I knew to find Auburn library in the conglomerate of civic buildings behind Auburn Road, as I’d conducted a zine workshop there last year. This workshop was mostly teenagers whose families had come to Australia as refugees, in some cases as recently as a few weeks before. One boy who was a little older than the rest, who also stood out as he was wearing a collared shirt and waistcoat, picked up a pencil and drew a detailed and skilful portrait of a woman’s face. He showed me it with the universal student expression of “is this right?”. I thought how strange it must have been to suddenly be in another country, in a room with people from so many other places, being encouraged to fill the 8 pages of an A6 booklet. At the end of the workshop, the shy Vietnamese girls who hadn’t wanted to show me their drawings lined up to hug me, one by one.
Auburn has a beautiful mosque, the white domes and gold minarets of which appear as the train approaches the station. What I like best about Auburn though, are the clues to its past that appear when you look above street level. It pays to look up, as old signs are often left on awnings and you can get a sense of how places have changed.
This was a particular favourite, which at first I noticed just for the Socrates sign, but then noticed the top floor was burnt out while business continued below.
By looking for the old signs you notice how businesses have a way of persisting, in new incarnations:
From Ronald Lane Hair Shoppe to Hasan Barber You Well Come is a lineage of idiosyncratic letter-doubling as well as hair cutting.
The library’s facade is much less interesting. It has a kind of carpark aesthetic to it, which thankfully is not carried over to the interior. This was the first library where I’d noticed a sign that the library was under video surveillance, which immediately made me wonder what kinds of things had happened there to warrant it. Often libraries will have signs warning you to watch your belongings, although at these libraries I have noticed that people love setting up at a desk, then leaving all their things there while they go off wandering.
Auburn library has a similar design to Merrylands library. The wall on the right hand side is made of glass, which fills the library with light. Downstairs, past the desk at the front is the children’s section and fiction, and upstairs is the non fiction and study area. I had been thinking about getting a coffee from the coffee machine: I’d had a bad night’s sleep the night before and thought a coffee, even one from a machine, might help. Almost all libraries have a coffee machine, so I thought this was my chance to use it. The machine was near the entrance, against the glass wall, next to a vending machine. Reading through what was available, I changed my mind about the coffee when I read that one of the available drinks was “Beverage with the taste of soup”. I was worried what my coffee might taste like.
I sat down on one of the lounge chairs near the newspapers, next to the children’s’ section. A woman was taking a photo of her daughter reading a book sitting next to a white teddy bear. She had obviously staged the photograph, as the little girl didn’t do as she was instructed, and wouldn’t sit still. The bear however was very obedient.
The front page of the Sydney Morning Herald had an article about the proposed removal of the monorail. Although this comes as no surprise, I felt sad for the monorail, which has been maligned since its construction in 1988. I go on it sometimes. I like the view of the city from it, completely different from any other view you can get of the streets. It is at that height about street level which is just a little bit hidden and interesting, and on the journey you get to see some of the old signs on Pitt St for 70s and 80s businesses. Now is the time to go on the monorail while you still can. You can just ride it round and round – for hours if you so desire, meeting new tourists as you go. Besides weirdos like me and people who live in Ultimo, the only people who catch it are tourists.
While I was reading this article I was distracted by a smooth female voice informing me of road safety rules. Next to the coffee machine was something I would call a “Road Safety Information Station”. There was a range of pamphlets about road rules and a screen showing slides of information like “1 in 4 crashes in Auburn is from rear end”. The woman’s voice would come in every now and again and reiterate the facts displayed on the screen. The volume was quite soft, so perhaps it was an attempt at subliminal influence.
I looked at the stands of new books that was beside the newspaper area. I always approach this area hopefully, but this time I was too irritated by my pet book titling hate: fiction books with non-fiction titles. This has been going for years, surely all the names of instruction manuals for quirky things have almost been taken by now? The names that triggered my ire were Unusual Uses for Olive Oil and The Nature of Ice. The former is an article in a Woman’s Day, the latter is a scientists presentation for the Royal Society. Neither makes me want to read the book. Sometimes I’m fooled and I pick up the book hoping it is about the nature of ice, say, only to find it’s about the struggle of a character with a quirky name as life swirls around them.
Upstairs I wouldn’t have this trouble, as that is where the non fiction and reference collections are kept. I went up the stairs and sat at one of the study desks, looking down over the library and the people in it. A girl with an I heart Rio bag, browsing the Chinese novels; a boy doing find-a-words in one of those cheap booklets of them you buy at the newsagent, listening to an iPod touch. A woman photocopying worksheets for drawing numbers.
I turned my attention to the desk. At first it looked unblemished but if you look at any library desk closely enough you will find something written or scratched into it.
A crude rendering of one of English’s most desperate and most joyous words. What would motivate you to scratch that into a library desk? I looked around at the people studying. There were a few, even though in early January I wasn’t sure what they’d be studying for. One girl had PDHPE textbooks open in front of her, and behind me two men were discussing something that sounded financial. They had looked at me suspiciously when I sat down nearby.
There were a number of different study areas upstairs, as well as the book shelves. I spent some time in the reference section, looking at books about literature. One particular series caught my eye:
Masterplots II is a collection of book reviews of commonwealth literature. If, for example, you need to know the plot of Caliban’s Filibuster by Paul West, this book gives it to you, as well as an analysis of the characters, plot and themes. On the same shelf was a small book in the “Rough Guides” series, The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction. I took it to one of the nearby desks to examine it. The chair at this desk, like the first one I’d sat on, was threadbare at the edges, like a cat had used it to sharpen its nails. I looked around: all the chairs were like this. I’m not someone who worries about such things. When I’m sitting on it, it doesn’t matter.
“Cult” makes me think of the 1990s and bookshops like Polyester on Brunswick St in Melbourne, where you would go, and still can go, to buy Kathy Acker books and catch up on Beat literature. This guide was the kind of book I like to take to bed with me and read before going to sleep. It’s the kind of information that is almost certainly on the internet but I like better as a book, being able to hold the list of cult authors in my hand. Imagine the distraction as you followed links, found yourself tied up in google books an amazon, all because you wanted to find out a little bit more about Walter Abish. I had not heard of him before reading of him here. His first novel, Alphabetical Africa has an alphabetical structure in which the first chapter includes words only starting with “a”, the second a and b, the third a, b and c and so on, and then once having used all letters decreases again so the last chapter is written only in a words again. This reminded me of course of Georges Perec, who wrote the novel A Void without using e, and of the Oulipo group and their various literay experiments. Did I want to read Alphabetical Africa? I’m not sure, but I would have my eye out for it. I like, too, that Walter Abish’s signature look was the wearing of a triangular eyepatch.
What makes an author “cult”? The book listed some obscure writers but most were well known, Italo Calvino, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Bukowski. In the opening chapter the main criteria for cultness seemed to be having one’s books out of print, and being dead, or write “one seminal novel, behave abominably in public and then die tragically young”. Apart from the latter I am perhaps on my way.
After putting the cult books book back I looked around the non fiction section. Hanging on the wall above the shelves was a Sydney 2000 Olympics flag. Often libraries will have Sydney 2000 memorabilia on display, and I wonder how long such things will remain before they become irrelevant. The Olympics, such an intrusion on Sydney at the time, are now retreating into memory, along with the incredible kitsch of the opening and closing ceremonies, the 120 stockmen riding in the formation of the Olympic rings, the huge Kewpie dolls, and this:
A representation of English invasion, this penny farthing contraption with a white rabbit in a cage hanging off the back and a bewigged goon with a telescope at the helm, is a symbolism nightmare.
At the back of the library was another study area and I sat down at one of the tables there. On it was the book 1001 Escapes to Make Before You Die. I doubt I will make any of those escapes, all of which require much money and planning. I opened the book at random to find which escape was my destiny, and landed on the Ice Hotel in Sweden, “the world’s largest hotel made of ice and snow”. My friend Lucas once built a wall at this hotel. The ice melts in springtime so the hotel needs to be rebuilt again come winter. This is probably the only place in the world you can sleep under reindeer skins, inside a 50s car made of ice.
Behind me two girls were sitting talking. I’d noticed two empty bottles of Coke on the table, so maybe it was the caffeine, or maybe just the excitement of being 14, but they kept up a non stop conversation about the kinds of things that are exciting for you at that age but terribly boring for anyone else. Boys, in particular one boy named Tommy, the deputy principal, detentions, girls who are “really pretty” and some who are not… On the wall behind them was a mural which made reference to the diversity of Auburn, with some strange sentences like “People talking in many shaped clumps along the meeting street”. Having worked as a writing teacher for many years this sentence started to annoy me, so I left the girls talking about whether Tommy was Japanese or not and made my way back downstairs. As I was looking at one of the noticeboards along the same glass wall as the road safety station and the coffee machine, I felt a gust of cold air up my skirt and I realised I was standing on the air conditioning vent. These vents ran along the length of the wall. Luckily I was wearing a skirt of sturdy fabric, so there was no Marilyn Monroe moment.
The fiction section was at the back of the library and I looked around here for a while. The whole back wall was of Turkish books.
There is a large Turkish community in Auburn, and I’d never seen so many Turkish books in one place before. I decided I would browse them for a little while, I like looking at books in languages I don’t understand. Picking up a book in Turkish I can comprehend none of it, as there are few cognates with English, but I like looking at the language anyway, the unfamiliar words and sounds. I could work out what some of the books were by the author (Dan Brown, for example), and others were more obvious:
When I moved on to the Arabic section nearby I found him again:
I imagined him making an appearance in every language, but he couldn’t find him in Persian, Chinese, or Hindi, although I did notice this book:
Not being able to read the words, to me they look like insects themselves.
In this section I noticed a woman and her daughter sitting close together, sharing a desk. The girl was reading a young adult novel called Persistence of Memory and her mum was reading a magazine, commenting to her daughter about what she was reading so often that the girl put down the book and joined her to look at pictures of people’s teeth. They groaned over the most horrible examples. The magazine was in Japanese so I couldn’t tell what it was about, but I guess some kind of tooth restoration procedure, before and after shots. The girl and her mum had the same hair, long brown hair with lighter streaks and later, when they stood up to leave, I noticed they were the same height. The girl was wearing a red Snoopy t-shirt which matched her mum’s sun visor, which had a red lace band at the top and a see-through red plastic visor.
I moved towards the exit, noticing a boy at the photocopier copying ID cards. Every time I’d passed the photocopier it was in use, as was the one upstairs. The copier was positioned near the air conditioning vent, and one of the boy’s brothers was standing over it so the air filled up his shirt and it billowed out like he had been inflated. The boy paused in his photocopying and took a photo of his brother with his phone. This feature of the library must be popular with kids, although, sensibly, the children’s area was over the other side of the room. None of the children would read any books with the vent to play with.
Before I left I had a look at the young adult books, where I noticed a recent edition of Dangerous Love from the Sweet Valley High series – still in print! – and also a book about Zombies vs. Unicorns that I picked up because the cover had no title on it. This tends to make me curious about what’s inside, although like the 1001 escapes I have to make before I die, trying to work out which would win in a fight between a zombie and a unicorn makes me feel like my life is slipping out of my grasp. If I had to take sides, I would take the side of the unicorn.
Back out on the streets of Auburn the sun was strong and I got caught up in a crowd of people trying to gain entry to the Teks bargain store, which was closing down. Everything inside was 50% off and there was a huge queue of people buying crockery, art materials, bins and cheap toys. In a momentary lapse of judgement I went to enter this store myself, but was stopped by a man at the door, who told me that there were too many people inside and I had to wait. I did for a while, but as a woman got narky with me for standing in the wrong place I came to my senses and walked away with a great sense of freedom.
From Auburn station I could see my favourite old sign of all, which is an old neon sign on a green background, at the top of an old brick building. For you a Loan. Hidden in the middle of all the development around it, it does seem like a message just for me.
(If you can’t find the sign, click the photo to see it larger)