History is cut loose as utopia and nostalgia criss-cross to form a jammed loop
by Cher Tan
“If you’re so clever, why aren’t you rich?”
The façade is weathered and grimy, an eyesore even. The Building stands there, near the tip of one of the busiest intersections in the old town, five stories high but almost squat next to the gleaming glass buildings in its vicinity. I drive up King W, now narrowed to become one of those London-esque two-lane roads, menacingly shared by buses and bicycles alike. I straddle the road shoulder to avoid a passing moped as the Building comes into view. It’s not terribly exciting. Someone on the balcony nearly makes eye contact with me, then goes back to looking at their tablet, a jug of piss next to them. Gotta get my piss on before I go back to work, mate. Pissed off, piss on.
I make a turn. Might as well. A bus inches up behind me, impatiently honking while the automated driver — the ‘robo’ — looks at me, irate. I read somewhere that uniqueness is simply what cannot be otherwise automated but remains exploitable. We had to fake enthusiasm and subjective emotion so that they couldn’t replace us, but they did anyway. Eventually it was found that you could just copy a particular code to mimic emotion; it started when you could talk to your phones. The more people spoke to their phones, the more they had a chance to reciprocate. And now we’re here.
The driver thing is shooting me daggers. I almost want to say sorry but I decide to give it the finger instead. Not my fucking fault! I honk for effect. What am I after? The opportunity to play bumper cars and end up with a bill for repairs? Who knows, excitement is not easily generated in this day and age. I turn into Imperial Pl., narrowly dodging the bins lined up near the park. The backside of the Building looms majestic from this angle. It’s like the neighbouring new-ness that threatens its existence has disappeared, and it’s left to contend for itself. Without competition or comparison, it stands like the toothless dero bitch I see every morning at the Foodland café near my work: her in her spaghetti strap top, dirty Crows cap and leathery skin waiting for her takeaway cappuccino while flipping through the tabloids and cursing under her breath. It’s her, she’s real, and I want to slip her a note: you’re beautiful. There is no contender.
I’m meant to see the Don today. His real name is Domaney but he likes to call himself the Don. I imagine it’s easier than having someone assume your name to be Dominic or something, or, like some people, I could immediately think he’s got associations with the mafia or likes to think of himself as belonging to it. I’m thinking of Vito Corleone in The Godfather. What a guy. Domaney Bertolucci looks nothing like Vito though, unfortunately. ROFL. I tweet out the thought on my watch straight away. I slide open the Building’s rusted red back door still sniggering to myself.
Unsurprisingly, the lift’s not working again. I duck my head into the pokies room and nod at old Frank, hunched over still playing Dolphin Quest, still hoping for his windfall like it’s 2008. I wonder how much “social tax” old Frank has contributed to the state revenue since he started. 50 cents to every dollar goes back to the state is the official word. 'We would be in even more dark circumstances.' Might be that the Building simply continues to exist thanks to people like him. God bless his soul. Bloody fucking dolphins, even in cartoon form they rape you. Who am I to have a moral standpoint anyway?
I go up the stairs to the 3rd floor, where the Don’s office is. I’m momentarily transported to when I first moved into the Building, almost a decade ago now. The lift wasn’t working then either, and I had to round up a few mates to help carry boxes over eight flights of stairs to the 4th floor. The furniture could wait. We were sweaty and exhausted when we were finished — Ben just kind of rolling his eyes, Alice showing off that she could still move another couple more, Andrys gravely telling us that what we just did wasn’t exercise, but exertion. 'The endorphins you feeling surging in your body right now, they not the good kind. But isn’t it funny how — if you notice, and I’m sure you haven’t — the carpeting become more dirty after the 1st floor? After the fancy bar? Remind me of old Russian building. Like they hiding something.'
I remember this now as I venture up the steps two at a time. Nothing’s really changed in the Building at all. I lived here for six years until the state programme Revive took it over, claiming its heritage-listed feature was ‘charming’, during a time when imagined nostalgia was hot and heaps of young people took to loving old things they’d never had the chance to experience first-hand. The griminess accumulated over the years added a kind of allure that new money could never imitate, not properly anyway. When Grandma visited from China she was horrified that I was paying that much to live in a 'cow dung house', the city be damned. Old money would never be caught naked espousing a place like the Building. It’s like history’s cut loose, the rinse-spin cycle jammed in a loop, and we’re reverting to places from whence we came. My old flat is now a studio making bespoke picture frames, and my ex-neighbour’s a weird pop-in coffee shop kinda set-up where you’d have to say a password for them to invite you in. Rave reviews on The Weekly when it first opened, but who knows, I haven’t been. What’s the fucking password? The startups are still there. And the Don’s office, of course. I don’t know what else. Haven’t really kept my finger on the pulse of the old town that much to be honest, especially since new town began.
I knock on the Don’s open door, as per the usual. The brass horse greets me at the entrance. He told me once that he’d won the horse at some auction interstate years and years ago, and then had it transported back here. 'It was just one of those lucky things,' him recounting the story and beaming like he does, rubbing the bald spot at the back of his head. And of course he’s sitting there beaming when he tells me to come in, and then, formalities aside, tells me to have a seat. It’s the same thing every month and we do this ritual like it’s the reason why we’re mates. He opens up his little invoice book with the blotting paper like those ones from the past, wets his finger with his tongue to turn the page. The Revive people would love to have one of his invoice books, they could make a collage out of it or something. He writes down the amount I have for him today then signs his name with a flourish. I come monthly to back-pay him rent I still owe him from when I had difficulties. I didn’t really know how to explain the cryptocurrency stuff to him so just said, yeah I lost a bit of money gambling. Same difference to the Don I’d imagine, and he looked at me kindly and told me I could pay him back whenever, except 'just stay off the machines lest you become like Frank orright!' This deal’s alright. I like making the trip to see him.
The new-old gripe of the day is that Revive is owing the Don money, even though they promised exponential profits when they first started a few years ago. None of the businesses from the programme are making money, plus they are constantly experiencing a huge turnover as a result of their hobby-encouraging ideals. People were earning social capital left right and centre but not monetary capital. But couldn’t you turn your Hearts into shares? 'I’m tired of arguing,' the Don sighs, 'these people have no idea what they’re doing and I can’t keep up with them to know what they’re doing either. As long as they pay me, y’know? Everything’s in the new town now anyway.'
That’s where I live now. When the new town began three years ago I was one of the people who unabashedly formed the mass exodus that went there, whether to live or work, or both. It was created out of the ashes of the fledgling old town. A natural conclusion. Unemployment was at unprecedented levels, and the flight path that went through the city made it impossible for taller buildings to be erected. Hand in hand with the mass automation that had just started then, it proved a kind of success. A city built up, but still kind of like the big ol’ country town it once was. Just replace the 4Xes with the West Ends. I know that trajectory.
I bid adieu to the Don, back out, and sort of stand awkwardly around the area in front of the lift admiring the interior of the Building, the ghosts of past tenants pulling me back into familiar terrain. I touch the peeling wallpaper, look down at the scuffed parquet below my feet, take in the fact that it’s sweltering in the centuries-old Building, while the outside world is baking in high summer heat, both pulses conjoined. There’s a faltering succulent on a windowsill next to me, and I pretty much want to smash it through the glass. Only an idiot can let a succulent die.
I let myself out the front this time. The Building is throbbing with history and I’m keeling under its weight. The sounds of old Frank on Dolphin Quest, still audible as I walk past. I know the 8-bit music by heart.
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You’re such a beauty. There is no contender.
The phantom limbs of utopia and nostalgia criss-cross. I leave for the new town.
First published in Yolk Zine.
Read our interview with Cher here.