Travel is remarkably easy here in the far future of the twenty-first century. At your point of departure you make a series of electronic financial transactions, in exchange for which you receive a bunch of PDF files with barcodes on them. From then on it's just a matter of showing the right barcode to the right person/machine until you arrive at your destination. Doddle.
On the night of the 14th of May, my last barcode got me a cheap and nasty hotel room in the Melbourne CBD. I spent a night trying not to listen to young people loudly doing what young people do on a Saturday night in the secluded laneway beneath my window. Mercifully, being young they don't do it for very long before composing themselves and —I assume — uploading the video to social media.
Sunday being the day estate agents wash their dark suits and polish their iPads, I could do nothing more than wander around looking at my current shortlist of potential new homes. Some of them… weren't promising.
One was a renovated parking attendant's cabin on the ground floor of a block of swanky apartments. As the parking attendant had been long ago replaced by technology, some bright spark saw that with the addition of a welcome mat and a couple of window boxes they had the makings of a hip studio apartment. Would suit single professional or young couple with a high tolerance for carbon monoxide. Ironically, does not include parking space.
I'd only booked my hotel room for two nights, and upon enquiry, there was no room at the inn from Monday on. Down by the Yarra, close by some of the cheaper and nastier flats I was considering, there was the Southern Cross Hotel, stablemate to it's namesake in Sydney, where I'd stayed quite happily earlier in the year. The receptionist explained that unfortunately they were fully booked. That is to say they were half-booked, but due to Covid they had only enough fit and healthy cleaning staff to service half the premises. However, she had an acquaintance who owned a room in the building and was letting it out on Airbnb. She handed me a Post-It with her name and number, in case I was interested. Everybody has a side hustle.
I made my way up Spencer Street, past the nasty concrete slab zombie shopping mall attached to Southern Cross railway station and the no doubt intentionally menacing police headquarters. Flagstaff Gardens is a breath of fresh air. It's so green! Except for the bits of yellow, gold, copper, red, and brown that flutter down to form colourful embankments by the footpaths. Melbourne has seasons!
North Melbourne is bewitching, particularly in autumn; all tree-lined streets, neat little public gardens, gold rush era terraces and cottages. Here also is the self-storage business which took delivery of my post-Sawtell worldly goods: the guitar my father took me to buy at the music store in Station Street Engadine when I was eight years old, the mandolin my girlfriend bought me for my twenty-first birthday, those books, records, and CDs which survived a particularly ruthless cull, and the few items of clothing that still fit me. Safe and sound in the boxes I'd packed them in a week earlier, taped up and plastered with that bloody name that's been dogging me since birth.
Around the corner is a youth hostel. I've never been able to seriously consider a youth hostel. Just the thought of a dorm room and shared bathroom facilities conjures up visions of school gym changing rooms reeking of adolescent sweat, and an ill-advised cub scout excursion to sleep on the concrete floor of a foreign scout hall half an hour's drive away, accompanied by a couple of dozen thugs who had each produced more testosterone in their first thirteen years than I've since managed in fifty.
Still, I did the arithmetic on the nightly rate, and found that not only was it cheaper than any hotel, it was half what I was paying in rent at Sawtell. I paid for a week in advance.
My bunkmate was a squat, elderly Croation fellow. Clearly the hostel staff meant to keep all their old hobos in the one basket. His name was unpronouncable, at least by the man himself, who was not too well off for teeth. As he spoke little English, and I no Croation, we got on famously. Going by the number of bulging plastic shopping bags under his bed, he was evidently an old lag. However, what with the language barrier, I couldn't really play Godber to his Fletcher.
In our four-bunk room, my friend and I had the a lower bunk each, while the occasional young lad would stop in for a night or two in an upper bunk. I don't like bunk beds, I decided. On the top bunk, every movement is amplified by a ferocious squeaking and rocking. You wouldn't catch me up there.
One evening, I'd found my erstwhile cohabitant had moved some of his bundles up to the bunk above mine. The kid in the bunk above him last night, he explained, shaking his head: very noisy. I've no idea why he thought the noise would travel less distance horizontally rather than vertically.
I hadn't heard a thing, in any case. Mind you, I'd already installed a white noise generator on my phone, and woke every morning with sore ear canals from having earbuds jammed in all night.
Okay, so fine. Bare feet ascending and descending a ladder just inches away from you is part of the price of entry in a youth hostel, and one just has to enter into the spirit of the thing. However this is a level of intimacy with another person which, ideally, I'd like to be more selective about, and the week was wearing on. Still no progress on the flat-hunting.
I'd rise at dawn to get to the communal bathroom before there was much risk of interacting with anybody else. Not that I feared for my safety or anything; I just don't like people going about with the idea that I have to shower. I would prefer it if they just presumed that I stayed miraculously clean. For that matter I don't even like people seeing me with bare feet. In fact I don't like people thinking I have bare feet. My legs end in shoes and socks. That's just how some people are born. So let the record show that I don't have to shower, so we don't have to think about the practicalities of that process for a large elderly person juggling a plastic shopping bag of clothes and toiletries in a little lockable booth in a youth hostel bathroom. Except that now you are, and we both feel bad. Happy now?
Breakfast downstairs in the common area was a couple of museli bars and some fruit from the markets, enjoyed while scrolling through rental listings on my laptop.
I would line up flat inspections for coming days, and head off to painfully pound the pavement in shoes now containing mainly blisters and Band-Aids.
My initial plan was to get a place right in the CBD for six to twelve months before getting a feel for neighbourhoods further afield where I might like to live in the longer term, but the options in the CBD were looking less appealing in person they did on my laptop a month and a thousand kilometres ago. The worst were down at the derelict end of Flinders Street, where Crown Casino's toxicity has spread from the other side of the river, sapping the vitality of what looks like a once-thriving area.
Here, I met the rarest of things in rental real estate: a motivated seller. I waited for him by a ground floor kebab shop among piles of discarded takeaway containers and splashes of bodily effluvia cast the previous night against the front wall of my potential new abode, leaving rivulets across the footpath slowly evaporating in the morning light.
The poor young man turned up in his shirt sleeves, without even the mandatory estate agent black jacket, shouldered open the front door and led me through a narrow rats' maze of nicotine-beige corridors to an elevator the size of a phone box. An embossed plate above the lift buttons advised that it was capable of carrying up to twelve persons. How? Cremated perhaps?
Upstairs the corridors were even narrower, and one almost had to scuttle sideways, crablike, to reach the door to my potential new home. Flinging the door open the full forty-five degrees before the back of it whacks into the modern kitchenette, one is — upon squeezing through — struck by the rather grand view that the room's single window affords of the neighbouring building about three feet from the window pane. The estate agent gamely made a point of highlighting the fact that the unit was fully furnished, while clambering over said furnishings in order to traverse the not so great distance to the far side of the room.
In short, it wasn't palatial.
"NBN?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. I'll have to check." He ducked back out into the corridor in order to gain sufficient elbow room to reach into his pocket for his phone. By the time he returned, I'd already clocked an ADSL splitter hanging from the landline socket. No, I'm sorry, I can't go back to copper wire. I demand a hovel fit for the 21st century.
I tried making conversation on the way back down in the lift. "Do you have many properties in the CBD?" His agency was based way out in the suburbs, and he'd come some distance to show this place to only yours truly.
"No," he sighed, with what seemed like profound regret, "This is the only one."
Back out in the relative freshness of the piss-and-puke-stained street he asked, in a sad, Willy Loman kind of way "Well, what do you think?"
"I think I could make it work." And God help me, I could. If I became desperate enough.
In the evenings I returned to the hostel to put in applications for the less objectionable domiciles I'd seen that day, moving the rest to the "maybe" list. Then for dinner I'd have an instant noodle bowl with added Coles brand coleslaw mix (shredded carrot and cabbage) to keep scurvy at bay, plus a multivitamin for good measure. Fortunately there are plenty of Asian grocery stores nearby to provide dietary variety of a kind.
I was starting to feel nostalgic for meat to the extent that even walking past a McDonalds was sorely tempting.
No! Place to live first. Place to work second. Then you can eat like a human being.
While tucking into my spice powder and cabbage soup one night, I was trying not to listen to the group of kids nearby comparing their geographically distant but otherwise identical suburban roots, when a girl right by my elbow started explaining that she came from a little town you won't have heard of on the north coast of New South Wales. I knew immediately which town she meant, because I know Coffs Harbour will find a way to haunt me for the rest of my days.
I drew my Sawtell Bowlo membership card from my wallet and held it in front of her.
"Oh my God! I went to Sawtell Primary!" Of course you did, dear.
I didn't insist on engaging her in conversation on the joys of life behind Colorbond fencing, as she was already having that conversation with kids her own age from all corners of this huge, uniformly dull and ghastly country of ours, and I felt I had little positive to contribute.
The end of the week was fast approaching. With sinking heart, I tossed out that evening's polystyrene noodle bowl, and went to the reception desk to pay for another week's lodgings.
Once upstairs, I was feeling so disheartened that I felt the need to exchange a few words with my roommate. It had been a day or three since the last few words, anyway.
"Knackered," I declared. "Been all over town looking for a place to live."
He frowned, perplexed. "Why not here?"
Oh, no. Oh goodness me, no. I'm too young to live in a youth hostel!
I started recognising faces at apartment inspections. We'd compare notes. Waiting out on the footpath one afternoon, one familiar face after another turned up. "We should all just chip in and buy a building," I suggested. I seriously think it's a workable idea.
I wanted to save at least a hundred dollars a week on the rent I had previously been paying for my barely-reconditioned 70s-era motel room in Sawtell, but as the days dragged on I started looking at more expensive places. Still cheaper than Sawtell, but proper apartments rather than poky student or nurse's accommodation. Some of these were quite lovely, and I started entertaining fantasies of a place that would do me through to semi-retirement; bookshelves, potted plants, a small family of cats, and collecting paint colour swatches from Bunnings while never actually getting around to painting anything.
I'd received a couple of emails saying that I was "shortlisted" for a place, whatever that means, but halfway through my second week of homelessness my confidence was flagging. You see, I've always been keenly aware that I'm not really a grown-up, and also aware that some proportion of the population can spot this immediately. On a good day, I feel that it's only the very intelligent and perceptive who suspect it, but on a bad day I feel like I couldn't even fool an estate agent. On this particular bad day, I'd just hobbled painfully on blistered feet from one inspection in Flinders Street at the south-west corner of the city up to Fitzroy at the north-east only to get a text saying my next inspection had been cancelled.
Y'know what? I'm done. Clearly I'm not impressing anybody with my impeccable middle class manners, and bank balance built up over years of living like a hermit.
I'm going to the pub.
Not a drop of alcohol had passed my lips since leaving Coffs Harbour nearly a fortnight earlier. I don't claim to be Oliver Reed or anything, but I don't think I've spent that long between drinks since I was a teenager. It's nice knowing that I can do it without the sky falling in, but one should practice everything - especially sobriety - in moderation.
I'd been to Melbourne on various pretexts maybe half a dozen times since the 1990s, and particularly enjoyed its pubs. Victoria has not yet embraced gambling in the way that New South Wales has, so the pub as mini-casino is thankfully not the norm here. However, I had noticed while wandering about the city that many of my favourite pubs from previous visits were no longer going concerns. The cheap and cheerful boozers with a half-hearted cafeteria serving steamed roast of the day and chips slathered in gravy were all gone. Where do all the middle-aged dirty-white-collar workers go now, when they need to be somewhere that is neither work nor home, where they don't have to pretend to be a grown-up?
In fact, of the pubs still remaining in and around the CBD, I noticed that few open until four in the afternoon. This is most peculiar. Is it a Covid thing, or some colonial nostalgia for post-war British licensing laws?
Like Jeffrey Bernard, I am a keen daytime drinker. I don't like raucous crowds, being hurried by last orders, or the threat of missing the last train home. So what could be so special about four o'clock in the afternoon? I appreciate that they're making some effort to cater to people sneaking out of work an hour early, but that still leaves another seven ordinary business hours which, I can say with some authority, are potentially full of opportunities for sneaking out.
I started wandering around Fitzroy and Collingwood, looking for a pub that was soliciting business at an indecent hour. It is, to put it mildly, quite a gentrified area. Even the homeless people look like Noel Fielding. The shops are amazing, by which I mean utterly useless. Kids so young that their first music purchases were downloads can go to their local high street and get the same music on vinyl. What could possibly be the point of these shops?
I went into one and started flicking through the "S"es. Eek! Siouxie and the Banshees! The Smiths! The Stone Roses! You see, the point of the shop isn't to sell records. I don't need to buy a Siouxie and the Banshees LP, because I already have them all in plastic storage boxes in a lock-up in North Melbourne, and no turntable to play them on. But do I want to live in a place where I can sleep soundly knowing that I'm never more than a few hundred metres from somewhere I could buy a Siouxie and the Banshees LP, should the need suddenly arise? Hell, yes!
These shops are gentrification loss leaders. You want your local high street crammed with this stuff, even if they never sell a thing. It makes your home more desirable. Everything that happens in Australia can be explained by it's connection to real estate prices.
And, oh my giddy aunt, this seen in a second-hand shop window:
We had exactly the same cassette drawer thingy under the stereo when I was a kid! I'm precisely the target demographic for these neighbourhoods, except in the financial sense.
Eventually I find a pub that's open. Then another. Then another. Nobody in them, mind you. And numbers on all the tables.
Where are the middle-managers out on long, boozy lunches? Where are the mail boys and bookkeepers sneaking out for a sly afternoon tea? I can understand where the ashtrays have gone. As a keen passive smoker, I may not like it, but I can accept it. But where are the newspapers? Broadsheets obviously; not tabloids. And what of the men behind them? There ought to be at least one powder blue safari suit; one pale, pinched face beneath a jet black Brylcreemed comb-over; one greying rockabilly quiff by the bar resting an immaculate pointy-toed shoe on the bar rail while a barman nods indulgently at anecdotes about life as a guitar tech for Billy Thorpe.
Does everybody work all day these days? Doing what? We already have all the things we need: records by late seventies and early eighties post-punk bands, nifty little cassette drawers that fit neatly under our stereos, etc.
Quite possibly all this previously under-utilised labour power has been allocated to the task of tattooing every inch of unblemished human skin on the planet. It is certainly a mammoth undertaking, and the labour power has to come from somewhere, but I'm not sure that press-ganging the city's functional alcoholics into an army of sub-dermal calligraphers is entirely wise. However it would account for some of the more startlingly haphazard efflorescences on display around town.
Working in a supermarket as I do, I obviously prefer to adorn myself with cuts and bruises, but I do feel out of place these days, having no names in an ornate gothic font running down my forearms. Being without generational issue, perhaps I should get "Groucho" and "Chico" on one arm and "Harpo" and "Zeppo" on the other. (Never you mind where I'm keeping "Gummo".)
I think that if you are going to get tattooed with your childrens' names, you should at least include their phone numbers as well. For one thing, while it's understandable that you might not be able to immediately bring the numbers to mind, the names should be familiar enough that your memory needs no jogging, and to suggest otherwise is a bit embarrassing. And secondly — having unwisely selected the services of the tattoo artist in the powder blue safari suit with the shaky hands, the smouldering fag hanging out of the gob, and the pint glass on the instrument table — the inflammation from the resulting case of septicemia will conveniently also highlight the contact details of a next of kin.
Anyway, that's the sort of thing I think about while I'm wandering around town, slightly tipsy. You had to make your own entertainment in my day.
You couldn't shake a lamb's tail in the time it took me to weave unsteadily back from Collingwood, through Fitzroy and Carlton, to North Melbourne, and I dare you to try. Having spent two decades in an undifferentiated rats' maze of Colorbond that just endlessly stretches on and on, to be able to effortlessly skip from one village to another, each with their own distinctive ambiance, is delightful.
Now well into the evening, in North Melbourne I ordered a pint at a pub I'd never seen open in daylight. The barman looks me up and down as though startled by such a bold request.
"I can seat you by the bar," he says at last, gesturing to a stool. A curious service, I thought, and something I could well have worked out by myself.
A few minutes later four young kids enter, and the barman asks them "Do you have a reservation?" They are as surprised as I am by the question, as they too are not locals.
Aha! Now I understand! Pubs in New South Wales are casinos; pubs in Victoria are restaurants. North of the border, you are a waste of valuable square meterage if you aren't bent on joylessly slapping buttons for hours. Here, if you aren't positively ravenous and accompanied by a large group of friends, you're a similar liability. That's all right then. Nothing personal. Because I was a bit worried that the cold reception I'd been getting was due to the creepy Peter Cushing vibe I radiate.
The next morning in the youth hostel common room, by the cold light of a laptop screen and noodles, I stare down the barrel of a third week of homelessness and noodles. There's a sign on the reception desk saying that the facility is for short-term accommodation only, and that a fortnight is the most that one can expect under all but the most exceptional circumstances (and noodles). The continued presence of my bunkmate, who appears not have left the building for (at least) months, suggests that this rule is as selectively enforced as a public Alcohol-Free Zone in Coffs Harbour, but my spirits are sinking regardless. Into a polystyrene bowl of noodles.
Then I got The Call. Bless you, young mister Karpathikas! Bless your bushy beard, your proud barrel chest, your firm real estate agent handshake, and your ability to spontaneously impregnate women with quintuplets from across a crowded room by merely raising a single testosterone-charged eyebrow. (The number of names on that man's bulging forearms!) I don't remember a thing about the flat, but I'll take it!
Fortunately the flat was fine. Precisely the magic one hundred dollars a week cheaper than my flat in Sawtell, and none of my neighbours scream homophobic abuse at me as I come home from work. Which is nice.
Actually, it's splendid in every respect except size. Ultimately I'm obviously going to need a place large enough to accommodate a cat or three, but living just off one of the trendiest streets on earth, a couple of hundred metres from the Melbourne CBD will do for now.
And it happens that a mere twenty minutes walk away is the actual coolest street in the world. And in that street is this shop:
Having pressed my nose to the glass, I'd noticed that, unlike the CBD Coles Express stores, this store was large enough to accommodate an online department. So I fronted up at the service counter and asked for the store manager. I got his right hand man, a disarmingly dapper and well-spoken gentleman called Jarvis. I expected to have to sell myself, but solely on the basis of four and a half year's service in Toormina, he was quite prepared to take creepy old Peter Cushing on as a casual. Not next week, as the roster was already set, but definitely the week after.
The week after, fed up with assembling flatpack furniture, I sent Jarvis an SMS nudge. Be careful what you wish for. He asked if I could do a shift in dairy that afternoon. How hard could it be? I'd seen what dairy do in Toormina. It didn't seem that challenging.
Be very careful what you wish for. I thought I was going to die. I had no idea I was so weak and feeble. All I had to do was wrestle with cardboard boxes, and the cardboard boxes were winning. My joints were aching, my muscles were screaming, I was covered in cuts and bruises. On returning home each night I dropped like a sack of potatoes and slept until the alarm woke me a couple of hours before the next shift. I really couldn't hack it. The young boys I worked with were running rings round me. I was more a hindrance than a help. I felt awful and humiliated.
Had my health deteriorated so badly over the last year? Had my dear colleagues in Toormina been mollycoddling me so much that I had no idea how profoundly decrepit I'd become? Jarvis seemed perfectly happy with me, which made it feel even worse. How could he not see that I'm hopeless? But, Jarvis assured me, the store manager "really rates you."
I think you may have misunderstood what he was saying, Jarvis. No stars out of five, two thumbs down, and zero percent are all valid ratings.
One day, somebody working in bakery called out to me. "Hey, didn't you work in my last store?"
I didn't know him from Adam. I get this sort of thing a lot. I seem to have a multitude of doppelgangers wandering about. Maybe "creepy Peter Cushing" is the hip new look, and I've just been ahead of the crowd.
"Not unless you worked in a place called Toormina."
"Yeah. You worked in online didn't you?"
Damn you, Coffs Harbour.
For as long as the boss was willing to pay me (even though my colleagues were clearly less happy having to carry my dead weight) I could hardly refuse the money. And I was slowly getting better at it. I started to think that not only could I turn back the biological clock, I could even end up fitter than I'd ever been in my life.
Nope. After a couple of months I hit a plateau. In a run of five days in a row, I'd be fine on day one, flagging on day three, and as useless as ever on day five. Fortunately I started getting the occasional shift in online. This was more like it; back in my comfort zone, except…
Because we don't do home deliveries from Collingwood, the total amount of business we do from pick-ups alone is a tiny fraction of what Toormina does. On paper, this sounds like things should be easier, but in practice, at any one time, the online department might consist of as few as one person, and rarely more than two. In the middle of the day the deadlines come every half hour. Any crises that arise, you have to sort out. Any phone calls, you have to answer. When someone calls for you over the store tannoy, you have to drop everything. And you can not fall behind for a moment. Once the ship starts listing to one side and taking on water, nothing you can do will get it upright again. And there is no self-sacrificing department manager there to step in and insulate you from the worst of the stress of dealing with customers, other departments, and the store manager. Twenty-four bucks an hour is fine if all you have to do is come in, work like a navvy for a few hours, and then skip out the door without a care in the world. It's nowhere near enough compensation for thinking about work for most of the rest of one's waking hours, and then losing sleep on top of that.
So for the last half of the year, it's been work, sleep, rinse, repeat. It's only a couple of months since I managed to sort out an actual bed to sleep in. Prior to that, I'd been on the air mattress I bought from Big W the day I moved in. I've not achieved anything else. Not a single thing. However I don't hate the commute.
As for enjoying any kind of social, cultural, or intellectual life, that's on my 2023 todo list.
My friend, former colleague, brother-from-another-mother, and custodian of the missing empathetic and likeable parts of my personality, Ruben came to visit last month. I think I broke him. I'm accustomed to thinking of him as ten times as fit as I am, and I foolishly set about showing him the sights of Melbourne, when most of the sights I'd yet seen were on the two-kilometre stretch between home and work. We got a little bit lost. But it did at least result in Ruben bumping into an old friend.
The next day, I took him down to St. Kilda via tram, confident that I had this jaunt sorted. After all, my friend Chris and I had just been there a mere twenty-two years ago. On reflection, I think we'd just walked down St. Kilda Road from the city, had a few pints in the Espy, and then walked back. Ruben and I were met with horizontal rain with bits of ice in it, and it turned out that he knew St. Kilda far better than I did. Nonetheless we got lost again.
On the third and final day of his visit, Ruben steered. We did not get lost, which I feel is cheating, but we had a lovely time talking rubbish without having to worry about where the hell we were and how in God's name we were going to get back.
In December, Mum and my sisters visited from Sydney (well, from the Shire, which is near to, but not entirely part of, Sydney). Being sensitive as I am to my mother's advancing years, I think that on balance "lost" is too strong a word for any position that I led us into. "Temporarily disoriented" might be a fairer assessment.
People underestimate how hard it is to find it is to find a dinner venue appropriate for a crazy old cat lady on a Friday or Saturday night in Melbourne. It's even harder if I have my mum with me as well. In my defense, I usually walk down that hill rather than up it, so it never feels quite so long, and she never technically died, despite turning some very peculiar colours.
Anyway, she got her own back the following day, by making me go out of the city and into nature, and ruining my goth tan.
In summary, it's been a hard but good year. I'm very lucky in having exceptionally wonderful friends and family, who I keep scattered about the country so as to share them about with others as equitably as possible.
2023 is going to be splendid.