Riches to Rags
Down and Out in Double Bay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Everything about him seems muted: his greying, threadbare clothes; his fixed expression, somewhere between a grimace and a half-smile; the way he always crosses the street when someone approaches.
He is a very tall man, close to 2 metres, and once might have struck an imposing figure. Now he seems to seep into the background of Sydney’s eastern suburbs so that, beyond the odd aside about his shabbiness, hardly anyone really has very much at all to say about him. Still, locals know exactly who you are talking about if you bother to ask: he is the man who walks.
His beat brims with luxury. Day after day, for years now, he has paced across great tracts of waterfront land, past high-walled estates and lavish mansions, as if in a bubble.
Where his long walks begin and end is unclear. He travels mostly empty handed, occasionally stopping to wash himself discreetly in the harbour, and if he carries anything it is an old knitted beanie that completes his regular outfit: worn tracksuit pants, thongs and a misshapen fisherman’s jumper, regardless of the weather.
One winter weekday morning, he appears near the busy Rose Bay shopping strip, where carefully coiffed women are alighting from double-parked four-wheel drives. Towards the harbour, tables of young mothers are lamenting over coffee the rapidly disappearing hours between dropping off and collecting their children from private schools.
He stands alone, leaning against the fence of someone else’s home, and slowly looks up and down a side street, as though contemplating where to next. He heads towards Dover Road but just as he reaches the intersection, seems to change his mind and sits down on a bench.
A local walks past and wishes him good morning. He moves his mouth to produce the barest of sounds, and turns his head in a slow glancing arc from left to right, without looking directly at the woman but somehow still managing to take her in. Then, suddenly, he is up again and striding in the other direction, away from this stranger who has shattered his peace.
Where does he belong? No one can say. At the beautifully restored police station, which he often passes, officers are bound to respect the rules of privacy. The same goes for the local council, where there are no specific services for those who walk the streets all day.
A few times a week he wanders into the newsagent for a scratchie and a Redskin, and sometimes he lines up at the supermarket to buy a soft drink, always keeping a distance from the customers ahead of him. Then he’s off again. Along New South Head Road, where he easily outpaces the heavy traffic, he approaches the stately council chambers and peers through the window of a street-front office to check the time on a wall clock inside. From there, it’s a minute’s walk to the Double Bay Library, a big old home with a majestic view out to the harbour. He enters noiselessly. A huge bank of windows, almost floor to ceiling, looks down onto the gardens of adjoining mansions. At a long desk, students sit with books and computers.
He comes here often, perhaps for the heating. Today, though, it is unseasonably warm. The sun glistens on the harbour and casts a comforting glow inside. He hides himself in an alcove just beyond the window, where the sour whiff of old clothes and a slight rustling of paper betray his presence. In the silence of the library, where it is perfectly OK not to talk to anyone, he is reading the Financial Times.