Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Background Check

Mr Tabubil and I live in a moderately small town in the semi-to-mostly arid outback - red earth and mallee scrub and sunset-painted rocks.
            A friend visited from the Netherlands not long after we moved here. She drove up from the city by night, and in the morning, first thing, she asked to be taken to the outback - the real, red-toned Australian Outback, please, in technicolor and surround sound, with fair to moderate chances of kangaroo. We drove her 3 kilometers out of town and turned off the car engine and sat still, listening to the wind move through the silence.
            On cloudless nights Mr Tabubil and I drive until the lights of town have faded into the black and park the car beside the road and sit, tilted upward to watch the sky for hours.
You could read by the light of the milky way.
            "We must bring a camera" we say. "Next time. A camera and a tripod and we'll do some long exposures ."
            "Mmmm hmmm" we agree, noncommittally, because a camera isn't right for out here, in some fundamental way that we don't want, quite, to analyze.
             Would we want to remember it distilled and diminished? The stars reduced to flat points of white, without the wind and the night sounds and the sound of us breathing next to each other, cold under the desert sky.

The town of Whyalla sits on a plain flat as a dried up lake bottom in Nevada, but without any mountains to break up the scenery.  There is so much horizon that your eyes start to water from the monotony and latch down on scrub and low bushes to appreciate the texture and the altitude. 
            Driving in to town, you pass through an industrial-ish warehouse-y area, that ebbs slowly into a residential neighborhood, with empty lots and scrubbly fields between every building. It is all spread out - like a wild western cattle town where the lots are marked out by a surveyor full of idealism in a city ten years ago and three thousand miles away, and once the surveyors strings are on the ground, the land gets filled up slowly, piecemeal, according to how everyone is wanting a corner block and there being enough corner blocks to accommodate everybody who wants one.
            Our town started in the early years of the century as a fishing port, and down by the water the oldest quarter of the town is made up of solid old houses, all pressed companionably close against each other and hemmed in by tall trees. There are a few low hills with views of the water, and a "botanical garden" that is hearts-ease - the only really deep green and shadowy place in town.
As the town grew up it spilled out onto the empty plain - all the streets are enormous, with double or triple lanes and huge median strips and small subordinate feeder streets separated from the big bad road by more median strips so that homeowners can pull out of their driveways without being smeared by all the theoretical traffic.
            It is all very theoretical. My first week here, my primary emotional response was existential confusion. Walking the streets was eerie - there were no cars. Six lanes of macadam, broad white concrete sidewalks - and me. No pedestrians and no cars - the mind starts thinking things it rationally oughtn't. Where was everybody? Just past my own mailbox, had I stumbled into a twilight zone?
Then in the far distance, I would see a stream of silver reflections and hear the growl of car engines. There was an intersection up ahead, and the cross-street, identical in every particular to mine, was full of moving vehicles.
            The relief would be intense. No temporal shuffling, no post-apocalyptic mad-maxims, just the realization - in any other town, the road I'd been walking would be a one and a half lane suburban back street.
            This town has eleven municipally maintained football fields - and three football teams. I like the optimism.

When we moved here, we had hoped to find a house in the closer, greener end of town, but the real estate situation here is…idiosyncratic.
            For a long time, the rental market was heaven for a realtor and a headache for renters. The local industries were booming, there was a distinct lack of new building development and it followed that an enterprising agency could put the most appalling dumps onto the market and expect to see two dozen prospective tenants lined up around the block - viciously competing to sign an application for a derelict wreck at rates that would make a stockbroker in downtown Sydney blush.
            There was no incentive to renovate - or even provide basic maintenance, because anything could be shifted - and the occupants would bow in gratitude for the cracked walls and obsolete plumbing.
            Two, three years ago, at the peak of the boom, clouds of buzzing developers descended, buying and razing streets of houses in the newer neighborhoods and building modern suburban palaces - detached townhouses with all mod-cons. Just before the first wave of new houses were completed - the recession hit with a bump. Half the tenants in the area were laid off work and moved on to other places, and the developers and landlords were left quivering in stunned denial.
            We began house hunting before the dust had cleared. We went out on inspections with agents and for the rent they were asking, I would have damn well expected there not to be gross structural damage, doors ripped from their hinges, leaky bathroom pipes flooding the floor - the floor of the living room, and kitchens that hadn't been updated since 1938, when sinks were apparently optional.
All in the same house.
            We found a home in the newer part of town, a house in a new development of ranch houses cut carefully, lot by lot, into an existing neighborhood. It is a friendly state of affairs. Out on the edges of town there are great tracts of nothing - planted spindly-like with light posts and paved with tight bitumen roads with neat concrete verges and, spread oout across hectares of empty red sand, solitary ranch houses, penned tightly by six foot iron fences that pull tight about the eaves.
            No trees, no grass, no scrub, no weeds, no birds, no lizards, no snails - just small iron islands on seas of bulldozed sand. It's crazy out there - paranoid schizophrenic, the houses locked up tight against their neighbors and the vast waving desert that is just on the other side of the wall.
            We have neighbors with front gardens. And a playing field up one road and a park down the other.
            We have air-conditioning. And a modern kitchen with a sink larger than three inches deep and ten inches across. And a fabulously conceived interior color scheme, restful and soothing to the eye, that hides all of the red dust that filters through the window seals and blows under the doors.

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