A course to roam
Reflections on public spaces during lock-down.
Around a month ago, my boyfriend recounted a scene he witnessed while waiting for a bus at Railway Square: a woman walked up to a man and asked him for a cigarette. He said sure, but she’d have to roll it. With terms accepted, this mutual engagement escalated. Almost instantly the man confessed he’d been kicked out by his wife earlier that day. The woman replied by saying that her dog had just died. A car had run over him. I think about this a lot.
Almost every day now, I slip on my bike shorts and my work’s polo t-shirt so that when I enter the public eye I will be indicating my status as both an exerciser and employee. I head towards work, in case police ask me what I am doing outside. My cross-city commute by bike is faster, cheaper and safer than by bus. It also serves as a minor reformation to my own burdensome, habitual contributions to the climate crisis. I get a lot of satisfaction from this commute. I also see a lot of things. On each journey I pass two or three bikes I’ve used previously, still parked where I discarded them. Sometimes a bike has cobwebs on the handlebars – perhaps a repurposed Halloween prop placed there by illusive Onya staff, perhaps a quaint expression of solidarity in trying times, perhaps a public artwork, perhaps a corporate attempt to evoke sympathy by rendering the decrease in usage visible, as if people even used them before the pandemic.
On Easter weekend, I resorted to the novelty of catching a bus home from work. I couldn’t find any idle bikes near me that day. The buses are often empty now, of course. At Central, a woman held our journey up, asking the bus driver about getting to Newtown. She hopped on without paying and sat in the accessible seating area. As the driver lugged us up Parramatta Road, she told the bus driver her dog had died. My eyes and ears shot to attention, though it already felt intimate with just the three of us on this ride. She asked the bus driver, “Where do you think dogs go when they die?” The bus driver replied softly but loudly, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” She asked if their souls roam around the earth for forty days.
At that time I only knew that Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after his resurrection. She soon after hopped off, and I was left looking at my hands. The belief that the soul of the deceased wanders the Earth for a 40-day period, visiting places of significance and their grave is rooted in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Those that don’t have places to hide from the public space stick out more now. I’ve seen one particular man three times: first in Hyde Park, then a nook in front of an office on Pitt Street, then in a park in Ultimo. He paces back and forth fuelled by angry, incomprehensible mutterings.
Once my partner forgot to lock his bike. When we returned to it, it was manned and claimed; a young woman bounced her weight side to side, an impressive boxing stance from such a small body. Surrendered, we watched from a short distance as she told us to keep on walking. This was her bike now. She hopped on and slowly peddled off. Later we checked the app’s map of the trip history, expecting to see the words ‘world peace’ spelled out through her cycle path.
Sometimes I traverse across campus, just to check up on her. Eastern Avenue now serves solely as a pretty thoroughfare. The other day I watched a photo shoot of a gowned woman staging her graduation day in front of the Quadrangle. Despite the desolation, neat little piles of autumnal leaf litter made me suspect the university has hired a fleet of Roombas to maintain the grounds. A security guard I met recently told me about the glory hole once operating in a bathroom in Carslaw. I wanted to visit it, find it, wishing there were more campus landmarks I could investigate to curate my own kind of ghost tour, where the ghosts are that of student occupation.
No matter how nerdy it might make you to miss school, I miss USyd. It cultivates so much more of my individual value than I realised, and falling short of that quota I find myself visiting old places as compensation, like my childhood home, university sandstone, particular waters. I’m a sorry sappy disembodiment of a cliché, and I’m grasping for small tastes of what once was.