…and finally, the northern border

Hi Lucas
Bec mentined you are walking the Petersham border. I would love to join you sometime. Let me know when you plan the next walk. xxSue

Dear Sue
well, I’ve still got the northern border to go. Why don’t you come out sometime and we’ll walk it.

Sue arrived five minutes early. I was just returning from WenChai publications (who are going to print my exhibition flyer) when she showed up on her bike. We drank tea, and I rolled a map out over all the dirty dishes. I don’t think Sue had realised that the northern border of Petersham is, in fact, just Parramatta Road. The boundary between Petersham and Leichhardt runs smack down the middle of Sydney’s great artery (or, as it has been described, varicose vein). I think she was a bit disappointed. Sure, on the surface, it doesn’t look as interesting as all those little variegations, twists and turns and inaccessible fenceline runs which characterise the other three borders. But looks can…well, you know the cliché…

But before we got to the border, I had vegies to pick up from Georgie. In all the fuss getting the flyer to the printers, I’d forgotten to collect my organic box. We set off for Hordern Street. “Thank god you’re here”, Jenny said. “I’ve gotta pack your box and run to the pub in a sec.” It was only just after four. She packed me a mighty box with a whole lot of leftover stuff from the vegie run. I like it this way – not having the luxury of choice, just taking whatever remains. Georgie wondered whether there was something wrong with me, that I think like that. Perhaps when you work in the trade, you pride yourself on being able to provide exactly what the customer wants. What to do with a customer who just wants the scraps? (I didn’t tell her that it wasn’t too many years ago that I pulled food out of dumpsters…)

On the floor of the garage I spied a strange looking object, like a dirty apricot coloured mis-shapen football. “What’s that?” I pointed to it. “Sweet potato. We can’t sell it, it’s too big,” Georgie said. My heart went out to this bloated tuber. I knew a household in the ‘sham which could take it on. I got Jenny to pack the potato up for us. It was too big for the box, so Sue carried it in her hands.

big sweet potato

We swung past home and then set out for the northern border. This time we travelled along Livingstone to West Street and up past Janine and Alex’s block of flats, with Petersham Park on our right. At the corner of West and Station, I pulled up abruptly. What was this? New signage on the footpath. “West Street” sunk into the ground, cast concrete with the text scolloped out and painted brick red, in a kind of po-mo imitation of the original municipal sidewalk signage.

There was another one at the corner where Parramatta Road and West Street slice up Petersham, Lewisham, and Leichhardt. It seemed a bit odd to me, to have pavement signage on this car-heavy street. How many pedestrians promenade up Parramatta Road? We stood there at the corner for a moment. It was getting dark, and the traffic was coming into peak-hour. The noise was terrific. We’d really chosen the right time for this border walk.

Sue and I dawdled eastwards on the footpath. Sue pointed out a ma-and-pa sandwich shop (now closed for the day) which she remembered having had a really homely feel. It’s called BEEFBURGERS, and they pride themselves on using “real meat” in their burgers. I’ve been in there once too. The husband sizzling imperfectly shaped patties of ground beef on a black grill next to onions. The wife bustling around in an apron cutting up tomatoes for a sandwich. Sue had stopped in with her mum one day on a trip to the blue mountains. Her mum felt comfortable in there amongst the wood panelling and brown décor, with her instant coffee.

Not much further along is Rick Damelion’s prestige car yard. None of your “Jalopy Shoppe” rubbish here. North Petersham plays host to only the finest Ferrari and Porsche, and other odd brands I’d never heard of, including one absurdly long black thing which had a price tag of $700 000. Yes, that’s right. Seven. Hundred. Thousand. Sue wondered what kind of guarantees we’d need to show in order to secure a test drive. How ridiculous. For roughly the same price, you could have a fleet of…lets see (calculates…) four hundred and sixty six trusty old 1978 Ford Transit Vans.

Beyond Rick’s car yard is another big institution: Fort Street High School. There’s a sign announcing “STOP AIRCRAFT NOISE AT FORT STREET HIGH SCHOOL” topped by “NOT HAPPY JOHN”. Presumably, given the “not happy” bit, this sign dates back to before the last election. I wonder how successful the campaign was. For those readers who live outside of Sydney, you may not know that that Petersham is under the flight path. I haven’t made much of a big deal of it in the ‘sham, partly because I’ve gotten used to the thundering, conversation-stopping racket that regularly punctuates our days. But for some folks – like the No Aircraft Noise political party (based in Petersham!!) – this is a battle still underway…

There’s a Parramatta Road overpass at Fort Street School. Sue and I climbed up and onto it. We figured we could stand right in the middle of the overpass, directly on the border, and watch the cars flow east and west. But when we got to the middle, our vision was blocked by two enormous billboards. The only place to look was up and into the dark sky. Instead, we moved to the side of the billboards. Standing there, looking down onto the white and red strings of light, it was somehow…almost peaceful. The constant din smooths out thought. At least, like this, you can’t hear your own tinnitis. Sue told me she’s just bought a video camera. She’s going to set it up and interview her mum, who’s now eighty. Probably, she says, it’s the only way she’ll be able to extract her mum’s life story…

Below us was the thin “island” dividing one stream of traffic from another, separating Petersham from Leichhardt. It’s a raised concrete channel about forty centimetres wide. Just wide enough to walk on. We looked at each other. “Let’s do it,” I said.

We lasted about fifty metres on the island. It was nerve-wracking. One false move and you’re wiped out for good.

Back on the safe wide footpath, we stopped outside a cake shop. Something drew us in. I wanted cake. Now. We couldn’t have chosen a better refuge. A lady called Elaine greeted us. She brought vegie quiche, just out of the oven, spinach and cheese triangles, and tea. Elaine hovered. Are you a writer? she asked me. Yeah, I said. How did you know? Elaine said she was a clairvoyant. She can just tell these things.

I asked Elaine how long she’d been running the cake shop. “Oh, it’s not mine,” she said, “It’s my daughter’s business. I just come and visit sometimes, and make cups of tea.” Elaine’s been on Parramatta Road for over thirty years. Her original business, in the early seventies, was a florist. It was just on the Stanmore side of the border: Sydney’s first twenty-four hour florist. Why would you need a twenty-four hour florist? Well, she said, a lot of shiftworkers and so on used to shop there. Once, a fellow drove all the way from the Snowy Mountains after midnight to buy some yellow roses. His girlfriend said that if he could find her a bunch of yellow roses – immediately – then she would marry him. Elaine ended up doing all the flowers for their wedding…

We liked Elaine a lot. Soon she stopped hovering and just sat down with us. She asked about my project. “So…you’re actually an artist, not a writer?” Yep, I said. “But your medium is writing?” That’s right. “Interesting,” she said. “Cos people used to always tell me that when I was a florist, I wasn’t an artist. They thought it was craft.” I suggested that art was more about a state of mind…a particular kind of sensibility…rather than whatever particular materials you happen to use. Elaine liked that. “In that case, we’ve got an artist out the back, right here in the cake shop!” she said. And soon enough, we were tasting those cakes. A stunning crackly-topped, still gooey, oven-warm lemon tart, and a pudding-ish mud cake. “It’s not like those rubbery mud cakes you find around. This one has real eggs and butter” she said.

I told Elaine about Vanessa’s research on Parramatta Road in 1976. Elaine said she knew of that particular stretch of shops. She remembered the mid ’70s debacle, when parking was banned along the street. It was the death of small business. Before that, she said, the footpath teemed with shoppers. To me, that seemed impossible to imagine.

She even remembered Raz, from Raz Boutique (formerly at number 484) and said she’d probably be able to track her down with a few phone calls. I promised Elaine I would bring back Vanessa so we could follow up on this very exciting development.

Time was marching on. Sue had to be home by eight, and we had much more territory to cover. We bustled along now, pausing only when shops (or empty shopfronts) exerted an irresistable pull on us. The jeweller which looks like an abandoned building but actually houses a workshop far in the back. The most boring office in the world. And a glass-fronted place, its windows painted out, the door open just a crack – maybe some kind of private social club for old Greek men? We were too intimidated to go in.

most boring office
The most boring office in the world…

At Jura Books, we stopped. It was open. Petersham’s only anarchist bookshop was open! I’ve often been past, but never inside. There was a sale section out the back, two dollars and under. We spoke briefly to the nice Uruguayan volunteer, but it was clear that we would have to keep moving or we’d be sucked into a time-vortex of fascinating conversation amidst bargain second hand anarchist publications. I took a note of their opening hours (Friday, 2-7pm is my next opportunity) and we hurried away.

Back at my place, Sue unlocked her bike and rode off. We’d “done” the northern border, but it felt like there was still so much to explore.

I popped over to Heather, Tully and Polly’s place to give them the monster sweet potato. They put it on their kitchen bench next to the big pumpkin from my garden.

2 thoughts on “…and finally, the northern border

  1. Your sister

    Another good read. Was the ‘awesome art’ box (in the background of your photo of bloated sweet potato) some kind of subliminal message for Tully’s housemates?!
    We had a similar thing happen to us not so long ago (potato I mean). We were shopping at our favourite little corner fruit ‘n’ veg shop and the only sweet potato for sale was ENORMOUS but Pippa knew we had sweet potato on the list so she kept trying to convince B that we needed it. After explaining it was too big, we only needed a small one, the shopkeeper presented it to her as a gift on the way out the door saying it was too big to sell. She was thrilled!
    (It didn’t taste so good though … kind of tough and stringy)


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