The Rainbow Houses

Forward from Stamping Ground-Stories Of The Northern Suburbs Of Melbourne (text used in the 2014 HSC English exam.)

‘I grew up in Reservoir. If you are not familiar with Reservoir it’s not a place where people live it’s a place where people’s cousins who just got out of jail live. And it’s the only place in the world apart from Russia where people get married in track suits, and they have bouncers in the supermarket. I’m thinking of doing a one woman show about my teenage years and calling it Reservoir Dog …’

Part true, part my stand up routine. The Reservoir I grew up in was populated by menacing tattooed toothless Torana driving blokes called Craig, Shane or Wayne, crushed menthol smoking pensioners and toddlers who swore. You know the Big Banana and the Big Pineapple? Back then we had the Big 12-Year-Old Single Mother with Tatts And Crabs. You should’ve seen the Mayor cut the ribbon at that opening as Davo, Ferret and Wanger all yelled, ‘Root her! We all did!’ Ah the 70s: ashtrays in every hospital and mullets running free. Things have changed. As my mum prophesied, ‘You wait, one day the yuppies will be doing up the houses out here.’ And guess what? They are. How do I know? Overheard at the Reservoir Pool, ‘Elliot, Hannah, come eat your crudites and humus.’

‘So, you grew up in Reserve Wá ( sic)?’

‘Not Reserve Wá, Res a vor ( sic). Only people who’ve never lived there call it Reserve Wá ( sic).’

We spoke English proper all right. The place we lived was Res a vor but the huge man-made body of water that it was named after we called the Reserve Wá.

I used to lie, I used to tell people that I lived in other places. I was so committed to this masquerade that, in my late teens, I even managed to get a Toorak library card and a chequebook at a bank in Toorak so my cheques had TOORAK written across the top. Tragic, I know. I’m not proud of it, I’m just telling you. I may have inherited this suburban cringe from my grandparents. When my grandmother was young growing up in Richmond she would tell people that she lived in North Toorak. We had another relative who didn’t live in Northcote but in Westgarth. When people asked where Westgarth was she’d reply, ‘Near Ivanhoe and Hawthorn.’

How things change. These days I am thrilled I grew up in Reservoir. I couldn’t buy that kind of street cred. ‘Oh yes commission house, blah, blah, large family, very poor, blah, blah, alcoholic father, blah, blah, yes, yes, bogan peasants, blah, blah.’ Other guests bow their heads in shame and own up to growing up in Balwyn. Intriguing dinner party conversation. My years of feeling like inferior uncleanable suburban scum are superficially fascinating for a short period of time, then we get on to arts funding.

Where I lived there were no Italian peasants singing ‘Funiculi Funicula’ or Asians with their fragrant markets and duck decorated shop windows. Even an odd pisshead Scottish family would have sufficed. I lived in a housing commission colony of unhappy, badly dressed, chip on their shoulder Skips. Terrifying graffiti at the station kept me in line by informing me that Resa Boys Rule, Sharon Is A MOLE and Terry Is Dead.

Sentimental bullshit and selective memory aside there was nothing charming about where I grew up at all. But there was something funny. The sign on the public dunny in Broadway; ‘Reservoir Comfort Station’. Sure we lived in Reservoir, but at least we were comfortable. I grew up in Fitzroy. Sure I spent most of my first 20 years in Reservoir and moved to Fitzroy in 1989. But Fitzroy was where I really grew up. Where I landed in my skin. In the grubby incense-wafting share houses and the cutlery-clattering Cafés on Brunswick Street. And sitting in front bars having a glass or two over a gossip, bitch or a laugh.

I can hear you all now, ‘What a wanker, came of age in Fitzroy, what a toss’. I wish it was somewhere less cliched, more earthy and not as predictable as Fitzroy, but it wasn’t. It was Fitzroy. Sitting on balconies wearing Blundstones, smoking Styvos and pretending I was Judy Davis was where I found myself.

Oh yeah, I was a wanker all right. I conditioned myself to drink coffee without milk simply so I could impress people by ordering a long black.

My crush on Fitzroy started while driving through the inner-city on twinkling blue-sky days in the early 70s. I was intoxicated by the cobblestone lanes, the crumbling little houses packed tightly together and the brick walls painted with flaking advertisements for Robur tea. I used to screech with delight at the multi-coloured double-storey terraces on Nicholson Street with a fleet of orange Kombis parked out the front.

We called them the Rainbow Houses. I remember telling my mother that I was going to live in one when I grew up. She replied, ‘You wouldn’t want to live in one of those old terraces. They’re damp, dark and horrible—just ask your grandmother.’

But I loved living in them. The creaking boards, the outside dunny, and the windows and doors that either didn’t open or didn’t close. In the summer it was high-ceilinged refrigerated bliss, and in the winter we had to wear spencers, eat soup and smoke a lot of dope to take our mind off the fact that our fingers and toes were so cold they could snap off any minute.

I lived in a handful of terraces while at uni, but the most important was a Rainbow House in Bell Street. The colour scheme of the rooms inside could have been coordinated by the colour consultant for Darrell Lea. I lived with three guys and we were all penny-pinching, op-shop-dwelling, rabble-rousing students. We chained our bikes to the front fence and would have had a clapped-out brown loose-weave couch on the veranda if someone had given us one.

I have great memories of that time, a constant stream of drop-ins, the espresso machine never cold and the stereo never off. Having a break from essays and wandering down to The Black Cat to devour a plate of nachos washed down with a milkshake in a frosty steel beaker. The joy of the first warm day in September when the girls would head for the shops to buy a cheap floral dress made in India and the boys would pull out their jolly shirts and shoplift a new pair of sunglasses to wear to the Brunswick Street festival. I was so addicted to the The Fitz breakfast that at one stage a friend called me there to ask for a lift to uni. We were not blind to the cliches; even at the time we would refer to it as being ‘so Aqua Profunda’, referring to Helen Garner’s novels and short stories set in inner-city share houses.

In the suburbs I felt poor, ripped-off and oppressed. But it was in Brunswick Street in the late 80s where I felt those feelings of freedom, confidence and liberation that blossom when you have your own money and are running your own race. With a pocket full of the night before’s waitressing tips I would wander home on a caffeine high after a brunch at Rumbas. Picking up a bag of groceries from the Italian delicatessen that we called The Smelly Shop and lashing out on a bunch of orange marigolds from Flowers Vasette would make me feel like a queen.

But it was at Mario’s Café that what would be my little world started to reveal itself to me. It was the beat that I liked, not the music but the beat. It was the percussion of the no-frills waiters, no-mucking-round customers and no dud coffees that made my heart sing. The glow and warmth of the place in the winter would melt the chilliest soul just by wandering past. Nothing ever changed at Marios, and that is why I liked it. I travelled my emotional length and breadth on those tables: spiritual crises, overseas farewells and returns, fly-by catch ups, career dramas, post-coital breakfasts, counselling brokenhearted friends, reading the first review of my stand-up, long-time reunions, political stoushes, and teary meetings with exes all over perfectly temperatured lattes.

I’d managed to successfully escape the numbing certainty of suburbia. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged. And then I was grown up, and for me, it was time to move on after a few overseas detours to the People’s Republic of Moreland. It’s pretty trendy these days. I know this because we now have junkies and Pilates. All we need is a juice bar and we’ll be completely up ourselves. Oh, that’s right: we do, and we are. Brunswick, home of the latte crawl.

It’s all book groups, polar fleeces and stay-at-home dads who read the Monthly and drink soy lattes. I’ve lived on the same page of the Melways my whole life. I even went to La Trobe Uni. Three kilometres in 40 years. Are we there yet?

Right now, we’re excited too. It’s hard rubbish collection season or, as I prefer to call it, the Tightarse Festival. I’ll tell you something for free: if you want to get 60-year-old men walking four times a day, put on a hard rubbish collection. They’re gagging for a shuffle around the block when there’s a possibility they may find a replacement catcher for their mower, a piece of cyclone fencing to store in their shed and never use, or a broken carpet sweeper they can put out for next year’s collection. (I can only imagine the look on the face of the wife as one of these men drags another air-conditioning unit the size of a Torana up the driveway, explaining: ‘Before you say anything, love, it’s for parts.’)

Come dusk, every man and his Crocs are out. Pushers, walking frames, scooters and even attractive people with glasses of wine are doing the hard rubbish shuffle. The participants in this Carnival of the Once Loved but Now Unwanted stroll by in a trance. Having a squiz, poking stuff with a foot and, after careful assessment, selecting only the best to proudly lug home. There’s an element of addiction about it, too. ‘Just one more street,’ you hear people saying. ‘I hear Campbell Avenue has lifted its game this year.’

And there’s no shyness about it. Bold as brass. ‘Look at this,’ said a man to me as he pried a smoked-glass coffee table with ornate brass legs from under a piece of corrugated iron. ‘Why would anyone get rid of this?’ I don’t know, maybe because they don’t spend evenings listening to Neil Diamond, snorting cocaine and sharing crack-addicted hookers with David Hasselhoff.

And that’s why I love this place, a suburb where old Aussies, young Lebanese families, student households, Italian nonnas, Greek yayas, Somalian youths, Indian cab drivers and latte-frothing lefties like me live side by side and covet each other’s rubbish. It’s United Colours of Benetton one day and an episode of Mind Your Language the next.

But maybe I’ve misjudged it, and this place is changing faster than I’d realised. When the wind blows in the right direction, you can smell the gentrification. Now I’m a little worried about the hard rubbish I’ve selected to release into the wild this year.

You can take the girl out of Reservoir all you like but you can’t take the Reservoir out of the girl. On a wander during the Tightarse Festival I walked past a house with a huge garden and said to the owner, ‘You could fit at least three cars up on blocks in this yard.’

I love this book. Because people love the northern suburbs the way I do. It’s not just where we live. It’s our home.

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