As if I need any more convincing that leaving Sydney is the right decision. It’s mid-afternoon earlier this week, the temperature is nudging 30 and a blustery northerly is hurling grit into everyone’s eyes, making them meaner than ever as they squint into their phones and wait for the bus outside the local shopping centre.
It could be any suburb near the city. Bird droppings smear footpaths already stained with spilt food and drink and spit. Discarded papers and cigarette butts swirl in the gutter. Amid all this, a frail, elderly woman, well dressed with a big floppy hat, edges a shopping trolley loaded with groceries painfully slowly along the path, battling the wind and a body sapped of strength.
It’s awful to watch. A couple of high school kids accidentally bump the trolley and snigger. A tradie leaning against a wall gnawing on a kebab catches my eye and looks away. I’m walking two dogs who are straining at the leash, intoxicated with the smells on the ground and in the air. No one is willing to help the woman.
And so for the next 20 minutes she grabs my offered arm and we inch our way to a cab rank two intersections away, wrestling with the trolley, the dogs and dozens of passers-by who couldn’t give a toss. At one stage a taxi rolls by. I plead with the driver, who shakes his head and moves on.
Finally, I find her a cab and send her on her way home. She’s well into her 80s, a widow. As I close the taxi door she reaches out and kisses my hand to thank me. “People don’t help any more,” she says in broken English.
No they don’t, lady. Not much, any way.
So I’m out of here.
We’re leaving Sydney soon, heading north. Up the coast where life is simpler. Where the people are gentler and more forgiving. Where the stars are not smeared against a permanent grey-black haze but fill the night sky. Where the soundtrack to life is not sirens and shouting and hotted-up cars driven by shaven-headed boneheads blaring their doof-doof music, but a comforting, enveloping silence. A place, believe it or not, where you can leave your back door unlocked all day.
Sydney. The old tart has always been brash and loud – way more mutton than lamb. But just lately her lipstick has looked a little more smeared and there’s a slur to her speech and a stagger in her swagger. As one radio listener observed this week: “People are naturally friendly more often than not but the bigger and more crowded Sydney becomes, the more alienated and disconnected people feel. Like rats packed into a cage.”
Friends and family from interstate have noticed the changes in recent years; the increasingly upturned middle finger in traffic, the lack of acknowledgment from other drivers if you let them pull in front of you. And then there are the stories I heard this week. The young and heavily pregnant woman on the packed bus no one stands for. The man with the broken leg on a crowded train, forced to lean on his crutches as the crowd in the swaying carriage looks everywhere else.
Sure, good is happening everywhere. But for many of us the bad and ugly seem to have been winning out. A little like New York in the 1960s, someone said this week. A little like that night in 1964 in Queens when Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment building and, despite dozens of people hearing her screams, almost everyone looked elsewhere.
You could dismiss these musings as those of a cranky middle-aged bugger if they weren’t being echoed by a growing number of people seeking more simplicity in their lives.
And it’s not hard to find. Within an hour of the CBD, travelling north, south or west, you’ll find places where many others have sought a simpler life. A bigger backyard vegetable patch. Roads and streets free of congestion. Neighbours who are not only friendly, but who don’t spend evenings leaning on the fence talking about property prices and investment opportunities.
So to hell with Sydney, at least for the next year or so. I’ll always love her more than hate her. God, I’m going to have to visit her every day. But I’ll also get to leave her behind once my work is over, wrestling with her growing claustrophobia while slapping on another layer of make-up in an effort to hide those bags under her eyes and that growing number of age spots.
Take good care of her. Like a lot of us getting on in years, she’s going to need a helping hand.
Garry Linnell is co-presenter of The Breakfast Show on 2UE Talking Lifestyle