It’s a tired old cliche that says “things aren’t always what they seem”, but it’s probably its very accuracy that has made it a cliche! Today, I saw this embodied in a busker playing the flute in the main street of my ultra-upmarket suburb. Here was this huge man, shaven-headed, bearded, tattooed, wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt with the Eureka flag on the front, standing in the entrance to the shopping mall, his backpack on the ground, his flute case open for donations in front of his boot-clad feet. I’d not have blinked had I seen him in the front bar of the rather rough pub further down the road, or straddling a motorcycle roaring up the road in convoy with a hundred others – but there he was, playing the transverse flute perfectly competently, to the accompaniment of one of those portable karaoke things that provides an orchestral backing for a soloist. His music case had quite a haul of gold coins in it – and that’s definitely an accomplishment: this is a hard-headed neighbourhood.
But this part of the city is a curious place – a place of sharp contrasts, and none greater than that of the wealthy professional classes, and the “old money” people whom one thinks of as the typical residents, and the “others” who live on the fringes of the good life the town likes to think of as normal. The residents of the halfway houses and hostels belonging to the mental health services, the all but defeated people who queue at the Centrelink offices, and the many elderly residents who’ve grown old in the houses they built with the fruits of the hard years they worked after they fled the remnants of their homes in shattered Europe are very much a part of it, too.
This is where I live: one of Adelaide’s “leafy” suburbs – those magically blessed areas between the foothills and the city proper, where the streets are wide and tree-lined, the houses are gracious old mansions with spacious gardens and many trees, and fashionable cafes, boutiques and antiques shops outnumber all others. My home is a small townhouse built within a huge old heritage listed building on the fringes of all this bounty, and I’m well aware of my good fortune in having such a place to live, in a city where so many people have no home at all. Aware, also, that there are many in this area who begrudge me my home, and distrust and despise most of the others who share this old place with me.
It is deceptive: a fascinating old stone-built building, with lovely gardens and trees, a desirable address, good amenities, and neighbours in the very top income bracket. But this property belongs to the Housing Trust, the homes are all rented, and the tenants all in that niftily worded “lower socio-economic bracket”. Some of us are not people you’d ordinarily want for next door neighbours – there’s the ex-jailbird, the alcoholic, the mentally challenged man who works in the sheltered workshop, the ailing old man with the very dodgy past, the schizophrenic law student, the family whose father is just out of prison, the African refugees with the troubled teenage son – and of course, the “normals” who are either old, sick, disabled or a combination of all three. Not yer usual upwardly mobile young marrieds or your old money professions, I must admit. And there are those in this area who make it quite clear they don’t approve of this little piece of reality embedded within their urban dreamscape.
But we’re not alone – living like little chips of rough-edged grit in the smooth cream sandstone of the district are many of the city’s outcasts and oddballs, made conspicuous by the nature of their surroundings. Lonely people, strange people, different – sometimes dangerous – people: the debris of the city, washed up in the streets of the wealthy, where they hover, not quite a part of the place, but yet not quite alien, because everyone recognises them as a part of the street life.
They drift vaguely on the very edges of our lives – barely acknowledged, but a part of life in the city, even if some of us would rather they’d go and live that life elsewhere. Some are respected as senior members of the community: the ancient Greek man, once tall and strong, and probably quite vilely arrogant if present showing is anything to go by, but slowly fading to a withered shadow of his former self, who walks slowly, slowly up the road to the Italian cafe on the corner. There he orders a single expresso coffee, and sits in the corner reading the Greek language newspaper the cafe proprietors buy in especially for him and his cronies, who on fine days, all foregather at one of the street tables to gossip, and cast scornful glances at the handsome young Italian waiters, or surreptitiously ogle the girls passing by. They are all growing old.
Others, less purposeful than the old Greek, wander the main street: two haggard men, always together: long-haired, gaunt, with prison tattoos on their necks and hands, wander up and down, sit in the sun at the bus stop or in the arcade – the mothers have driven them out of the little park, where the children play. They are essentially aimless; only on pension days do they have purpose: there’s a briskness to their walk that’s missing the rest of the week; their destination is the pub on the corner, where they’ll drink until the publican refuses to serve them, or their money runs out.
There’s the sad, lost lady, recognisable to some as a once well-known actress, who walks haltingly up and down the avenue near her home, her face vacant, her luxurious hair now gray and tangled, hanging about her bowed shoulders. Her eyes are quite blank. She dresses always in the same sad-coloured tracksuit, winter and summer, her feet thrust into broken old sandals; sometimes – I suspect when she’s remembered to take her medication – there is more purpose to her walk, and she will give you a tentative smile if you smile at her first. But she seems to be quite alone: I’ve never seen her in company with anyone else. Just as lonely is the bitter old woman with the twisted spine, who takes her shopping cart up the same road – no smiles from her: just a grunt, or a snarl if you’re in her way.
A tiny little Italian man – no taller than me, and I don’t top five feet – bustles up and down my street carrying a long hooked piece of wire, with which he rumages round in rubbish bins, collecting empty cans and bottles to take to the recycle depot a mile down the road. He reminds me irresistibly of Geppetto, from Pinocchio: he has something of the same canny innocence as the lonely old toymaker.
The scavengers must have their own patches marked out, because he never strays onto the territory of the fierce old woman with the shopping trundler who collects on the other side of the road. She can be seen every week, her trundler loaded to the brim, huge striped bags filled with bottles hanging off the sides, manhandling the awkward weight of the trolley down one of the busiest roads in Adelaide – sometimes out in the traffic, as she claims it’s easier than the lumpy broken footpaths. How she’s avoided being hit I have no idea!
Cliche it may be, but things aren’t always what they seem: the city is a palimpsest; on the face of it the lovely, gracious old colonial town with its pleasant, laid-back lifestyle, its art galleries and its cafes and its parks, but hovering within that pretty picture is the half-life of the shadow people, whom the busy dwellers in those beautiful mansions know about, but never see – even when their paths cross in the main street. My town – not my hometown: that’s a very different, much harsher place – but I call this one home, now. It’s a beautiful place, but it can be very bleak for those of us less fortunate than others.