[6 January 2011]
It’s 10:30pm on a warm and gusty night in November 2010. I’m sitting in the Rowda Ya-Habibi Lebanese take-away on King Street, Newtown, in Sydney’s Inner West. I order a vegan falafel roll and a ginger beer. The Lebanese lady behind the counter looks at my hands with a motherly frown. I nod and go wash up with soap. My fingertips are black after two hours in Bob Gould’s bookshop, that notorious dust jungle of a million volumes. I’ve just bought The Portable Conrad, Donald E. Westlake’s Kahawa, Clive Sinclair’s Blood Libels, and Flashman in the Great Game. The bookshop has been my late night lurk for years, a place to zone out after writing fiction, but tonight’s visit was a farewell. These paperbacks are for travelling. After five years in Sydney’s Inner West, as rents climb, my girlfriend and I are putting everything into storage and preparing to go backpacking on a global prowl.
I look out the take-away door and spot Mitch Tucker, a young Sydney composer. I haven’t seen him for a few years. We used to work together as waiters with an agency. Mitch is probably 30, but has a slight physique which makes him look 18. The street wind has made a mess of his thin brown hair. I call him into the take-away and ask him what he’s doing.
“I’m unemployed,” he says. “It’s been two months. For a while I was working in telemarketing as what they call a ‘fulfillment enabler.’ Guess what? It was unfulfilling. Now I’m growing my own veggies. Tomatoes. Aiming for self-sufficiency.”
“You surviving financially?”
“Hmmm. I’m living in the arse-end of Marrickville. Things are okay for now. It’s funny running into you,” says Mitch, “because I just saw our old mate Patrick in Enmore.”
I ask him which Patrick he means. We’d worked with two of them in the waitering game.
“They’re both actors.”
“The tall one.”
Both Patricks are pretty tall, but I figure he means the redheaded Irishman who wears the black sailor cap.
“He’s in a new TV ad for something,” says Mitch. “Burgers, I think. He still won’t act gratis. He’s principled. He’s still waitering.”
Mitch stares at the mountains of baklava and halva and almond rolls under the display glass. The Rowda Ya-Habibi has faux-marble Formica tabletops, a blasting air conditioner, and a framed poster depicting the espresso exhibition at the 1906 Esposizione Internazionale di Milano. The take-away fronts a classier ‘cushion room’ with belly dancing every night, but by 10.30pm the cushion room has closed. Mitch asks for a baklava daisy with black coffee. A pretty undergraduate with a silky black Louise Brooks bob comes in for a $2 spinach roll, smiles at Mitch and me, then vanishes forever into the warm night.
“It’s a city of dreams,” Mitch says sadly.
“Been composing?” I say.
“Mainly gardening,” says Mitch. “Tonight I did a course in worm farming. It doesn’t feel real these days unless I’m in the mud.”
I suggest he finds a way to combine his gardening with his music.
“Amazing! I was thinking exactly the same thing today. And if there wasn’t already a boring band called Sound Garden that’s what I’d call the project.”
In our waitering days we’d kill time on the job arguing about music. Mitch is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium with a major in composition. He performs aleatorically, with prepared piano and rocks and buckets of water. He idolises John Cage. Me? I like jazz, hot and cool. Mitch used to call jazz “ego music”, but tonight he tells me I should feel victorious because he’s been turned on to Thelonious Monk.
“Somebody dumped 500 gigabytes of jazz onto my external hard drive. My five hundred favourite pieces got lost in the crowd. Tell me – do I really need every note Grant Green ever recorded?”
“Probably not. But you need every note of Monk,” I say. “I was at a gig earlier tonight at the Con coffee shop. My mate Warwick Alder playing with the Craig Scott Quintet. Recording session.”
Let me flashback three hours. The Sydney Conservatorium’s café has reverb-absorbing carpets and plush blue curtains. About 30 people turn up to listen, mostly greying musos or students in their early 20s, including a couple of girls who can’t resist fiddling with an iPad during the session. Two student engineers monitor the live mix.
Craig Scott, the bassist and leader, has been gigging and teaching in Sydney for decades. He’s short, bald, and soft-spoken. He introduces his new tunes with their temporary titles: ‘New Waltz Thingy’, ‘New Four-Four Thing’, etc. He asks the audience to stay silent during the performance. No clapping or hooting after solos. No applause after the tune until ten seconds have elapsed.
“The new tunes are great,” a smoker says outside the Con during the break, “but it’s not exactly Night of the Cookers in there, is it? Seems a bit institutional.”
There’s an evening breeze. The white shells of the Sydney Opera House are a few hundred metres down Macquarie Street.
“What you need for this kind of gig,” I say, “is a Pee Wee Marquette to warm up the crowd.”
“The dwarf M.C. from Birdland?”
“Lester Young called him half a motherfucker. If the musos didn’t tip him Pee Wee would mispronounce their names.”
The smokers start talking about the HBO show Treme. It’s the real shit. I leave the Con in the company of a trombone player named Pietro. We walk through Hyde Park. Pietro has been playing jazz in Sydney for 20 years. Like me, he’s been doing postgraduate study to finance his work. A place in a postgraduate program can keep you temporarily afloat. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford to write and live in Sydney in the long term.
“It’s impossible to make music here, too, but somehow people manage,” says Pietro. “They teach part-time or repair instruments.”
We talk about the incredible young players who have graduated from the Con in the last ten years. There’s the alto saxophonist Dave Jackson from Trio Apoplectic, the drummer Evan Mannell, the Waples brothers…
“But they’ve got nowhere to play,” says Pietro. “The state entertainment licensing laws killed the scene years ago. The Hotels Association prefers poker machines to live music. But now the government has relaxed the laws maybe it’s starting up again.”
There are not a lot of gigs to go around. The Sound Lounge, for a few years the only dedicated (and legal) jazz club in Sydney, is a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of the Seymour theatre complex. It’s about a kilometre northeast of Gould’s Books in the vicinity of Sydney University. I always turn up whenever Bernie McGann, Australia’s greatest living sax player, performs with his pianoless quartet.
The most exciting new jazz club is Venue 505 on Cleveland Street in Surry Hills. Until recently 505 operated illegally out of a loft on grim windy Elizabeth Street. You’d pay ten bucks to sit, drink beer, listen to all kinds of experimental music. In the new location, which used to be a brothel, they’re hosting gigs six nights a week. I held my 30th birthday party at 505 a few months ago.
“It’s the venue that creates the scene, not the other way round,” says Pietro. We shake hands. He heads up Oxford Street and I catch a train to Newtown.
King Street in Newtown, Sydney - Photo Credit: Matthew Asprey
After the falafel I part ways with Mitch. King Street is a strip of the Princes Highway running southwest from the university to the fork at Newtown train station. At that junction the strip splits to the right down Enmore Road and left towards the retired smokestacks of St. Peters. I feel the tug of my caffeine addiction. I should have had coffee with Mitch back at the take-away. By now, 11pm, there’s nothing open along the street. In fact, there’s hardly anything open anywhere in Sydney. Newtown has lost most of its late night greasy spoons and coffee shops and dodgy curry joints in the process of gentrification. These days it’s all hipster cafés and wine bars and Thai restaurants that close early. After all, it’s a school night, and Newtown is now largely populated by little kids and their upper middle-class parents.
But maybe they haven’t switched off the espresso machine at Cinque.
I walk faster down the nearly-deserted street.
Tonight an old man busks with a ukulele. A harmonica and mic are gaffer-taped to the neck of the uke, and the old man leans over occasionally to wheeze on the harp. The uke is painted the same shade of pink as his jacket. There have always been street buskers along King Street – there’s the funk band that sets up under the Martin Luther King wall, the carny trio (banjo, euphonium, standup bass) with goatees and waistcoats, Julien the German ‘Tux Guy’ who croons Sinatra standards, the bearded bluesman with his Dobro (he’s “like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store”), the Aboriginal woman who plays nothing but ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, the skinny red-haired girl with the accordion (“ease the squeeze”), and Bukhu the Mongolian throat singer who bows a horsehead morin khuur. Sometimes Trio Apoplectic or a loose collective from the Con jam in the alcove outside the News Café.
I think about my years living in the Inner West. Most of the food here is still pretty cheap because of the competition between restaurants, and in the poorest months there have always been ways to get by. The Hare Krishnas regularly spoon out hot lentil and chickpea mush near the Hub, a defunct porn cinema. Folks from the swelling ranks of Newtown’s 40-something million-dollar mortgagers, pushing strollers built like little SUVs, are pleased by the boho novelty of free food but too cautious to even think about eating it. I mean, is it safe?
But back when I was a casual agency waiter barely paying the rent on my sharehouse room in the Newtown backstreets, this prasadan was truly a blessing. It comes on a paper plate. You sit on a brick wall as the sun goes down, eat with students and the poor and the homeless, and forever after cheer the Hare Krishnas when they dance by in their orange robes. And on days when you have a few bucks you can walk up the street and buy a broccoli and potato pie. Lunchtime is the best time to eat cheap. King Street still offers enormous and nutritious $6 Thai meals.
Earlier tonight I’d passed the crowded Cinque coffee shop and seen actors in conference, anorak-wearing weirdos, yuppies, tourists from the North Shore. There were patrons of the Dendy Cinema about to see some middlebrow Weinstein-produced junk posing as an arthouse movie or (with a grim sense of cultural duty) the latest state-subsidized eucalyptus-gazing Australian suicide drama. But now the chairs in Cinque are upside-down on the tables and the floors swept clean. The waitresses have turned off the lights. Everybody has gone to bed.
Welcome to Sydney, international city of 4.5 million inhabitants, where you can’t buy a cup of coffee after 11pm.
The Inner West
Zoom out for the bird’s-eye view: the Inner West of Sydney lies southwest of the Central Business District below the Parramatta River, a big body of noxious water that flows into Sydney Harbour. The Inner West is divided into north and south segments by the heavily-trafficked Parramatta Road, which begins near Sydney University on its long journey west. On the north side of Parramatta Road you find the relatively dense residential neighbourhoods of Glebe, Annandale, Leichhardt, and Haberfield; further north, poking into the harbour, are the Balmain and Drummoyne peninsulas. On the south side of Parramatta Road, an area well-serviced by rail, you find Camperdown, Newtown, Enmore, Stanmore, Petersham, and Marrickville. I’ve lived on the south side for the last five years.
Parramatta Road remains a wonderfully archaic ribbon of blight, a massively overused traffic artery – or ‘varicose vein’ in the words of a former local mayor – that trickles cars between the increasingly expensive neighbourhoods of the Inner West. Sydney used to go shopping on Parramatta Road, but these days you find the ruins of an obsolete commercial landscape. There are still numerous car dealerships as well as upholsterers, piano tuners, tailors and bridal wear designers, anarchist bookshops, antique furniture warehouses, brothels, commercial kitchen suppliers, secondhand record shops, pizzerias with arched brick windows, and old pubs.
There is the legendary Olympia Milkbar, with its taped-over broken windows, run since the beginning of time by its unwelcoming proprietor. Retro-minded tourists come to see the faded, decades-old ice-cream and chocolate bar advertisements still tacked to the walls. The milkbar is barely illuminated by a single flickering bulb way over in the corner.
But many of the shops along Parramatta Road are bolted shut, gutted, untenanted. Westfield Shopping Centres, the boxed fiefdoms of Australia’s richest man Frank Lowy, squat across sprawling Sydney. These malls stand as an aggressively authoritarian reorganisation of the city’s traditional commercial space under centralized power and total surveillance. An unlikely coalition of leftwing activists and Not-In-My-Back-Yard yuppies have so far prevented the Westfieldization of the Inner West’s commercial landscape in defense of the traditional main street. But whereas business thrives along Newtown’s King Street, Parramatta Road has been more or less abandoned. Countless cars clog the road each day, but few people shop there.
After World War II, the suburbs of the Inner West housed Australian and immigrant working class communities. In some ways the immigrant neighbourhoods retain their identities: Leichhardt is still Little Italy and Petersham is the place to find smoky Portuguese chicken and pastéis de Belém. When the area’s industrial and manufacturing infrastructure was abandoned, the out-of-fashion Inner West became home to students, artists, the gay community, punks, junkies, environmentalists, and revolutionaries. In the ‘70s, Balmain was Sydney’s bohemia. Newtown held the title in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. Now things have changed. There are few inner urban enclaves that have not priced-out the poor.
Australian Property Monitors reports that the median house price in the Inner West has jumped 318 percent since 1993 (from AU$208,000 to $870,000). Across the rest of the city it’s a mere 233 percent rise in those 17 years. Baby-boomers with property have made fortunes, but the next generation has been screwed. Only hard-slogging corporate mules can ever expect to buy a house in this city. Nevertheless, suburban house ownership is still the Great Australian Dream, and a lot of young people have locked themselves into crippling long-term mortgages. The slightest rise in official interest rates causes panic as people move closer to bankruptcy. Interest rates have become one of the central political issues in Australia, vastly more important to most of the population than our participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
There’s a major housing shortage and very low rental vacancy rates across Sydney, particularly in the Inner West. It’s hardly surprising that rents are rising. The upshot? Urban-loving people wanting to work part-time while pursuing their own projects, to study, to participate in the cultural life of the city, find it impossible to stay here. So if not Sydney, where else can people live? Hard choice. According to a Bloomberg report of 5 July 2010, Australia has “six of the ten most unaffordable cities among the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.” And how many big cities do we have? Only Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide have more than 600,000 residents.
After working and writing in Sydney for years, after rent hikes and no sign of relief, I’ve started to wonder about my future here. It’s one thing to work yourself to the ground to survive in an unaffordable place like New York City. After all, it’s New York. But sacrificing everything for Sydney?
The Amphibious Quartet live at Venue 505, Sydney, 23 November 2010 - Photo Credit: Matthew Asprey
For me it’s always been about preserving the time to write four hours a day, seven days a week.
I’ll tell you how I’ve managed so far. Five years ago I moved to a neighbourhood of Newtown in the zone between King Street and Parramatta Road. This is a medium to high density residential area of Victorian terrace houses and blocks of flats built in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Students at Sydney University have traditionally lived in this part of town, but such low earners have been progressively cast out in the last decade. The demographic has changed. The narrow streets, originally designed for horse and cart, are now full of parked Audis and SUVs.
In 2005 I got lucky and found a cheap attic room in a five bedroom sharehouse. My contribution to the rent was $420 a month. That was a rare good deal in the Inner West. The house’s rent had been static for years, as if the owners had forgotten all about it. A lot of housemates had come and gone. The place was cosy but a bit of a dump. No indoor plumbing. The green floral carpet in my room was faded and threadbare. I had endless storage space in a dusty closet that ran under the sloping roof one whole length of the house. I used the closet to store my books, a collection that mounted as I grazed the refuse in local charity shops.
I was 25. By that time I’d been writing fiction for five years, selling the occasional short story to a literary journal, publishing and distributing zines with colleagues. I’d written and directed short films and plays for university theatre and community radio. I’d been busy.
In Newtown I wrote every day. I looked out the window at passing trains and up at the bellies of descending aircraft. In the early afternoon I’d hear the theme tune from Days Of Our Lives drift out of a window across the way. That meant it was lunch time. If I was thirsty I’d go up the street to the ancient corner shop for a bottle of ginger beer. The Chinese shopkeeper would invariably ask:
And he would chuckle, his suspicion proved.
The thing was, I was working nights. I’ve never been on the dole. I was working hard to pay the rent, eat cheap Thai lunches, and buy a few $1 books. I was self-sufficient.
For a few years I worked as an agency waiter. Each night the agency would send me to a different function somewhere in the city. I was sent to corporate cocktail parties and dinners, gallery and museum openings, weddings, award ceremonies, harbour cruises, rugby league matches, horse races, rock concerts, magazine launches, golf tournaments, private parties, and fashion shows. Sometimes the agency sent me on unwaiterly jobs. I was a ‘roaming concierge’ and golf buggy driver at a shopping centre. I distributed flyers outside train stations. I repeatedly built and dismantled a big marquee for weddings on Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour.
Every shift was a new experience. Picture me working at a wine tasting, handing a glass of cuvée to an Eastern Suburbs lawyer.
“No, the nose has no generosity!” Another sip. “Shameful heaviness, palate-wise.” Spit. Water. I serve the next glass. “Oh, so buttery. What do you think, darling?”
His former soap opera star wife is giddy. “Luscious!”
As the lawyer and his wife shuffle out of sight my fellow waiter Patrick – the other tall actor named Patrick – takes a long swig straight from the cuvée bottle and croaks, “Simply marvelous, haw haw. Love that rancid menstrual tang. Now let’s take a box down to the cellar and get plastered.”
And then the next day I’m sent to a corporate function on a balcony overlooking Darling Harbour. I have to serve things like ‘gratinated escargots in marble potato’ and ‘scallop sashimi with tomato and tarragon’ to low-rung corporate bankers. I take around a tray of Stella Artois bottles. A suited-up Russell Crowe-type looks at the beers, frowns, and grumbles:
“Stella Artois? What do I look like – a poofter?” He puts his arm around my shoulder and chuckles into my ear:
“Get me a Victoria Bitter, champion. And send over that hot Swedish waitress with the beef and burgundy pies.”
One of his banker colleagues – formerly in hospitality – has the good sense to tell him that waiters and waitresses as a rule don’t screw customers, although sometimes they go home with each other.
The job was sometimes fun, sometimes boring, sometimes wearying, sometimes a breeze. You were always on the move. You became friends with dishpigs and cleaners and security guards. You’d work beside glittery tradeshow models and escorts. At Randwick Racecourse you’d sweep up the detritus of no-good bets while fallen princesses with tiaras and broken heels hunted for a bus to Manly. You’d discuss Jack London with Czech dinner cruise ship captains as the harbour lapped against the prow. Your waistcoat and tie would get smeared with curry and beer and dishwater and your black pants would glisten with melting crystals of beery slush. You’d find yourself among 50 other bone-weary waiters at 3am, rolling scores of collapsible tables onto pallets, stacking chairs in warehouses or convention centres, stuffing soiled tablecloths into drawstrung sacks, heaving bins of broken wine and beer bottles down steep staircases. When it was all over, too late for the public trains or buses, you’d walk home to Newtown under the city’s brown street lights. By that time guys in fluorescent yellow safety vests were power-hosing the vomit and piss off the footpaths of Sydney.
When the corporate world was busy or able to write off company parties for tax purposes, it was almost possible to make a living as an agency waiter. Still, you had to be comfortable with the lack of routine and constant assignment to unfamiliar parts of the city. There was no job security and no guaranteed number of shifts. But waiters and waitresses are good people – unpretentious, loyal, frustrated, and good-humoured. They were variously backpackers (mainly Brazilians), university students, middle-aged people who’d been retrenched, actors, painters, film-makers, and musicians. The creative types got to know each other well. You found good conversation. It was a community. If you worked a lot you kept up to date with what was happening in the rewarding but peripheral fields of music, painting, indie cinema, and theatre. Strangely, I didn’t meet many writers.
A Reconnaissance Mission
When the lease on the Newtown sharehouse ended, I moved 500 metres to a cramped flat in Stanmore. The sewage pipes would periodically explode and cascade shit over the driveway. My bedroom window looked onto the neighbouring sharehouse-cum-rehearsal studio of a rock band named The Follow, that diligently practiced their three songs day and night. A while later I moved another kilometre or so west to Petersham to live in a flat with my younger brother. When he moved out my girlfriend Clare, an archaeologist, shacked up with me permanently.
In Petersham I had to devote much more of my income to rent. By that time I could afford it because I was on a scholarship to do a PhD at Macquarie University. The scholarship, plus the income from the creative writing tutorials I’d been teaching at the university, meant I could quit waitering. I got out of that game at the right time, before the global economic downturn in 2008. Hospitality was the first industry to suffer.
A lot of writers and filmmakers in Sydney have headed into postgraduate study to finance their work. In my case I wanted to write a long novel about Sydney in the Great Depression called Murphy and the Baker. I’m just about to submit the first half with a dissertation of equal length. The conclusion of the novel remains to be written on the road.
Clare and I have bought around-the-world air tickets. We’ll be backpacking for at least six months. A stint in the US and Canada will drain our finances, so after that we’ll have to travel through cheaper countries: Mexico, Egypt, parts of Eastern Europe. The trip is a reconnaissance mission borne of a desperate question: How do writers, painters, filmmakers, and musicians get by in other cities of the world? Clare and I fly to San Francisco soon to begin our global prowl.
The Olympia Milkbar on Parramatta Road, Sydney - Photo Credit: Matthew Asprey
Matthew Asprey is the author of the novellas Sonny's Guerrillas and Red Hills of Africa and the editor of Jack London: San Francisco Stories. Check out www.matthewasprey.com and Matthew's blog, Honey for the Bears.