Working the Dream

I’ve been lucky to work in three of my dream jobs and the second of these was in my late twenties.

A bookshop you could fall in love with.

The dream job in question was at least fifteen years out of date. It was: bookseller. Like any book nerd, I’d read, thought and fantasised a whole lot about bookshops; been lost in, got high on, felt horribly lonely in, been intimidated by bookshops. I’d even fallen in love inside them – with books, of course. And Joe from The Magic Faraway Tree, Jim from Trixie Belden (amiright, girls?), probably some lame-o guy from Sweet Valley High, Rochester, Darcy – and, more importantly, with heroines like Jo March, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, and so on.

Then recently I’d read this quote (yup, in a book):

. . . I liked the idea of living in a big city – any city, especially a strange one – liked the thought of traffic and crowds, of working in a bookstore, waiting tables in a coffee shop, who knew what kind of odd, solitary life I might slip into? Meals alone, walking the dogs in the evenings, and nobody knowing who I was.

What a romantic idea. I wanted to move to the big smoke and become a painter and work in a bookshop. LIVING THE DREAM. What a newb I was, both at cities and at working in bookshops.

But I made the big move to the Outer-Inner West of Sydney and I painted – if, by painting, I mean set up a little studio at our new urban flat and then procrastinated and, instead of painting, spent great swathes of time watching Six Feet Under (I had a lot to catch up on and it was very important that I did) and getting slightly (understandably) depressed. I didn’t have a job at first. For only, like, a few weeks, but at the time it was long enough to feel like I was chronically unemployed and unemployable, only boasting skills such as daydreaming and dabbling, and mostly only good for plonking down for a few hours in front of HBO’s most favourite funeral parlour family ever to grace our TVs.

But in reality I landed my dream bookshop job pretty quickly. The interview consisted of me, wide-eyed, sitting with the very poised bookshop manager in the food court that butted up against the shop, answering a handful of very easy questions about my employment experience – me thinking Wow, this is amaazing!, her thinking Wow, this overqualified person would be great as basically a second manager who I only have to pay as a retail assistant!

And then, suddenly, I  had my dream job. Well, my new dream job. Discounted books! Witty repartee with colleagues and customers! Reading and reading and yet more reading. Reading at work. Amazing author events. Meeting some of my heroes. Those are things that mostly didn’t happen.

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An absolutely beautiful bookshop. At which I did not work.

This is what mostly happened:

  • I learnt how to use retail software, a book database, Eftpos and a pricing gun. Look out, world!
  • I vacuumed. (An unwelcome surprise, as I’d recently been an ‘accommodation assistant’ in an Irish hotel; when I left that job I’d thought if I ever saw another vacuum cleaner again I’d set it on fire and kick it out into the street.)
  • Balancing the books at the end of the day. (Me, doing accounts. How did that happen and how did anyone trust me with maths and, in turn, their business?)
  • Asking a hundred times a day, ‘Is that on credit?’
  • Telling many, many customers that we didn’t have that book they wanted but we could order it in. (Or they could go to nearby Kmart and get it 20% cheaper, is something I didn’t say. Unless my boss had annoyed me.) Like we were basically a hole in the wall where you could order books online. ‘Cos we kinda were.
  • Telling teenage girls that sorry, we’d run out of Twilight again but were ordering more copies in asap. ASAP. ASAP I promise, god!
  • Hearing ‘What do you feel like, what do you feel like, feel like a king, Donut Kiiiiing?!!’ piped into the shopping centre over and over to the point where hell yeah, I decided I was the Donut King.
  • ‘I’m looking for a book. Oh, what was it called? I don’t know who it was by. All I know is it was on Oprah.’
  • Watching events of Shakespearean proportions unfold in the foodcourt.
  • Starting to feel like I was going dyslexic or mad from poisons pumped through the terrible air con. Fearing Legionnaires’ disease like it was 1989.
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Sadly, we did not have a handsome book cat.
  • Unpacking endless boxes of books until I started hallucinating about diving into the styrofoam packaging and swimming through it to Narnia.
  • Being a captive audience for local colourful characters who had interesting ideas about the lack of sex in the Harry Potter books (!), or who ran laps of the bookshop while coming down off their drug of choice, or who hid from their wife behind the shelves as she roamed the food court, calling his name.
  • Staring down would-be shoplifters (yep, that’s a bit rich for me).
  • Needing to go to the toilet the minute my manager left for the day. And then having to look after the shop another two hours. On my own.
  • Having two four-year-old girls feel sorry for me and come and help me pack up the sales tables at the end of the day. (Okay, that was pretty cute.)

You might be thinking, so what you’re saying is dream jobs are a total waste of time and impossible to achieve and why bother? Okay, it turned out it wasn’t quite a dream but I don’t regret it at all. I’d say to you that if you want to pursue a dream job, you should do it as soon as possible. Only months after I left the bookshop, the GFC hit – the shop was sold and last I saw had become a bargain basement clothing shop of the worst kind. That whole suburb is now lacking a bookshop. There are currently around 200 less ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops in Australia than when I was recommending The Time Traveller’s Wife to every second person to tread our worn but beautifully vacuumed carpet. If I hadn’t had that dream job then, I might never have at all.

I read the most books in those eighteen months that I think I’ve ever read (though sadly not at work). In amongst all the banal chitchat about Oprah books and undeserved bestsellers and . . . Twilight . . . there were numerous book recommendations made and received, and much appreciated. I met several local authors who were customers, I got to help out at author events; hell, I had my photo taken with the Cat in the Hat. And, in the end, that job led me semi-directly into a career in book publishing.

Also, I could visit the Donut King whenever I wanted. For my inner fifteen-year-old, it really was a dream job come true.





Underwater Love

Recently my partner and I spent a week in sunny Port Douglas. There were many highlights of the trip, but there was one in particular for me. I was extra excited by the prospect of ticking off one of my big life goals (I refuse to say ‘bucketlist’ . . . oops): to see the Great Barrier Reef before it dies. Yes, that should read ‘before I die’, but at this rate it looks like I’m gonna outlast it.

What’s happening with the reef? Things aren’t looking great right now. The coral, for a number of reasons, is dying. The greatest threat is climate change, causing coral bleaching – this has already begun and is apparently going to become an annual thing as global temperatures rise. Then there’s pollution, primarily from runoff, chemical use, etc. in sugar cane farming and beef grazing.

The latest dredging plan has the dumping of dredge spoil happening not on the reef exactly, more like near the reef. It’s cool to dump in the wetlands, right? Well, not really, as it’ll end up on the reef anyway. That’s the thing about ecosystems, they’re pesky with their interconnectedness. Anyway, meantime the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority seems to be not listening to its scientific experts for some reason. Money reasons, maybe? Government money-loving reasons? It’s all sickeningly short-sighted.

Anyway, back to the holiday. We did a daytrip to the outer reef, snorkelling at three different spots on Opal Reef, and it was amaaazing. I don’t remember having ever snorkelled before, so that was a joy in itself. And on the reef? Pure, unadulterated joy. We swam only about 50 metres from the boat at most each time and saw loads of parrot fish, other . . . tropical fish, incredible coral gardens, sea cucumbers (gross), giant clams, and what we thought was a clown fish but turns out wasn’t a clown fish yet who cared, it was as exciting as seeing an actual clown fish!

We were swimming back to the boat at the end of our second snorkel when I saw a big fish underneath it – about a metre or so long. I nudged my partner’s arm and said ‘Holy crap, look at that!’ which sounded like ‘Mphfh! Mphfphnghmph!’ underwater, then surfaced and yelled something awesome to the boat like, ‘There’s a big fish under the boat!’  Marty, one of our guides, called back, ‘Yeah, that’s Angus!’ Haha, good one, we laughed.

We got back to the boat, pulled ourselves onto the back steps where we sat half in the water still, pulling off our fins and talking about our fish friend. Something bumped my leg; it was the freaking fish. I kind of squealed. Marty had been surreptitiously tossing bits of ham into the water while we were talking, so the fish was swimming right by, having a snack. Marty told us he was a roughly four-year-old Maori wrasse, and we were smack bang in the middle of his territory.

I got over my initial surprise and stuck my head underwater, looking at Angus as he swam right past. I got to see close up his weird fish mouth and his cool eyes – they reminded me of a sheep’s but more colourful – and give him pats. It was incredible. Other snorkellers came up, yet he wasn’t bothered and kept swimming in amongst us, catching the occasional scrap of ham, and generally being a happy ocean pet.

I have no idea what he made of us, but he was impressive to me. Nothing in my life compares to the experience of being eye to eye with a Maori wrasse on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Nothing in my aquatic life, anyway (hey, I’ve ridden an elephant). And he’s out there right now, probably hanging around another tour boat, making friends, getting some ham and pats and having his photo taken.

An artist’s impression of Angus and me getting to know each other.

After having our quality tropical fish time, we headed to the third spot where it was almost low tide, so there was only a metre or so at times between us and the coral. You could just float on the surface, face down, snorkel in, and float on over the top of the coral gardens, watching the fish going about their fish business, weaving in and out of the wavy coral in the filtered sunlight. And that’s exactly what we did.

I came back from the tour wanting to go back out every day for the rest of the week (sadly we didn’t, but there were loads of other things to do and see). I’ll always remember the absolute, sheer childlike joy of floating through the reef – it’s such a gift, and unfortunately it seems it’s going to be a fleeting one.

My heart hurts to think that other people, even the people charged with the caretaking of this beautiful wild place, are not looking after its best interests and still don’t get and probably won’t ever understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the fragile nature of this one, the impact of climate change, and that the damage that has been done and will still unavoidably be done can’t be reversed.

At a time when our country in general is not being looked after properly, when coal is king, when we’re being brainwashed by fear-mongering media, when fundamental human rights are being ignored and a whole range of injustices are taking place on our watch, the future of one of our endangered national icons might just slip through our fingers.

I definitely want to make semi-regular trips back there if I can, to remember what’s out there, see it while I can, to visit my new fish friends and remember the fantastic underwater world that exists out there every day while I’m in my office or on a busy city train or walking crowded footpaths or getting shitty with slow people on escalators. I’m telling everyone who’ll listen that they should do themselves a favour and go out there too. And soon.

Right, I’m off to sponsor a sea turtle or go sign a petition. This one looks good. For a better idea of the magical underwater wonderland we experienced, check out this Calypso YouTube video (a Maori wrasse, probably Angus, can be seen at 1:32).

Jo and Angus
Angus and me, new besties.

Free Art All the Damn Time!

Having recently moved house, I’ve been out doing some investigating round my neighbourhood – wandering about the backstreets of Stanmore, Newtown and Camperdown the past couple of weeks, spontaneously taking photos of street art on my phone. I knew there was a lot around, and I’ve seen much of Newtown’s and St Peter’s/Sydenham’s (May Lane, etc.), but turns out even though I thought I knew the area pretty well, there’s a lot more going on than I realised.

I love the idea of this whole secret language happening in the city that we barely know anything about, between people in the know and between street artists and the public. Messages to each other, some long-lasting, others fleeting, getting buffed off/painted over almost immediately. I also love the idea that it’s resistance against the concrete jungle, it’s an attempt to humanise the city, make it friendlier.

I did a stencilling class a couple of years ago when things were a bit shit for me. I also hadn’t done much art for years, long years. Street art holds a place dear to my heart because it helped me slowly get out of the place I was in and back to art, to the point where I was able to have an exhibition with my sister in May, our first in eight years. I haven’t done much stencilling this year but I did go to see the 2014 Stencil Art Prize a couple of weeks ago, which got me inspired, plus I’ve been seeing all this street art lately around me.

I think I’m developing an eye for finding it, like some private street art detective – it’s so weird. I’ll catch a hint of something at the corner of my eye, a lonely splash of colour down a likely alley that I then realise is the edge of something interesting (that on closer inspection turns out to be an amazing mural).

I also think street art resonates with me because it’s nostalgic. The first time street art ever really registered on my radar was when I was about sixteen and started coming up from my south coast hometown with friends to Newtown. The ‘I Have a Dream’ mural by Unmitigated Audacity Productions was pretty recent then and attracted a lot of interest, becoming a central point of Newtown, and there were others dotted around the neighbourhood, some that have been painted over or the buildings they were on have been knocked down (‘Idiot Box’ featuring Marcia Brady, and Miles Davis ‘On the Wings of a Song’ in Erskineville, South of the Border on south King St, Cat in the Hat, the Africa map on Whateley Lane which has sadly been redone), and some that are still around like ‘The Great Wave’ by Big City Freaks in south Newtown, the Sydney Morning Herald front page on north King St.

The Newtown area graffiti Wikipedia page is a decent place to find out more and even covers some of the now extant works, and also Juilee Pryor’s website (she was part of Unmitigated Audacity Productions, along with Andrew Aitken, etc.). In March I did a street art tour run by Melissa Vassallo during the Marrickville Open Studio Trail, which was a good introduction to the scene – she’s got a book out called Street Art of Sydney’s Inner West that I haven’t read but would like to get my hands on.

Newtown is a very different suburb now to how it was all those years ago when I was a fresh-faced teen, buying nagchampa incense, meeting so many ‘different’ people – sure, we had some where I came from but nothing like Newtown. It blew my tiny suburban mind. It was at the height of ‘alternative’, grunge was big, students and artists and musos were everywhere, living in big old terrace house that hadn’t had the guts renovated out of them yet. You could see arthouse movies there (wow – does not seem like a big deal now), cool bands at various (kinda rough) venues, eat Indian, African, Nepalese, you name it. Not a freaking froghurt bar in sight yet. Ha, there was a McDonald’s though, briefly.

Getting stuck in traffic on King St meant watching the broad spectrum of Newtown pedestrians pass by – an awesome, eclectic parade of punks, hippies, goths, rockers, burnouts, and – interestingly – homeless bums who I still see around now. Those were my people (okay, maybe not the bums), to an extent anyway – I felt most comfortable with the outsiders for some reason. Anyway, that’s what street art reminds me of, and transports me back to. It’s a vestige of, an homage to, a continuation of the Inner West of my youth.

Interestingly, I’m not seeing a great deal of politically charged art on the streets around here these days. I would’ve thought at this particular time, with things in government looking so dire and other world events turning a bit grim, this would be seeping onto the walls of the city. But not so much – there are a few, but maybe it’s still coming.

I know you can find countless blogs and Flickr streams of Inner West street art, but I’ve decided to begin keeping my own record, starting with the gallery below. Where I’ve been able to find out the artist (or ‘writer’, if I’m going to use the language of ‘the street’), I’ve attributed it to them. I’m starting to recognise certain people’s work as theirs and follow the path connecting various pieces as they’ve travelled the streets, making their mark. I’m beginning to decode some of it too, though until I get my own crew and start getting my own art up (haw haw, ‘White middle class lady hooks up with crew and starts painting all over town’) and getting super involved, most of it’ll remain a lovely mystery to me.

I do have a few stencils of my own in various states of completion. Not sure if I’ll ever get them up on the streets but maybe one day . . . It would be sweet to be able to contribute to the fabric of a place that I’ve observed with interest for a couple of decades – and, let’s face it, the place sixteen-year-old me fell in love with – and where I now live.

PS. Okay, news just in: I’ve re-enrolled in stencil class for next Monday, so you’ll no doubt be seeing some work from me soon . . . Stay tuned! Now I just need a rad street art name.