I’m sitting by the campfire. It’s getting dark. I must prepare for tomorrow, when I must drive back to the city for work, a trip I now make weekly for a few days at a time. Tomorrow is the day I must become a normie for a few days – someone who can ‘slip between the cracks’ – after which I can become myself again.
The transformation technically begins today – right now – when I get my things ready and set my alarm to enter back into colonial-capital time. I pick out three normie costumes for the next three days; currently, the classes I tutor fall on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I pack up my campsite – making sure all my pots and pans, plates and cutlery, and other bits and bobs are clean and back in their places in the tiny cupboards in my van. There’s a place for everything and everything must be in its place so that when I’m in the city I don’t have to fuck around and pull all of my belongings out just to find one item, and risk drawing attention to myself. Dirty clothes go in the tub for the laundromat. I sweep the van out and tidy it up. I put my campfire out, sad to be leaving my real life for a few days to make money to sustain my real life.
My van is the Caravan of Doom, a matte mutant green Toyota Hiace, 1984 model – the same model as me, though the Doom is much more weathered than I am. I bought the Doom over a year ago for three thousand dollars off two stingy Dutch tourists, both white middle class psychologists, who haggled with me over the transfer fees before they capitulated to my firm stance. They wanted a quick sale so they could fly back to Europe and resume their careers. The woman even turned on the tears when verbal persuasion wouldn’t budge me. I could barely afford their asking price but I knew they could afford the fees (I’d stalked their social media beforehand). I called their bluff and watched her cry, amused and unmoved.
In bed, I set my alarm. I must wake at 5am to get to the uni by 7, and to miss all the morning traffic between the mountains and the city. My first class isn’t until the afternoon, but I need time to transform myself. The real transformation begins in my mind as I commute.
I lie in bed reading my book by torchlight. Through the back windscreen of my van I watch the Gundangarra stars wink and wave at me as I blink myself to sleep.
In the morning I wake before the sun comes up; there’s frost over my windows. As I climb out of bed I remake the sheets behind me and throw my warmest jacket over the comfy clothes I slept in. I don’t own dedicated pyjamas. There is no room for single-use clothing in my wardrobe, the entirety of which fits beneath my bed if everything is folded properly. I jam my feet into my boots and exit my warm van through the sliding side door, my boots crunching on snow. The creek is frozen slush. I piss at the edge of the camp, enjoying the white powder over everything. Snow is novel when you’re from the Tweed.
My van won’t start in this temperature. From the driver’s seat I pull other the front seats up to reveal the blackened guts of my van, exposed to the cold air below and the warm air above. The metal parts are freezing. I take out my spray can of ‘Start Ya Bastard’ from the glovebox and squirt it thrice into the air conditioning vent. I twist the key again. No joy. I pump the accelerator once, twice, and again quickly, and turn the ignition over again.
The belly of the beast, now fed its morning pick-me-up, growls to life and the body of the Doom shudders into wakefulness. I close the seat down against the smell of hot diesel and engine oil and I lock the clips, and sit here for a few minutes revving the van and sorting out my music for the drive as I wait for the engine to warm up. The Doom must be warm enough to drive out of the valley and up the mountain, or it simply will refuse to do so.
My iPod is on shuffle, my preferred mode. I am superstitious about shuffle, often reading the first few songs of my day like an oracle, or a spread of moods and themes I might encounter over the coming hours. This might not seem effective as there’s not a huge amount of range in my music collection, with much of it being heavy, nihilistic, violent, rageful, mourning, mythical or magical, or else concerned with sex, drugs and other transcendent means of transportation. Still, it does make sense because that’s how I am and what I’m concerned with and so that’s what I’m be bringing into the world, too.
I pull out of the campsite, telling the land and the creek that I’ll be back in a few days. I’m sad to leave the snow for work but I don’t mind too much. It’s not like I have to do this every day. Only once a week, in fact, and I really don’t mind going into the city for work when it’s so infrequent. I’ve learnt to enjoy the pros and put up with the cons. I am far luckier than most people, unhoused and housed alike. I don’t pay rent so I don’t have to work much; now that I’ve handed my Masters thesis in I spend my free time studying, drawing, painting, reading, writing, swimming, walking, camping, cooking, going to gigs, dancing, headbanging and talking to my friends and family.
I snake up the mountain from the Megalong Valley. The Doom’s guts are warm now from the heavy pulling through these winding mountain roads, and it warms my bum up through the seat.
I drive past the Werribee turn off; if I take it, as I sometimes do, I can go visit Glossodia and Freeman’s Reach, where my grandmother and great-grandmother were respectively born, as well as all my other ancestors from my Dharug line, forever back.
When I hit the highway at the base of the mountains, my mind starts to fold in on itself, constricting and lengthening like the straight road ahead. It’s shrinking after days of expansion, of nothing but big skies and wide horizons. I’ve spent these last days alone, not even talking to my loved ones on the phone as I’ve had no reception out there, so I mentally prepare myself to talk to people again and I prepare to listen to them too. As I drive, I sing along to my music, my one constant guyline to my true self. The rest of me is being pushed down into hiding for a few days so she doesn’t draw unnecessary attention from students or colleagues, buried deep inside a body that will be locked into straight lines, concrete roads, crowds of other bodies and all the other noise and bustling and chitchat of society. I move from all times and no time into a tightly linear colonial time, which carves precise hours and minutes that dictate my spatial movements and occupations. In the city, mind is constantly planning ahead and estimating timeframes and slotting activities around according to how they will cause me the least admin.
I drive past the turn-off for Blacktown, where I went to primary school before we moved up to Tweed, and where I sometimes visit some of my family in Parklea, and then past the Liverpool turn-off, where both my mum and I were born, past the Parra area turn-offs, where most of my Lebanese family still live.
Speaking of: in their late teens my dad and uncle used to fang around country NSW on motorbikes; they were doing fun and illegal shit so they used to camp out in secluded farms undetected. I told this to a friend in London once, not long after I’d told him about a motorbike accident I had with a friend when I was nineteen.
‘You’re all a bunch of Mad Max motherfuckers over there, aren’t ya?’ he said.
A few years later, when I told him that I’d moved into my van to work less and live more, he replied, ‘See? You’re a Mad Max motherfucker. A road warrior.’
I found it hard to accept that moniker, and not least because the original Max was a cop. Only once he reached legendary status in the second film was he known as the Road Warrior, lone traveller of the wasteland. But that’s not why I couldn’t accept the nickname for myself. I have a good mate, Road Warrior, who’s a bit older than me. He’s from Caba and he used to roadie for another mate’s band who achieved a relative fame within the Australian heavy music community. Road Warrior used to partake of stimulants and drive the highways for the band, forever going from gig to gig. So, he is the Road Warrior and I felt like a poser taking that name on from my other friend.
Nevertheless it is true. Who am I kidding? I’ve been living on the road for over a year and I’m beginning to believe my own hype. Even Aunty R told me I was just like Uncle K when I last visited her in Rose Hill a few months ago. My beloved uncle passed away two years ago. He spent so much time on the road himself, on his bike and camping out in his car, and would have loved my lifestyle and his Aunt’s comparison. So I take it – with a caveat. I am not the Road Warrior – neither Mad Max himself, nor my mate from Caba. But I am a Road Warrior. It’s how I live and where I feel most like myself. On the road, alone, living by the sun and stars, with no waged labour or clocks in sight.
I am an unknown, hidden Road Warrior, unlike those two. I want to be invisible but still intimidating. This is an old hangover that many Blackfellas share, which comes from generations of government interference. And as I want to be left alone, I cultivate an air of hostility. Whenever I pull into a new campsite I blare evil music and the first thing I do is collect firewood and chop it vigorously with my axe. My aura is my armour. I curate this air of menace to prevent people talking to me when I’m alone on the road or in the bush so that nobody gets familiar with me and asks me who I am and where I’m from and where I sleep and if I’m with anybody. Those kinds of questions could get me killed, or worse.
There are often vanlifers who frequent the same spots as me. I judge and hold grudges against many of them – those with money, who are doing this on a whim, hashtagging their every move. Just like those Dutch psychs who used to own this van. Unlike these people, I’m doing this because I’m poor. My escapades stay off the internet. I do not post for public consumption.
I enter Parramatta Rd, an ancient Koori road that has been colonised by concrete and dense traffic. I pass Black Wire Records, one of my favourite places in Sydney (beside the beach and surrounding bush). Nothing makes me feel more like myself than headbanging to a fast and heavy band. When I lived here in the city I went to two, sometimes three or four gigs a week. There was always something good happening here at Black Wire.
I pass the last immobile place I used to live, in Camperdown, on Parramatta Road just before the Missenden Rd turn-off. This was a warehouse which was only gazetted for commercial use. Nevertheless, the eccentric old dude who rented it from the owner, then sublet it to my housemates, and didn’t mind as long as we didn’t. Everyone inside this transactional network turned a blind eye to how unfit the warehouse was for residential habitation; they did because we paid rent in cash, and we did because it was only $150 a week. I lived there for a year and a half.
I turn right onto Missenden, and at the end of the road, just before I turn left onto King, I pass Campbell St on my right. If I take Campbell it will spit me out onto O’Connell St, where I lived before the warehouse. I rented a room from an extremely tense and weird vegan yoga teacher who drank every night but pretended he didn’t, and only communicated about house matters via long-winded emails. I only lived there for six months and was desperate to get out. I’d answered an ad for the warehouse room on Gumtree and moved in straightaway. We partitioned the place up with gypboard and jimmied up a shower over the sole drain and furnished the place with a fridge, oven, kitchen sink, coffee machine and other items we’d rescued from hard rubbish in the nearby streets.
I liked living in the warehouse when it was good, which is to say, whenever the constantly rotating cast of housemates landed on a good combination of people. I met a few great people living there, but many more not so good ones, like the woman who left her son in my care while she shot up in her room, or the Irish backpackers who got maggot and loud every night, and were miserable shits the rest of the time, or the warlock who had great taste in black metal but sometimes got on the gear for days on end, entertaining some new too-young woman or other, and never cleaned up after himself on these benders, nor did he respond to direct chats (too rude) or notes left in the kitchen (too passive aggressive) about it. On his last bender, when I pulled him up in front of his new girl, he didn’t get anywhere by standing over me and yelling (I laughed) so he put a hex on me through the wall of our shared room, at which I also laughed.
The woman who lived in the room before the warlock moved in had a gnarly weed habit, but then she quit with the aid of synthetic weed, which made her a thousand times worse. The plastic-smelling smoke used to seep into my room through the many gaps in our shared wall, through which also shone her fluoro lights that stayed on for days at a time as she holed up in her room with no windows or natural sunlight listening to busted psytrance.
I don’t like living with people who I have to yell at to get through to them – not after where I’ve come from – but I yelled at each and every one of these people, and others too. It was a crazy-making house with crazy-making people. I was studying full time when I lived there – researching transgenerational trauma in my family and community – under the supervision of someone who didn’t give a fuck about my mental health. I was working more and more hours as a casual academic to afford to live in the inner west. Even in the warehouse, Sydney ain’t a cheap place to live. I was also supporting my family, and saving up to go back home every chance I could get. One of my only lifelines at this time was gigs. I went to as many as I could cram in each week.
When they told us they were gentrifying our warehouse a year ago, I was beyond burnt out. I was studying the horrors of history and how it fucked with my people and made me who I am today, and I had no real or immediate support, I was far from home, my supervisor was useless, and I was working too many hours on top of it all, and every spare evening I had I went to gigs. I hardly drew or painted anymore, despite having moved into this art space and being chosen to live here because of my art practice.
I looked around at rentals. I would have had to pay double or triple what I was paying, which meant I would have had to take on more hours, and god knows how I would have coped. I wouldn’t have, most likely. My mental health is in tatters even at the best of times. So I decided to buy a secondhand van and live in it while I finished my studies.
‘You’ll get raped and murdered!’ said Aunty M when I told her my plans, and I shook my head, recalling how many times strangers had walked into our warehouse without an invitation, including the cops a few times. I’d have to chase them out and message the landlord for the dozenth time that our only lock needed replacing again. I had five locks on my bedroom door, but as one of my housemate’s party guests showed one night when I was in there asleep, it was easy to punch through the cheap plasterboard wall and open it from the outside. I knew I was far less safe living in the guts of the city with all these loose and fucked up people coming through – a constantly rotating handful of housemates who brought god knows who over, and a warehouse that looked so fun it attracted cops and other unsavoury types to walk in as confident as you please.
I am one of the first at the uni carpark – and so I park at my favourite spot, half a level up from the building where I sometimes shower if I get to the city late. I reverse my van into the spot so that my parking permit is visible and security don’t have to look inside, and so that my bedroom is hidden from anyone walking by. Sometimes my reintegration is too sudden and too much and at these times I like to chill in my van in my downtime, or even take a nap. I climb into the back and crack the side windows and gather up my swimming gear and work clothes, then I lock up and walk over to where I’ve left my bike triple chained up to the racks.
One of my favourite housemates from the warehouse gave me this bike. He worked at a bike shop, and one day he came home with this one as a present for me. I’d been so burnt out from study and work and shit housemates, and it was just the absolute the best present ever. I started riding everywhere and my mental health improved; riding a bike was exercise and exploration and meditation all at once! My favourite thing to do was to put heavy and violent music on and ride through the city at night, taking all the shortcuts and side routes that are impossible to travel in a car.
It is still dark. I ride to the pool in Victoria Park – which is an old Koori gathering place – with Church Whip blasting in my ears as black bats fly overhead. The cold morning air numbs my face.
I swim a few laps. Swimming in the morning lets me stretch my whole body out which can sometimes feel cramped and compressed from sitting and sleeping in my van. Other things that helps my body feel good are riding my bike and dancing.
I have my first hot shower in days. When I’m on the road I normally spot wash my face and feet and hairy parts with soap and water, or I use baby wipes to freshen up. When it’s warmer I swim at the beach. I get dressed: today I wear a psychedelic-print button up shirt and tight black slacks with a black coat. This is my ideal work uniform – something that never needs ironing, that I can be comfortable in all day riding my bike and sitting around, and that looks decent and professional without totally erasing the real me. Clothes are such a huge part of how I feel like myself, or not. Ever since I was little and I made weird and wild clothes for my GI Joes and Barbies (which I later removed in private so they could have orgies), and then began to make my own, I have always wanted to dress flamboyantly, like a psychedelic doom sorcerer, or like a teenage skate Viking, or an 80s dark wave throwback. Whatever – as long as it’s good, it’s good for the creative juices: if I look like a wizard then I feel like a wizard. But I don’t want to be a wizard at work because that’s my real self. At work I want to appear like an academic.
I never feel less like myself than I do when I’m at work as I’m surrounded by mostly white and/or middle class people, all well dressed and well spoken. There are not many of my people in these places. The people who are in these places seem to tolerate people like me as long as I appear to aspire to be like them. And so I dress as much like them as I can muster, without feeling totally subsumed by this costume. ‘Passing takes work,’ says Cher Tan, ‘it’s an art form.’
My shoes are clean, as are my fingernails. When my hair is dry and it’s time to teach I’ll pin it back in a scarf. I smell more like the pool than woodsmoke, but the latter is still a faint, base note under the topnotes of chlorine soap and leave-in conditioner.
I ride back to the Doom, hang my quick-dry towel across the window that will get the most sun, gather up my books and devices, and ride back across the park to Glebe Point Road. There I perch up at a café for breakfast, coffee, and to write in my journal to get my head and heart straight for the days ahead. This first entry upon reintegration is often a pep talk.
Then I ride over to my office in the education building to catch up on work – answering the emails that have banked up over days out of reception, preparing notes for class, marking presentations.
I teach my first class this arvo, using my voice properly for the first time in days. Out bush, I am silent apart from singing to myself, or saying g’day to the servo worker or to the cashier at the grocer. I perform my teaching role for an hour. When I teach I am simultaneously acting and censoring myself because I would be fired if I were the real me at work.
Once I’ve finished my face-to-face performance, I return to my desk and mark papers while charging all my devices, then I ride back to the van. I dump my work stuff and put some warmer layers on, and grab my books, art diary, pencil case and tobacco, and I head out for the evening – first up to King Street to sit at Corelli’s and draw and read while I smoke durries and sip on pot after pot of chai, then I head back down King and have an early dinner at Green Gourmet, then I ride back through Victoria Park and up to Glebe Point Road. I sit out the front at Badde Manors with the heater trained on me. I spend the next couple of hours drawing, writing, reading, snacking, smoking and drinking tea. I love cafes that let me sit there for hours. They are my lounge rooms.
I leave at 8pm; when I’m in the city I don’t drink any liquids past this time which ensures that my final toilet stop for the day is no later than 10pm – so I don’t have to get up during the night. But if I do have to go, I have a wide-mouthed screw-top plastic jar that I can use. It can hold one litre. The jar’s large circumference forms a perfect seal around my orifices and if I piss gently, with control, I won’t spill a drop. All I have to do is screw the lid on, and the next morning, when I find a toilet, I bring it with me and empty and wash the jar out. I figured out this was an option when I remembered that we used something similar with some clients when I worked in disability. It’s so much easier to piss in a jar than to go through the rigmarole of finding a toilet in the middle of the night – or else trying to piss discreetly on a city street in the middle of the night while not drawing attention to yourself. Still, I prefer not to use the jar so I just stop drinking at 8pm.
What about number two, you ask? Well, I have a bucket with a tightfitting lid just in case. I’ve never had to use it though. I eat well and I am reasonably healthy so I’m regular and rarely have any surprises.
I ride over to the uni library and read my book. Now that I’ve finished study I’m learning to read for pleasure again. I also chat to loved ones online, update my blog and maybe watch a TV show on my laptop. Unlike at cafes, I don’t have to spend money or drink anything to use this space. Before I leave at 10pm I use the toilet for the last time and brush my teeth and wash my face. I ride back to the carpark and triple lock my bike up. The carpark is empty. I do my final night admin – change into my sleeping clothes, put today’s worn clothes into my laundry tub and I close all my back windows with blackout curtains. I made these with cutoffs of rubber-backed fabric I bought from an opshop. I measured the fabric out and hemmed each piece with safety-pins into which I’d inserted dozens of magnets so they snap on around my window frames quickly. I love these curtains. No light gets in or out. Once, I was sleeping out the front of rich peoples’ houses in Newtown, and someone must have called the cops on me cos they came knocking while I was asleep. I just lay there and played possum. They knocked and called out for ages, but because they couldn’t see me they couldn’t prove I was in there and give me a fine. Suck shit.
As I drive out of the carpark I decide on one of my secret inner-city parking spots. These are few and far between at the best of times, but when your van sticks out like dog’s balls, it’s best to get into your spot late, sleep, and leave early the next morning. Tonight I choose a narrow street in Annandale, between the park and the backyard fences of fancy houses which are so tall I can’t be seen from their windows. When I park I put my silver sunshade across the windscreen and hold it in place with the sun visors. I crawl into the back of the van and pull my black curtain across behind the front seats and get into bed. There’s no reading tonight; I don’t want any late night dog walkers noticing even the faintest light coming from the Doom. I’ve done enough reading this evening anyway. I am asleep by 10.30pm.
I wake at 5.30am and drive straight to the uni carpark. I gather today’s work clothes, ride to the pool, swim and get ready. Today and the next are much the same as yesterday, but I spend the mornings at the library drawing and listening to music. After I teach my last class I do the final bit of admin: I make sure I’ve answered all my emails, my marking is all up to date, my devices charged, and I lock my laptop in my filing cabinet. I no longer take my work home with me. When I have more work to do I just hang around the city for longer. I keep my real self free from work.
I am now done with work for the week so it’s time to become myself again. I ride to the carpark and lock my bike up with three locks. As I drive away from the city, with the university in my rear-view mirror, I feel all the knots in my mind begin to loosen; all the tight crevices into which time has been forced dislodges and unravels.
As much as I love leaving the city, I will happily stick around if a band I love is playing. There’s a gig on tonight, so I drive to a café close to the venue and change into my real clothes –some old band shirt or other, faded black jeans, old black boots, my favourite paint-stained blue flanno and a green army bomber jacket over the top. My hair is now wild and free of those flattening pins and ties and other normalising, taming apparatus. I hang out at the café and draw and write and read, then I get to the gig and catch up with friends and jump around and bang my head, dancing myself back into my body. I don’t even drink anymore because my mental health is so much better. I have such a great time and I feel like myself again. After the gig I head back to the Doom and sleep the peaceful sleep of innocents inside its metal womb.
The morning I leave, I don’t fully leave straightaway; I stop in and see family in the area then I stock up on food and toiletries at the shops.
Then I hit the road. I’m heading west again in the hopes I can still catch the snow. As the roads open up so does my mind. I listen to heavy and psychedelic music and it aides the process of re-becoming. I wind down the window and the final layers of normalcy slough off my being and are sucked out of the window and fly away in the wind. Now that I have shaken off the shackles of time and work, I expand back into myself, into the wider world and into deep time itself. Gone are the minutes and the hours, gone is the timing of eating, pissing, shitting, sleeping, drinking, swimming, showering, teaching, marking, performing, parking, driving, hiding and conforming. I re-enter all time and no time.
For the next few days I am really living, in the same place and the same state of time as my ancestors did, and as I sleep underneath their campfires in the sky, on top of earth that holds layers of their bones and other evidence of their lives and deaths, they feed me stories of freedom and belonging.
And in some years, I will look back on these times as some of the best of my life, and if I ever feel swamped or stuck I only need to remember who I am and what I need to do to feel like myself again.