A EUROPEAN man cycled his pushbike into 69 Burke Street.
Packages and bags burdened the sides and back of the bike. These were his possessions. I first saw him in 2009. The summer’s heat was over, and the yellow leaves of Melbourne’s trees were falling.
I think the man’s name was ‘Paris.’
Paris was the best piano player I’ve heard live or on television.
69 Burke Street is about three stories. The Salvation Army was proud of it and the history witnessed there. They kept a museum in the back of the building that the Order 614 team had little to do with. There was also a counselling office on the second floor.
The piano was kept on the first landing of the stairway. It wasn’t a special piano once used by William Booth the S.A founder or anything (at least as far as I know). It was a decoration that couldn’t fit anywhere else, and some leader thought it might as well be there.
Paris worshipped the piano. He somehow would push the bike up to the landing and lean it on the wall near the piano. He would play savagely, crashing his hands on the piano keys for hours.
There was a classical energy to his style that demanded not to be ignored. When I had time I would close my eyes and hear the songs I’ve never heard played, cannot name the tunes if you asked me to, but when he stopped he became the unassuming man who peddled his bike out silently.
We liked to think we gave homelessness and the marginalised a voice. But music was his voice.
Somebody didn’t like the sound though. And when they asked Paris to be quiet, he never came back again. Later in the year, when the building was renovated, the piano was removed.
Working in the drop-in centre was probably the hardest job of the year. I won’t lie. I didn’t like it much. There was little ventilation in the room and many of us remained in the same clothes, or smoked or chromed heavily.
You could take your mind off the work with the ping-pong table and chess set.
The trick was to get the ping-pong table in the centre of the room. It was popular. Some players were quite good. The best player had a typical Thai build, and despite having little reach with his arms still beat you with his cunning techniques. He taught me one type of spin but wouldn’t show me all his tricks.
Once he said; “Mum used to tell me you have to learn to lose before you learn to win.”
He might have been king of the ping-pong table, but Jules was the chess master. Jules would sit in the corner of the room every day and play. When I started the Order I thought myself a good player, and I patronised the guys at first, but when I lost badly in the first game I knew I didn’t need to anymore. They were smart, logical, tactical. Practice also makes perfect and iron minds sharpen iron minds.
I liked Jules, but he was a dick sometimes. When he was winning he toyed with me while taunting insults about my intellect. But when somehow you bested him, with one move or one game, he would become angry. He didn’t have the violent, dangerous sort of anger often shown in the centre.
His was a childlike pouting.
After a year I improved but I maybe won every third game against Jules.
The man was about 25, wore dark, cheap leather, and a spike dog collar around his neck. He was the cartoon goth, a skeleton who was always the tallest in the room at the Tuesday charity lunches. His hair was dark and he always had an enviable three day shadow. Graffiti was scrawled across his jacket in white out, with satanic references like 666.
Yes. The man intimidated me.
There was only one time I spoke to him and it was near the end of the year. We installed computers in the drop-in centre, which were intended for our international student study night program just established. One time I was using the computer in the drop-in centre. He sat next to me and after a few minutes he asked me to take a look at the photo of the male model on the screen.
The man in the photo was snapped in mid stride, his hair neat but waved back. He wore handsome office clothes which transformed the model’s bony body into a tight, well kept figure.
“That’s me,” the man said.
And it was. I had to compare the faces a few minutes while he smiled proudly.
But the man was the model. I don’t know if the photo was taken just the previous weekend, or long before in happier days in the days before he wore 666 on his clothing.