Henry Savery wrote the first novel published in Australia and he ended his story by slitting his throat ‘from ear to ear’ in a Port Arthur prison, convicted of returning to forgery to make ends meet. Another famous Henry once advised all budding Australian authors to flee for London or ‘study elementary anatomy, especially as applies to the cranium, and then shoot themselves carefully with the aid of a looking-glass’. When I worked at the University teaching creative writing, my friend and fellow scribbler Martin Edmond, who had the excuse that he was born in New Zealand, used to come in and lecture the wide-eyed innocent undergrads that ‘writers are the true proletariat’, which I took to be a romantic way of trying to scare the smart ones straight, but those sweet babes hardly ever got the message.
One trick you must master, being a writer, is begging richer folk for their money. Institutions like to keep you around too, when you’re good at beggary, so when the school of arts at a local University needed some cash one year, they gathered some of us writer-beggars for a soiree at a stupendously rich person’s house, with tall shutter-flanked windows above a simple portico of grey stone set in brick veneer, and three topiary swans behind security guards using walkie-talkies to direct traffic onto a sweeping lawn with wild flowers round its circuitous perimeter. There were house-staff wearing yellow fascinators out front by a trestle-table, waving welcome to the many guests in frocks and coats, and we were stuck with name-tags as we wandered by. Teams of waiters in grey suits and gloves made the consumption of free food and booze all the easier by bringing platters of rice-paper rolls, crostini with marinated mushroom, and glasses of red and white wine. The gentleman who owned the place thanked us all for coming, said hello to the mayor, who held up a glass of champagne in salute, and the crowd of fine folk, writers, professors, and politicians were all invited to make themselves at home and inspect the private war museum out back, complete with a decommissioned tank. While we wandered and supped and smiled at each other, the evening’s shadows sharpened under the orange lanterns on the stony walls and the flickering glow of tiki torches staked beyond the stony courtyard. Desserts were served with slips of bright bubbly and when we had finished our talks and readings, with some blushing about money, the hostess took to the balcony above the back portico to announce a violin was about to start playing from an open window in the eastern wing, in a room lit by a single red lamp, and the University gifted their host a signed hardcover copy of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, and taking the book in hand the host said ‘I’ve already got one of these, you gave me one last time’, while everyone applauded.
The first woman I spoke to after all the official business wore an azure gown with bone-white swirls curling down her sides and long silver earrings hanging to her shoulders. She introduced herself, said she enjoyed the readings, and handed me a book to sign, and to my great surprise it was one I’d written. While I was signing, I tried some small talk, asking this smiling woman with wine-dark hair, ‘What is it that you do?’ She didn’t want to say, fearing that, should her livelihood be uncovered, all the artist-types and academics would denounce her as a monster. This seemed interesting, so I tried a little harder and it turned out she was directly involved with the WestConnex project that was, and still is for all I know, under construction all over Sydney.
‘I know,’ she said grimacing, ‘I’m a villain, aren’t I?’ If my son had been there, he would have told this very fine lady to her cringing face that she was a villain and the very devil in flesh. My son, four years of age, knew enough to hate the WestConnex project for poisoning the air and water around his home and digging under people’s private properties and releasing toxic gases from the underworld via cracks in the concrete and assembling mounds of odoriferous earth around the houses and the narrow streets and causing the calamitous noise of earth-movers operating at all-hours as they ripped up foundations dormant for decades to make wounds for cement trucks to spew their concrete gush into. All this continuous destruction was daily ringing in the ears of so many good people, who could do nothing but vote Green next election and watch the world outside become obscene to their senses. But what does a four-year-old know? I looked into the dark eyes of that sweet fine lady and swore with all sincerity that she was my new heroine, and I wrote ‘God bless you for paving the way to the future’ in the little book she asked me to sign, because in those lean days of desperation – for that was the word for it, desperation – I didn’t care if every animal on earth were tossed two-by-two into the flames. The tropics could turn to barren wastes of bulldozed stumps and upturned stones and all the winding rivers could turn to red-rock desert and the Snowy Mountain Ranges could be flung directly into chasms dug out of the Earth’s virgin core for all I cared, so long as the end result saved me fifteen minutes on the morning commute. Those longstanding promises on the billboards over the motorways between the city-proper and the nearest suburbs, the ones promising ‘a quicker drive into the city is coming’, were as a private covenant from the heavens, and I swore to the lady of the azure gown that I could kiss her on behalf of those whose lot in life was being caught in the livid hell of Sydney traffic.
You-know-who once wrote ‘a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, and though everything else proposed in ‘Sacred Emily’ has yet to stand the test of time, Stein was right when she put those words together. By some cosmic sophomoric prank, despite my desire to become what some people call a writer, my true occupation on this earth has always been and always will be captured by the construction ‘a car-man is a car-man is a car-man is a car-man’, and if that formulation makes your skin crawl, try telling me about it, since the only escape from this fate of mine is the one Henry Lawson recommended above, and that salvation is forbidden by religion.
According to her own accounts, Mother Teresa was a teacher travelling by train to the Himalayas from Calcutta in 1946 when she heard the ‘call’ to go back where she had come from and minister to the sickest and poorest souls in that cursed Indian city. As someone who has tried to make a living teaching, I can understand how one might submit to poverty rather than spend another minute dealing with that occupation’s horrors, but my own first call to the life of a ‘car-man’ came to me in my sleep at the turn of the century, in the year 1998, the night after I stood at the top of a cul-de-sac with four friends who had pooled fifty dollars to purchase a car from an enormous man with a wiry beard hanging down to a straining belt. This hirsute behemoth was living out of a caravan on the lawn of a good friend’s neighbour, and the car, which was green where it still had paint and decorated by a bucking brumby on the boot, was not worth the fifty bucks we paid for it – the bonnet flipped up and obscured the windscreen as we lurched over a speed-hump – and we would have returned it to the man with the beard by crashing it directly through his caravan that very afternoon, but the poor contraption couldn’t make its way back up the hill of the cul-de-sac, so we left it there by the roadside at the bottom of the hill, slowly disassembling in the suburban street, until one night it burst into flames and made a lovely light. Next morning, as we made our way to school shouldering our backpacks, the charred wreckage of that dead thing looked like the fossil remnants of an animal conjured up from an underworld, its wheels and windows gone, the road beneath it blackened like an atomic shadow under shards of glass.
During that first short drive where the bonnet had flipped, long before I was granted the right to drive by the state, I first tasted the bitterness of being ‘behind the wheel’ and had cared for it not at all. Not the clumsy mechanics of the gears, nor the stink of the flatulent exhaust, nor the cramped space of the driver’s seat, nor the too-public display of incompetence to which the vehicle’s windows exposed its operator. Point of fact, I was so disturbed by this initial taste of motoring I dreamt of doing it again that very night. I dreamt I was back in the car, driving around the streets of my town in the darkness lit by the garish orange streetlights with teenager friends of mine, all laughing and distracting my clumsy attempts to navigate the laneways and hills by turning on the blinkers and honking the horn, while I was busy with the jerk of the clutch and the guys in the backseat stuck gum on my cowlick and yelled out the windows at strangers so that these strangers sometimes chased after us and hurled rocks or shoes at the windows. It was impossible to know, outside of hindsight, that this first nightmare of driving around in a state of alarm and annoyance was a prophecy granted to me from the heavens of my youth-to-be, a time misspent in precisely such activity subsequent to purchasing my first real car, a red and black 1983 Ford Falcon XD, which was ‘proud’ in the sense that its suspension was demented and its front-end pointed up into the sky while its backside was too low to get over speed humps without crunching against the bitumen, so that it made one feel a little seasick to drive it around in the mornings, picking up my friends for school, inhaling so much Lynx deodorant. As a result of this purchase, I was sentenced to pay for its constant repairs and other myriad expenses by taking work at the Big W in Bonnyrigg, a fate I was fool enough to believe was the lowest depths I’d ever sink to in order to survive in this world whose thirst for petroleum cannot be quenched. And yet, those were the halcyon days, before I really knew how harsh and grinding the road could be, when being trapped in traffic was only a distant idea of someone else’s sufferance. Traffic, and its attendant cruelties, was not yet the ever-present doom the wheel of fate was rolling toward my door.
My time as a real ‘car-man’ began soon after my first divorce, when the car itself became a mobile home of sorts. It was a relief to learn that one could store almost all one’s possessions in a Toyota sedan, so long as one didn’t own much in the first place and was willing to abandon the few things one still possessed. All your books and clothes and furniture and friends and family, for example, would have to go. But who needs those things when one has a glovebox of one’s own, a full tank of gas, an audiobook of ‘As You Like It’ on compact disc, and some six months registration? Friends in the mountains took me in after this brief period of destitution, but I was still a parent, and in order to perform those duties I drove down from the mountains to look after my son while my ex worked, so I was forced to face the shuffling halt of the endless traffic laid out like a mass-migration caravan coming down the M4 every morning while the sun rose over the distant city to shine like honeyed amber across the windscreen of the car, making it impossible to see the vehicle ahead until it’s within nudging distance. The hard lines around my ever-squinting eyes began to tempt my body with the logic, ‘since your lids are almost shut, why not fall asleep at the wheel, ya dummy?’ Sometimes tradies, packed into their trucks, wearing yellow vests, their hard-hats hanging in the cab, would point and laugh at the dead expression on my face as I slapped my own cheeks to keep awake, or resorted to pinching my arms and knees on the morning drive, or took to playing Einstürzende Neubauten albums at a volume painful to the ears while I passed mocking signs on the side of the highway reading ‘How fast are you going now?’
I started to pray away any delays encountered in the two-hour slog past amusement parks and fast-food restaurants and chicken factories and graveyards and abandoned drive-ins and abstract monuments in honour of the charge of the light-horseman and the museums of fire and the lonely bearded men in dirty vests dyed green from the mulch flung up by the mowers they rode along the side of the of the highway eating up the still wet turf. Stuck in the shuddering, belching, honking wake of traffic, people glance at one another from the private prison of their cars and wonder who among them is the cause of morning radio’s petty torments looking up at the mournful face of Triple M’s ‘Moonman in the Morning’ as he watches over us from a billboard constructed where the first suggestion of the city begins at the turn off to Eastern Creek. There the stench of the eastern tip comes in so strong it turns your stomach, and where Australia’s Wonderland once stood, the wooden boards of its rollercoasters crowning into the air like the ruin of a land-locked ark, there is now a set of enormous storage houses for the minutiae of the modern world – the forklifts and pallets and plastic-wrapped cartons and catalogues of industrial activity – displayed in rows as high and long as oil-tankers sitting off the coasts of distant lands, the shining plastic signs announcing the triumph of all this invention bold as a desert sphinx set between the crossing vinyl-black of interwinding motorways. Beyond here lies the real grit of the drive into town – we are only half way there – at a crossroad offering you the choice of slumming through the grimy car-yard parades between Merrylands and Granville to take the smoke-stained pilgrimage into the choke-point of Parramatta Road where it splinters off from the M4, with its smoke stacks and wheat mills and brothels and early-openers and service stations and high-rise developments under construction above the rising roads, or you may circumvent this route by edging your way onto the other motorways that spring from Wallgrove Road, past the smell of rending fat from furnace tops lit like Olympic torches, and curve around old empty fields in halts and jerks, around hills made out of upturned earth topped with barometers and factories named after batteries and bandsaws, until you reach the tunnels into Sydney-town, which spring out under the airport and then sink back underground, with so much of that progress like crawling down the throat of a concrete worm whose oesophagus is serviced by a dead conveyor belt, so the hapless morsels must limp into a digestive tract under the blinking yellow lights encrusted on the grime-grey scales of the tunnel-gullet, each fleshy driver inside these little tin-cans staring ahead into the gloom and roar of the tunnel, all their desire intent on being free of their own offering to the city’s under-organs, with that silent consolation wriggling in their ears that, once all this creeping and crawling is over with, they can count the hours down until they are regurgitated again, so that all may lay their heads and rest and be on time to re-enact this play-thing traffic nightmare in the hours before the dawning dims the starlight in the sky.
Thank God I was not one of those who made their pilgrimage just to work, I was poor but grateful for my unemployment. With my son collected from his home, our mutual obligations to the road could begin, with him safely strapped in back on a blue booster seat, singing songs about bums and farts and atomic bombs, and role-playing games which he insisted must be repeated to the point I could rehearse them in my sleep. ‘You work at the police station and I’m going to call you and complain about the movie Frozen. Now you are the Chief of Police, and I’m going to call you and complain about the movie Frozen. Now you are the Minister for Police and I’m going to call you. Now you are the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and I’m going to call you. Now you are the Barack Obama. Now you are the Queen. Now you are the Peter at the pearly gates, etc’. The two of us would travel back towards the west, going against that still damned flow of morning traffic heading into the city, a pitiable vision on the other side of the streets and highways leading to the house in the suburbs where my aging parents needed assistance with the various duties of life they were now unfit to handle alone – chopping down trees, digging up roots, moving garbage bins overstuffed with garden waste – then we were all back in the car to take to the parents shopping in Merrylands to get just the right olives from the deli-markets, or the best fish from the providores, or the knock-off Autobots from the junk stalls, or whatever desire gripped them that day, and then we would go onto the long flat streets of Doonside to visit the many uncles and aunts, and on to their doctor’s appointments in the backstreets of Blacktown, and then back to the local Woolies to be served by the smiling short-haired woman at the check-out, who alone my parents trusted to pack their bags and return their change without some malpractice, and then to Aldi across from the charcoal chicken shops for four-dollar bags of potting mix, and then to Dan Murphy’s for three-dollar bottles of shiraz, and then to the golf club to get some discount short-soup and admire the Japanese gardens filled with wandering peacocks just to give ‘the boy’ some time to run around outside the car with the bonsais and bamboo fountains until it’s time to take everyone home, and then rush back to the inner west to bring my son to his mother’s door, and then to hold him goodbye, kiss his cheeks and walk away from that house again like a re-enactment of the original disgrace of leaving, with every street-lamp lining the streets beginning to hum with the hint of evening coming on in its lilac descent upon the city’s smoky edges.
It’s time to put that all behind me, some voice begins to say, to get back into the Camry with the detritus of the day about you like the moths and cicada songs that enter your room at night, and all your guts are moving out of tune, and you fill up the tank not knowing if you can afford to get home, but it has to run out some day so it’s safer not to check how much of nothing is left, just fill up at the one BP station on the corner near the motorway where once you spoke to the guy with the glasses working there and now every time he asks after your wife you say ‘she’s good’, and hope that if you keep the routine up the law of habit will keep the finances secure. The sun is setting in your eyes now, on the windshield like a screen of formaldehyde to keep you fresh for the tomb you’re belted into, and it’s a funeral march you’re engaged in, marching out of the dying city’s organs, and the flaring lights of the street begin to shine on every face, the blinking lamps near the motorway give off their indigestions, and now you’re back into the traffic shuffle, each traveller on the road with you another coughing private hearse, shadows on every expression like a masking veil, the evening radio sounds ashamed, keeps up a gallows humour, as we slum back past the Moonman’s watch, his sagging eyes are now in their full despair and the factory’s flames are sombre lanterns over a kind of moving bog of shadows, the bright lights of Parramatta Raceway are swarming with insects and some night-birds are on the wing above the yellowing sky’s last light, and our reflections look back at us in rear-view mirrors, red brake-lights bobbing and swinging before us on the winding motorway like an eternity of mourners leading candles up the mountainside, and the cold cramp of the coming night and the blue and orange blinking in the windows of the apartments beside the roadside speaks in a kind of electric code. All of this is too much, I know it is, but I was bitter in those days from desperation, and I was in that middle age of innocence where one mistakes complete defeat for losing all, and I thought the life-perpetual of a car-man was the end of hope, never to get back to the beggary of writing proper. The only consolation was my son, waiting for me every morning, a blue-eyed reason for being, though there was one morning, I came to his door and he handed me a portrait of his busy life, aged four, going on five. He had drawn all the attendant characters, his friends and cats and goldfish and so many grandparents the page was crowded with their faces. He pointed to them one by one, announced their names as if I couldn’t recognise them, and at last his finger fell on a twisted figure in the background, a man with drooping shoulders and sagging bloodshot eyes, driving a car in a doleful distance from all the rest, stuck on a road with no apparent exit. ‘That’s you,’ he said, and I stood very still in the doorway, holding on to the portrait as though it were the lever of the earth. That evening I drove home the usual way and a storm moved over the night so the moon glowed out behind the thunder like a spill of ink had coloured in the stars, and I saw electric spider-limbs flashing in the clouds all the way up the mountains, trailing an armada of jack-o-lantern traffic in the headlights behind me, heading for that black mountain ahead.
This is the first of a series of essays on commuting. We’re grateful to the City of Sydney for funding the project. Look out for essays by Michael Sun, Beth Yahp, Jen Craig, Dallas Rogers, Anthony Macris and more in coming months.