Thursday, March 24, 2011

On Being Hungry

Jobless and broke? No need to go hungry. All you need is your wits, a sense of thrift and a repressed gag reflex. Here's a couple of suggestions for simple culinary delights you can make on the cheap.

Baked beans on toast - $0.50
A perennial classic. Make sure you buy store-brand beans. If they don't taste like small lumps of boiled cardboard, you're doing it wrong, and you should probably feel bad.

Mi Goreng (Ramen) with Soy Sauce - $0.20
How can you go wrong? Both Mi Goreng and Soy Sauce are reputed to contain carcinogenic substances, but who believes what scientists say these days? I call this meal the "Deepwater Horizon".

Bread - $0.10
If you think bread is boring, you're dead wrong! Bread is much more versatile than you can imagine. If you're willing to step outside your comfort zone, you can be endlessly creative. For instance, try boiling a slice of toast, then sprinkling it with salt and pepper. If you can't afford salt and pepper, try gravel - it's rich in sodium and random shit that tastes vaguely peppery. Watch out for shards of glass though!

Floor Sweepings - $0.00
If you're living in a share house and not eating your kitchen floor sweepings, you're missing out! Lots of people drop food on the floor when preparing food, thinking, "oh, I'll clean that up later". That's where you come in! Many a time have I been able to gather together a hearty meal of meat and two veg just by scooting around the kitchen with a brush and shovel. If you find this degrading, do it when everyone's asleep!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

City Park

I am sitting on a park bench waiting for my client.

I am keeping my girlfriend at arm's length with apologetic text messages. My client said he would be here ten minutes ago. I'm starting to think I might bail, though that would probably be a net loss. If a client has a good experience he tells no one and if he has a bad experience he tells everyone. This is good quality product here in my left pocket. A police officer saunters past. I contemplatively turn the page of my book. The police officer looks away over the park to the city skyline. My book is called "Junky". My client is a junky who works in an office building not too far from here. On his lunch break he walks through this park. Today he will sit next to me and say a few words about the weather before surreptitiously giving me some cash. My cellphone vibrates again. It is my girlfriend. She is pissed off. She is sitting with her parents in a cafe only five minutes walk from here. I was worried I might encounter them in the park so I hung around the grandstand until she told me they were at the cafe. Now they are sitting there with coffees, trying to pretend that I'm not fifteen minutes late. Every now and again my girlfriend reaches into her bag to send me another scathing message. Two children are playing on the grass. A boy and a girl. They are rolling over and over down the hill.

I wish my client would arrive.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Fate decreed she'd leave
her glasses by my bed.
I tried them on for size,
turned my head from side to side.

'You seem like an intelligent man,'
the interviewer said.
'Thank you,' I replied,
wondering where the hell to look.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


My name is Ella and this is my rooftop. Over there is the aluminium door that is bruised from countless attempts to escape. The handle is broken but the lock does not budge. There is a broom, in splinters. There is my friend Daniel who is looking over the edge for people to scream to. The words are always whipped away by the wind, and even if people hear them, they think they're imagining things, and even when they hear them and see where they're coming from and look directly at us, they think we're just a couple of college kids fucking around on top of a nine-storey building. Which I guess we are.

Oh my god they said, the taxi's here, at which time I was standing against one wall smoking a cigarette with Dan and he was standing, hands open like a question. It was night, I was drunk, we were on the rooftop because we thought it would be fun, and I guess it was. Things were kind of starting to catch and blur and I was hoping I would last and I wanted Dan to leave me alone because he kept bugging me about his best friend who was going to kill himself, apparently, because of me, apparently, and all Dan was asking for was for me to send him one text, or anything. And after this long pause and I flicked my hair aside because the wind was blurring it all up, it was windy up here, I just said ok, dimly aware at that moment that the music had stopped, the voices had been cut off, there was a dim hollow bang of a door shutting and it cut the voices and the sound of sneakers on steps. I threw the cigarette to the wind and said as I went toward the door: I don't want to think about this tonight, as at that very moment I tried the door and realised it was locked and we were locked out, on top of the building. Dan immediately pulled out his cellphone and started dialing. At which moment I was thinking about my cellphone lying in my bag, behind this aluminium door and one flight down. Dan's phone beeped, and I knew, and I instantly started thinking of my phone lying down there with a pang of regret. No, Dan said, no no no. Critical battery, of course. Cellphone's dead, naturally. What a perfect pile of shit.

Sobering up in that realistic mid-morning light, we still weren't worried, really. We'd talked all night, sitting against a wall, about all sorts of shit, starting with a trip we took up the coast last summer, and twisting, flicking deeper, until at some point I was telling Dan stuff about my family, about my mind, that I thought I would never tell anyone, and he the same, though we were both quite drunk. Periodically Dan would get some great idea and would leap up to try it, but he would inevitably come back with a lopsided look of disappointment on his face, give the door a few loving kicks. We still found it kind of funny. From night, daylight looked like a serene oasis of certainty. As soon as the sun came up and people were walking round on the footpaths below, working in this building, or the twelve-storey McGrath library opposite, we would be seen, we would be rescued, we would be peachy. Feeling stupid but grateful.

The sun climbed and we moved around the four walls of the building staying in the shade until the sun was right overhead, and then we just sat and baked. The surface of the building was dark and hot. I forgot: it was Sunday. No one was working in the McGrath building save a few hardy students who scuttled in and out, thinking about deadlines and forty-page readings and Derrida. Certainly not thinking about looking up. People generally don't look up, I've found. If there's one thing I'm going to do when I get off this building, it's this: I'm going to look up more often. Dan's voice went hoarse from screaming, until he sounded like a clarinet with a broken reed and I told him to shut up. He threw the broom-head off the roof: it sailed into the path of an asian woman, clattered to the pavement right in front of her. She just stopped and looked at it, then looked up at us, I could have sworn, directly at us, us waving our arms and screaming help, but she just moved on. In the afternoon there was music playing over in the quad behind the library, drum and bass, a live show. Between the McGrath and the English block there's like this wind tunnel. So the music would come to us sometimes clear as blue sky, then it'd suddenly cut out, flick away elsewhere. I don't like drum and bass anyway. After Dan's first panic attack (he has anxiety issues: he told me), after the first of many fits of rage where I thought he'd smash his head open or break his arm or something, the way he was whaling on that door, I rolled up a spliff with what little pot I had and we got a little high and laughed at the sheer stupidity of the situation. My stomach started rumbling. We talked about food, endless food, and I thought about eternal sex.

It was really fucking cold that night. Dan had some Eckies so we split one and felt a little better. He told me about chills he gets down his spine when someone explains something technical to him. I get the same when someone tells a really good story. You know. We bonded. Even so, I was getting a little sick of him, and he of me. We split the other Eckie. The city was beautiful. I never thought about all the trees, islands of green, the million lights. Dan's from the country. He said city people don't appreciate the absurdity of cities, of people living in such close proximity, crawling over each other, crossing paths to sit in cubicles, crawling home to sleep in boxes, blind and mute. He said when he first got to the city he looked people in the eyes too much. He said he had to shut off the part of his brain that notices things or sees humanity, because the city doesn't have the patience for it. It's like, I thought, walking through a mall. It's exhausting, not because you're walking very far, or anything, but because you're looking at all the people and their clothes and the way they look and thinking about how you look and by the time you've walked like two hundred metres it's like you've run a half-marathon. How on earth, Dan moaned, how on earth can two people honestly get trapped on top of a building? 

And now it is daylight again. Dan is about to attempt, not for the first time, to climb to the lower floor. My building is not designed to make this easy. There is a large ledge to get around first, and the concrete juts out at least a metre below the windows, so it's a pretty big fall. Then you have to think about the window itself - though I suppose Dan's so desperate he'd smash it in a heartbeat. He's disappeared over the edge. I discouraged him at first. It seemed altogether far too dangerous, far too risky, when we'd probably be found, a couple of hours from now. Perhaps a couple more. This can't last too long. Oh, it can, it will. It just keeps going. How does it keep going? How can two people get trapped on a building? How can they be ignored for so long? How much would they have to scream, to bellow, to actually get someone's attention? Even when they'd got someone's attention, what then? What do we have to do to get off this goddamn thing? I never thought I would look so hungrily at the ground, at green grass.

I am looking at a grassy knoll. There are people spread out with food and coffee under a gum tree. A girl in a yellow top is texting - the sun flashes off her cellphone screen and hits my eyes. And everything is cool and calm. The morning is tipping into the afternoon again. Birds are passing by, silent.

And suddenly everything is moving: the arms of the gum tree are waving and the ground is rippling like a shaking sheet. People are screaming, I can hear it even now, and I am screaming too, as the building lurches and throws me three feet in the air and back, the whole city is shaking and roaring like a great beast falling, and something twitches and palsies like a nerve deep within the building, I can feel it, even skating over the surface, something has snapped, is irreparable, and the floor drops out beneath me and the sky wheels past and I see the ground, finally, I see the ground, lurching toward me, coming up to greet me, to embrace me.

Friday, March 18, 2011


When I gave up meth all I had was a soiled pair of underpants and some ripped cords and nothing much more. I had to report to my carer every day and she would give me some of that stuff which soothes the angry want and some cream for my skin which drove me up the wall with itching. My carer always told me to be thankful I didn't do heroin because the withdrawal is much more painful but that's like telling the victim of a head on collision to be thankful they didn't drive a Mini. My carer hasn't seen things when they're really broken, nor the immobility, nor the absolute depravity of the rooms I have seen. Nurses are all excessively real, their hands are dry and warm and their heads are grounded and their faces lined with things they've seen, but all they see are people at the end of their snapped tether, completely broken, eyes swivelling, faces torn and bleeding, and the nurses soothe them, tie them back up to reality, then send them out to be broken again.

Every night I am tweaking with my carer in a back room. She's always the instigator, she holds the pipe out to me with this sultry-sexy look on her face and tells me to go ahead and what can I do but do it. There's this wailing music, a wailing woman singing sounds of the shifting sands, the million years. So I'm tweaking at night in a flickery-lit back room and when I wake up screaming and sweating, the feeling fades, as well as the feeling of wanting, wanting a woman, wanting something beautiful, whatever that is, it just fades away and I am left with the world with its myriad surfaces, countless cigarettes and clean cotton on skin.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I have lived in some fairly disgusting houses in my time: in Scotland I spent a couple of weeks in a sublet above a brothel, but I had to move out after a multiple murder. Before that I was in a place in Pripyat where there was a deer living in the moss-covered kitchen and all the plug-holes were clogged with hair. I have lived in some dives. But this one takes the cake.
I stepped off the plane in Melbourne with nine dollars and a packet of Jila mints in my pocket. The bus into the city cost sixteen dollars so I had to walk along the highway, holding my thumb out. No one pulled over. My first introduction to Australian culture was a half-full can of XXXX beer hurled at my head from the back of a ute. I looked up and a man with a mullet was sitting in the back of the ute, pulling the finger as he tore away into the distance.
I didn't expect to get a ride. I never do. It's probably something about the way I look. I didn't know where I was going to sleep, or what I was going to eat. I like it that way. Finally, about ten minutes out of the city, under a big modern-art arch, a beat-up old yellow car pulled over. The driver was a young guy with long blonde hair and dirty clothes. His music was loud and crunchy, playing from an eight-track, beneath which there was a mountain of cigarette butts, and I mean mountain: it was so perfectly formed, just like a child's line drawing of a mountain. I marvelled at how it retained its form as this guy ripped the car in and out of traffic. As we were overtaking a sixteen-wheeler he held out a packet of cigarettes. I took one gratefully and wished I had something to offer in return, but all I had were Jila mints and they had to last me a couple of meals at least.

As soon as I got into the city I parked my arse at a bar and dropped two dollars on an ice-cold beer. The barmaid slopped it down on the counter, her face impassive. She had the build and countenace of a pig: right down to a ring at the end of her nose, presumably to stop her from rooting around in soil. She had a pink mohawk and a look of boredom and disgust.
'Thank you,' I said, sipping the beer. 'I've had a hell of a day. Walked ten miles along the highway. I can never seem to get a ride.'
'It might have something to do with this,' she said, motioning to her face. Her voice was anachronistic: a little girl's voice. She was talking about my beard, of course. 'You're possibly the most hirsute man I've ever seen. You look like an Islamic lumberjack.'
'I just got here,' I said, ignoring her flirtatious compliments. 'I don't know where I'll sleep tonight. All I have to eat are Jila mints.'
She pushed a bowl of peanuts toward me. 'On the house,' she said. While she served another customer I pocketed a few. When she turned back to me she had a strange look on her face. 'Have you ever dived?'
'A little, I guess. When I was in Bulgaria I jumped off a waterfall to get away from some immigration thugs. That was perhaps a good thirty or forty feet.'
She shook her head; her earrings shook too. They were little zippers complete with the letters "YKK". 'No,' she said. 'Dumpster diving. For food.'
'Oh, I see. No, I never seem to find anything. I got turned off it after I went through a bin and got bleach all over my hands. They turned into giant blisters and bled and oozed pus for a week.' I held out one hand and traced a circular scar on the palm.
'You have to know the right places,' she said, leaning back against the opposite counter and crossing her massive arms. 'And you need keys.'
'What kind of keys?'
'Dumpster keys.'

'I see.' I cracked open a peanut. 'Where do you find dumpster keys?'
'You have to know the right people.'
'Who are the right people?'
'There are two factions of divers. One is good and one is bad. My partner is a diver. He's the leader of a big group round here. He makes sure everyone gets their fair share of food and breaks up fights between divers. He's always bringing me chickpeas and asparagus and shiitake mushrooms and other useless shit. I never eat any of it. I don't want to die from food poisoning. But if you're desperate, you could always consider diving.'
'Is your partner a good diver or a bad diver?' I was trying to imagine what this woman's partner looked like. I envisioned someone completely blind, perhaps with a prominent hunch.
'I don't know. Each side sees the other as bad.' She was drawing on a napkin. 'There's a supermarket just down the road from here. If you hang around by the dumpsters out back you're sure to encounter someone eventually. Then, who knows, maybe you'll get inducted into a gang.'
'How do I know which gang is good or bad?' I asked, examining the childishly drawn map on the napkin.
She shrugged.

So later that night I was hanging around the dumpster out back of a Safeway, shifting from foot to foot to keep warm, chewing Jila mints and peanuts and trying not to look suspicious. Finally someone appeared: an old man with white hair, wearing a black raincoat. He set to work instantly, putting a head-lamp on his head, shaking out a couple of bags, and unlocking the padlock on the dumpster with a set of keys - dumpster keys. I stuck to the shadows, at least for the time being. Well, the man just lifted the lid and dove right in, like he was returning to the womb. There was muffled rustling and banging, and the occasional cry of delight, as he undoubtedly found some gourmet treasure. After about ten minutes he slipped back out, his bags bulging with food. I was about to step from the shadows and approach him when I noticed something.
Three men were emerging from behind the loading bay, all dressed in black. One rode a tiny bicycle. They gave me a bad feeling. I shrank back and tried to make myself as small as possible, which is difficult, for me.
'Old man,' one of the guys yelled. The old man straightened and turned to the men. 'Don't try to run.'
They surrounded him. One, obviously the leader, dressed in a black singlet and jeans, stepped forward and knocked the bags out of the old man's hands. A jar smashed and food scattered everywhere. An orange rolled toward me and stopped at my feet.
'You shouldn't be hanging round these bins, gramps,' the leader said, sneering. 'Not without your walking frame.' His lackeys laughed obligingly. The old man just stood staring at the ground, not saying a word. 'We already told you, didn't we?'
'We already told him. Our Glorious Leader told him last week. We knocked a couple of your teeth out, didn't we, gramps?' said the kid on the bike. The third man, who'd been silent up until now, stepped forward, unsheathing a knife. The old man muttered something.
'What was that?' the leader said, cocking his head.
'I said,' the old man's voice rose, steady, 'your inglorious leader can eat rotting dogshit in hell.'
Things moved very quickly; a lip-ring snarl and a glint of stabbing steel. The old man was stricken, and suddenly all three of the punks were kicking the shit out of him. He stayed completely silent. Finally, all three men spat on him and loped away, hitching their pants and laughing with satisfaction at a job done well. I waited until their hoots and hollers blended with the grind of traffic, then leant to pick up the orange.
'Old man,' I said. His face was a pulpy mess, and there was blood leaking from his raincoat. He looked up at me, breathing raggedly.
'Why didn't you help?'
'I am a pacifist,' I said. 'Do you have a phone?'
'No police,' he said. 'No ambulance. I'll just... just lay here.'
I started peeling the orange. 'Who were they?'
'Freegans,' he said, with venom. 'Scum of the earth. Give me some of that there orange, boy.'
I knelt next to him, peeled an arc of orange off and fed it into his mashed mouth. He ate it gratefully, orange juice and blood spilling out from his lips. 'Mmmph,' he said. 'More.' I obliged. Soon he had eaten the whole orange. I wiped my hands on my pants. He lay back, evidently satisfied, and closed his eyes. 'Does me good,' he said. 'Does me good.'
I looked up at the sky. There was a flock of bats soaring by, hundreds of them, blotting out the stars, silent. The old man coughed. He sounded in a bad way.
'Is there someone I can call?' I asked. He reached for a pocket, his hands shaking. He withdrew the keys and placed them in my palm. There was an address written on a key-tag.
'Vanya,' he said.

'Vanya?' It was some hours later. I was standing at the front door of the address written on the key-ring and the porcine barmaid stood before me, rubbing sleep out of her eyes, her pink mohawk askew.
'What the hell are you doing here?'
'I was told to give you these, by an old man in a raincoat,' I said, holding forth the keys. Her face dropped.
'What happened?'
'Freegans,' I said. 'They beat the shit out of him. I asked if I could call an ambulance but all he wanted was an orange. He didn't look too good, Vanya.'
She sighed and took the keys.
'That was your partner?'
'Yeah. He's always getting into shit like this. Thanks for letting me know.'
'That's ok.' I turned to go.
'Do you have a place to stay?'
'No,' I said. The night was cold. 'I figured I'd curl up in a bush somewhere.'
She peeled a key from the keyring and tossed it to me. 'My partner's place,' she said. '36 Albion. It's not much, but it's warm, and you can eat whatever food you find.' I clutched the key.
'Thank you, Vanya,' I said, and I meant it.
'That's ok,' she said. 'Bring it back some time.'
Walking down the street I reflected how things always work out, when you let them. I never know what's going to happen, but things have a way of falling into place. I like it that way. I stopped outside 36 Albion. It was an overgrown empty lot out back of a restaurant.There was nothing there but a ragged-looking black cat and a beat-up old dumpster. I looked at the key in my palm.
The dumpster key.