The suburb of North Sydney bustles with people on a workday. While not as busy as downtown Sydney on the other side of the Harbour Bridge, you don’t want to be caught there in your pyjamas at lunch hour. Which is where I found myself.
It was one of those anxious embarrassment dreams made real. I was lucky though to be wearing my semi-reputable pyjamas, rather than the undies I sometimes slept in on hot Sydney nights.. Thankfully too, this walk of shame was only 10-15 blocks or so.. Trying to play it casual, I entered a skyscraper and found the lift. Steadfastly avoiding eye contact with the office workers around me, I stared at my now-grimy bare feet instead..
The other occupants breathed a sigh of relief as the barefooted loon in his jammies exited the lift. I was relieved too, that the very fellow I’d rented my flat from a few months ago was in the office, and could identify me. It would have been much worse if nobody knew me in there (real estate agents don’t lend spare keys to barefooted weirdos in pyjamas with no ID). Worse still, if their office had been miles away, and harder to get to, in barefeet with no cash. So this awkward situation was at least not an utter catastrophe, and I had a (somewhat) sympathetic ear as I explained my tale of woe –
I was at home, heard a delivery at the mailbox in the building entranceway just outside my flat, and went out to see if it was a cheque I’ve been waiting for. Only to hear my front door slam in a gust of wind. Leaving me stranded in my PJs with no key (AND no cheque). Although my window was ajar, it was unreachable from the ground. So, VOILA, pyjama loon.. Ha ha..
I was given a spare key and retraced the cringe-walk back to the small block of flats I lived in. It was an absolutely cracking location, just around the corner from North Sydney Station, literally the last residential building on Blues Point Road before the high-rise towers of commercial North Sydney began on Miller Street. The building faced spectacular views of Sydney Harbour on one side, but my flat was on the other side, in the perpetual shadow of a looming skyscraper.
Despite world class views nearby, mine was of the alley where noisy garbage trucks came by daily to clear out multiple office tower rubbish bins. Consequently I always kept the curtains closed, and friends all joked about my dark cave. It was somewhat shabby, but it was the first place I’d ever found 100% on my own and I was stupidly happy about it. I honestly loved the place.
Prior to moving in, I’d had prolonged bad luck in finding somewhere to live. Every weekend I’d get the newspaper, circle ads of shared apartments, and traipse from interview to interview. Like speed dating, I’d get a moment to impress a household of strangers, keen on knowing my finances, my habits, my occupation, my vibe.. Try as I might, I simply could not display enough of the certain something wanted by each house. I was too vanilla for goth house, not financially secure enough for accountant house. Too much of a country bumpkin for posh house, and so on. For weeks, I failed each interview, and slouched slump shouldered back to the grotty Kirribilli private hotel I was living in (falling asleep to the warbling of an old lady two doors down – “There’ll be Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover..”) Gawd.
Finally, I saw an ad for a 2 bedroom flat in an area convenient to work. Lo & behold, I could actually afford all the rent on my own (even though I was barely scraping by financially). No more grilling by judgy flatmates! This seemed too good to be true.. When I showed up, the real estate agent explained that the rent was so low as construction was planned in a year or two. This didn’t bother me, as I planned to go abroad soon anyway. Though somewhat dark, this flat was paradise after sleeping on some friends’ couch, and staying in The Sad Loser Hotel.
This block of flats was one of the most sociable buildings I’ve ever lived in, and I met many neighbours immediately upon moving in. While unpacking boxes in the lounge room, my front door slammed open, and someone boomed a hearty “hello!” as she came clomping down the corridor. She did a double take at the sight of me and burst into raucous & infectious laughter. “Oh sorry, you’re clearly not (so & so)!!” I explained that the person she’d expected had moved out, & I’d just moved in. She introduced herself as Carmel, warmly welcomed me to the building, and explained the lay of the land – telling me who was who and what was what. The bloke next door was a truck driver who was barely ever there, and she introduced me to the tenant living on the far side side of my floor, Catherine, who had one of the utterly speck-tack-you-LAH views of Sydney Harbour.
It was a year when I did a lot of freelance working from home, so I got to know several residents & their various entourages, and socialized frequently with them all. My flat was near the mailboxes, and when working at my drawing table in the spare bedroom I’d hear people come & go, and they often came in for tea & a natter. Catherine two doors over had an infant boy who I sometimes babysat. Carmel worked in a bar/restaurant near Wynyard (where she played the room like a theatrical Diva). There was also a fellow whose name escapes me now (a flatmate of the ever-absent truckie? Or perhaps of Carmel?) Who’d come by and bend my ear about the merits of EST and other 1980s self-help bollox.
The fly in the feel-good community ointment was a cranky old Polish bloke living right beneath me, who’d constantly thump on his ceiling. Screaming obscenities through my floor boards, he accused me of making a horrendous din. To hear him tell it, a death metal band was practicing upstairs, though I was quiet as a mouse. Carmel claimed his ‘bark was worse than his bite‘, & he was ‘a lovely man‘, etc, but to me he was like an angry troll living under the bridge. Plus, he made the communal laundry unusable by making blood sausage in the wash tubs. bleurgh.
However, I was soon to get my own lessons in building acoustics. Late one night, I was woken to the sounds of someone being beaten up in the alley outside. I stuck my head out the window.. and realised the moaning and groaning was coming not from the alley below, but from the apartment above.. rhythmic groaning? Ohhhhhh.. Carmel (always up on the building scuttlebutt) soon confirmed that newlyweds had moved in upstairs. I’d be in my lounge room, when there’d be sounds of rambunctiousness on the sofa above. Giggling soon segued to moaning & groaning. I subsequently heard them shagging in every room. The bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen, everywhere. Good lord. In Sydney, it can be difficult to get to sleep on hot summer nights, but especially when the Sex Olympics is happening upstairs. (I participated too, in the Celibacy Marathon, scoring a gold medal for Australia). So the Pole had been right after all. Without carpet/insulation, simply walking to & fro made a hell of a racket on my ceiling (and they got up to a lot more than walking, the randy monkeys).
From my wonderfully located flat, I could easily walk to animation studios in St. Leonards, go to Milson’s Point for a swim in the spectacular North Sydney pool, or ride my bicycle across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to meet pals in town.. As always during this era I had no phone, but had finally inherited a telly when my pal Chris left OZ. With the sound turned down it was often the visual accompaniment while playing my LP records (or the mixtapes we made & swapped in those days).
While living in this flat, there were several visits from hometown family, including Dad. The first time was soon after I moved in, and I prepared for the ridicule that my flat typically inspired.. but Dad absolutely loved it. He wandered from room to room as if awed, impressed that I’d found it all on my own. His reaction genuinely made me happy. I hadn’t enough furniture yet, so Dad slept on the bed and I took the floor. But I barely slept at all, because Dad seemed to continuously choke in his sleep. I learned later that this was his (eventually diagnosed & treated) sleep apnea. Dad’s last visit coincided with my 22nd birthday, and we went out to celebrate with one of his workmates, who I’d known for years. It was a fun evening, where I was treated to the sight of Dad giggly drunk. I only ever saw him drunk twice in my entire life, and both times he was giggly & silly, not a mean drunk at all. Anyway, I had to help Dad into bed that night, laughing like a loon.
In that last year before I went abroad, there was a dramatic uptick in tour buses containing international tourists. I began to see them in the lower North Shore area, where I’d not noticed them before. Sydney was finally on the international travel map. Travel was on my mind too. I gave my few sticks of crummy furniture (& sold my hi-fi) to a coworker, who also took over my lease (he habitually wore army boots, so I’m sure the old Pole loved that). The general idea when I left Australia was that I’d come back and share the place. As it turned out, I’ve lived abroad for the rest of my life.. My understanding was that this block of flats would eventually be demolished, to build another high-rise tower like the one next door, but it is still there:
The owners/property managers had been letting it go when I lived in the building, but now it is now posh, and known as ‘THE CITADEL’. (Lah-di-dah). For reasons unclear, the addressing in that block has changed. What used to be ‘1 Miller Street‘ is now ‘211 Blues Point Road‘ (which was confusing when plugging my old address into Google Maps). My rent was $55 a week back then, but the same flat goes for about $900 per week now.
I was very lucky to live in Sydney just before it became unaffordable for the average shmo. On spotty & low pay, I managed to live right by the harbour, twice, when it was still possible to have fun in Sydney without being rich. Anywhere is fun when you have cash, but truly wonderful cities are lovely even when you’re broke. To me, that is the definition of a livable city.