I went back to Australia every couple of years after I first moved to the US. As time went by the trips back to the Lucky Country became every three to four years, and then they grew even longer. The last two trips back Down Under were in 2016 and 2017. Whenever I went back I would walk the streets of Newport and Williamstown; the streets I walked and bicycled as a young boy and teenager. And whenever I walked those streets I saw my gentrified memories. At first, the changes in the houses and shops were subtle. The Victorian and Edwardian houses, and the 1920s and 30’s weatherboard houses that lined both sides of the street where I once lived were slowly being renovated and refurbished. The charm of Williamstown and Newport was being discovered; the homes of the working class were selling for a million to two million-plus dollars.
Just over six months ago I stood on the corner of Williamstown’s Stevedore Street and Douglas Parade and stared; Burke’s had been refurbished into six shops. The emporium had been on the corner since 1926; I was intimidated by it as a young boy. I wouldn’t go into the shop without mum. Burke’s sold men’s and women’s clothing, haberdasheries, bedding, linens, curtains, and everything else. Inside the shop, a wooden floor separated the glass display counters of the different departments; and each department had a shopping assistant, ready to serve, waiting behind their glass display counter. It was all so polite and formal; except for the tangle of overhead cables, and the small metal cylinders flying back and forth on the cables. I was mesmerised by the cylinders and fantasised I was watching Squadron Commander James Bigglesworth bank and roll his Sopwith Camel in the skies over WWI Europe. I would stand spellbound, and my eyes would follow the whistling sound of the cylinders as they sped along the cable; a clunking sound announced their arrival at their destination. The cylinders carried money from the different departments in the shop to a raised central cashier’s booth. After an assistant made a sale the customer’s payment, and the docket were put into a cylinder, and it was attached to a two-wheel carrier hanging from the cable. The assistant pulled a cord and the cylinder was launched along the cable to the cashier’s booth; the cashier put the receipt and change back into the cylinder, and sent it back to the department.
As I ambled along Douglas Parade towards the corner of Douglas Parade and Ferguson Street I started to think about the shoe shop that was once there; it had an upright X-Ray machine in the doorway. The machine displayed an eerie image of bones and a faint outline of your foot on a fluorescent screen. The shoe salespeople asked customers to put one of their feet into the machine so they could get an exact measurement of the size of their foot. There wasn’t a youngster in Williamstown who cared about the size of their foot, but we were all fascinated by the X-Ray shoe fitter machine. We all crossed over the street whenever we came close to the Douglas Parade and Ferguson Street corner so we would be on the same side of the street as the machine. It was hard not to run as you got close to the X-Ray shoe fitter machine. And then the moment came; you pushed your feet into and then out, then sideways, and then both together, into the opening of the machine. Back then we were innocent about electromagnetic radiation; we stared at the eerie fluorescent images on the screen as we moved and turned our feet. I wonder if that’s why my big toes are bent; and why my second toes have large bends in the middle joint. The shoe shop is now a real estate shop; auctioning what was once the homes of the working class for a million to two million-plus dollars.
Just as I had paused outside of Burke’s emporium I now hesitated on the footpath in front of Patterson’s furniture shop; there were no televisions in the window. Patterson’s is at the bottom end of Ferguson Street; just before the Cenotaph, and the Nelson Place and Strand intersection. The windows always displayed lounge and bedroom furniture, lighting, decor accessories, and the most up to date electrical goods and appliances of the fifties and early sixties. I watched television for the first time from the footpath outside Patterson’s windows. I squinted at the small black and white television set showing the 1956 Olympic Games; all of us on the footpath wondered how it was possible to watch the Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser, and Murray Rose when they were competing at the MCG and the swimming stadium. When the Olympics were not being broadcast we watched a black and white test pattern image, and sometimes black and white static; the footpath was a congested, crowded place. I never thought that staring at a screen that gave off some type of unknown electromagnetic radiation could cause my eyes to melt.
And now, the windows that once bedazzled us with all that was new in the fifties and sixties were separate shops; the Yambuki Japanese restaurant, an Ella Bache skin therapy day spa, Cocoa Latte, H&R Block, and the YN alterations and clothing repair shop. I squinted at a verandah sign peering out from behind the Ella Bache’s skin therapy day spa sign; staring just as I did years ago when I stood in front of Patterson’s windows. And I wondered; what’s an organic dry cleaner. What would an organic dry cleaner dry clean? Would you take spandex bicycle shorts to an organic dry cleaner? And could you use an organic dry cleaner if the stains on your clothes were just conventional food residue?
The organic dry cleaner’s window featured a display of old Singer sewing machines. Mum had a Singer. She worked as a seamstress before she married dad and was an incredible sewer. Mum could make anything. She made my first grown-up clothes; I was maturing into a teenager when she sewed my new blue blazer and grey long trousers. They were about twice the size they should have been; they were made to grow into. I soon learnt that the organic dry cleaners did more than sewing, cleaning was their business; dry cleaning, and cleaning leather and suede, pram and baby seats, and rugs. They cleaned everything with an environmentally friendly, and chemical-free service; they used state-of-the-art dry-to-dry technology which insulated fabrics from damage that water usually caused.
Mum never talked about water causing damage to our clothes; maybe the water was different back then. When our combined bathroom, mum’s washing room, was remodelled, mum’s copper was replaced with a washing machine with a clothes wringer, the cement wash troughs were switched over to brushed metal, and a briquette water heater was added to provide the kitchen and bathroom with running hot water. Even though mum now had running hot water to her wash troughs, and a washing machine with a wringer, her washing process stayed the same; soak the clothes for at least a day in cold water in the troughs but instead of boiling them in the copper throw them into the washing machine with Lux or Velvet, and then rinse and wring out twice to get rid of the soapy water before hanging everything on the rotary clothes hoist in the backyard. Mum used a bucket to carry the water from the one day soaking to water her passion fruit vine, and the other assortment of flowering plants growing in the backyard; and that was her environmentally friendly, and chemical-free process of washing clothes.
At least three Australian fashion brands are now offering sustainably produced, non-toxic, organic sleepwear, leisurewear, and underpants; all garments are made from GOTS certified cotton, where no toxic chemicals are used when it is spun, or woven and dyed. Maybe there is a need for organic dry cleaners; there should be somewhere to take your stained organic knickers to get them cleaned. But then again, if Lux can get a load of nappies spotless there should be no worries with a few stained grundies.
Mum’s washing days were always Monday and Thursday; Friday was her grocery shopping day. She bought her meat from three different butcher shops. The windows of the shops displayed neatly arranged metal trays of sausages, mincemeat, chops, cutlets, tripe, kidney, tongue, rabbit, and rissoles. The butchers served mum by scooping her order from the trays in the window, weighing it on the counter scale, and then wrapping each order in several sheets of white butcher paper; there wasn’t a polystyrene tray, shrink film or vacuum pouch in sight. And the butchers wouldn’t be seen dead wearing a hairnet, and their hands wouldn’t come within cooee of a pair of vinyl gloves.
The sign on the footpath outside the butchers seduced me into the shop. There wasn’t a hint of sawdust on the floor; the butcher was dressed in a denim bib apron with rope straps and was wearing a pork pie hat. The apron was detailed with a front statement pocket and was protecting a black gingham check shirt.
Me: G’day mate
I don’t think mum would have ever put biodynamic cutlets or tripe on a plate and served it to us. When I thought about the changes to the Ferguson Street shops, I wondered how long it would be before a biodynamic dry cleaner opened; where else would you get a shirt cleaned after you dropped a piece of biodynamic cutlet smothered in mustard cream sauce down the front of you.
Perhaps I was too spellbound by the small metal tubes flying back and forth along the maze of overhead cables, but I don’t remember ever seeing anything close to biodynamic organic underpants made from Global Organic Textile Standard certified organic cotton, at Burke’s emporium; a Chesty Bond singlet and Y-front undies was as good as it got. I think Chesty Y fronts have morphed into Guyfront Trunks; which just goes to prove that whatever happened will change into something else.