Thursday 5 December 2013

Postcards from the human race: Parramatta

You can find human beings anywhere, but you will never find a more plentiful variety than on a weekday afternoon in the Church Street Mall in Parramatta, New South Wales.

Here you will see women more beautiful and women more frightening and appalling than anywhere else in the world. You will see women with withered faces and hungry alert eyes and limbs as thin as sticks, combing the pavement for cigarette butts. You will see the Lebanese woman in tight jeans and a peach silk blouse and peach silk headscarf, so lovely you could cry, and the tall black African woman as glorious as a queen with her gorgeous dignity and her gorgeous red and orange clothes and the baby strapped to her waist and the red umbrella that she holds for shade above the baby, and you will see women, former convicts, with tight faces and muscly tattooed arms, and the hunchbacked woman who shuffles past clutching many shopping bags and a little boy, and the woman with the bicycle helmet and the bicycle and the little dog.

You will see disfiguring ailments, faces twisted out of all proportion, bodies barely functioning, legs hardly able to hobble from one end of the mall to the other and back again. You will see young men's bodies covered with expensive colour tattoos and older men's bodies covered with artless prison tattoos, and men of no determinate age with tattoos stretching menacingly up one side of the neck. You will see the most extensive catalogue of facial hair available anywhere in the world: the thin man whose body is bald all over except for the three-foot braided goatee; the round man with the clean-shaven face and the huge neck beard like Robert Browning; the little man with the thick grey moustache that continues in a straight line from the top lip to the tops of his ears and then encircles the back of his bald head, a perfect round belt of hair. If you stare too long, these beards will return one night in your dreams and leave you frightened to go back to sleep again.

You will see the kind fat grocer perched on a wooden stool beside tables laden with ripe fruit. He will call to you as you pass by, "Bananas, two for three dollars. Tomatoes, fresh tomatoes. Mangos, three for five dollars. All fruit grown by wogs. Give the wog a chance, ladies and gentlemen, give him a chance!" You will stop and laugh because others have stopped to laugh too and to buy fruit from the kind fat grocer and his smiling skinny sons.

You will see the tightly knit community of the homeless, the high, and the unhinged congregating around the park benches in front of the cathedral. You will see the heroin dealers with their new sports clothes and their new white shoes and their thick new jewellery, and the edgy characters milling about to score heroin, and the drawn faces hollowed out by heroin, and you will see their girlfriends, not all of whom are prostitutes, scurrying away on errands with plastic shopping bags.

You will see a man resting on his haunches with his head in his hands on the pavement beside the lamp post. Very suddenly he lunges to his feet and, with the precision of a professional boxer, delivers a short sharp blow to the unsuspecting lamp post. Then he goes over beside the green rubbish bin and pulls down his pants and pulls them up again and goes back to the lamp post and squats on his haunches with his head in his hands. He is very sad and agitated because the heroin dealers have not come back yet. Poor fellow, you would give him heroin yourself if you could, just to ease his troubled mind.

You will see a man and a woman, both dressed in matching sports pants with the white stripe down the side, screaming at each other. He strikes her. But it's ok, the police are here, they are never far away, they are always visible in the background in their fluorescent yellow vests. They come over and the woman, who loves her man (where would she be without him?), turns on the police. The police stay until she has calmed down and then they argue some more and a few others wander over and argue too, and then the police have gone because there are other things to attend to, and there are more important things transpiring in the Church Street Mall than a woman screaming at the man she loves and being hit by him.

You will see the man with dreadlocks and a face that looks like Jesus crouching in his dirty blankets on the concrete step, drinking coffee between spasms of maniacal laughter. You will see the big Lebanese man whose brain is addled and who, though he can no longer walk straight or talk in sentences, has never lost his native swagger. And you will see his wife or lover who keeps chasing him away but sometimes touches him fondly when he returns because she cares for him and has always felt safe and good with a man who swaggers like that. Nowhere else in the world will you ever see men with more swagger, or women more ruthlessly loyal to their swaggering men.

You will see lawyers and accountants and local councillors in pin-striped shirts and grey suits, and you will see the accountant in the cheap suit with bits of grass and leaves stuck in his hair, looking as if he could use another drink, and you will see men in borrowed suits on their way to court, one of them a huge brick wall of a man in a black suit with his luxuriant long hair curled neatly and tied neatly back and dyed hot pink, because it's always good to look your best in court.

You will see a woman in old pyjamas, very poor, reclining under the tree and digging deep into her pocket for loose change when another woman, older, even poorer, comes up to her and receives from her a whole handful of gold and silver coins, all that she had, as unthinkingly generous as the woman with the two coins in the Gospel. 

Everything that Dostoevsky knew, this pavement knows too and would tell you if it could speak. Everything Shakespeare wrote about, the gigantic comedy and tragedy of the human race, the ruined kings, the murderous villains, the lovers driven mad with love or jealousy, the fools and tricksters and the lovely fairies too, it is all here, all passing by in front of you if you will only stop and watch for twenty minutes. In a theatre a few blocks from here I once saw a production of Hamlet and it all seemed right, it seemed believable to see such portentous events unfolding here in Parramatta. Swaggering Hamlet and swaggering Claudius and heartless Gertrude and mad Ophelia and dead Ophelia and the toothless whimsical gravedigger, it all had a certain obviousness about it, as if they all were natives of this place, as if the day-to-day affairs of the Church Street Mall had climbed on to the stage.

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