Living On Bourke Street

When I moved into the house on Bourke Street, one of the bedrooms had a glad-wrapped window. The outdoor toilet was without a toilet seat. The shower door was stuck on its hinges.

During my 6-month residency, the cracks in the walls deepened, the mould in the shower grew thicker and the collection of miscellaneous items in the backyard expanded, becoming a populated city of buckets and palettes and rock-climbing holds.  

At first, I lived with two vegetarians, a vegan activist and a grey whippet called Pixel. Two months later, one flew to Japan, another to Canada and the other to Tasmania, and were swiftly replaced by a young gay couple who were barred from Parliament House for protesting Adani, a big black poodle called Jackson, a mullet-donning surfer who had a penchant for peanut butter hummus and an underwater photographer with a collection of patterned socks and stick-and-poke tattoos. Nobody had a job. At least, not in the traditional sense. Most of us were back at uni.

The boys built a wall in the backyard, a slanted wall for their rock climbing holds. They put on harnesses and climbed the trees whose roots were claiming our house without mercy. They strung up hammocks and drank beer as the nearby neighbours gawked. The girls invested their energy into our styrofoam-boxed vegetable garden, and gave me their first two strawberries for my 25th birthday. I poured liquid clay into plaster moulds and made keep cups in our sunroom. We went surfing on full moons.

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We were almost entirely surrounded by walls of housing commission blocks. Their balconies were lined with towels and bicycles with one tyre and piles of soggy washing that had been left out in the rain. The windows were covered with sheets and fabric banners of girls in bikinis. One wall of apartments liked heavy metal, the other liked U2 and The Beatles. One lady had a baby carrier hanging over her balcony and often pushed an empty pram around town.

We would sit in our sticky Lino-floored kitchen, a mug of tea in our hands and our bare feet black with gunk, listening to the neighbours fighting. Sometimes we called the Police. Sometimes someone else did and people were taken away in paddy wagons. Sometimes we’d watch the Police with their search warrants scope the apartments with torches. We were told that the hallways were littered with glass and the walls covered in spray paint.

One afternoon, my housemate told me he saw one of the neighbours on their balcony stamping on two flat-screen televisions screaming “I’ll cut ya face off, ya cunt” while Cold Chisel was blasting from the lounge room. We saw many people come and go on those balconies, only aware of the changeover because of the young men in fluro vests and latex gloves who would arrive in vans to throw garbage bags of forgotten belongings over balconies.

Most of us had grown up in low socio-economic areas- we knew the stresses of Centrelink payments. They were never enough to cover school uniforms and school excursions.

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We weren’t all that scared of our neighbours - they were nice to us. Sometimes they’d let our parties go on until 6am, sometimes they’d call the Police when the music started at 6pm. There was no night and no day, no appropriate or inappropriate time to play loud music. It was largely dependent on their drug cycles.

Drugs were often just a symptom of a long ladder of injustices awarded by geography, race, class and bad luck. We watched as each rung snapped from our kitchen window. The rest of the world forgot about them.

The neighbour to our left didn’t have much grass in his backyard, so he’d mow ours every week. We’d come home after a night out or a weekend camping and the front lawn would be trimmed, our dying sunflowers leaning, inspecting the freshly cut grass like hungover punters in the sun. I caught him in the act once, but he didn’t speak much English. He told me he liked mowing. My housemates made him gluten-free, dairy-free brownies and left them on his doorstep as a thank you.

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On a rainy December morning, the sewerage tank under our front yard burst. The great flood of human waste covered the driveway and dribbled over the curb and down the street. The passing cars unknowingly sloshed their way through and took our block’s water waste through Wollongong city.

That evening, we had a ticketed backyard party planned. We were expecting over 200 party-goers, a few bands and a couple of DJs for good measure. We had spent the last day cable-tying milk crates together to build a stage for the drum kit. A bunch of our mates came round to string tarps from the awning to the hills hoist, a rock balancing in the gutter to prevent it from slipping down and covering people with the water that had gathered in the sag.  We were raising money for the local refugee centre and there was too much hype to cancel. We decided to inform the real estate of the issue on the Monday and let the brown river run.

We didn’t really think about the fact that 200 people and their eskies of beer and party drugs would require the toilet. Soon, we were swapping out intoxicated punters and arming them with a hose to wash down the driveway, while we bounced between dance floor, kitchen and front door, pushing out drug-induced strangers who didn’t buy a ticket because “who the fuck cares about refugees”.

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 The Police made an appearance enough times that we had to shut the party down and run to the ocean. Twenty five naked bodies, the last of us left, ran into the ocean pools. Two glowing-white bodies ran down the stairs holding hands with a flare in their hands. The bottoms and boobs and faces were alight with a fiery glow before the boys jumped in the pool and for a brief moment, the entire pool lit up, before fizzling out to darkness. Salt water fireworks. We trudged home in our damp clothes, clutching our empty keep cups that once held beer.

The brown river remained for four weeks, before Sydney Water got their act together. Two months later, my housemate noticed a bucket under a tree in the backyard. He needed a bucket because he was going diving that day- volunteering for the local sailing club.

He turned the dirt-filled bucket over and began to empty it, only to find that half the bucket was full of human shit. Whose it was, we had no idea, we could only assume that the driveway led some partygoers to get creative. He buried it under a tree, washed the bucket and rode his bicycle to the sea.

The house continued to sink, the roots beneath the foundations gained more strength by the day. Our houseplants grew, our plastic waste diminished and our recycling bin (strategically positioned under the kitchen window under the carport) overflowed.  The girls continued to paint signs and protest Adani and the rest of us got into arguments with conservative relatives and religious friends on Facebook. We sat around the kitchen and made food for pot luck dinners and ranted about the Liberal Government. 

We took turns cleaning the shower. Rats arrived and were somewhat-swiftly killed by the snapping of traps. Jackson had his curly mane shaved and as the Autumn gust arrived, he trotted around the house with one of the girls’ t-shirts on, tied up on his back.

I packed up my books and my clothes and moved out, my 6-month self-imposed lease terminated by the room available at the next house, my 10th sharehouse. The housemates bid me farewell, and lit a fire in the fireplace of the room I had once occupied. I think it’s the first time that fireplace has been lit in all of its 10-year rental history amongst our friends.

I’ll miss you, Bourke Street. May the tree roots not claim you just yet.