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Artful Living

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How do writers, painters, filmmakers, and musicians get by in other cities of the world? Asprey and his partner, priced out of Sydney, hoist their backpacks and set off for a trip around the world -- on an artist's budget — to find out.

What One Does, Just to Get By

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.

You became friends with dishpigs and cleaners and security guards. You worked beside glittery tradeshow models and escorts.
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:

“Working today?”


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

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