Don’t give love letters Part 2

A GIRL I liked gave me a love letter when I was 13. It was the best feeling in the world. She was a primary schooler, I was a high schooler, it was a perfect match except we didn’t catch the same bus. Her foster sister gave me the letter, and so began a series of letters written on Winnie the Pooh stationary.

I’ll go to high school each day, find time to write the letter, and return it to the sister on the ride home.

I visited their house on Saturday. There might have been some hand holding, and we kissed. She refused to make her friends leave the room because she wanted them to watch.

Best kiss I ever had.

kids kissing

Mustn’t have been as good for her though. She dumped me an hour later and told me there was another guy.

He went to primary school with her. It was a perfect match, apparently.

And I suppose I tell you this because it reinforced the idea the love letter approach worked. I discovered love poetry, and when I say “discovered” I mean I enjoyed writing it without having read any of the experts. And I gave it to another girl I liked for Valentines Day.

I should have plagiarised with something safe like:

how beautiful you are, my darling!

Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes are doves.

 I chose instead to write a love poem in Year 8 comparing the girl to various food objects. The line I do remember, as it repeated over and over, was: 

You are as nice,

as nice as pie.

You always give everything a try.

You are as great, as great as tart.

I want you to be my sweetheart.

What possessed me? Love apparently. But it’s something the shy, creative writers did when they liked a girl. We had been influenced by the rom-com movies at the time like Can’t Hardly Wait which dictated this is what a guy did to attract her attention.

The years passed, with several love interests but perhaps one brief relationship made and died at schoolies. When I joined the Order I knew little of relationships except what I discovered in my young high school days eight years before.

 There was a girl I met in the Order.

After her party I didn’t see her at all. Not for months. Not until the dreaded Christmas season.

At Order 614 Christmas is chaos. We’re warned about it all year. We collected money for the Christmas appeal at street corners and train stations across Melbourne, often with brass bands accompanying us. I heard the same songs on every shift, some I didn’t even know existed. And once we completed the four hour shifts we would return to work and work in the drop-in centre or wherever else we were rostered.

The last month in the Order was like this. It buggered me up. One morning after a early shift of collecting money I fell asleep in the drop-in centre. This was a dangerous thing to do. When the boss told me off I sneaked away into the basement and took a nap.

On top of this I was seeing Sally more. I wanted to let her know I liked her before I moved back to Qld. I suppose other interstate relationships in the Order’s history had worked. When exhausted every day all I would need for an emotional high was to see her, then I’d be smiling again.

SMILING: Christmas party with Rudolph and some friends. I'm the elf on the right.
SMILING: Christmas party with Rudolph and some friends. I’m the elf on the right.

One of the best and last infatuation highs I have had, just like the ones in high school. You just don’t get them so much in your mid 20s.

The combined mixture of all these emotions – from exhaustion to tingles – made me believe this meant something. And after a year of challenging myself to do more and be a better person I wanted to prove to myself I could ask a girl out properly. With advice from some friends I found her mobile and phoned her the day before the Order 614’s last church service of the year.

“Hi Sally, it’s Chris. The one who works at the Order?”

“Oh, hi, Chris.”

“Want to grab a coffee or something tomorrow?” When I write the question down it doesn’t seem so hard to say.

“Sure. When?”

“What? Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

We arranged to meet for coffee after church the next morning. The first thing I should have done when I saw her there was say hello. But I was too shy, I ignored eye contact, I slouched and looked busy with my other friends.

So I shouldn’t have been too surprised when she walked to me at the church lunch, smiled, and said “I’m sorry, I just realised I double-booked.”

“Okay, maybe another time maybe.”

Nope. That wasn’t what she was telling me. So that night I decided to write a love letter. The best love letter I’d written yet. It started with:

You are as nice

As nice as pie.

Only joking.

I shouldn’t have given her the letter. These emotions were a culmination of the Order, and I knew I would be saying goodbye to the building and moving interstate again. I was making her some sort of anchor.

Not another teen movie

The next day she read that stuff I meant about “how beautiful and how smart and how gorgeous” she was. The last time I heard from her she described it as “flattering.”

And I would be tempted to use this post to apologise to her (and maybe to the former love interests I added into one Facebook group they all declined to join) for my behaviour.

But this is not to be a justification to her.

If it was I would not have learned my lesson.

 

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Don’t give love letters when you can talk to the girl instead

THE girl.

I’m not sure how to talk about her. I’m so confused I don’t even know whether to refer to her as The Girl or A Girl. The former suggests infatuation when I have barely thought of her in years. The latter seems impersonal, casual and off-hand.

I have been wondering for some weeks now whether I should write about what happened, or ignore the love letter incident entirely.

There is a small chance she would read this. And if she doesn’t, then there’s 90 per cent chance a family member or friend will. And to spare her and myself further embarrassment, I’ve wanted to ignore this entire subject.

But I’m a journalist. I write about other people, and dig up their pain, their issues, all in the name of truth. I’d be a coward and a hypocrite not to begin this. I’d rather be thought brash and awkward.

And besides, it covers the entire issue of leaving the Order, the frustration, the stress, the emotion.

But giving a girl a love letter? Who ever thought that was a good idea.

Not another teen movie

You ever meet a girl you like and want to get to know her more? Basically, I met this great girl while I volunteered in the Order.  I won’t bother attempting to describe her virtues – I’m sure I did this at length in a last letter of desperation.

It’s hard to be smooth, energetic and charming when you’re volunteering such long hours. And so when I did see “Sally” I suppose I was too shy to built rapport. I don’t think she saw me at my best and most relaxed.

She invited the Order members and I to her birthday party. I was definitely going. It was on a Friday night at a rooftop bar. And so begins the shittiest night of my year.

At that stage I’d barely been in a bar. And so after a 40 minute tram ride S-, B- and I arrived. A burly but gay bouncer asked us for I.D. I didn’t have any. My two friends walked inside and I asked them to give her my card. I went back home and searched for I.D. I couldn’t find my licence, but I did have an old uni student card. I arrived an hour late by the time I gave the card to a lady guarding the door.

“But it doesn’t say your date of birth?” she said.

I groaned. She sympathised. But wouldn’t let me in.

This is where an ordinary guy would have called it quits. But I liked this girl. And not showing up to her birthday party was not a good look. I ran home because the tram wasn’t coming fast enough. J- was at home alone watching movies. He was alarmed when he heard me shove my cupboard drawers to the ground in search for the hidden I.D. I’d almost given up when I found it.

I came back to the bar.

Ripped from Deadhomersociety.com
Ripped from Deadhomersociety.com

Both bouncers were at the door laughing, probably not knowing the other had turned me away. “I thought you’d never show up again,” they said.

“Here,” I panted.

“Good on you,” the gay bouncer said, handing it back. “Enjoy your night.”

I scoured the roof top bar and walked around it three times when I realised I had a problem. Nobody I knew was there. They had left without telling me.

“What’s wrong,” the first bouncer asked me as I was about to leave. “You just got here!”

“They left,” I said.

“Bummer.”

It was cold in Melbourne at night. I stood a few minutes wondering what I was going to do. In those days I was on no phone plan. I had a crummy Nokia and it had no credit left. I did not have Sally’s number and even if I did, it was 10.30pm.

But I had B-‘s number, and he should have still been with the group. And when you’re desperate for romance or something of the kind, you find a way. There’s a hundred 7/11’s in Melbourne CBD, or at least one on every corner. I bought credit and phoned B- hoping he would get back to me. I waited in the gutter.

“Hi, I can’t make it to the phone right now…” his answering machine began.

My voice message response was not pleasant.

And then I sent a text which began with “out of worst 10 nights of my life this would be one of them.” It’s a great way to keep friends. You should try it.

But B- was good. He texted me back shortly and said the party had moved to a nightclub. I’d never been to a club before (I was 20!) and it wasn’t in my comfort zone, but I found the place eventually, paid the $15 cover charge, and walked in.

nightclub
benchmarkbusiness.com.au

Sally was there, welcomed me, and we tried to  talk surrounded by  loud music, as dark dressed girls swayed on miniature stages in the centre of the room . But I was in a grumpy mood and wasn’t having any fun, so she found nicer friends. I waited an hour scowling at the random couple meeting and hooking up at the corner of the bar.

And then S- wanted to go home. I walked with S- to the tram, knowing I’d screwed up.

And I’ll tell you the next part next time, I swear.

 

Getting the “sin” out of the room, and other nightmares

SLEEP has always been my escape from stress. But there was a time when I served in the Salvation Army in Melbourne where I dreaded it. Every night for at least a week I would have vivid dreams.

I say ‘vivid dreams’ because they were not nightmares, exactly, but they weren’t pleasant, sweet, or desirable. I think there was one time I felt like I was choking, and when I woke my arm was around my neck.

fabiusmaximus.com
fabiusmaximus.com

But I wasn’t the only Order member. I know the others had nightmares and vivid dreams too. One of them was even a sleep walker.

There were more than a few in the group who prayed  believing these vivid dreams were an attack from the Devil. Sometimes they would pray in the hallway which pissed me off because I was watching a movie in the lounge. But you can never ask; “if that’s the Holy Spirit, can you tell it to be a little more quiet? I’m watching Law Abiding Citizen.”

I say this not to mock. I say this to highlight our thoughts and beliefs at the time.

G- and A- were roommates. One night G- woke to see A- standing over the bed with eyes closed, muttering, “got to get the sin out of the room.” And G- screamed.

One night I dreamed I was walking in Fitzroy Park. There was a campfire in the middle, with one of my friends warming himself over a fire. “Look out,” he said to me. “Ronald is coming. You should go!” But it was too late. Ronald was standing on the other side of the fire to me. He pulled out two swords from somewhere in dream-space, and chopped my arms off. I heard ambulance sirens and I still had painful stumps for arms before I woke.

I knew then I was scared of Ronald more than anyone else in my life.

campfire

THERE are men I have met who when become angry for whatever reason, react. And they react with spite. These men, and some women, are not limited to the lower classes. They are politicians, they are members of a middle class audience watching stand-up comedy or theatre, and they are the laborers.

They all have something in common. Bad tempers. And charm. They can reason with you but you will find it difficult to persuade them. When threatened their logic skips like a broken CD. You find holes in their argument and they ignore it, only repeating their previous verses again, and again, and when losing over and over, resort to intimidation.

In Melbourne there was one man who scared me more than every other. During our two week induction the Order members were warned about Ronald.

“He has a life long ban from the drop-in centre,” we were told.

There must be a serious reason for being banned for life from a room filled daily with drug addicts, schizophrenic, ex-convicts, homeless, and no doubt the occasional down-on-his-or-her-luck prostitute. An organisation who prides itself on being merciful, forgiving, and the last place a person can go for assistance cannot take a life-long ban lightly.

One morning in the drop-in centre, Ronald stood next to me and grabbed a bowl. I smelt his thick dreadlocks and body odour before I even recognised him.

I let him go but told my supervisor he was inside. She left him alone.

I couldn’t blame her.

He was part of the milk-crate gang, who sat at the beginning of the alleyway from Little Collins Street near the car-park. Ronald held the court, leading forward in bagging clothes drinking cheap piss from a paper bag. We kept our distance but were worried when other attendees spoke and gathered around.

I was in the alleyway once when a bald headed man in his thirties, with a knobbly nose that must have been sun-burnt and broken more times than the fingers on your hands, strode up to Ronald, yelling. Ronald stood from his milk crate and his massive body swelled. The energy surged from his chest and his shoulder as he pummeled his fist into the man’s face. The knobbly nosed man toppled back. His head crunched into the smelly alleyway bitumen. I still remember hearing the crunch from the back of his head.

The bosses and the paid professionals ran to move Ronald on. The drop-in centre manager lured the victim away to sit on the curb. He was not bleeding from what I could see.

And then the man wailed. He was so drunk that it took him more than 10 seconds to feel the pain.

 

Pictutre from guidetoskintliving.wordpress.com
Picture from guidetoskintliving.wordpress.com

 

RONALD lived in one of the parks most of the time beside one of the old power stations. It was one of the first places we stopped at when we ran the coffee van at night. Not every person would want to run into Ronald at 9pm at night, but I never had a problem with him. He was usually placid, relaxed, perhaps even high.

He was dangerous because he was unpredictable. You feared his violence and preferred to keep him happy so you did what you could to respect him. It was a base form of manipulation, one I would liken to the abusive stepfather or the dominating partner. We gave him what he asked for like blankets, poppers, sausage rolls, coffee, and with a smile. But he wasn’t pushy. In fact, he didn’t ask for much compared to his friends, who often whined impatiently if we were not fast enough to bring back a coffee.

“Treat every one of these people like you’re serving Jesus,” was a popular saying among the Melbourne Salvos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A boy runs away, learns circus tricks on Melbourne streets

Roy Maloy lies on a bed of nails. A forklift lowers a 500 kilogram block of ice onto his chest and seven muscular men break the ice with axes.

“Hurry,” Roy shouts on the Youtube video as they tire. And he remains until the ice has completely shattered away.

He tells me yesterday he broke two ribs from the weight of the ice.

I met Roy Maloy at the Mt Isa Show yesterday. He broke a record struggling out of a six metre chain tied by a random from the crowd. He did it in 21.5 seconds. When a boy heckles him, Roy throws the boy’s hat into the crowd. And when he breaks the record, he gets a woman to kiss him on the cheek and he moves at the last second so their mouths touch.

We meet through a comedy friend of ours. I take him out for lunch. He puts his folded bed of nails into the back of my car and leaves it there when we arrive at the Buffs. He wears a red circus ringleader vest, which has no sleeves.

The guy at the door won’t let us in unless Roy puts on one of their shirts they have provided. Roy grabs it, hides behind the nearest door, and swaps over the vest with the shirt.

When we sit down for beers and food, we learn we both worked at 69 Bourke Street in 2009. He was introduced to Order members but we cannot remember each other. At all. It’s possible I might at the end of the year, maybe, but it is a reminder that there was so much information and peoples faces to take in that year but I probably didn’t notice most things. Including people.

Roy ran away from home when he was 16. He lived in the same alleyways and hung out in the same fast food places I knew of when I worked as an Order member. This is how he became a circus performer.

He learnt each of the different tricks from the other streeties.

“Hey man, can I borrow your stilts?” he asked of a street performer one day.

The streetie said “yes, I’m not using them at the moment.”

So that’s how Roy learnt to use stilts, something he became a record holder in. Years later Roy walked on the world’s heaviest and the world’s tallest stilts. And the same applied for sword swallowing and fire breathing.

Eight years later, Roy searched the phone book for agricultural shows in Victoria. From there he phoned each of the different show organisers so he could perform at these places. This is how he began, this is what led to more than 52 shows a year, this is what led to becoming room manager of his own Melbourne based shows. This is how Roy began to break world records.

We finish lunch. I take him back to his hotel. We have a conversation which eventually leads to a miraculous story.

Once Roy performed in an isolated community and noticed a kid being bullied by a group of other boys. Roy stood up for the kid and mentioned the issue with the local priest, who was aware of it. A few years later the boy contacted Roy by email or social media to write him a suicide letter. When Roy persuaded the boy to give more details, he contacted the priest immediately, who was able to get to the boy in time.

Again, years later, Roy returns to the community. And a strapping, handsome man walks to him and booms, “hello Roy, you don’t remember me, do you?”

Sure enough, it was the boy grown up, about to be employed in the army because it turned out he was a mathematical genius.

“There’s no doubt I was going to commit suicide that night,” the mathematical genius said. “I had the cliff and time picked out and everything.”

An example that overcoming tragedies sets a chain reaction among other people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coping with my man boob (comedian, uni student, christian)

I WAS WALKING in a friend’s house with my shirt off. It was early 2007 , less than a year after graduating high school. My friend pointed at my chest and said, “hey, you have a man boob.”

I stared at my swollen left pec. It was true. I screamed at the monstrosity that was part of my chest while he laughed.

Fair enough. I’d screamed like a  girl with a sore throat.

And once I’d seen the boob I couldn’t ignore it. It ached. It hurt.  I couldn’t mark a football without me clenching my teeth.

I began to hate boobs. Overrated, I say.

The condition is Gynecomastia. I went to the doctor to see what we could do about Bob. One boob. Get it? Doctors would hear about my symptoms and say, rather bored, “It’s quite common among men. Lift up your shirt.”  I would take a seat and remove my shirt. Then they’d see the boob and poke at it, disbelieved. “It is massive, isn’t it?”

It was normal size for a fat man. But it was attached to a young man who barely weighed 67 kilograms.

cropped boob

And the doctors hinted their accusations. “Sometimes cannabis causes this.”

I didn’t take pot. Why did everyone believe I was on the wacky-weed?

“Maybe alcohol.”

I didn’t drink back then.

“Do you have private health?”

Nope.

“Ooh boy. Well, we’ll put you on the waiting list.”

I’d been on the list about a year when I moved to Melbourne. When you’re a zealous Christian teenager and you aren’t cured through your doctor, then  you focus on prayer. I always walked to the front of the church every Sunday to have someone’s hand laid on my chest in the hopes that the fat would disappear somewhere. Their hands would burn – even tingle, I’m not bullshitting.

But burns did nothing. I used to mutter to myself at night KNOWING Bob would disappear the next morning because believing with no doubt in what God would do only made it so. Or so was my logic.

I was embarrassed to take my shirt off through my late teen years. I went swimming with my shirt on at parties and walk out with my hands wrapped around my chest.

I dreaded the pool parties. I went to the 18th of a girl I liked. It was Hawaiian theme which meant I couldn’t wear a jacket. After careful thought I wore my white shirt, kept a folded towel down the left side of my body, and pretended I had something better to do than swim.

Yes, a shirt wasn’t enough. In all seasons of humid Queensland weather I would wear baggy jackets or jumpers to uni to cover my man boob. I was scared thin material of a shirt couldn’t disguise it. I slouched. And when anyone touched me near the chest I flinched.

Dating in uni when you had a man boob? Sure, being 19 or 20 living two hours from your uni when you had no money was obstacle enough.

One time in Melbourne a strange woman was in the Order 614 kitchen (sort of like a soup kitchen for those who haven’t followed this blog). I walked into the kitchen as she was being asked to leave.

Before she passed me she stopped and stroked her hand down my chest.

She’d felt me up. And in doing so felt my boobie. She gaped at me. Served her right.  She strode out without another word while the others laughed. They did not understand the real situation.

In June 2009 the Order members went on a retreat for a few days. We were supposed to go on a bonding camp in February but the black Saturday bushfires burnt out our camping ground. So it was delayed to June.

The retreat followed one of the tougher times of the year. The Red Shield Appeal and the long hours that came with it was finished with. The retreat was one of the happiest times during the year for all of us.

retreat6

 

Except for MF. She missed out because she hit her head on the wooden cross kept in the church and needed stitches at the hospital.

That first night most of us went in the heated spa. It was a winter night in Geelong. The pool was freezing. But one of the idiots jumped in anyway. I can’t remember who.

Notice the shirt hasn't come off?
Notice the shirt hasn’t come off?

I stayed in the water a few minutes before crawling up the side and into the spa with the others.

When a gathering of young adults of mixed gender share a spa there is the urge for games such as truth or dare. Heated water seems to make us relax. It was a time we learnt more about each others sexual histories.

That’s when I took my shirt off and showed them my boob. It seems silly I could be embarrassed about it. Their reaction was not what I expected.

“Can I touch it?” one of the girls said. And when I let her, she laughed and said “wow, it’s so perky. I wish mine were like that.”

I was grateful for her risque compliment.

retreat7

It’s just one lump of flesh and somehow knowing my friends knew made the difference. They didn’t care. They never thought less of me. Coincidentally, this was the time I opened up more to them. Before that I kept closed about anything from the heart.

God didn’t heal my boob. It feels like blasphemy writing this. It sounds accusing. It’s not. It’s a fact with no religious ideologies seeking an explanation.

I suppose letting my friends know, the “it’s so perky”, played a big part in trivialising Bob the boob. I joined the world of stand-up comedy a year after I finished the Order. My fashion was still baggy jackets but at least I was in the spotlight. I stopped letting the boob interfere with my persona.

I suppose performing stand-up comedy was my way to become somebody else, my way of fighting a lack of confidence. I could influence a room of people with words and not by the shape of my body. After 100 gigs I forgot about my boob. My audience cared if I was funny.

Performing at the Loft, Gold Coast, in 2011.
Performing at the Loft, Gold Coast, in 2011.

In 2013 (five years after I first noticed) I received surgery in Bunbury Hospital, WA. The surgeon left a curved scar line under my nipple.

Bob was dead. It is strange how much this has changed me, but not necessarily in a good way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A model in disguise

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.

This photograph isn't of the man. Copied from the Daily Mail, UK.
This photograph isn’t of the man. Copied from the Daily Mail, UK.

 

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.

homeless chess

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.

This isn't the man, but if you Google "goth male model" this is the closest image to how he looks.
This isn’t the man, but if you Google “goth male model” this is the closest image to how he looks.

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.

 

Making the closest group of friends I’ve ever had

I REMEMBER getting off the plane and landing at Tullamarine airport for the first time.  When I turned my phone on I already missed three phone calls from my new supervisor.

I took the escalator and on the way down I noticed a girl holding a piece of cardboard with my name on it. My first thought was “hello, she’s pretty.” The second thought was that she must have been one of my supervisors. But S- was actually one of the Order members. I don’t know why I thought she was older. I think it was because she was extroverted. She carried herself like one of those members of Greenpeace asking you to sign some forms in the street.

S- was talking to an elderly couple, asking them if they saw someone that matched my description. They hadn’t. I was off the escalator now and I introduced myself . Then we went to collect my bag, and waited outside for the supervisor, who parked in front of us in the Salvation Army van which was nicknamed Bertha.

We stayed at the Salvation Army training college, in Parkville. The building was opposite the park. The trees were lined across the road, the leaves turned orange and about to fall. I had never noticed autumn before. This place had a dying and ratty beauty in a ways Queensland could never be.

We lived on the eighth floor. I remember being amazed at how large an area we had. I’d expected some shoddy concrete lined refuge. The kitchen was well stocked with jams and breads and fruits. The rooms were spread out with en-suites. And the view! OMG, the view overlooked Melbourne CBD  would have set a room’s value at 50,000 alone just to see the skyscrapers.

Everyone else shared a room, but I was disappointed to learn that I was going to be on my own. It was for the best I think, because I am an introvert. I needed the isolation, it turned out, and without it I might have killed someone (not a far stretch of the imagination if you see the blog post’s last photograph).

The 11 Order members met each other that night at dinner. Back then age counted. I was only 19 at the time, and I felt like everyone else was older. However, we ranged from 18 to about 25 years. Halfway through the year, I learnt age had nothing to with maturity or necessarily guarantee a bond between someone your own age over someone a few years older. Unfortunately, when I left the Order, I discovered that many people still hadn’t learnt that lesson.

That first night we took a group photo in the hallway.

I'm the one in the centre far-back, my head hidden in the hood.

Throughout the year I would look at this picture and think, “wow, we looked so young. We didn’t know what we were in for.”

I ended up loving this group more than any other group of friends. We worked, lived, hung out together, with half of us sharing bedrooms. With the stress and long hours, we saw our worst sides. But after a while, the worst sides didn’t matter so much. We knew our friend’s weakness, and in a stressful situation, we worked around it.

carrying ourselves Order
If one of us fell, two others would carry that person even if we were grudging (which suited me just fine in this particular case).

We were a team.

I have never found a team like this before. I think for years after there was an emptiness, an attempt to chase after a social group that had as much meaning, but none came close.

Sometimes life was a party and we all got along fine.

 

Sunglasses party!
Sunglasses party!

Even when we worked hard sometimes we had time for a smile and a ridiculous photo.

IMG_0351

 

 

But then there were times where we just wanted to bury our Order friends alive in a beach somewhere.

G- and I at St Kilda Beach. It's my birthday!
G- and I at St Kilda Beach. It’s my birthday!

And  times we just wanted to kill each other.

Fun and games!

 

Fighting by writing hopefully igniting

THE pen is mightier than the sword? Yeah, maybe. If the pen is able to write whatever it chooses.

 

Major Sandra Nottle (the supervisor I reported to in the Order) would likely believe the pen is mightier than the sword, but prayer and the spiritual armour of God is more powerful than the pen.

Yeah, maybe. If the prayer is able to command whatever it chooses.

Sandra often described our struggles every day in the Salvation Army as a battle between light and darkness. We’d have to attend prayer sessions in the morning before we started work, and in these sessions when I tried disguising extracurricular nap-time with prayer, she often used passages of the bible I cannot recall to highlight her point.

You have to admit, it's pretty cool though
You have to admit, it’s pretty cool though

I have enormous respect for Sandra and do not want to analyse this belief too much, but there are times I have been cynical of this view.

Not this week.

I had plans to write this blog about the year and certain key moments after. I want to write about the lady on the train who called me beautiful. I want to write about the aftermath of the Black Saturday fires. I want to write about Red Shield Appeal and about the two gay Christmas elves, and when I reported on the boy who died.

But I need to share the present feelings before they become the past.

Last week a foster couple came to meet me at my office. They told me of two children suffering severe medical problems who were returned to their indigenous community by the QLD Department of Communities. The medical problems were worsening, the couple said.

There are huge issues connected to this. The children weren’t being looked after. The Department were closed and wouldn’t give any details and cited the Child Protection Act of 1999 in the name of protecting the children but no doubt trying to cover their asses. And then you have to understand their reluctant to remove Indigenous children from their community because of the controversial policies with the Australian Government involving the stolen generation.

And so the protection of children are still being overruled by politics. When they told me their story I asked questions, I wanted to know their agenda, and they were open. They had paperwork to back their claims and after a weekend of worry I decided to write the story.

I thought that when the story was published it would be huge. I thought it would reach the city papers. I thought it might make the Sydney Morning Herald. Naive as I was, I thought it would be international.

I thought the editor wouldn’t believe in the story but to my surprise he did.

And then the Department warned us not to publish the story. We compromised. We published the story but took out all names and any information about the medical conditions.

The article is published here.

Then it was time to write an opinion piece. The editor told me to make the opinion piece powerful, but not to use inflammatory language. I knew what I had to do. I was scared. But I wrote it anyway. And then I handed it to my editor.

He read it quietly. “I can change it if it’s not appropriate,” I said.

“It’s really good. It’s the only way we could have gone about it,” he replied.

The next morning I was shaking, paranoid that everyone in town was watching me, judging me, thinking less of me.

And I was frustrated too. See, the Federal Budget was announced. And Ben Affleck’s first photograph as Batman was published.

You have to admit, it's pretty cool though.
You have to admit, it’s pretty cool though.

Of course, I’ve used this picture as my featured image. I thought it would trick more people into reading this, but I don’t believe the meaning behind Batman contradicts this blog.

Nobody gave a damn about policies regarding the treatment of children. We instead cared about how the Australian Government would reward or damn us.

I felt that somehow that if we won, my own personal cost was too great. Somehow I’d combined my past with my journalist persona, and I have this fear that somehow I’ve demolished a wall, and now I risk the past affecting my present and future.

MY OPINION PIECE:

Brave Move By Foster Parents

IT WAS not easy writing about the Mount Isa based couple who expressed concern for the welfare of two children they once provided care for, and the difficulty they are having with the Department of Communities. I rarely tell people that I spent three years in a foster home. People look at you differently when they learn this and there is a stigma attached. But I want to share this fact even if I am thought less of, because there is nothing wrong with it. I would like foster parents to know that their love and compassion can make a difference, as it did to me. And I would like the children to know they will not be children forever. They become adults too who can lead fulfilling and amazing lives, with the ability to empathise and relate to people who might be suffering for a wide range of reasons. The couple were willing to be named in this article and we wanted them to be as well. However, we cannot do so without identifying the children. We were reminded this several times by the department. It is frustrating we cannot do so because how can the media hold the government accountable if it is blockaded from the facts, even if it is in the name of protecting children? I fear for the couple and the trouble they might be in. They have done a brave thing and I hope other foster couples can relate to their situation. We talk of child abuse in the government system as if it is in the past. Even without the foster couple’s opinion, I know first hand it is not. – Chris Burns

My coffee with Bob Katter, and how I became a journo and failed as a lobbyist

IT’S A Friday night and I’m tipsy. I’ve returned home from a Catholic school fete but all I did was spend time in the cordoned off section of the school yard reserved for the boozers.

I’m feeling kind of lovely at the moment. Nothing exciting has happened but the vagueness brought on from beer has extrapolated to bliss because I’m not feeling pain. I’m feeling vague. Vague is great. I’m floating and not touching the cursed earth.

Floating is wonderful
Floating is wonderful

It’s been a shitty week. Actually, it’s been a shit day.

I’m working on the toughest news article I’ve ever written. And for now I cannot say any more about it. One day soon, perhaps. It does relate to a social justice issue and so touches on the theme of this blog. Let’s just say a certain government department has hinted threats to take my paper to court if we happen to print a certain story.

Government can be a bastard when the particular one feels threatened by the chains of institution it claims to represent. I came home angry this afternoon and wrote on Facebook; “What good is it being a journalist when you’re being intimidated not to write the stories that count?” then I added “ARGH!”

But let’s not read about my frustration. Let’s instead read about having my first coffee with Bob Katter on Wednesday.

I’m to meet Bob Katter at the Coffee Club at 11.15am. It’s just a meet and greet. He’s in Mount Isa and I’m a new journalist in his area. Our conversation has nothing to do with the toughest story I’ve ever written.

Now, some of you are Americans or Kiwis, so perhaps you’ve never heard of Bob Katter, leader of the Katter’s Australian Party. Every democratic nation surely has an extreme right wing minority party where the leader has celebrity status, enough so that you can identify the fellow through any media cartoon even it looks nothing like the guy.

katter

I first heard of Katter in 2010 (after the Order) when Liberal and Labor parties had a tie of the number of seats in the Federal Parliament House, meaning of course the seats owned by minority parties (such as Katter) gained influence from the main parties desperately needing their votes. But he was one of the first pollies I knew the name of.

I tell him this when we meet. He’s ten minutes late and walks to my table, not wearing his trademark Stetson or Akubra (or whatever hell the brand of hat it is). He’s talking on his phone, doesn’t look at me. But he puts his equipment down at the table so I know he recognises me. After fifteen minutes or so he finishes the phone call (by then his media aide has phoned). So begins our interview, interrupted several times because he has to make phone calls with a reporter from South Australia.

Then, the waitress who fails to serve me the right coffee smiles at Bob and asks him to sign a napkin for her miner husband. He talks to her a while before returning his concentration to me.

“If you were made boss of Australia today, what would you do?” Bob eventually asked.

These are long after the days of the Order. My friend M- from the Order might have lobbied social justice issues and inequality and homelessness, but I was struck dumb.

“Holy beep beep!” I thought. But out loud I said something like “you’ve put me on the spot there, Bob. Maybe consult with people in various communities and learn firsthand what needs to be fixed.”

And after a pause in which to have a mouthful of eggs benedict, Bob said “no, that’s a process. What do you believe?” he taps on the table.

“I want to know what Chris Burns believes in.”

But I didn’t know truly what I believed in. There was my chance to say something that could make a party leader at least consider his own policies. But instead I said nothing of real meaning. Sure, he didn’t let the topic go, but he seemed disappointed in my “education” related answer.

The fireworks of the school fete are going off. The dog is barking. Dumb dog.

I like dogs though cause dogs are smart.

I need another beer cause the lubrication from the last one is running out. I know it’s running out because its more strain to write each additional word and the piss is in my bladder is waiting for a wee!

And I’m starting to feel sad again from the uselessness of the story, the one I mentioned earlier.  Of how useless I feel and how I’m failing to make a difference.

You know, I only became a journalist because of something an elderly lady told me during a Thai themed lunch in the carpark beside St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, 2009.

The carpark is on the right
The carpark is on the right

I was there as an Order member and she asked me what I wanted to be. At the time I was one year in an art’s degree and wasn’t considering returning to university. I said I didn’t know, that I used to want to be a journalist but that I was afraid of working in an industry with so many selfish and absorbed people who cared only for a story.

And she said rather sternly, something roughly like, “don’t let the bad people in a career stop you from joining it, because maybe as a good person you can make a difference.”

Hmm…maybe.

 

Sleeping on the street

 

For one night I slept on the street. Sort of. The boss took us on a night tour of Melbourne. The tour is only a few weeks into the Salvation Army’s Order 614 program.

I’m completely buggered that night. I have the flu, and some of the others are stuck at home with it. I can hardly keep up to the others during the tour as we pass the cathedrals and the old Salvation Army buildings.

I wheeze while we visit the main train stations and duck into Crown Casino.

crown casino2

 

It’s an incredible place. There are glass chandeliers and bright lighting and security guards urging you to move along if you stay in one place for too long. I buy a slice of pizza. It’s delicious. When we walked out along the Yarra River the lights of the Crown still shine. Everything else seems shabby and dull.

We return to 69 Burke Street – where the Order 614 base is. The Order members normally sleep at the Salvation Army College in Parkville but tonight is special. We’re being educated. Grandma Maple hands us sleeping bags. She works at the Order 614. Like me she could get cranky and you ran for the hills when she was.

But I love her. I don’t know what she is doing these days and she was never much into technology. I doubt she’d read this and know I care about her.

She gives us sleeping bags and we sleep next to each other in the building car-park. It’s enclosed and safe from outdoor influences but it’s still cold. I’m sick and sniffling and E- suggests I sleep indoors. But I don’t want to be excluded.

We’re all lying together in the dark. A few people deliberately fart. We giggle.

We wake about 5.30am with Grandma Maple sweeping us with a broom and shouting “scoot, kids!” or something like it (I don’t know if she actually did but she joked so many times that this is what she would do to wake us that it became memory). We were sorted into pairs and then ordered to wander the city for a few hours.

Sure, it sounds fun. But first we had to surrender our wallets and phones.

We had to learn what it might be like for a person with no money to live in the city, with no roof or shelter.

I was paired with J-, a guy who ended up becoming one of my best friends. I was still sick and barely alive, it seemed. J- took pity on me and we went in search of a place we could sleep where it was warm. The solution was the Central Train Station shopping centre. We wandered to the different seats near the shot tower and tried to sleep as comfortably as we could while sitting down.

Melbourne central

We moved once because I was afraid we’d get into trouble for loitering.

Seeing people around buying stuff was the worst of it. They were buying coffee, donuts, and other food. We were there only three hours. It was long enough to discover boredom would be one of the worst things for homeless people. No wonder people turn to chroming or drugs.

Often charities or corporate donations focus on providing food and to a lesser degree, accommodation. But we all need to be entertained, and this is the main luxury that money buys.

We don’t buy a coffee in the morning because we’re thirsty.

Meanwhile, the other pairs are just as miserable. G- and M- thought “screw this” and they took a train to Cranbourne and back to pass the time. When we shared our stories after, Grandma Maple told them they were cheats and slackers. But it was smart. And after all, many of the streeties stayed as long as they could on public transport until busted by inspectors.

470melbourneticket

Brendan and Peach somehow were mistaken for beggars (like a comic scene in the movies). The coins they were given were worth McDonalds coffees. They tried to sleep near a pond in Vic gardens and nearly froze. As you would if you’re going to sit near a water source on an Autumn morning in Melbourne.

Melbourne has its extremities. The extravagant waste their money in the casino and meanwhile the haggard are driven mad by cold and boredom. And this was why we were made to do this exercise. We learnt by experience that a concerned voice and a kind conversation in the early hours of the morning could make a difference in a lonely person’s life.