Sitting on a square grey pouffe in between racks of Chinese DVDs, I looked out over the people working at the desks at Rockdale library. A man doing serious religious study with books such as “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, a man reading an Arabic newspaper, a tall man wearing an ugly jumper with a coin pouch clipped to his belt getting up to look at the science magazines, and an old man getting a computer lesson at the “Seniors PC” – he was being taught how to use the “bold” function in Word by a young female librarian, the only woman, besides me. Most of the men had glasses, and one man reading a newspaper even had a magnifying glass as well, which he held up to the text and squinted through.
I had been too nervous to sit down at any of the desks. They were small and square, with four chairs around them, although it would be a tight squeeze to fit four people at them. To take any space would be to cut into the space of one of the men, and I didn’t feel ready to do that. Instead I put my things on the pouffe and went to look at the magazines alongside the money pouch man. As he reached for Scientific American I picked up the latest issue of Rolling Stone with Lady Gaga on the front and the promise of 7 days with Lady Gaga inside.
It has been a long time since I read a Rolling Stone, but upon opening it, I felt a familiar feeling, approaching deja vu but a little more knowing. As a teenager I was an ardent, obsessive music fan, and coveted music magazines. Last year I found in an op shop a particular Rolling Stone from the 1990s with Courtney Love on the cover that I must have read with particular scrutiny, as much of the content, even some of the phrases in the articles, were instantly familiar to me as soon as I opened the magazine.
Rolling Stone still looks the same on the inside, and still has the same long format stories and full page portraits of stars. I opened the magazine up at random and was confronted by a large photo of Kevin Smith in bed, clutching a porno novel to his chest with one hand, and tissues in the other. Who on earth would want themselves photographed like that? I flipped onwards until I found the Gaga article and settled it on my knees. Behind the men a parade of mums with strollers was now going to and from the kids’ area at the back of the library: a section with a space themed mural around its entrance, and a noisy, chirruping atmosphere inside as kids ran wild in bookland. I put my head down and started to read.
For someone who hasn’t tried to know anything about Lady Gaga, I know an awful lot about her. I don’t resent this knowledge, although the way it has come to me, as if in the air around me, makes me wonder if that is the essence of fame: people can’t help but know about you. On a plane a few years ago I realised I had never actually heard a Lady Gaga song and so I listened to the album that was available on the inflight entertainment console. It was the kind of slick pop that slithers into your ears but, for me, is like eating fairy floss. The interesting thing is her style.
The Lady Gaga article has surprisingly few photographs – usually a staple of any LG article. The main image was a full page portrait of her in a field of yellow flowers. I look deeply into it, at her face, before reading the article. It started with how she was watching Rocky films, which she describes to the writer as she sits with a unicorn toy with a light up horn, which she calls the Gagacorn. She lights up the horn for emphasis during the interview. My favourite part of the interview was a mention of her getting home and ordering an egg sandwich from a deli. The things I find most interesting about celebrities is the thought of them doing everyday stuff. Not the kind of “celebrities without makeup” stuff that’s in New Weekly, but the kinds of things that all of us do because we are humans, like eat sandwiches at home. I skim read the rest of the article, closed the magazine and pondered Lady Gaga and her egg sandwich.
I put the magazine back on the plinth reserved for it with a label and got up to explore the shelves. On the new books stand was “The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions”, the long subtitle to which started with “Veganize it!”. As a once vegan, I often go the other way now and de-veganise recipes, and every time I enjoy saying de-veganise, as my fingers close around an egg, for example. I am not, however, thinking it with malice. I, like Lady Gaga, just have a bit of an obsession with eggs.
As I passed a woman who had her arms full of books, she lost hold of them and half the pile fell to the floor. They were trade paperbacks, popular fiction. She wobbled with the rest of the pile as she stooped to pick them up and I swooped down like a fairy, saying “I can help you”, and picked them up again. This small action left me feeling very pleased with myself. Yes, I thought, I am the kind of nice person who picks things up for people who drop things.
Rockdale library is housed in the town hall, and is the central library, rather than a branch library. It’s the first such library that I’ve visited in this project so far, and the first that’s in an building built before the 1960s. Correspondingly it has a different shape and feeling to it, with many nooks rather than being to an open plan. Most of the general collection is shelved in a section of parallel bookcases, just high enough for me to poke my head up over the top to look out over the rest of the library.
I browsed over the non fiction section with no particular plan. The first book that I choose to look at was the SMH Good Suburbs Guide. After visiting Rockdale I planned to go to Sans Souci, an enticingly named suburb that I’ve never been to before. Not wanting a Panania-type surprise (where I felt scared of the chicken shop louts) I decided to do some research first. I looked it up in the index but was dismayed to find that most of the St George and Sutherland Shire section had been removed. I cursed library vandals – was this paying me back for stealing a poster of Charlie Sheen from a Smash Hits back in the late 1980s?
How dangerous could a place with the name Sans Souci be? I continued to browse the shelves, finding a huge section of sheet music. At a party a little while ago, I was telling people about my library project when someone told me that public libraries used to have a particular focus for their collections. In this way, Australia-wide, there would be a library that had a large collection of books on a particular subject. The woman who told me about this said she’d asked her local library what their speciality was, only to be told that libraries didn’t do this any more. Librarians, is this all true?
Rockdale library’s speciality must have been sheet music, and books about music in general. Are you looking for the sheet music to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? Here is where you will find it.
I looked through the music biographies for a while, becoming obsessed with finding baby pictures of the various performers. There are particular types of books that will have such photos: the very serious kind of thick, hardback biography, that brings the performers whole life into focus (even as a child, they had latent genius), or the kind of cheap, unauthorised biography that has used every possible available photo they can, even if it relates little to what the subject would eventually become. For example, who is this?
I will send a prize to anyone who guesses correctly: a certificate and a zine. Hit the comments and good luck!
I wouldn’t normally look at a biography of Bette Midler, but I enjoyed her yearbook picture from when she was a little girl. She looks the same! Later that day, however, I asked Simon who it was, and he couldn’t guess. By coincidence, as I was leafing through the Mx newspaper on my way home I found a link between Lady Gaga and Bette Midler. Via twitter, Bette Midler had send Lady Gage a message: “Dear @ladygaga – I’ve been doing singing mermaid in a wheelchair since 1980 – You can keep the meat dress and the firecracker tits – mermaid’s mine.” Never comfortable with the world I now live in, I feel voyeuristic when I read the tweets of celebrities, but I did check on Bette’s twitter to see if there were any further developments – she now suggests that she and LG “drink this over at the Emmys in September”. Dressed as mermaids and in wheelchairs, I hope.
This library report has become quite sidetracked. It’s inevitable, I suppose, when writing about a place that is full of so much information. It’s the nature of browsing, whether you do it in a library or in a store, or online. You find yourself looking at a biography of Bette Midler/examining culinary blowtorches/watching Youtube videos of capybaras, and at this point you have a moment where you wake up, as if from a spell, and think about how you got there. Then you either retreat or go in deeper.
I take a few books back to one of the tables with me. I’m brave enough now to put my things down on a desk at which a man reading law books is studying. He had just stretched out his long legs under the table when I claimed the opposite end of it. I felt bad as he retracted them, but wasn’t my research as important? On the top of his pile was a book about “Torts”. The mere word makes me realise just how much there is to being a lawyer that I will never know. I have asked friends studying law what Torts is a number of times, something about common law and people sueing one another? Law students never seem to enjoy studying Torts, anyway.
In my pile of books was: “Why People Believe Weird Things” by Michael Shermer, which was not as exciting as I expected it to be, being a sober discussion of scepticism, drawing on philosophy and psychology; “Whatever Happened to… The Ultimate Pop and Rock ‘Where are they now?'”, which had information such as “The Pogues are still chart contenders, entering the UK Top 40 as recently as December 1997”; and “Rock and Roll Babylon”, which, like the Hollywood Babylon books, had news clippings from celebrities behaving badly, long before the days of Twitter. This photo of the destruction wreaked by Rod Stewart and friends on an international flight was particularly interesting to me, for some reason:
People used to have such a wild time on planes. If you tried that nowadays, you’d probably be Tasered after the first smear of jam.
The Tort man’s foot was encroaching on my territory under the table. It was a big foot in a worn brown leather sandal, the toes poking out the end. It was hard not to stare at it from behind “Rock and Roll Babylon”. As he read, he shook his foot, perhaps with every particularly exciting tort. I knew that soon, his foot would make contact with my leg and I wasn’t eager for that to happen. I got up and put my books back on the shelves, sliding them back in the gaps from which I’d taken them, and made a final round of the library.
One of the rooms had walls painted pink and a sheet music themed painting on the wall, this was the CD room. It had a kind of parlour feel to it, cosy, the pink walls like the inside of a shell. From here I could peek out into the rest of the library, at the desks of studying men, the kids being wheeled up and back from their space at the end of the library, the librarians reshelving. All of this was a well ordered world, and I was observing it. I felt almost invisible, until the Torts guy looked up and saw me peeking, my face half hidden by CD racks. Embarrassed I ducked down and out of sight.
Rockdale library is part of the town hall, and as you walk out there is a table of books for sale and then big honour rolls, gold names on wooden panels, on the opposite wall. There’s a lounge area and posters for the Rockdale Opera company, as well as framed, sepia toned photographs of previous Rockdale citizens doing good and creative works.
Outside I passed the big blue book return box, wondering how many people enclose AV material in padded postal bags, as suggested. I would, having a big stack of them in my kitchen near the plastic bags, but would “people”? The box, I decided showed great trust in the people of Rockdale. Other libraries either don’t have them or they have the kind where you have to scan the book’s barcode for the flap to open.
Before making my way to Sans Souci I sat on a bench in the square, eating a salad roll from the bakery that I could now see, from across the road, was called Le Meilleur Gout Bakery. I had no idea it had such a fancy name, though I believe it means something like “Best Taste”. My library visits seem to involve salad rolls, although eating them in public is always a bit embarrassing. I remember as a teenager reading a magazine article that seriously listed all the best and worst Date Foods. That is, food to eat on a date. Spaghetti, for example, was not a good date food, too hard to eat and too messy. Salad rolls would not be a good date food. You are snowed with flakes of crust from the roll, the bottom of the paper bag the roll is in gets soggy and, if you don’t roll it up, can break altogether and drip its mixture of margarine, soy sauce and lettuce juice all over your lap, and you have to bite into it inelegantly. Luckily I was not on a date, and the elderly of Rockdale paid my eating performance no mind. The two women beside me were busy discussing meat trays.
One of my work colleagues, the inestimable Ray, described to Simon and I the opening scene of a movie he’d seen many decades ago, and had not been able to find since. It opened with a voiceover: “Sans Souci – place without care”, and then cuts to a shot of a well, with a man’s voice issuing from it, “Hellooooo!” Simon made it his personal mission to discover this movie for Ray, and did indeed find it, the 1950 film This Side of the Law.
It was with Ray’s voice imitating the voiceover in my head that I boarded the bus to Dolls Point, on my way to Sans Souci. I’d looked it up on a map and saw that it, like other mysterious (to me) suburbs such as Ramsgate and Brighton-le-Sands, it lay on the edge of Botany Bay, close to the Sutherland Shire in the south. My attraction to the place was the name, imagining a time in which people peppered their conversation with French phrases in order to sound more sophisticated, and even called their suburbs things like Sans Souci. It was obviously named in a time free of economic rationalism; any new Sydney suburb now wouldn’t have such a relaxed, frivolous name. In case you are wondering, according to Google “The Ponds” is Sydney’s Newest Suburb. I’d click that link only if you’re feeling strong enough to cope with scenes of nauseating “Australian” wholesomeness. The Ponds to me is a name which suggests a murder scene, but I’m not the kind of person wanted in The Ponds.
The bus looped past Rockdale Plaza, through Kogarah, then on down Rocky Point Road, past the pebblecrete Darrel Lea factory, the address of which I have read on numerous blocks of Rocky Road over the years (a coincidence, apparently). Travelling without a map or smartphone, the dangerous and exciting way to travel, I got off the bus when I saw signs for Sans Souci on shop awnings, and soon came by Russell St, where the library was located. On the corner of this street, just past the petrol station, was a perplexing building with the name in silvery letters. I got up close and tried to work out what it was. A brick fortress with no giveaway details, I downgraded my guess as to what it was from luxury chocolatier to brothel.
Actually, it is sells, or makes, “fashion jewellery”, I find out now.
I walked down the wide, flat road, past lawn after manicured lawn. The residents of Sans Souci obviously had spent all Sunday gardening, and now, on Monday their gardens were pristine. The few gardens that had grass of over 4 centimetres long I regarded with censure: what had these lazy people been doing all weekend? There were lawns, gardens and neat brick houses, but few people. In the ten minute walk the only sign of life was the enraged voice of a mum from inside a house: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I imagined scenes of great household devastation behind the brick walls. My favourite house was a fibro with stickers stuck on the front window. The backs of the stickers were adhered to the glass of course, so I could see only the white shapes of all the different sea creatures in the undersea sticker world. I would have taken a photo of it but I thought how I would feel if I had kids and some weirdo was photographing the outside of my house. Things would be Avec Souci!
As I was about to cross the road to the library, a small building on the corner of Russell and John streets, I looked down to the unencouraging sign on the road beneath me:
What kind of godless place was I about to enter?
Stepping into Sans Souci library was like stepping back in time. I could successfully imagine I was in the mid 20th century as I entered, a combination of the suburb itself, which displayed the kind of peaceful suburbia that was the dream of the 1950s, the building, and a general mood. It’s a small library, where one librarian worked quietly behind the desk, and a man sat in the lounge area, reading the Sydney Morning Herald with his legs crossed and the paper spread out in front of him. He read the paper so thoroughly over the hour or so I was at the library that I wondered if he had read every word, even the Tenders and Death Notices.
I looked around for a place to sit down. I’d brought some editing work with me, although I’d been too distracted in Rockdale library to settle into it. Like many teenagers, I couldn’t do my work because Lady Gaga was too distracting. I had trouble selecting a place to sit, because all the tables, old blue laminate ones, were grimy with fingerprints and food smears. Now I’m no hygiene freak, and am far from uptight where grime is concern, but these tables needed a good going over with some Spray and Wipe. I selected what I thought was a not too grimy spot and looked around for the suggestion box which is always on the counter in a library. I wrote a note:
Pictured here with smears and some matter which seemed rather like a grimy feather.
My next problem was how to deliver the note. I didn’t want to put it in while the librarian was working at the desk, not wanting to be observed and have my note read the second I left the library, or even (horrors) before. I ripped the page out of my notepad and folded it in half, waiting for a suitable time to deposit it in the box. As I waited, a woman came in with a trolley full of books to return. She was obviously returning books for her whole family, as there was a cookbook, novels, a book called “Neo Noir” about film, and other incongruous titles. She had so many books that, once processing them, the librarian loaded them into a trolley and wheeled it over to the shelves to put them back. I took advantage of the moment and popped my suggestion into the box with a sly, shoplifting kind of feeling. I imagined them reading it and taking action, and felt the self righteousness of the citizen who speaks up (anonymously). At my university library when I was a student there was be a pinboard with people’s suggestion cards in the foyer, to which the librarians would reply. I enjoyed reading them, the more petty the better, though I felt like writing the replies could have been a fun job, if you weren’t the type, like me, to take it personally.
Although, according to a sign on the wall, Sans Souci library is on Facebook, it does not have free wireless, like the other libraries I’ve been to. In fact you had to pay even to use one of their internet PCs, two of which were sitting idling next to the photocopier. Most of the people who came in seemed interested in the more classic functions of the library, the books. People were regularly coming in to borrow and return, many of them mums with their kids in strollers. I look up to see a drool-faced baby stared at me from his stroller, which has mini boxing gloves hanging off the side. Why would you hope your child would be a boxer? His sister was sitting up on the bench and getting a stamp from the librarian. “Do you want a monkey on your hand as well? he asks another kid nearby, thus answering my question as to what the stamp was of.
The kids went on their way with their stamps and Strawberry Shortcake DVDs, and the librarian man continued to work, his own hands now stamped with monkeys, as he’d done a test stamp to show the girl what the picture was. I worked a little before going to look at the books, picking up a copy of “Lost for Words” by Hugh Lunn, which had sayings from the 1940s – 1960s in it. This is the language of Sans Souci, I thought. I took it back to the grimy table and made a list of my favourites:
WHS (Wandering Hands Society)
You stupid galoot
Double Bunger (eating at home and the turning up at someone else’s house for dinner)
Crazy Tea Set: “this was perhaps the limit of zaniness in 1950s suburbia”
I’m so hungry I could eat a horse and chase the rider.
She had me on toast.
A lot of the expressions I recognised, although I saw the author’s point, that they were declining in use, as we live in a world where housewives no longer work hard to perfect the “blowaway sponge” – the lightest possible sponge cake. I try to imagine myself as a 50s housewife, trying to make this sponge but all I could imagine was a scene of great disaster, with me employing many of the expressions from the swearwords section, all of which are mild compared to the arsenal of dirty words we have to choose from today.
For an almanac of those, I reckoned I could have asked the shady looking individual who had just entered the library. A skinny teenage boy in a tracksuit and cap, he had the kind of sharp, ratty expression that made him seem instantly suspicious. Imagine having that face and being anything but a troublemaker, I thought. He asked the librarian if he could book two computers for 1:50pm. It was for him and his friend, who was currently at the chicken shop (not chicken shop tough guys again! I didn’t realise it was such a problem). “Does it have Youtube?” he asked, to which the librarian said he supposed so.
The boy went over and sat at one of the computers, and I wondered what he was so eager to look up. I couldn’t guess, but I had my suspicions it wasn’t going to be kittens. Soon his friend came in, sat beside him, and they started looking things up. They weren’t noisy, but they weren’t quiet, either. I could sense their purpose and excitement from their whisperings. I waited for a few minutes before going to reshelve my book, and in the process look over their shoulders. I couldn’t quite tell what it was from the images, but when I stepped closer I saw that the boy who’d come in second was watching something called “Angel of Mine by Monica with lyrics”- nothing too awful there. But the boy in the cap who’d made the booking was watching “2 Greyhounds Suffer Fatal Injuries at Florida Racetrack”.
I had not suspected he was an animal cruelty fan, and the discovery was quite shocking. He then went on to watch “Greyhound disaster” and jab his friend in the ribs every time a particularly interesting part popped up. His friend didn’t seem that interested, to his credit. I left them watching videos and packed up my things, leaving to step out into the sunny afternoon. I held the door open for an old lady wearing a stylish pale pink pantsuit, and tried not to think about the Youtube boy. He was the kind who would torture kittens, I was sure.
I bought a can of Diet Coke and continued walking down Russell St, drinking it through a straw. I was curious to see if there was a beach at Sans Souci, as the tall Norfolk pines at the end of the street suggested. I walked down past more houses, then apartments, a park, and then, finally, the beach. It was a flat bay beach, but a beach nonetheless. It had been a while since I’d stepped out onto sand. I walked over it and sat down on the harder sand nearer the waterline. Across the bay I could see planes coming in to land at the airport, so small-looking from this distance away that it was hard to believe they were full of people.
I wasn’t the only person on the beach, a woman was standing by the water’s edge while her sons frolicked, nude, in the water. Now they were only about 5 and 7 but it was a surprise to see nude kids on a winter’s day. I guess some kids just like being nude, hell, what do I know about kids? (Less than most.) When one of them started weeing in the water, however, I looked away and didn’t look back.
Apart from this, did I feel sans souci? Yes, in fact I did. Bodies of water are soothing like that. I’d been depressed, a combination of the cold weather and one of my regular existential crises, but here, looking out over the flat water of the bay to the far-off city skyline, I felt pretty normal, content to be there, with little girls collecting shells and a teenage girl going past on red and white rollerskates, clinging to the walkway railing for balance. In a few years I could tell she would be a cool, tough, Rollerderby girl, already I could see the inchoate signs of it, but for now she was too young to have a fixed identity. All she was concentrating on was staying upright, and moving forward.