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?'
'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.
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.
'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.