On an upstairs window of a long-closed shop on Marrickville Road is the fading painted sign for the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. Its cracked silver lettering makes me think of a logo on a 1950s powder compact, silver letters on a pink plastic case. I imagine that the interior of the photography studio might continue in this powdery style: white carpet, chairs with spindly, gold-painted frames and fluffy pink upholstery, gladioli in a tall glass vase.
At street level, in a stripe above the entrance, are more signs, some in Greek, others in English: another for the Mona Lisa, and one for Finix Discount House, with an illustration of an ascending golden phoenix to accompany it. I peer inside. The two showcase windows to either side of the door are empty, but further back inside the store is a pile of leftover objects: chairs, debris, bedspreads compressed into squares and wrapped in plastic.
The yellow-striped wallpaper is peeling, and wires hang down from the roof, but the space doesn’t quite seem abandoned. A ladder and a broom are propped up against the wall as if at any moment someone might come in and resume the task of clearing out the store. I could see a row of signs on the windows for Blankets, Carpets, Gifts and Crystal. With each word I imagine the store in its heyday, the topography of soft or glistening objects that would have made up its interior. Things bought here would still be in people’s houses, or have recirculated through op shops, or remain at the back of cupboards, never-used wedding presents from decades before.
I am being watched: from the tiled stairwell at the side of the store hangs a framed print of the Mona Lisa. She looks in my direction serenely, with her seeing-but-not-seeing expression, from the wall-mounted glass cabinet lined with flocked wallpaper where she has been, for decades, encased.
A handpainted sign in English and Greek above the cabinet directs all photography enquiries to the shop downstairs. I stumble my eyes over ΦΩΤΟΓΡΑΦΕΙΟ, decoding it as “photography”. I don’t read or speak Greek so later, when I am back home, I type the words on the sign into an online translation site and they come out, after auto-correction of the text, as “information about the photography lost under the story”. I like it. For as I stand peering through the metal grille that seals the premises off from the street, I dream up stories about the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. I think of the carefully dressed people who once climbed the stairs, walking up towards the portrait photographs that were soon to be taken of them, preserving that day, that moment.
(Those with Marrickville connections might be interested in the Marrickville Map I made, which includes the Mona Lisa among other landmarks.)
In a display cabinet behind the window of Luigi’s Bakery is a framed Daily Telegraph review, a soccer ball, a sheaf of wheat and a printout of a New York Times travel article from 2007. Dulwich Hill was the unexpected focus of this article, which begins with the 5am scene at Luigi’s, where the lucky few get their pick of the loaves and rolls that are mostly sold out by 9 or 10 in the morning.
After this article was published Dulwich Hill residents waited for the arrival of groups of New York tourists. They would soon appear, eager for a Luigi loaf or the 10 types of baklava at Abla. They would be seen buying postcards from the dusty rack in the newsagency, cards with koalas and views of Sydney and Bondi Beach. The Dulwich Hill postcard, though, only exists through experience.
The tourists step off the 428 bus onto New Canterbury Road, where an elderly busker wearing a jester hat has set up on milk crates. A battery operated monkey jerkily dances to music the man stabs out on his keyboard. The milk crates are decorated with posters of different monkey expressions, excitement, curiosity, anger. The tourists give him a few coins and continue to the corner of Marrickville and New Canterbury Roads. They’ve read the New York times article closely, so they know that this used to be the tram terminus. Now in its place is a bus turning circle and a tiny park, where old Greek men congregate at the benches to continue an endless conversation. Sometimes they’re outside the IGA supermarket, worry beads in their hands as they discuss the world, watching the buses and the traffic and the people coming out of the IGA with bags of groceries.
The tourists turn into Marrickville road, past Excellent Price Variety store, where every conceivable household item from bundt tins to lava lamps to cigarette lighters patterned with kittens is sold. They pass the pharmacy with a fold out sign picturing pills with sly, sleepy expressions and the Crescent Star Turkish community centre with its curtains perpetually drawn. At the start of the shopping strip is a dental practice with a waiting room decorated like a parlour, with lamps and Persian carpets, Egyptian figurines, a banjo hanging from the wall.
Behind the shops is a park called the Graham Green, which at first the tourists think must be named after the writer. Then they read the fine print on the sign. It’s named after Bob Graham, the principal of the nearby high school. Surrounding the park are streets of brick cottages and old apartments, a substation disguised as a block of flats, a big Victorian Rectory next to the church with a widow’s walk on the roof. Parked outside it and all the way up to Mad Era mechanics on the corner are Jaguars. The mechanics move them around like elegant, tapered chess pieces, as they bring them in and out of the workshop.
There are plenty of unexpected things in Dulwich Hill, although perhaps this can be said for any Sydney suburb, or any place investigated with curiosity. The tourists find many things with no ready explanation. The shrine to Cosima De Vito in the window of a cluttered book exchange, her face faded and water damaged in the many copies of the same portrait taped to the glass. The store is closed and they peer in through the window at the piles of books and magazines inside. The shop is near the corner of Beach Road, confusing as there is no beach in sight and the coast is many kilometres away. “Sous les pavés, la plage!” one of the tourist jokes. They choose Constitution Road instead and walk along it a little way. In the distance they can see what looks like a rocket poking up from beyond the railway overpass, ready to blast into space. The tourists take photos beside it, noticing that the hole into once children would climb to ascend to the top has long been covered and welded shut.
Later, back in their city hotel room, they look through their photos of their Dulwich Hill visit as they munch on the bread rolls they had got up so early to buy from Luigi’s. There is a photo of them with the rocket, and outside the headquarters of Mrs Hugh Dixons Own 1st Dulwich Hill Troop Boy Scouts on Lewisham Street, and sitting on the bus stop outside the Salvos store with a large stuffed toy bear that had been dumped there the night before along with some old sofas.
Across from the Salvos they notice a dilapidated building with odd-shaped oval recesses on the facade. There are signs for a new development that is soon to take place on the site. The tourists wonder what the building might be like inside; it is obviously uninhabited. They peer through an iron gate towards the entrance to what was once a nightclub. The gate is padlocked but it swings open when they push against it.
Inside the nightclub the dancefloor is piled with smashed up wood and glass. Upstairs they find what was once the storeroom, with shelves still labelled “sweet sherry”, “dubonnet”, “spumante” and other unfashionable liquors. There’s a kitchen up there too, with the cupboard doors open to reveal small, left-behind things, coloured lightbulbs, an empty bottle of methylated spirits. It could be an abandoned building anywhere, but it’s their Dulwich Hill adventure. Years later when they think of that morning, it’s this place that they remember first. How they looked out the broken windows to the street below, their faces appearing like ghosts to anyone on the street who happened to be looking up at that moment.