lawyer's receptionist who I pick up in Flinders Street, halfway to Mosman says: I've got to get something to eat. Can you pull into the McDonald's on Military Road? To the drive-through. She manages not to eat her Super Cheeseburger Meal or drink her Coke until after I drop her off but again I have to try to clear the car of the Macca miasma and it isn't until I'm hailed by a genial drunk holding up a lamppost in Crows Nest and ask him that I'm finally sure that I don't smell like a travelling advertisement for malign, malnourishing, horribly addictive shit burgers and salty chips made out of woody grease.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bloody tears flow

A cab-driving friend is off to NZ for ten days so he asks me to drive his shifts for him. He's got a new boss, Alex, who was his old boss, years ago, and thinks that it might be a good idea for me to work for Alex too. I'm running out of money so I say yes. Then I learn that the balance of an award, not due until June, can be paid early. It's too late, I'm committed. Then Alex rings up and says I can have the car for the whole weekend. I don't want to but he's very persuasive and there's the future to consider ...

Near Central Station I pick up a big guy wearing shorts, with suitcases. He wants to go up to the Country trains, he's going away somewhere, doesn't know where. He'll decide when he gets there. Half way to the trains he changes his mind, wants to go to the airport instead. Maybe I'm on the run, he jokes. You don't look stressed enough, I say, but I wonder. He doesn't even decide which terminal to go to until he sees the signs outside. T2. Virgin. Maybe he's been reading The Diceman I think but he doesn't look like the kind of guy you could have that sort of conversation with. Affable but sort of ... disinterested.

Somewhere in Bronte, about 8 pm, I pick up a young bloke who looks like a chippie. He's talking to another fellow outside an office building in a quiet suburban street. Turns out this was his counseller, he's been at an out patient's clinic, five weeks ago he quit a $1000 a day coke and alcohol habit. $30,000 a month, he says. Lost his business, his job. Lost everything except his wife and 7 month old son. We talk about addiction, its various and destructive parameters. When he gets out I steal a look at him. 29? early 30s? He doesn't look old enough to have been so badly down. And five weeks is such a short time. I fear from him but what can I do? Good luck, I say. It sounds like a hopeless thing to say.

On Oxford Street, about midnight, I'm hailed by a big bald guy wearing only blue shorty pyjamas with some kind of figure on them. This looks like a totally weird situation, what with all the clubbers and revellers milling around outside the Burdekin, but it isn't, he's actually hailing me for his friend, a diminutive Irish woman from Galway with one of those soft, lilting voices that make you want to weep with joy. Shorty pyjamas goes back into his apartment building and I take her up to the Cross. Her partner is a writer, she says, he's trying to finish his book. He's changed all the names but everyone will know who he is, she says, he's such a funny man, so wicked in his descriptions and he doesn't spare himself, either, to be sure. I envy this man back in Galway with his unfinished and perhaps unfinishable book.

It's the next day, Friday. I pick up a startling beautiful Swedish woman in Bondi. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed. She's dressed in a blue checked shirt and white shorts, as if going hiking, but she wants to go to the Establishment Bar, where the Corporates go to unwind after their week of money-making exertions. I'm dropping her off in Bridge Street when a woman hails me. Then she spends ages in conversation with some guy in the street who wants to come too. At the same time someone's trying to get me to open the boot but I don't, I don't know who he is. Turns out he's her husband to be and the other guy just a blow in. All three get in. The blow in is drunk and stupid and loud but he's only going a few blocks. Soon as he gets out the Bridenista starts in on her husband to be. The wedding's soon, they've spent a grand on invites, which the Post Office has gone and lost. So they have to email everybody. She's in a state of high anxiety, verbally precise, unstoppable, unremitting. He fields her demands with quite incredible good humour for about nine-tenths of the ride then starts to lose it. She doesn't stop. I'm thinking: this is clearly a mistake, they should call the wedding off but manage not to say so. They're going to Harold Park raceway of all places, to the trots. We get there, he pays, skedaddles, I breath a sigh of relief - but she doesn't move. She sits in the back, applying her mascara. I want to say something cutting to her but I don't, I wait, finally she goes, and I decide to head down to Glebe Point for a smoke. On the way I see someone I used to be with, she's walking home, she seems ... different. There's no way I could stop and say hello. I realise I'm not handling the stress as well as I think I am.

Then, much later, there's a woman who tells me in gory detail about her nephew in Auckland who died of bone disappearing disease, it's super rare, one in a billion, your bones are just consumed from within, he went in 8 months from a normal 17 year old kid to a wise old man of 18. None of the wounds from any of the treatment, exploratory or surgical, ever healed. She moves on to her husband's heart attack, Good Friday, two years ago. He survived but she's not sure if she has. She works for News Limited. I don't know what I'm doing she says, again and again, I'm right back where I started from. I tried something else but it didn't work out. I've never worked for anyone except Rupert. Cracking wise, but with a tremble of tears in her voice the whole time. Nobody knows, she says, how to spell the names of the celebrities who obsess us. It's her job to check but every time she does, half a dozen alternatives pop up on Google.

On the Bondi Junction rank, Saturday arvo, two kids, maybe immigrant kids. Well turned out but no-one will take them. I'm about the fourth guy they ask and I say yes. Got any money? I ask. The one in the back holds up two fives. They're going to Cooper Park in Double Bay. I think a footie game but no, it's a fight. A fight!? Yeah, a year 8 against a year 9. Their guy is the year 8 and they reckon he's going mash the other guy. I ask if they use gloves? One says yes, the other no, but it's clearly going to be a bare knuckle scrap. What about a referee? If one falls down to the ground we pick him up, that's it, the kid in the front says. These kids are spooky - about twelve or thirteen, they already talk like twenty-five year olds, they got the language, they got the attitude. The gang are gathering by mobile phone, at the tennis courts. I tell them about my father, how he boxed at Uni, hung onto his gloves but never fought again. He teach you any moves? Punches? I say no, he was non-violent. Huh, says the kid in the front. Like it was an option only an idiot would take. When we get there, there's $5.50 on the meter. Can I just give you five? the kid in the back says. I say to the one in the front, who's little and thin and feisty: Don't get hurt. He grins and says: Nah ... I watch them walk away - the little one has such skinny legs it's heartbreaking. About the age of my elder son. But he doesn't need my concern.

Bondi on a blue afternoon looks like a future city. J. G. Ballard territory. Some doomed hedonism that still has decades to run. I pick up two Americans on the strand. Rich people, a young woman, an older man. She's been showing him the sights. He's Jewish, a New Yorker, sounds just like Woody Allen. That same self-deprecating humour. He launches into a long story about how his roommate at College was one of the guys who wrote Friends. A bad actor, a failed screenwriter, a loser. Somehow they came up with the Sit Com idea, which this guy, in the back, says they stole from him. Or at least, stole the title from him. His surname is Friend. That's where they got it from. He riffs on this for ages, without rancour. He's very funny. We're in Darling Point by now, I'm dropping off the woman at an apartment building but she doesn't know the address. She calls her friend. It's not Darling Point, it's Darlinghurst. I say: You said Darling Point but she says no, she didn't. Definitively. But without rancour. The rich are different from you and I.

I get into a fight with one of three young women I pick up in Leichhardt. It's about nothing but the air is suddenly full of poison. It's stupid and it's my fault, I've broken my first rule, which is never lose it with a fare. Two of them are okay but the third is really nasty. She's enjoying the bad feeling, it brings out some instinct, not just to triumph but to utterly annihilate your opponent. I manage to shut her up, at least insofar as I'm concerned, but for the whole ride to Darling Harbour I can feel her, right behind me, breathing hatred onto the back of my neck. When they get out she makes a big play of noting down the taxi number on her mobile phone. She'll make a complaint and the truth of the situation, whatever it is, won't enter into it. I drive off into the City but I've lost it, lost the vibe, lost my way, lost, lost ... been driving for three nights now, it's only 9.30 on Saturday, I could go for another five hours, make another three or four hundred bucks, the cab's mine for the whole of tomorrow (that is, today) for nothing, I could make a couple of hundred more but I just can't work out how to do it. I drive around aimlessly for a while then find a park in Castlereagh Street, pull over, get out, light a smoke. Then I realise I'm right outside the Church of Scientology. Jesus this is where I've ended up. My engrams are about as low as they can go. This is not a Tom Cruise moment. I see another lost soul mooching down the street, he peers in to the front office of the C of S but it must be closed, he can't get in. This is too sad. I decide to finish the cigarette in the car but I peer in myself as I'm leaving. An impression of yellow and brown, of curling pamphlets in wooden holders at the front desk. It's like looking into the 1950s. Not the 1950s I grew up in but the mouldy ScFi version I used to read about in the 1960s. Suddenly I can't tell the future from the past. Or either from the present. A feeling of complete horror comes over me. I remember what the I Ching said earlier today: Six at the top means: Horse and wagon part. Bloody tears flow. I'm shaking when I get going again, only just keeping horse and wagon together. Two blokes climb in the back at the lights, they look like gangsters but they're not, they're just ... blokes. George Street looks like Sodom and Gomorrah moments before the cosmic ray descends and vaporises everything. I drop the blokes outside the QVB and head over the Westlink to the carwash. I'm gone.