I’ve been in St Kilda for a year now and I thought I was getting used to the No. 96 tram. Someone once told me that the numbering forthe tram routes was based on a mystical system drawn from the Kabbalah. I haven’t researched that rumour. I am sorry when my ride on the No. 96 tram ends because it terminates the pleasure and scariness of people watching. Other times I’m just glad to get out, to push through the crush at the door and emerge into the Bourke Street Mall and smell the cigarette smoke, the caramel and perfume (Myer’s ‘Fragrance Hall’— how la-di-da is that?) wafted from the shops and to be bombarded by the music and the spruiking.
Yesterday I took the No. 96 to our monthly meeting at the Athenaeum Library in Collins Street. I enjoy the contrast between my journey and my meeting at the Athenaeum, although sometimes getting there I suffer elderly outrage. Yesterday I walked down from my flat and I was at the tram stop on the upper Esplanade in minutes. I took the No. 96 because it was faster. I eschewed the No.16 which trundles at snail’s pace along St Kilda Rd. Waiting at the St Kilda beach tram stop two No. 16 trams turned up, one after the other, without regard to the timetable. At sixty-four yearsof age I reserve the right to be irritated by such flagrant disregard for the advertised schedule. with a message for me. I am recently majorly deaf and getting used to lip watching, so I thought he was probably telling me to ‘get fucked.’ But my lip reading is not advanced so it could have been something else (‘get frocked’, ‘get fouled’, ‘get frogged’?). I looked down, resolved not to make eye contact again.
Gradually people who had boarded moved away from the doors and found seats; after all it’s a good twenty minutes before one reaches town. But the young man did not sit down and in due course he was the only one standing in our section. By the doors he flung down his backpack and started to rummage in it. Out came pieces of screwed up paper, something that looked like a burger in a wrapper, a black t-shirt with writing on it, and a tangled length of lead. He was shaking his head in frustration; his long dirty hair was troubled around his thin neck. Where it parted to fall forwards I glimpsed a tattoo of a skull. Why would you have a skull on the back of your neck? By what logic could one be persuaded that the neck skull was a good idea?
‘Fucking fone!’ he screamed into the depths of his back pack. ‘Where are you, fucking fone?’ Where indeed? Was it in some dusty corner of his boarding house room, or hiding beside the smoked glass of his bong or pipe, or lost among the rumples of his sweaty bed? He was thin and black-clad with a bruise under one eye. I could see and feel his intense experience of losing things. I wished that the backpack would vomit up that phone. And I wished I had not made that eye contact and been consequently cursed. Maybe in his rage he would target me as the person responsible for his loss? I had a window seat and a thin Japanese woman in her twenties was sitting beside me. She was eating something flaky out of a cellophane bag and doing serious chewing. When she crumpled up the bag it sounded like thunder. I sized her up; she wouldn’t be much of a buffer in an attack and her cellophane crumpling might draw his attention. I wasn’t the only one thinking of evasive action. A man in his seventies, And then my trip to town was underway in one of the latest trams, the ones with the peculiar raised seats, thin cushions and back props. They are clearly designed to encourage standing. I had no difficulty getting a seat having boarded close to the start of the 96 route. At 10.30 am the tram was fairly empty except for the Asian tourists.
But in Fitzroy Street there was a flurry as a crowd swarmed on. We were near the Gatwick when they boarded. Looking at the Gatwick Private Hotel (arguably the cheapest rates in Melbourne) I saw someone stick his or her leg out an upstairs window and waggle it about. I wondered what they were thinking but I was assured by the jollity of the leg that it was not a suicide attempt. It was the leg of someone who had a pink sock and who was not risk averse. Other Gatwick residents had responded to the season and dragged chairs outside under the plane trees and were having a little party on the pavement. It was a rag-tag but cheerful scene although I have seen police and unhappiness out the front of that establishment, with pursued people exiting from the lower windows. Seventy-eight reportable crimes, from kidnapping to burglary, were committed by Gatwick residents this year, and that’s just for inside the building. Who knows what the stats are for outside? They’re a free-ranging bunch.
At St Kilda Station a youth got on who made us look up. Some people have a capacity to fill the available psychological space. This young man didn’t catch everyone’s attention of course because many were fixated by their phones, their iPods/Pads, or their music. I happened to be reading KennethMackenzie’s ‘The Young Desire It’ and was struggling with the mannered, 1930s prose. What do the young desire? Love and self-determination apparently, but who really knows? Don’t we all want, irrespective of age, to love and be loved and the freedom to be ourselves? But of course we face the problem of identifying our essential self; sometimes we can’t locate it at all. Anyway I was taking a break from Kenneth when this youth got on and I looked up and made direct eye contact. I didn’t mean to; it just happened. He burned back at me with bloodshot eyes and his lips moved dressed in sneakers, three-quarter length camouflage pants, sports top and sunglasses resting on his baseball cap (what are you—twenty-five?) eased out of his seat by the door and swayed up the aisle away from the danger zone.
The young guy stared after him, muttering. A real man would put his body between the assailant and the Japanese woman and sort him out, quick smart. But, I thought, I hate and fearviolence. I mused that I could stand the pain of a punch. I know pain, I thought, I have coped with it. I’ve had open heart surgery and a benign brain tumour and radiotherapy. It occurred to me that because of my brain operation a punch to the head would kill me. I hadn’t been punched since high school when I was about sixteen, forty-eight years ago, and I doubted that I would punch back. I do not have the ticker to deal with the ugliness of brawling, the distorted faces, the horrible sounds and the ugly wet muzzles. The blood and loss of dignity. (Invidious comparison: wasn’t Ron Barassi marvellous, defending that woman in Fitzroy Street? And at his age! He didn’t fear being bashed. But then again, he was a great footballer and Ihave never even played.)
I am such a coward, I thought. A real man would be thinking of the protection he could offer to the fragile and munching Japanese. She was clearly a nice person, deserving of care. At one point she turned and offered me a strange smile. Her lips pulled back to reveal big square ivory-coloured teeth with masticated pastry between them. I smiled back with my teeth that are smaller and oval, like white beans. I was aware of us grinning at each other and nodding, and of our cultural differences. Is it customary for the Japanese to do much public smiling? I think of them as reserved and formal in public, approaching each other with small, cautious steps. Maybe that morning she had decided to try on a western persona. We were momentarily a little community because in the background the maniac was lurking; what would he do next? The young man’s bag search proved fruitless. He was standing, balefullyglaring at the elderly departing back. Mr Seventy dressed as a twenty-five year old sat down at the rear. Clearly the young man was sensitized to rejection. It spurred him into action—he started to run up and down the aisle at full pelt. As he pounded up and down we seated ones concentrated on our phones, our papers, our devices, anything at all. No one overtly registered a thing.
I sneaked a look once his running jag was over. He was advancing once again, but slowly. By each seat he paused to stare fixedly at its occupant. When it came to our turn my Japanese proved an excellent buffer. She had started a game of Angry Birds while the running was going on. Her concentration was excellent and she didn’t register the menacing face at all. I too stared at her screen until he moved on. I half expected someone to say ‘You are the eldest here. Do something!’ I dreaded them saying it. What could one do? Nothing criminal had happened. Personal space had been invaded, a miasma of anti-social feeling had been exuded and filled the carriage with fear and tension, but no actual violence had taken place. He was back up the carriage, close to the doors, mid aisle. Now centre stage it was time for...? He reached up and took hold of the dangling straps, one in each hand, arms reaching up across the aisle. With a sudden leap he was up, suspended. His legs swooped out and then they were raised above his head and over, through the gap between body and ceiling. He let go at the moment when his arms threatened to twist out of their sockets. Landing on his feet with a thump, he faced the rows of us. We all looked. A full aerial somersault. It was not to be denied. On landing his baleful face softened into downcast brooding.
‘Sorry,’ he said to the carriage at large. Sorry? My god, you should be sorry, I thought. You have disturbed and threatened us all. Those whirling legs could have knocked out teeth or an eye. A good thing we were all seated. But he stood and didn’t move. His thinness and slumped shoulders and awful track suit pants with something white and crusty smeared down one leg oppressed usall, or so I thought, speaking to myself on behalf of the entire tram. Maybe the other passengers hadn’t been alarmed. Maybe some of them had been amused, or hadn’t even noticed. But why are you now sorry? What changed after the leap ceilingwards? Did some good old Aussie perspective, some decency and moderation, kick in with the adrenalin rush? Or your meds? Or did the ice you took this morning suddenly wear off?
Some really big guys got on at South Melbourne and they stood aroundhim. Maybe they were from the market. One of them had an arm fully sleeved in ink. Our gymnast suddenly looked like their captive—small, depressed and vulnerable. He squatted and then sat down on the floor among their legs, rummaging in his bag again. Their legs were the bars to his cage and he was a boy-bundle at their feet; they could have drop kicked him through the door if they had wanted to. Rampaging, you were the object of my fear and loathing. When you were pale and suppressed upon the floor, your sting removed, I felt a faint concern. Why were you wasting your time and energy with these pointless, anti-social displays? They would come to nothing or, if they intensified, to time behind bars. They advanced nothing. Who were you trying to impress and why? Had you no notion that youth and beauty are synonymous? Had you no appreciation of your current ugliness and your potential loveliness? Or maybe you did and appreciated yourself too much. Was it extreme sensitivity that was driving you to despair? Where was the concept of transience in your thinking? Read some Keats, or Marvell. They would surely have helped you to get a life. At your back time’s winged chariot hurried near and you were squandering your young life. Get a grip, get some focus, get an education, eat better, get a job, have a shower, and for god’s sake change those pants!
But, aside from these internal rantings, I did want to help. I realised that my exhortations were for myself alone, a venting of elderly spleen. To insist on you reading the great poets was unfair. Maybe you couldn’t read at all, maybe your hoop-la and attention seeking were symptoms of the frustrations of being illiterate. I would have liked to take some of that fear and madness from you and given you reading, reflection and calm. That’s what you needed, the calm that is the pre-condition for rational thought and action. ‘Faark!’ he roared at the world in general and, struggling to his feet, got off at Crown Casino and disappeared into the crowd.
I got off later, at the Bourke Street Mall and this time the clamour did not amuse me. I wandered through the arcades, ate something salty (a prosciutto baguette? I worry that my short term memory is failing me...), ordered a cappuccino when I meant to have a flat white, and when I reached Collins Street I felt quite fed up—not with the nuisance boy but with myself. At my awful ambivalence. I don’t like myself when I sit in judgement. I had been labelled and judged in the past and I didn’t enjoy the experience. So why did I continue to judge others, to see comic peculiarities in other cultures when all is relative and my culture is as funny-peculiar as any other? Why am I fearful of masculinity and always see underlying violence in it? Why did the young man fill me with such conflict, assail me with his pathos and anger? The old are invisible to the young, but they need us. They need to be disciplined, to be told the way of things, but also taken to the bosom and consoled for the hardness of life—simultaneously. But they don’t yield; they are undisciplined and inconsolable; set, irrevocably, upon their/our common tragic path. Maybe they are right to resist us. We think we are enveloping them in love and concern but maybe they see that we are bringing a lot more than that to our embrace—our suffocating needs and fusty habits. Oh dear, I’m moralizing again...
The Athenaeum restored me to myself. My group gathers in this very respectable but faded establishment, just up from the Town Hall. The Ath has celebrated its 174th birthday, making it the oldest public institution in Melbourne. It’s on the second floor of the grand Victorian building that has housed it since the 1870s. To get to the library you enter the once-fashionable foyer and go straight ahead, past Sometimes to be open is to be creative. But only if one can find the binding themes. The quiet of the library quelled that random stimulation. I told everyone about my trip in on the 96. People tut-tutted and were wise and considerate. Some saw the funny side of it, others were concerned. Once more I could raise the walls and focus. We had a good meeting and resolved to pursue our project and we did so with goodwill and humour. Why are we capable of this? Because we are among the fortunate who have been given husbands and wives, jobs and homes and reasonable lives. Individually we haven’t had everything, but we have been guided and sustained. We have been able to choose, not driven on by deprivation.
It was past four when our discussion ended. In Dymocks I had a cupof tea and a Moroccan custard tart with Bob, a member of our group and a friend, (see, that I can recall—the tart was delicious) and once more to Bourke Street and the No 96. Waiting on the tram stop bench made of stainless steel rods I am approached. He is maybe forty years old and in a red track suit. It is one of the silky kind, as worn by John Howard on those brisk morning walks, and it is stained. His brown eyes are dead.
‘I’m hungry,’ he says as if I already should know this, and, ‘I am not home.’No, I think, you are not home. I am not home either and right now that’s where I want to be. You are towering over me because I am seated and you are standing. You are a pillar of want directly in front of me, blocking my view of the Post Office facade, whose beauty I was appreciating as the afternoon light slanted across its facade, and of the Salvation Army band that has commenced a concert. Strains of Amazing Grace filter around him. He puts out his hand, palm up, in front of my nose. Oh shit. Am I an ATM?
I’m sorry you’re hungry,’ I say, ‘but I haven’t got much change.’
The hand stays put. My bag is between my feet and I unzip it and start to search. Why are computer bags black? My black wallet in the black interior is invisible. My bowed head over the black bag is in front of his knees. If I went a little further I would be in full but resentful obeisance. I look like the theatre on your right, and ascend the broad stairs facing you. They are covered in dusty red carpet and a mahogany rail assists your climb. On the first floor landing you may choose to pause for a wee in the old-fashioned toilets with the embarrassingly short cubicle doors (when were these loos last updated, 1900?) before going on to your meeting or casual browse.
Alternatively you may arise by the lift that dwells, when on the ground floor, in an alcove off the foyer. That lift is a great pleasure. It has a fabulous art nouveau panelled interior with a little domed ceiling lined to perfection in wood veneers. At a squeeze it fits four late-emerging writers. A deco light shade in white glass shaped like an upside-down curling flame hangs from black chains in that miniature dome. Something about that lift, with its dark panelling and swaying lantern, speaks to me of deep city melancholy—but a luxurious, 1920s Istanbul kind of melancholy. Stationary, its dusky period charm evokes risk and poetic, pleasurable intrigue—Agatha Christie spies (not the really dangerous sort), assignations, somewhere to hide that document, sleepy dark eyes longing for a forsaken love beside the Bosphorus. But there’s no time for that: you are on the move and fully, prosaically awake as you are jerked to the second floor and must struggle to get out against doors that keep surging back against you. An aspect of this lift pleasure is that it takes you clanking up in its dark cage and jolts you, surprised, right into the heart of the library. The multiple doors have to be shoved open and you step out into the midst of the books. Facing you are tables and old chairs and a little bar with an urn and tea things. The library only asks you to contribute a coin if you indulge in a brewed coffee or a teabag from the box of up-market teas.
So my writing group loves meeting there. We appreciate all of it, from its mahogany shelves, peeling cream paint and worn carpet, to its sepia photos, kindly staff and afternoon tea atmosphere. It suits us down to the ground because none of us is in the first blush of youth. In the street and before that, in the tram, I had let in too much. I’m about to wash his feet when really I want him to piss off. I find my wallet. All the change has leaked out into the bag and I can’t be bothered fishing for it. I open the wallet and all I have is a ten dollar note. I was going to buy some frozen crumbed fillets for our supper on my way home, when I got to Woolies in Acland Street (my Chris is a vego but he now eats a little fish for the Omega 3). I am loathe to let it go, but he is standing there, so needy needy, so immovable.
‘Here,’ I say, ‘take this,’ and I proffer the ten bucks.
I am annoyed and think sarcastically: you of the execrable trackies, you will probably exchange this blue plastic portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore, with Banjo Paterson on the other side, for two gourmet pies with sauce or for a minor tray of four crispy crèmes. They are all lethal. More likely you’ll buy some fags that will also kill you. I resist the urge to say don’t waste this on food. He snatches the ten dollar note and holds it up to the sky. He is whooping (with joy? I’m not sure). His celebrating annoys me more.
‘Don’t snatch!’ I reprimand him. ‘And at least say thank you. That ten bucks was for my tea.’
He falls to his knees in front of me. He puts his boof head on my knees, cheek down, and moos, long and loud,
‘Tank yoooou, tank yoooou,’ and stays there.
I am transfixed, looking into the skin flakes amongst his dull brown hair. It is rough fur; it cries out for shampoo, conditioner, the non-sacred oils and unguents from Myer’s Fragrance Hall. His arms are around my lower legs and I cannot rise. Other passengers are watching. I feel their eyes on us. His kneeling brings the Salvos into view and now Rock of Ages rocks the Mall. It was the hymn played at my Mum’s funeral. Oh, if only the rock was cleft and I could hide myself in Thee! But I have never believed in Thee. The here and now is mystery enough for me. Twice on the same bloody day I am cornered and fed up with myself and this impossible world which pulls me in every direction. I feel tears welling up. Their darkness clouds my view. Is the 96 approaching? I could be anywhere. Soon I will be too old for the tram. A tram pulls up. It is the Bee tram. Painted bright yellow it has big bees all over it and a sign that says ‘Buzzing Along Route 96’. The bees have cute antennas and smiley faces. There are boy and girl bees. What is itadvertising? I don’t know and I don’t give a stuff. I shake off my too-grateful friend, who was bringing me down, and get on board.