Vladimir Nabokov’s US immigration card.
My big sister died in February. She succumbed to cancer at the age of 54. She was the smart one of us siblings with a prodigious intellect and a gift for music. If I was the prodigal son, she was the golden child. Kate was a mentor to me, and as adults we were friends as much as kin.
Having never lost someone so close, I wasn’t sure what grieving meant – how to do it, what it would feel like. And now, some months since, I still don’t really know.
She was very unwell for twelve months and, despite chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I knew she was never going to get better. She had a lot of pain, so the end was relief as much as sadness. And I guess my grieving was not coupled with the shock of a loved one passing suddenly, unexpectedly.
But still I felt kind of wrong-footed when she died, like I wasn’t sure how to feel. The loss was, and is, palpable but I couldn’t begin to describe it.
Katherine Elizabeth McKinnon, 22 August 1958 – 14 February 2013
Wednesday 5.30am 31 March 2010 – Embassy Taxi Cafe
I ordered an egg and bacon hamburger with lettuce and tomato, and a cafe latte. Neon tube lights buzzed and flickered yellow from the high ceiling. The floor was a worn checkerboard linoleum and the counter and serveries – even the cash register – looked obliviously retro-cool in peeling ’60s laminex and chrome like a remote American roadside diner. A pedestal fan turned slowly through decades of dust and kitchen smells from a shelf above a rusty chest freezer. Open twenty-four-seven, three hundred and sixty five days each year, the Embassy Taxi Cafe had only ever closed for ‘renovations’ since it began trading in 1962.
I had driven neighbours to the airport to catch a predawn flight and returned through the empty ghostly streets of Melbourne’s CBD. Only garbage trucks and taxis trawling for fares ambled along the broad streets. Desultory clusters of late-night clubbers inhabited the footpaths – barefoot young women in party frocks, fingers hooked through the straps of their high heels and handbags, and men in disco shirts too young to know the ignominy and diffidence that comes with age and obligation.
Seemingly a lifetime ago I’d been a taxi driver myself, subsisting hand-to-mouth on a cash income as I made my way through a university arts degree as a philosophy major (an astute vocational stratagem). I’d plied these city streets in the same predawn hours, and ferried drunken clubbers and business people home to the suburbs. It’s an edgy existence being a nightshift taxi driver, servicing the whim of circumstance and the capricious people of the street. I’d seen backseat drug deals through rear-vision mirrors and been embroiled in getaways (both criminal and domestic), homecomings, trysts and celebrations. I’d been ripped off, punched up and propositioned to participate in a porno movie shoot in a grand beachside house in Beaumaris. I could clock up 800km on a long nightshift – the distance between Melbourne and Sydney. These long shifts were my first experience of the all-night Embassy Taxi Cafe on Spencer St, West Melbourne.
Returning for the first time since the 1980s the burger joint looked just as I remembered it, like it wasn’t meant to change – its raison d’être, it seemed, was to be immutable and persistent. More important than being good was being there twenty-four hours a day, being the same – a lowly kind of consistency.
Run by three generations of Greek Australians, the staff were comprised of two corpulent matronly women with furrowed complexions and washed-out floral aprons who ran the front-of-house. Through a doorway I could see a man in greasy whites working the grills and fryers – he’d have looked at home stoking boilers in a 1920s trans-Atlantic steamship. They were all old and arguing in a weird Greek-English creole, hissing and clucking at each other’s apparent incompetencies. Some of the customers too – regulars I presumed – were subjected to this withering opprobrium.
Fortunately, I was served by a slim raven-haired young woman – French I supposed by the mellifluous inflections of her voice. A traveller, surely, who’d hooked up a short-term job in an all-night burger canteen. She looked anxious at finding herself in this bizarre scene from a David Lynch movie, not knowing the script or the lead characters. She took my order and I sat by the large glass windows in a black vinyl chair at a grey laminex table.
Taxi drivers in blue uniform shirts and men in Day-Glo vests hung around in the dark outside smoking cigarettes, talking and refuelling cars and trucks at the attached service station. A group of limousine drivers sat at an outside table in sharp pressed suits and ties with wireless earpieces for their mobile phones, all smoking and drinking coffee.
A big guy in head-to-toe khakis and work boots came in – CAT embroidered on his baseball cap. He’d pulled up in a heavy-haulage tow truck still idling under the street lights venting acrid black diesel smoke into the night sky. He ordered a steak sandwich and chips with a grunt and shuffle, and went off to the toilet.
My food came. The burger was excellent, the coffee awful. Suddenly a man at the next table started talking loudly to no-one at all, like a madman at a bus stop. I realised he was speaking into the earpiece for his mobile phone. He stepped outside.
Overnight news played soundlessly on a huge TV monitor fixed high on a grimy wall – footage of surfers being towed into monster Tahitian waves by jet skis before they cut to a national weather round-up and then an advert for a women’s magazine with smiling Barack and Michelle Obama embraced on the front cover.
I finished my burger and left, back into the cool night air, back to my car to make my own way home through the empty streets of Melbourne.
The interior walls were all pink. Not a subtle pastel pink but a heady magenta-candy pink that comes onto you like the woozy overripe smell of frangipanis. It was staffed exclusively by young gorgeous women – exemplary dental practitioners each of them – with gleaming friendly smiles and perfect teeth. I imagined I was in a James Bond movie and this pink dental surgery was a front for a crack team of deadly buxom assassins who would rip off their white lab coats to reveal Lara Croft-style outfits with holstered guns, nunchucks and coiled abseiling rope.
The whole experience might have been quite stimulating were it not for the fact that I soon found myself arrayed supine and dribbling in the dentist’s chair with fingers, callipers and power tools in my anesthetised mouth … even if Lydia the curvy Russian-accented dentist did press her breasts against my shoulders while staring at my teeth through her surgical mask and safety glasses.
There’s a certain vulnerability you feel in the dentist’s chair, surrendered and submissive to whatever it is that they’ve decided will be good for you. The burning overhead light pins you into position and nobody seems to notice your arms and legs twitching like a freshly disembowelled toreador.
‘Do you have plans for the weekend?’ she asked. I don’t know how I was supposed to answer. All I could say was ‘Aggh’ which was neither affirmative nor negative, but nevertheless the conversation proceeded apace.
‘I’m going water skiing with friends for the weekend up at Eildon.’ Exuberant Bree, the tall blond dental nurse, passed Lydia something called the Minnesota clamp while sucking at my gums with a pneumatic vacuum probe.
‘Is Andy going?’ Lydia asked. The drill whirred over some of the following interchange, but I surmised that Andy was indeed going but, due to a recent football injury, would not be skiing. They talked on.
It occurred to me that this chit chat was probably designed to make patients feel at ease while they’re having teeth drilled and filled and scaled and crowned. And pulled … I wasn’t feeling especially relaxed when shards of my offending tooth started to break off with a pinging sound. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Lydia. ‘I can’t take it out whole so I have to use the saw to cut it up and remove it bit by bit.’ Ping. ‘You have very long roots,’ she said, as if it were a compliment. She levered hard with pliers, the heel of her free hand against my lower jaw, pulling and pulling.
Bree asked Lydia about her new puppy. His name was Keanu and he was gorrrrrgeous.
Since mine was a late-afternoon appointment I got to thinking that Lydia and Bree had quite likely already had this conversation – babble designed to palliate anxious dental patients from earlier in the day. I reckoned that Lydia already knew that Bree’s boyfriend Andy was going to Eildon but wouldn’t ski because of a football injury. Moreover, I strongly suspected that Bree was well apprised of the fact that Lydia’s puppy was called Keanu and that he was gorgeous. While I had no proof, I did believe that I was the victim of a conspiracy.
Sawing, drilling, pulling and more work with the weird Minnesota clamp. I started to feel faint.
The James Bond vision kicked in again: two glamorous women in camouflaged lycra and weaponry under their lab coats had me stretched out under an interrogation light and had injected me with who knows what – that ‘anaesthetic’ could’ve been truth serum or tranquilisers. Even poison.
Ping. When another shard came away I knew, whatever else these two lethal killer vixens were up to, they were, at the very least, extracting my tooth. After a few minutes Lydia announced that the last fragments of the menacing molar had been removed. The back of the chair rose by itself like the undead and Bree said ‘Rinse and spit’.
‘You did very well,’ they said in unison. My numb jaw hung loose and dribbling like a stroke survivor’s. ‘Thank you,’ I tried to say, but I guess I sounded like the undead or a stroke survivor. They’re probably used to it. Between assignments killing master criminals and stealing microfilm they do some regular dental work. They probably see a lot mugs like me.
From: Mr.Abdul Latif
MANAGER National Bank of Abu Dhab
Hilton Cash-Office Branch Abu Dhabi,
This letter must come to you as a surprise, but I believe it is only a day that people meet and become great friends and business partners. I am pleased to get across to you for a very urgent and profitable business proposal; I got your e-mail address through an internet yellow page web directory and decided to contact you and ask for your assistance in this urgent matter, requiring trust and confidentiality,
I am Mr.Abdul Latif, the Branch manager, National Bank of Abu Dhab Hilton Cash-Office Branch Abu Dhabi U.A.E (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES), married with four children. I am writing this letter to ask for your support and co-operation to carry out this business opportunity in my department,
On June 6, 1999, an America Oil consultant/contractor with Petroleum Corporation, Mr. Robert Ebner, made a numbered time (fixed) deposit for twelve calendar months, Valued at US$16,500,000.00(sixteen Million Five Hundred Thousand Dollars )in my branch upon maturity. I sent a routine notification to his forwarding address but got no reply. After a month, we sent a reminder and finally we discovered from his contract employers, the Petroleum Corporation that Mr. Robert Ebner, died in the plane crash On October 31, 1999, (an Egyptian Boeing 767 Flight 990) with other passengers on board as you can confirm it yourself via the website below
Most astonishing of my discovery was that, all records bear no next of kin, meaning no member of Mr. Robert Ebner family knows about the deposit therefore ,no member of his family will ever come forward to claim the money, In order for the bank not to transfer the said sum of sixteen Million, Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($16,500,000.00) as unclaimed funds to the emirates treasury account, the above stated funds most be claimed immediately by somebody standing in as late Mr. Robert Ebner, Next of Kin, because According to (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES LAW), at the expiration of (thirteen) years; the money will revert to the ownership of the (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES) Government if nobody applies to claim the fund,
This revelation is only known to me because I was his personal account officer before I was posted to become the branch manager , now I seek your collaboration to act as next of kin to late Mr.Robert Ebner to claim the funds and move them into useful investments, we shall split the cash between our self upon the confirmation of the money into your account, I am ready to offer you 35% of the total fund and 60% for me while 5% will be set aside for any expenses might occur during the transaction,
Please note that by the virtue of my position in the bank , I have worked out the perfect modality as well as I shall provide the relevant information’s and documents for the successful claim and transfer of the funds in the account that will be provided by you, I can not stand in the forefront of this transaction because I work with the bank ,that is why I have come to you, for assistance be rest assured that this project involve no risk to you, upon the receipt of your acceptance mail ,I will like you to provide me with the following details, bellow to my private email :
1) Your direct mobile/fax number.
(2) Your name and country resident address.
(3) Your private E-mail box.
Then I shall furnish you with due process of concluding this transaction
Without any delay.
I did once, many years ago, pull the wobbly front tooth of my oldest son using a door knob and a piece of string. Just like my father before me, it seemed a rite of passage that father and son should unite in this primitive ritual of biomechanics and excessive leverage. My now-adult son, Lewis, was too young to remember and possibly too young to realise how sudden and thorough this excision would be.
Looking back, it seems a little excessive and heinous – a three-year-old boy quivering in flannel pyjamas, white cooking twine running out of his mouth like a bomb fuse. Boom! The door slammed and a deciduous molar flew across the room like a tethered bird. He stood there, stunned and blinking, poking the hole with the tip of his tongue. Three kids since and I’ve never repeated the exercise, but, notwithstanding, no-one has ever anointed me with an award for Father of the Year.
There was a tooth fairy in those days whose tribute was more than adjusted for the Consumer Price Index. I reckon I might’ve got five cents for a tooth in my youth. More recently the going rate was five or ten dollars – I never understood how the kids knew.
For a few years I have myself had a very troublesome tooth – a mandibular first premolar, if I had to guess. It’s had a crack and caused an abscess in the gum beneath. It was sore, but only sometimes, so I nursed it, cajoled it, cooed and cared for it. I consulted an eminent endodontist whose advice, after X-rays and CT scans, was that I should have a root canal performed and a crown fitted. This, he explained, would require about forty-five visits and cost somewhere in the five- to seven-thousand dollar range. Moreover, a crown might only last five years whereupon the diligent dental patient must have a new one made and fitted and paid for at a not dissimilar price.
Armed with this information I did what any reasonable man would do – I went home and ignored the annoying cuspid and hoped it would go away.
It didn’t. Well it did periodically, but then it would cause me considerable discomfort some of the rest of the time.
I thought about going to Bangkok for some cut-priced dental work where the medical-tourism industry is flourishing. Neighbours of ours had done exactly that, and their testimonials and referrals were really quite seductive. I thought about going back to Port Moresby where my friend Digby Ho Leong would sort me out with some betel nut and electrical pliers – there’s a great tradition of DIY medicine in Papua New Guinea.
My parents said that in their day dicky teeth would simply be pulled in the dentist’s chair. In fact, many women of my mother’s generation had had, at their parents’ behest, all their teeth removed pre-emptively lest they should be troublesome in the future (the horror of it!). A young country lass in the 1940s or ’50s who’d had her teeth removed was considered quite a prize when eligible bachelors came a-courting. I shudder at the thought of it.
I decided I was going to go old-school medieval with my bodgie tooth once it got to the point of being intolerable – I’d have it pulled out. Bugger the fancy cosmetics and the corrective procedures. And last Tuesday we reached that point. By Wednesday lunchtime I was in the chair. That’s another story.
If I were skilled with a soldering iron and a gimlet I’d make one of these. You can buy kits from the USA, but they’re not pretty.
This historic Wimmera town in rural western Victoria is home to the Stawell Gift, a famous footrace. But, apart from that and some very fine gold rush–era buildings, there’s not a lot else here.
Mark Twain came through this district of Victoria in 1896 and said of Horsham that ‘it sits in a plain that is as level as the floor.’
I stood near the doorway of the Stawell gun shop like so many other city-boy tourists with their fancy clothes and soapy-soft hands. The shopkeeper looked me over and dismissed me and all my kind in the same world-weary blink of his eyes.
‘All that matters,’ he was telling a man standing at the counter with his back to me, ‘is how the bullet travels through the air.’
I bet these guys didn’t have soft city-boy hands. These were working men. Men of the land. And while I wouldn’t have thought there’d be too many variables involved in the flight of a bullet through the air – velocity, direction and conceivably atmospheric conditions – I know I am no expert. So I thought it better not to get embroiled in this particular conversation and I’m not sure my input would’ve been appreciated anyway.
Against the long side wall of the shop were the guns – perhaps a hundred of them – all with buffed-wooden or dull-black stocks and enamel black-metal bolts and barrels. This wall of guns radiated a potent kind of dissolution and lasciviousness that I found wholly confronting and intimidating. Had I approach this ticketed and tagged shiny arsenal of latent and yet-to-be-actualised violence, I knew, just like Icarus approaching the sun, something of me would’ve been lessened and weakened. I might have begun disintegrating there on the spot.
So I stood away, still in the doorway, like every other chicken-shit city kid that steps in off the street with only money in his pocket for a meat pie and vanilla slice.
Standing close to the wall of firearms was a man, perhaps my own age, speaking to his teenage son. They wore the brimmed hats of farming people and had dusty scuffed steel-capped boots.
‘If ya don’t smoke…’ the dad was saying.
‘I don’t smoke!’ said the boy indignantly.
‘…and ya don’t drink.’
The boy was staring at the guns like they were girls, all curvy and gorgeous. His top lip cricked in a salacious grin as he ran his hands over the contours and cracks of the weapons erect in their racks.
‘…and ya don’t spend yer money on gamblin’ and cars,’ the dad said, ‘then…then you can have a gun!’
The logic was inescapable – gun ownership is self-evidently more valuable than ciggies and booze and cars and gambling combined! It’s a thing a man must make sacrifices for, worthy and aspirational. This moment of father-son tenderness nearly brought a tear to my eye.
I thanked my lucky stars that this wasn’t me and my own young-adult son, and yet lamented that I could not articulate my own values and world view quite so simply. (I know you’re thinking. And you’re probably right. And, yes, I know that farmers need guns for…for shooting farm animals and trespassers and the like.)
In my pocket was money to buy a pie. And I left the gun shop and I walked up the road to the famed local bakery.
That’s what I am doing with my life – buying pies and food and booze, overpriced cars and a house in Melbourne’s leafy suburbs.
I was up in Stawell reprovisioning the three-day weekend I was enjoying with a bunch of other mid-40s dads playing bad ukulele music and chess and cooking extravagant meals in a wood-burner stove. One of our fellas owns a tumbledown ‘weekender’ in a ghost town outside Stawell. We go there sometimes. We don’t have any guns.
There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
This aphorism was apparently originally conceived to lampoon the idea of angels and the theories of medieval Scholastics such as Sir Thomas Aquinas. Interestingly, Dorothy L Sayers (1893–1957) – poet, crime novelist and translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy amongst many celebrated and academic works – suggested that while angels were located in space they had no extension, and thus could exist in infinite numbers on the head of a pin.
Paul Kelly, the much-lauded Australian singer-songwriter, contemplated this same question in his song ‘Careless’ in which he sang:
How many cabs in New York City, how many angels on a pin? How many notes in a saxophone, how many tears in a bottle of gin?
This has more gravitas as a rhyming couplet than as a profound philosophical enquiry.
Nevertheless, there are complex questions of numeracy that ought to have definitive answers – they’re merely problems of computation.