During the sixties, the car became an essential part of everyday life for many Australians, and it seemed as if there was a Holden parked outside every house. Dad was working for Forward Library Supply, and his company car was outside of our place. The Forward Library Supply was a wholesale bookseller to libraries and schools; they also rented books to lending libraries. Once a fortnight, lending libraries chose from the company’s stock of best sellers or its wide-ranging book collection. Most of the lending libraries were in shopfronts on the main street of Melbourne’s suburbs. Dad drove a different route through the Melbourne suburbs each day to stop at the libraries and exchange their books for best sellers or popular selections and to take requests for new favourites so they could restock their collections. He redid the routes every fortnight.
The first company car outside our house was a Vanguard, followed by an Austin, and then came a succession of the latest model Holdens. And thus started our Sunday afternoon drives; they were Saturday drives because Sunday afternoons were mums baking afternoons. Not every Saturday was an afternoon driving Saturday; I never knew how the perfect day for a Saturday drive came about. We lived in Newport, a working-class Western suburb of Melbourne. Most of the Western suburbs, and the inner suburbs of Collingwood, Richmond, Brunswick, and Preston, were thought of as being working class, so our Saturday drives were through affluent Toorak, South Yarra, Kew, and Camberwell, and sometimes to the Dandenongs, and the cities of Frankston, and Geelong.
I don’t remember much about our Saturday drives other than we stopped going on them when dad left Forward Library Supply for a new job at Turner Industries in White Horse, Road Box Hill. At first, he took the train to work, changing at Flinders Street to the Box Hill-Lilydale line. The train ride was over an hour each way, so he bought himself a Vespa scooter; we became a family without a car. I didn’t think about the weekend drives. I was maturing into a responsible teenager, and I spent most weekends imagining all the lustful adventures and escapades I would have as an adolescent.
And for the next thirty-plus years, I had no thoughts about Saturday afternoon drives. I was busy living in the seventies and beyond. I think I occupied myself with a two-year working- hitchhiking England and Europe rite of passage and wandering Europe and the Middle East along the ill-defined hippie trail. When I arrived back home in Oz, there was no time to look in the rear vision mirror. I was bringing new teaching methods for teaching Math and Science into the classroom; until it was time to wander South East Asia and the Middle East. There were no Saturday drives when I returned to Australia. I became a college student and studied Instructional Technology. Upon graduating, I left Australia and started living in the US, where I spent time carving out a career in Instructional Design.
Now that I’ve migrated from the world of work to the world of leisure, I’m finding the time to think back when and occasionally look in the rear vision mirror. The last few times I’ve looked into the mirror, dads been taking the family on a Saturday afternoon drive along Toorak Road in the Holden station wagon. And this has caused me to be overcome with remembering the past enjoyments of the weekend drive. I wanted the weather, or whatever determined it was perfect for a drive to announce it was time; then came a perfect Sunday afternoon, and I set off for the Old Market. The downtown Old Market Area is a collection of renovated century-old brick warehouses that at one time were home to produce dealers, buyers, and transporters. Its cobblestone streets have become home to a diverse mix of quaint cafes and bars, boutiques and galleries, and restaurants. I headed for the Old Market along Farnam Street, which becomes one way after Midtown, so you navigate a half s-bend into Harney Street to continue on downtown.
I was pushing down on the accelerator to speed up from crawling through the half s-bend when I saw a maze of white plastic bollards through the windscreen. As my foot began searching for the brake pedal, a trickle of bike riders appeared. It took a few seconds to realise I’d come across Omaha’s protected bike lane pilot program. I parked alongside the bikeway to give my mind time to untangle the thoughts created by the jumble of bollards. As the cyclists drifted by, I glanced into the rear vision mirror. I saw myself riding my bright yellow bike along Swanston Street, wearing faded corduroy shorts, the argyle short sleeve jumper mum had knitted, and a string bag wrapped around the handlebars. It was the mid-seventies, and I was a thirty-something young man riding a yellow bike without a crossbar, known back then as a girls bike, with the trams and bustling traffic of a busy city. I didn’t choose the bike over a car because I had a love affair with the pushbike, but I’d just returned from wandering South East Asia and the Middle East and had no money. And I was also once again a student.
My Melbourne city and suburbs bike ridings were before the age of the urban cyclist. There were no bike lanes or painted bikeways defined by plastic delineators to separate you from traffic and parked cars; you only became a skilful city cyclist through trial and error. And you learnt early in your city cycling to never ride on the tram tracks. It’s hard to believe that Melbourne’s tram rails were designed with a groove that a pushbikes front wheel rim would easily fit in. If your front wheel slipped into the groove, it became impossible to steer and keep your balance, and where the track went, you went. The only way to remove your wheel from the rail groove and onto the roadway was to forget about traffic and the nearness of any tram and carefully dismount, then lift your bike onto the road.
I never rode on or cross over Melbourne’s tram tracks in wet weather. Like all metals, when they became wet, they turned into two shiny, slippery ribbons of steel. The drizzling rains of Autumn created a proving ground that was a test for the novice Melbourne city cyclist. Autumn also scattered the city with fallen decaying autumn tree leaves, which contain an oily residue, so the tram tracks became coated with a film of oily water. It was a sure bet that someone would be picking themselves up with a road rash souvenir after they’d ventured onto the wet tram line and went flying headfirst in front of traffic after their bike went out from under them; a sure sign of a novice city cyclist.
Whenever I was riding through the city on a wet, rainy day, I felt the sure and steady hand of dad holding the back of the bike seat. Dad taught me how to ride a bike. I learnt on Boxing Day morning after I found the second hand, painted over, Malvern Star Santa left at the foot of my bed. I’d hoped so much for a pushbike that Christmas but deep-down knew I’d not been good enough to get a bike. I was becoming a teenager and had been busy acting my age for most of the year. Santa must have been grateful for the two bottles of beer I’d left on the kitchen table and sent the reindeers and sleigh back to his workshop to pick out a bike.
As soon as I was out of my pyjamas and dressed, I pushed the Malvern Star onto the Peel Street footpath and yelled for dad to come out. He helped me onto the bike, grabbed the back of the seat, gave a gentle forward push and began jogging alongside me with his hand still on the back of the seat. I began to push down on the pedals as best I could, and dad was doing his best to keep up and keep hold of the bike seat. It was before the days of bike helmets and knee pads, so if I fell off, I’d land on the asphalt footpath and earn a bruise, scratches on the knee, elbow, or palms of the hand, or a bang on the head. What made learning how to ride a bike even more dangerous was that my feet could not touch the ground when I was sitting on the bike. Dad and I kept at it for the next few days. And then his hand must have felt I could balance because he let go; nothing was holding me back when I pushed down on the pedals. I looked over my shoulder, dad gave me a wave and a big grin, and the bike and I fell onto the grassy nature strip. I fell off the second hand Malvern Star more times than I care to remember. There wasn’t a time when I didn’t have scratches on my arms or legs, hands, face, even my stomach, and bruises on my head and everywhere else.
And then came the fateful day; I was riding the lopsided, uneven bluestone laneway, our shortcut from Peel Street to nannas house on Eliza Street when the irregular bluestones had the better of me. I was less than halfway through the lane went I went crashing from the Malvern Star onto the stones. My left wrist landed on the raised edge of one of the bluestones, causing the bone to break into the u-shape of the stone edge. After two weeks of wearing a plaster cast, the doctor had to re-break the wrist because he determined it wasn’t knitting correctly. He did the second breaking without chloroform.
In the late eighteen hundreds, Omaha tram service had grown to 145 trams running on 125 miles of track. Today it’s a city without trams. Buses slowly replaced the trams, and the last tram ran in 1955. I think the tram tracks have been either covered over or dug up, and the only reminder of the service is a tram, minus its wheels, at the Durham Museum. My mind couldn’t untangle and make sense of the jumble of bikeway bollards, and all I was thinking about was trams. When a gaggle of bike riders appeared in the bikeway, I shouted to them in a loud voice, if you come to any tram track crossovers, expansion gaps, or points cross over them in a straight line instead of on an angle; it’ll reduce the time your rubber is on the metal.