For the last couple of weeks I’ve been attacked by an Indian Myna Bird down Princes Park.
It all started after the festive season when I discovered that my jeans were a bit tighter, so I decided to rid myself of this excess fat by going for a run around Princes Park every morning. To be honest, the first couple of attempts were just me walking and talking on my phone like an episode of Entourage but after the third attempt I started running.
The day I did manage one continuous run is when the ornithological victimisation began in earnest. Like the Indian Myna Bird, I too am an immigrant to this country. Usually this means we stick together and develop a couple of in jokes about how fucking awful Australian TV is and ask each other why it’s impossible to top up your MYKI on a tram. No such luck with my friend the Myna, known to be the second greatest threat to native birds after land clearing.
So, me and this scraggy bird whose ancestors were introduced to Australia in the 1860s to control insect pests, are now at war. The first time it happened I thought, “It’s just defending its nest, I’d do exactly the same thing”. It’s normal for parents to defend their young, unless you’re Fred and Rose West. So, I took it on the chin and kept on running, almost glad to be part of nature’s wonderful cycle. But one thought kept nagging at me: It’s January and the nesting season is done and dusted.
The night after my first continuous run I slept better than I’ve slept in years. It was one of those youthful sleeps where your head hits the pillow and suddenly it’s eight hours later and Oliver Twist is out in the streets singing, ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning?’ In my case, it’s the number 19 tram driver shouting at people who don’t understand the concept of an illegal right turn during peak hour. That said, I was excited about my next continuous run.
I got up, turned on the TV, saw Kochie from Sunrise crapping on about the dangers of Facebook, repressed the urge to put in a bomb scare to Channel 7, and began stretching with the use of my battered couch. Once I was all limbered up, I descended the stairs and made my way over to the park.
All my running brothers and sisters were out in force with their headphones aiding the onslaught of tinnitus and various digital devices attached to their arms to measure heart rate. Running is an odd culture. From my experience it’s not a place to meet people, although my friends tell me I look a bit thuggish so maybe society in general is not a good place for me to meet people. Once, I was jogging in Werribee at night and got arrested by the police, their excuse being, “We thought you were either a burglar or a plumber but either way we thought it best to get you off the streets”. No charges were laid and, to make up for their ‘mistake’, they treated me to a free Big Mac.
Ten minutes into my run the blood started to flow and my heart rate pounded away like a teenage boy with the house to himself on a hot Saturday afternoon. Some mums were out running with prams, portly couples sweated out fizzy drinks and cheeky visits to KFC, fit young people, the gazelles of the running world, floated passed me, and my favourite running type, ‘the man who used to be fit’, trying to run like a Gazelle but ending up looking like a refugee from a disastrous night out in Bangkok.
I got to my favourite stretch of path that intersects the park and began really upping the ante; heart racing, teeth bared and belly undulating in slow motion, when out of nowhere I copped a beak in the back of the head. I spun around and there was my feathered nemesis sitting up in the branches staring down at me. I turned and started running and once again got beaked. Sucker punched by a foe that weighs at least 200 times less than me. I started running backwards so I could keep an eye on the bird. It followed me but did not attack.
When I was safely back on Royal Parade I decided to stage a stake-out, to see if the ‘flying cane toad’, as they’re now called, attacked anyone else. I watched twenty people run down the same stretch of path and not one of them was swooped. I felt angry and special all at the same time. But I couldn’t help asking myself why I was being singled out for victimisation. I was wearing the same kit as everyone else. My hair was messy but not bright red or resembling the silhouette of an eagle. I was sweating and un-showered but who showers before a morning run?
Later that day I staked out the stretch of path again and nobody else was swooped, not even the idiot in the Rangers FC strip. It was official. I was being bullied by an Indian Myna Bird and as much as I wanted to borrow Big Dave’s air rifle and blow its tiny brains out, it would be immoral for me to do so because essentially I was encroaching on its territory. It brought to mind the fuckwits who want to kill sharks in WA.
To test my hypothesis that it was just me who had earned the vitriol of this bird, I invited my Dad on a walk around Princes Park. I told him about the feathered bully but he laughed at me, telling me that attacks on humans are incredibly rare and unheard of when there was no nest to defend. However, when we got to the same stretch of path, sure enough, I got beaked, in fact, it was the most ferocious attack so far. The bird then tracked us for a good 30 metres before flying off to brag to its mates, who hang out on the brick toilet block eating flies and shootin’ the shit.
I haven’t altered my running track and the bird continues to swoop me and I’ve been wracking my brains for some kind of moral to this story and the only one I can think of is this: If you get swooped by an Indian Myna Bird don’t shoot it with your mate’s air rifle or avoid the situation. Instead, write a blog and just keep on running because being singled out doesn’t always mean you’ve done anything wrong. And anyway, as Hitchcock taught us, if it’s got wings and it hates you, you’re fucked.
I’m occasionally hit by bouts of claustrophobia and hydrophobia.
The claustrophobia is the result of accidentally locking myself in a toy chest when I was six years old. I was in there for an hour before an adult walked passed and heard my muffled screams and unlocked the chest. The closest I’ve felt to this traumatic childhood experience is boarding a crowded 19 North Coburg tram when I’m in a bad mood.
The 19 tram is a fickle beast, prone to fits of madness, rage and the inevitable delays of Melbourne public transport. For the most part I like my tram route because it goes up Royal Parade passed Princes Park and stumbles up Sydney Road spewing commuters onto the pavement and into the many bars and cafes along the way. It’s like a Mallee Ringneck feeding the road with tiny morsels of consumerism.
I can’t remember my first ride on the 19 tram but I do know that I’ve used it almost everyday for the last four years and I can even hear it clanking away at night as I eat my dinner in my wee flat in Ye Olde Lodge. If you’ve ever caught the 19 tram then you’ve probably gone passed my building many times and thought that it’s either a hotel or a halfway house for recently released inmates. I can assure you there are no ex-cons in my building but plenty of other unsavory acts occur on a daily basis, especially in the flat near the laundry.
I think it was the Bedroom Philosopher who wrote about the 86 tram a few years ago and he captured the spirit of the journey perfectly. The 19 tram has a slightly similar ambience but is also very different in many ways, the main difference being that the 19 tram has a strange sense of nobility, particularly if you watch it stop and start up Sydney Road from Brunswick Road. I love watching it slowly crawl up passed Blyth Street and disappear into little Turkey, the sun reflecting off its back windows. It reminds me of being a kid in Scotland, watching my Dad walk up David Street with the day’s takings tucked under his arm, in an old biscuit tin. Just a reassuring feeling of familiarity that makes us all feel at ease when perched on the edge of trepidation.
However, on a bad day the 19 becomes my biscuit tin of nightmares. I only catch it a few stops down to Grattan Street but when I see it approach my stop with its windows misted over and people packed in around the door I’m filled with dread. Why not walk I hear you ask? I’m constantly running late so I end up having to squeeze myself in and just take it like a man. It’s that feeling of impending doom as I mount those stairs and squeeze myself into that jigsaw puzzle of arms, legs and torsos that pisses me off the most. Being stuck next to the person with a bag that is far too big for what they really need to do that day. Music from earphones that’s too loud and never my cup of tea. Sour coffee breath, shit perfume, bullshit conversation and that fading pulse of unease from people just like me. Poor morale is infectious and a bad start to the day.
First world problems I hear you bleat? Of course they fucking are but they’re still problems and I’ve always felt that people who use that expression from the safety of their single story Victorian townhouses are just wankers with European run arounds, trying to make it all authentic with a Triple R sticker on the boot. But being squashed in with all that humanity is not my idea of a good time and finds itself right up there with any film featuring Johnny Depp – Donnie Brasco, notwithstanding.
But on the whole, I like the 19 tram. No I love the 19 tram. It’s regular, double carriaged, has un-vandalised upholstery and runs late on Friday and Saturday nights and there’s something reassuring about coming home on the tram and getting off on Sydney road and navigating your way across the road to Barkly Square. Crossing Sydney Road is an art form and is definitely an example of real life Frogger (see Seinfeld, season 9, episode 18). People unused to it are blown away by the fool hardy moves of locals, unafraid upon white lines, while trams, trucks and bikers speed passed on both sides. It’s all about keeping your nerve and developing a keen understanding of spatial relationships, speed and timing.
So, next time you’re on the 19 tram have a think about its strong links to Sydney Road. That tram dominates that strip of road, which unfolds between Brunswick Road and Bell Street; a huge metal worm muscling its way up the asphalt in all its glory. One of the few trams in Melbourne with a soulful journey, instead of a slow descent into a middle class Hades like the 75 tram’s route to Burwood.
I am unable to account for the hydrophobia. Maybe I’m just lazy.
I’ve always loved the Melbourne Cup and not because I’m into horse racing but because it’s a great excuse to get together with friends and hit the piss on a week day. Gambling has never been one of my vices and I’ve only ever placed two bets: one on the Cheltenham Races in 1998 and this year on the Melbourne Cup. However, this year was the very best of both bets.
My mate Aaron had been on his honeymoon and I was pretty sure he’d be back around Cup Day but I wasn’t 100% on this. On the morning of the cup, just as I’d finished watching an episode of The Moaning of Life (ep. 1, Marriage, 6.5/10), I received a text at 8:30am. It was Aaron informing me that he was back and trying to get out of going to a BBQ, meaning he wanted to hit the piss with a vengeance, with me. I endorsed his decision to bug off the BBQ and get some proper drinking done. It had been six weeks and I’d been in a thesis keyhole and in desperate need of cracking my skull on a good skelp o’ the bottle.
My buzzer went off at around noon and as usual I excreted a couple of teaspoons of poo because that fucking buzzer always catches me off guard, like it knows I’m concentrating on something and vulnerable to its awful sound. It was Aaron and he’d brought back a shot glass and some classic black and white French pornography as gifts for me. He knows me well. Although I was disturbed to find out that his duty free had been confiscated in Dubai, he never went into detail but judging by his gait it had been a harrowing experience for all involved.
Luckily he had a spare bottle of whisky at home, which he brought around in a posh bag he bought in New York that was slung over a fetching sports jacket he picked up in Rome and carried around to my place upon a shiny new pair of shoes purchased in Paris or London or somewhere like that. It was great to see him because Aaron is the kind of man who speaks his mind regardless of the company he’s in and not because he thinks it makes him look smart but because he really can’t help himself. This is both a gift and a burden for the lad but I admire this quality.
I had some beers in the fridge, so we got them out and started on the day.
By 1:30pm we’d caught up, drunk six beers and knocked back a bottle of whisky. It was time to venture out and get some more whisky, cigarettes, dumplings and place a bet on the cup. Everything but the bet was bought in my favourite place, Barkly Square. The bet was made in Bridie O’Reilly’s on the corner of Brunswick Road and Sydney Road. My local where I write my PhD, the rewrites of my novel and a screenplay with Brother Josh, in the middle booth looking out onto Brunswick Road and the corner where I live.
I had no idea who to bet on, so with a minute before bets closed I sought the advice of the barman. I also had no fucking idea how to work the machine and I was drunk and euphoric and needed a piss asap. It’s the kind of mix that can leave a man avoiding social engagements for a month or so. Anyway, the barman suggested Fiorente to which I said yes and Aaron handed him a fiver. We bet low because we’re novices and not afraid to say so.
Back at my place with a bottle of single malt on the table we got settled in for the race, dumplings bubbling on the stove. I flicked on my analogue TV and we kicked back and watched people wandering around Flemington Racecourse in all sorts of states. It’s a time for women to become slutted-up-weeble-wobble-dental-ads and for men to squeeze into suits from Peter Jackson and wear poorly selected sunglasses and strut around with one finger up their arse (Aaron in Dubai) and the other finger firmly ensconced in the cleavage of a slutted-up-weeble-wobble. I have nothing against this. People are entitled to behave this way if they want to but I am also entitled to laugh my arse off at them after three bottles of beer and half a bottle of whisky. It is our cultural right to engage in either practice.
The horses left the gates and they were off. The commentators started on a high and continued to work themselves up into a frenzy as the horses tore up the track in a spectacular array of colour and adrenalin. Aaron and I sat on the edges of our seats cheering on Fiorente, as our horse brought up the rear and other horses surged ahead. With five dollars on the line we were both on tenterhooks getting into the spirit of the occasion. The hooves smashed into the grass and the commentator rose from his seat and started spitting everything into the microphone. Just when we thought all was lost Fiorente came up on the side and raced to the finishing line like a drunk man with a kebab sprinting towards the last tram with garlic sauce spiraling behind him like a vapour trail. Ten seconds later Aaron and I were jumping around my flat hugging and swearing and high-fiving. It was the best feeling I’ve had so far this year. We’d won the cup, our cup and the whisky never felt so good dancing a victory jig in our veins.
After we’d exhausted every cell in our vocal chords we sat down knackered, speechless. It was the greatest home coming either of us could imagine. One of those moments you have with a mate when you’ve both placed your trust and expectations on the same situation and everything has fallen into place in a way you never could have anticipated.
When the dust finally settled, we sat in silence, every once in a while saying, ‘I can’t believe we won the fucking cup, I can’t believe we won the fucking cup’. Savoring victory, enjoying victory as dumpling skins boiled over onto my stove.
The rest of the day passed in a haze but at some point it all hit me. It’s these moments in our culture that make it all worthwhile, the moments when a race does stop a nation but it stops differently for all of us. Whether it’s drinking at home with a mate or falling over in the mud dressed to the nines, having fun has many forms but as a long as you’re having fun without fucking other people up then you are truly tapping into the better side of humanity.
I’ve lived in Brunswick for a few years now and I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Melbourne. This might make me a wanker but I don’t give a fuck. I like it here. It’s hard to find somewhere to live that you actually like but when I stepped into Barkly Square for the first time it was love at first sight. For those of you who haven’t been to my beloved Barkly Square it’s a rather cheap and nasty mall located near the city end of Sydney Road. It’s been renovated recently but I want to talk about the old Barkly Square, my Barkly Square.
I can see the roof of Barkly Square from my Brunswick apartment, that beige wave of concrete, topped by grey skies. The front of the building is dominated by large automated doors and a McDonald’s. Inside there is and was the usual array of shops. However, Barkly Square aka Barkers has had some odd shops in its time, like the shop that only sold stockings and hats or the bookshop that only sold Christian texts and audio books spoken by my ex-girlfriend’s, ex-boyfriend.
When I first moved to my Brunswick apartment, after finding myself in the liminal wasteland of shared accommodation in such places as Prahran and Preston, I spent every Saturday morning in Barkers. In particular, I used to adore walking around Kmart, nursing my hangover. There is something exhilarating about being surrounded by affordable goods that defies articulation. I’d sweep up and down the aisles, trailing my hands across the bargains like Ellen DeGeneres dancing onto her set. I kitted most of my apartment out with Kmart products but told people they were from elsewhere.
After a trip to Kmart I’d treat myself to a Vietnamese roll from the bakery out the front of Barkers, served by surly ladies who only now, after 3.5 years say hello to me and smile. I’d wash that down with a litre bottle of Bundaberg ginger beer and watch the DVD I’d also bought in Kmart. The rest of the afternoon was usually spent drinking whisky and writing at my kitchen table or meeting a friend at The Retreat for over-priced beer in the front bar.
But back to Barkers.
I’ve walked into Barkers in all sorts of states and never been asked to leave. There is an unconditional love that exists between me and this building. I have a Zen-like attachment to the walls and the floors and the toilets; when I enter through those automated doors all the troubles of the world slide down my legs and scurry into the rubbish bins, where the little fuckers belong. I have plans for Barkers though, big plans.
Barkly Square is where I’ll go when the zombie apocalypse finally arrives. I have it all worked out, so well worked out that I will not divulge my secrets on this blog, needless to say I’ll survive and you will not. Surviving the end of humanity takes a lot of planning and tinned products, also the ability to stab loved ones in the eye with a make shift spear. Sorry Mum but if you turn I’ll put you out of your misery using a selection of knifes from the kitchen section of Kmart, I know you’d appreciate the gesture.
Zombies aside, my favourite place in Barkers is the bottle shop attached to Safeway. When I first moved here it was a Liquorland but now it’s a BWS. Those of you who know me, know that I like the odd tipple before evensong. Drinking empowers me and later in the night disempowers me and sometimes leads to me being incarcerated but that’s another story. The lads in the BWS are great, except the skinny one with the goatee who’s a miserable prick and takes his job far too seriously and smells of stale cakes and probably loves Glee. The other lads are excellent value and we enjoy a good bit of banter whenever I go there, regardless of my state of mind.
But why Barkly Square when I live across the road from Princes Park? I’ll tell you why; Princes Park reminds me of that lurid scene in Midnight Express when all the brain dead prisoners walk around and around and around. The joggers at Princes Park are no different except they look healthier, are not afraid of the showers and jog rather than lurch around like smack heads on a carousel. I love Barkers because it has all the hallmarks of the unwanted ginger stepson. I revel in its rudimentary attempts at decoration. I worship at its alter of mediocrity. But more importantly Barkers sneaks under the radar and breaths its fiery smog of blandness up my jacksey and in doing so fills my soul with joy.
We are taught to admire aesthetically pleasing buildings, to regard them as the paragons of social advancement but places like Barkly Square never gain a mention even though they serve an important part of our community. I’ve watched Barkers for 3.5 years now and I can see its community, its familiar faces, and we all know each other and nod and wink and stop to chat.
Barkly Square is the unsung hero of Brunswick but when you get to know the building it takes off its glasses, undoes its hair, shakes it around, puts its hands on its hips and promises to show you a good time.
Most Mondays I meet my mate Aaron and we get shitfaced on cheap white wine. We either get drunk at my place or his, even though his flat is infinitely better than mine. We’re both in the process of writing a novel, so we mostly talk about that and the past. Two weeks ago we were sitting on Aaron’s balcony drinking wine and enjoying, yes enjoying a cigarette, when I started talking about my favourite book, A Goat’s Song by Irish author Dermot Healy. It’s a story about a tragic alcoholic’s destructive relationship with an actress from Dublin and his bleak, yet beautiful take on the world that eventually destroys everything around him.
I first read A Goat’s Song in ‘96 when I was unemployed in Ireland and spending most of my money on postcards and Guinness. It’s one of only a few books that had me hooked from the first sentence:
“The bad times were over at last. He stood on the new bridge that opened onto the Mullet and waited for Catherine to appear. In the side pocket of his jacket, folded into a notebook, he had her letter. Just when he’d given up hope it had arrived.”
And, from memory, I read the book in one sitting but I may be romanticising this because it’s 17 years since I read the book for the first time and nostalgia is the greatest storyteller of all.
Anyway, I was telling Aaron about this book and how I’d lost it a couple of years ago. Aaron stood up walked into the flat and returned with my copy of A Goat’s Song and placed it on the coffee table in front of me. I stared at the book for about ten seconds in an incomprehensible trance of euphoria and sadness before I picked it up and weighed it in my right hand. This was my original copy, the only possession I have left from that time, in fact, the only book out of some 800 I have left from that decade.
During the silent minutes after Aaron gave me back the book I felt like somebody had king-hit memories into the back of my head. Aaron had seen me like this once before and knew just to sit back and wait it out. I remembered the pub I’d read it in, the walk home, stuffing it in my backpack when I left Ireland, talking about it to hundreds of different people I met on my travels and finally arriving in Melbourne holding it in my hand as I walked through customs with about six different drugs talking shop in my bloodstream.
When a barrage of memories sweeps over you it’s hard not to pass out. It’s best to be silent and wait for it to pass. By the time it did pass I’d been crying for fifteen minutes and rubbing the cover of the book with both hands. I wasn’t even aware that I was crying but when I did, I did that thing so many men do when they cry; I apologised and cleared my throat. This is when Aaron spoke his words of wisdom, “Don’t worry mate you’ve got nothing to apologise for. It’s a fucking good book”.
While Aaron went for his midafternoon dump, I went through the book looking for the sentences she circled when we broke up. Quite a few years ago now I had a doomed relationship with a beautiful but highly strung woman from Brunswick. She read the book the day after we broke up and legend has it that she read it in one day too. However, she read it with a pen in one hand and a gallon of wine in the other. Every time she came across a sentence that reminded her of us, she circled it and wrote a comment in the margin. The book is riddled with these critiques, a graveyard of bleak and tragic words. Each sentence is perfect, even the circled sentences have artistry to them but, more importantly, the circles on the pages of the book accurately tracked our relationship.
Through my callousness and her emotional meltdown we’d effectively brought the characters to life and enabled them to step off the pages and enter the real world, our world, mirroring our own doomed relationship. And this is what great books can do to our reality; they captivate us with their mystery and we unconsciously bring them to life. And what this tells us, is that fiction is not necessarily tragic because of the author’s imagination but because of the universal truths that they convey through the narrative.
When I thought I’d lost the book I was upset for two reasons. One, it was my original copy of my favourite book and two, it had the circles drawn and words written by a broken hearted woman in an unfinished house in Brunswick. I suppose my point is that it’s not just the book, its narrative arc, protagonists or scene setting that makes a book great, it’s also about the people you care about who read the book too. Especially the ones who care enough to creatively and lovingly deface it with their own despair and trauma.
As I stumbled home from Aaron’s, feeling my feet disappear into the pavement, I thought about Jack and Elizabeth from A Goat’s Song and I thought about the woman from Brunswick and how it all feels so important at the time, all those words spoken late at night over drinks and the absolute finality of getting home to your flat and falling face first onto your bed, single. There was a black out that night and I had no candles.