Growing up, my mates and I made our pocket money at the local Coles and Kmart. Stocking shelves, swiping barcodes, searching through morning mist for abandoned trolleys up and down Katoomba Street. That’s how I met Ahmed, ten years later.
“I used to collect trolleys,” I say, battling to make myself heard over traffic and the catastrophic clang of my trolley linking up with thirteen others.
“You? Really?” Ahmed replies. His eyes search for the right words, but a broad smile shows he understands. In hesitant English, Ahmed says he’s from Egypt. He is 24, and came to Sydney two years ago to study business. Since finishing the diploma he has worked collecting trolleys at Northbridge Woolworths seven days a week, travelling 90 minutes to work from his Punchbowl home in Sydney’s southwest.
Ahmed says Sydney and Cairo are not that different. “They are both big cities,” he says. I ask if Punchbowl is very different to Northbridge?
“Yes,” he says. “Punchbowl is a village, Northbridge is a city.”
I look around. Northbridge, in Sydney’s lower north shore, is one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest suburbs. Even from the carpark I count more trees than vehicles. At home in neighbouring Castlecrag a kookaburra named Frank visits me most mornings. He sits on the peak of the Hill’s hoist looking on suggestively while I eat breakfast.
“A city?” I ask. “What do you mean?”
“Kids don’t laugh and play here. People don’t talk,” he says. “Not so much community.”
Ahmed’s workmate, Zach, approaches driving a blue trolley tractor. He is 54, from southern Iraq, and also lives in Punchbowl. Ahmed says something funny in Arabic, and Zach laughs. Their days begin and end in Arabic; they buy groceries, newspapers and Halal meat in Arabic; work, pray, think and love in Arabic. Like Ahmed says, they live in an Arab village.
Inside the supermarket, Sweata, Shabnam, Abdul and 12 other Bangladeshi checkout chicks pack food for locals. But at day’s end most of them buy their own food elsewhere. They live a long way away.
Northbridge Woolworths is staffed by people who don’t live in Northbridge. The same applies to other supermarkets and nursing homes throughout Sydney’s lower north shore, and other community services such as garbage collection, council work and home maintenance.
Villagers have travelled to cities to sell their produce and labour for as long as cities have existed. In Sydney, today, people travel to offer low-skilled labour in exclusive suburbs where the local community would come to a standstill without them.
“It would be impossible to fill the supermarket with local workers,” says Lyn Wilcox, services manager at Northbridge Woolworths. I ask Arlie Ambas-Scott if many locals work at the nursing home she manages in Roseville. “No, none,” she says laughing. “People travel from as far away as Newcastle and Cronulla, five days a week.”
But what strikes me most about Ahmed’s statement is not that he and many others live in ‘villages’, but the idea that I live in a ‘city’.
People are the defining element of so many parts of Sydney with a distinctive, binding flavour. Chinese, Indians, Italians, Vietnamese, Greeks, Persians, Latinos and Arabs all have their suburbs, or ‘villages’. But it strikes me that perhaps it is trees, birds and shiny sports coupes that define the north shore, not people.
If local workers do not create a community in the north shore – because their communities are elsewhere – what, or who, does? I’ve only lived in the area for a few years, but looking up and down my street, I realise I know more about what my neighbours own than who they are.
I think about something that social commentator Clive Hamilton once wrote: “It is necessary to judge someone by the type of car in their driveway only if you have never actually met them,” and with this in mind I walk next door, up the driveway past the familiar grey Mazda van with a child’s seat in the back, and knock on my neighbours’ heavy wooden door for the first time. It’s 6pm. “G’day,” says Diana, in a broad Kiwi accent. She invites me in. They’ve just had dinner and her two superheroes, four and six years old, fly up and over high-rise furniture in the living room.
I mention Ahmed’s comments, but Diana doesn’t feel alienated as a city-dweller. “I think there’s a strong little community here,” she says. “We’ve got the kids, so we know other parents in the area, and there’s a community newsletter that comes out monthly. I really like that.”
Dianna’s husband, Greg, is an online services manager at a major bank. “He won’t be home until after eight,” she says. “I know he doesn’t feel as much a part of the community as I do. He doesn’t have time.”
A lump of plasticine kryptonite lands on the table. Fearing for my life, I say goodbye.
I look over the fence to where my other neighbours live, but the latest model red sedan isn’t in the carport yet, so I wait. At half past eight I ring the doorbell. Judy, 32, opens the door. We look at each other as complete strangers. She stands with hands akimbo. I stand uncomfortably on the ‘welcome’ doormat.
Judy is wary, understandably, but I explain my mission and she warms to the topic. “Brendan [her husband] and I both work over 50 hours a week to pay our mortgage,” she says. “When we get home we just want to rest, and on weekends we see friends from work, or we work in the garden and clean up the house. We’re both professionals, so I guess our community is based more around work than home. We come home to escape,” she says.
Many local residents are old-timers who are firmly planted in the community garden, having lived in the area most of their life. “I could tell you the history of this block for the last 40-odd years,” says Christine Cooper, 80. Her mum bought the house she lives in, and she feels a strong sense of community. “Of course there’s community,” she says.
But houses in ‘The Crag’ are not easy to buy. No prices are shown in the window of Castlecrag real estate, but a cream skivvy displayed in the window of a neighbouring boutique costs $770, and I suspect the sales lady doesn’t describe it as a cream skivvy. Rents, I’m told, don’t fall below $1000 a week.
About one third of Australian adults now work 50 hours a week or more. Like Judy, Brendan and Greg, few of these workers find time for community activities, and fewer again find time for community work. I look in the North Shore Times for Castlecrag sports teams or competitions, book clubs, dance classes; anything that would put me in touch with the community. Although I later discover that Castlecrag has an active ‘progress association’ that publishes the aforementioned newsletter, I don’t find anything in the paper. I do see, however, that four Castlecrag families are looking for nannies.
Cycling to uni the next day I pass a contract worker having morning tea beside a stretch of road being repaired. “Could you tell me the way to Artarmon station, mate?” I ask. “Nah mate, sorry, I’m not from around here.”
I continue pedalling and think how often I hear people say the world is shrinking. ‘The world’s a small place,’ we say. But Sydney is huge. It’s a labyrinthine conglomeration of villages, and, despite its cosmopolitan, multicultural fame, most of Sydney’s population lives in safe, gated little pockets, many of which are internally homogenous.
“Do you know where Dharruk is?” I ask a random shopper outside Northbridge Woolworths.
“I have no idea, why?” she responds with a puzzled frown.
“It’s where Michael lives, the tall Sudanese man who collects trolleys here. It’s just west of Blacktown.”
“Goodness. That’s a long way away,” she says.
It is. And when I go there, it seems as much a city as Punchbowl, Parramatta, Castlecrag or Northbridge. Perhaps the locals converse more, often in a mother language that is itself a common bond. But, to an outsider, any suburb that isn’t home can feel rather like a city. And that, I think, is what Ahmed was getting at. Northbridge is a long way from home.