As I travel around the city and the suburbs there are particular details that I make a habit of looking for. They tend to fall into categories that will be familiar to regular Mirror Sydney readers, like ghost signs, interesting trees, architectural oddities, shops with cluttered interiors, and vacant lots. In this way I navigate, from detail to detail, checking on what’s changed in between now and the last time I passed by. Another level of detail occurs with seasonal changes – it’s late February now, so the crepe myrtles are out, with their blossoms of various pinks, and then as the cooler weather starts, the purple tibouchinas will bloom.
There’s another layer of detail in the daily movements that occur, sometimes regularly, sometimes not, like the flocks of cockatoos or corellas that sweep overhead or gather to roost on the powerlines, or the mournful song of the icecream truck that trundles up my street in the afternoons. It has a faded painting of a knight on the side and when I see it elsewhere in the city it’s with a feeling of recognition like spotting a friend in a crowd. There are a few other distinctive trucks I see around that I feel a similar kinship to – Extreme Piano Removals is one, and the plumber’s van with the painting of the dolphin leaping out of a toilet on the side is another.
My favourite trucks to spot, though, are tofu trucks. There are two in particular that I often see around. The Evergreen truck is pale green and has pictures of the tofu products it delivers on the sides, a lineup of bottles of soy milk and blocks of firm or silken tofu. Fortune has illustrations of the tofu making process on the back door of the truck, and on the side, an advertisement for the Triangular Tofu Puff.
As is generally the case with noticing any detail, once I started paying attention to the tofu trucks, I began to see them quite often, although never often enough for me to predict when I would cross paths with one. I particularly like seeing Fortune; it seems a lucky sign.
The reason for my particular attraction to the tofu trucks dawned on me one day when I was driving along behind the Evergreen truck. It had turned out in front of me on the Campsie bypass and as I followed it, considering the tofu dishes pictured on the back, I I recognised a similarity between a block of tofu and the blocky, square shape of the truck. Surely this was unintentional: a small refrigerated truck has a high, square shape, and there are plenty of such trucks on the roads, used to convey all manner of goods. Now though, every time a tofu truck crosses my path, there is something freshly pleasing about registering this coincidence.
I navigate Sydney by my own set of landmarks, places of mystery or memory that form strings of details. Some of these are obvious things, others unassuming, others link to stories personal or historical, rumours or imaginings. As I watch out a train window, or walk a familiar street, the details are my stepping stones.
One particular stretch I know well in this way is the train journey between Central Station and the entrance to the underground city circle railway. This section of track is elevated and there’s a sensation of gliding above the city, looking across the Surry Hills rooftops, a jumbled landscape of old warehouses and storehouses and steep streets.
In particular I look out for Wentworth Avenue and its row of empty warehouses, once tea merchants, factories and offices. Until recently a number of these buildings were owned by the Wakils, the investor couple notorious for amassing properties which they have left vacant for decades. Recently they sold the Griffiths Tea building and Key College House on Wentworth Avenue and both are in the process of being redeveloped. But nothing as yet has happened to my favourite empty Wentworth Avenue warehouse, Sheffield House.
Built around 1916 it is five storeys high with bay windows and rising sun motifs along the top, and originally housed a cutlery and tableware manufacturer. Before Sheffield House was built the area had been a warren of terrace houses and laneways. A sizeable Chinese community lived here as it was close to the Belmore Markets where many worked (the precursor to Paddy’s Markets, then in what is now the Capitol Theatre). After 1905 the area was resumed for slum clearance, the houses and laneways demolished, and wide Wentworth Avenue cut through.
Live in any place long enough and you become attuned to particular mysteries, and one I have long considered is the words on the side of Sheffield House. The white paint on the wall has faded to reveal layers of large, ghostly letters underneath. The words painted here must once have captured attention from a fair distance away, but now they are almost unreadably faded. Every time I passed by I made another attempt to decode the riddle, never giving up hope of cracking the code.
The sign kept up its mystery and I kept up my attempts to decipher it, year after year. As the white paint flaked away the shapes of the letters slowly became more distinct and it got to a point where I almost could make them out. I stopped looking at the surrounding details (other personal landmarks: the Brutalist ex-bank building on the corner of Foveaux St; a cluster of 80s office towers that was once the Tooheys brewery, always with offices for lease; the roof where the sign for Sharpie’s Golf House used to be) and directed my full focus towards it. On the train I made sure to sit on the correct side of the carriage for the clearest view. Down on the street I examined it from different vantage points, at different times of the day, hoping the sun would shine at just the right angle to reveal the mystery.
The day I decoded it wasn’t a moment of train-ride epiphany – my accomplice and I had decided enough was enough and went out with the express intention of deciphering the sign. Our ghost sign reading equipment was a tripod, a homemade wooden stand with a perspex clipboard attached to it, a piece of acetate paper, and a marker pen. We set up against the sandstone viaduct wall on Elizabeth Street, across from the pub I refer to as “Harry’s Singapore Chilli Crab”, after the banner picturing a joyful Harry and a not so happy crab that for years hung above its awning.
We stood there with our contraption, tracing out possible combinations of words. Then we got it! The sloping, cursive script across the wall resolved into the cursive script of “Penfolds” and below it, in block letters, WINES. Underneath it then I could suddenly see the earlier sign for PILLS – and it could only be Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, a patent medicine frequently featured on early twentieth century wall advertisements. After some archive-digging a photograph from the 1920s (below) confirmed my suspicions. To the far left was the ad for Dr Morse’s popular pills, a product purporting to cure biliousness, rheumatism, neuralgia, grippe, palpitation, nervousness and many other early 20th century complaints.
Both Penfolds and Indian Root Pills were common painted advertisements: in a curious parallel, the same ghost sign pairing exists in Abbotsford, Melbourne, as investigated on Melbourne Circle. It is a medicinal pairing: Penfolds wines also began as a therapeutic product. The vineyard was set up in South Australia in 1844 by Dr Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary, and produced fortified wines as a cure for anaemia. By the time this sign would have been painted, Penfolds had focussed on producing table wine, no doubt still regarded as medicinal to some.
There has in recent years been an upsurge of interest in ghost signs, those vestiges of previous eras of advertising that remain, fading on the side walls and upper levels of buildings. Sydney with its penchant for demolition is not particularly known for them, but I guarantee that once you start looking you will find them. Surry Hills’ ghost signs date from its manufacturing past, still faintly advertising overalls and workshirts, printers and chemists.
I know the answer to my Sheffield House ghost sign mystery now, and when I look at the wall from the train I can imagine the 1920s city of Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, when Surry Hills was a busy manufacturing district, or I can imagine a later incarnation, the Penfolds city of the 1940s. The sign is like a window cut into the present-day scene, allowing us to step through into the city of the past.
Once, when waiting for a bus on Enmore Road, I observed a small, handwritten notice affixed to the wall behind me. ROOM TO LET it said, in large, irregular capital letters, written in black marker, then STENMO and a phone number. I puzzled over what STENMO might mean. Was it an acronym? Or perhaps the name of the person to call about the room? No one else was around so I read the word aloud, and all of a sudden it made sense. STENMO was Stanmore.
Although I saw the STENMO notice many years ago and it has long disappeared, every time I pass that spot I think of it. Stenmo took root in my imagination – a version of Stanmore linked to particular memories. Stenmo is nourished by thick, oil-sodden chips from the Stanmore Fish Shop, with its handpainted sign of a spiky blue wave. It is a suburb of lemons overhanging fences, a suburb made up only of back lanes. The mascot of Stenmo is the Bassett Hound that belonged to the old Greek men who used to congregate in Weekley Park. It was a large, furry slug of a dog that chomped at the grass as the men sat talking and it would snap whenever a stranger got too close.
I forever hope to find DIY advertisements as good as Stenmo. My search mostly takes place on community noticeboards, which I love and always stop to examine. Some boards are in supermarkets, with ads written on cards and slotted in between metal dividers, others are pinboards, messy with layers of tape and pins built up from past notices. The notices employ all methods of construction, from handwritten to professionally printed. Some are written in biro on lined notepaper, some have photographs stuck to them with tape, others are designed using Word templates and wacky fonts and printed out at home, some are simply business cards.
Most noticeboards have a predictable selection of objects for sale: bed frames, wardrobes and dining tables (or, often, “dinning” tables). There is usually a teenager looking for babysitting work. A room to let. Pets lost or for sale. Music lessons. Part of the appeal of these notices is that they are handmade, and while they can be sorted into categories, each notice gives many clues to the identity of its author.
It was this kind of curiousity that inspired Miranda July to visit people selling objects through the Penny Saver classifieds, a free Los Angeles classifieds weekly. She wrote It Chooses You about visiting particular Penny Saver sellers, and her fascination with this lo-fi way of putting messages out into the world. She meets people all over the suburbs of Los Angeles, from a teenage boy selling bullfrog tadpoles he breeds in his backyard to the loquacious Joe, a man selling fifty Christmas card fronts for one dollar each. (Joe ends up playing himself in The Future, the film July was writing at the time of visiting the Penny Saver advertisers.)
Even if I never call, just by reading classified ads I have travelled to the woman selling the dinning table in Belmore, or the person selling the car bra “to suit Nissan Maxima” for $270, at least in my imagination. Each ad is a key to another’s life, somewhere in the suburbs.
Most boards contain at least one ad that is unusual, or perplexing, or outright funny. Sometimes this can be due to the obscurity of the service offered or item being sold, other times it is due to more of a Stenmo type language distortion. One of my all time favourites is an advertisement for a large dog rescue.
The particular noticeboard Dogs Free was being advertised on is generally covered in advertisements from this same, large-dog-rescuing seller. Most of the time there are no other notices than theirs, which present a bewildering array of items, from rocking horses to appliances and medical beds. The ads are written on scraps of paper, on photographs, and sometimes directly onto the surface of the noticeboard itself.
Over time, items recur, whether the same ones or multiples, such as the rocking horse.
Recently I noticed, in addition to those on the noticeboard, there were ads written in green marker on the metal shelf underneath the nearby public phone. The ads are moving out from the noticeboard to consume the surrounding streets, even making it onto t-shirts, as seen in yet another ad for the rocking horse.
Sydney’s master of ads beyond the noticeboard would have to be an individual dubbed by my friend Lucas as “Bar Fridge Man” or by others “Sign Man“. If you’ve spent any time around the inner suburbs of Sydney over the last fifteen years, you’ll be familiar with Bar Fridge Man. Objects – bags, chairs, paintings, shoes, eskies, garment bags, belts, folders, a Dungeons and Dragons game board, anything, everything – became canvases for ads, usually for beds or fridges or larger domestic appliances, always written in white-out to cover the entirely of the object beneath.
It has been some years since I’ve spotted one of these ads, but for a long time no walker around Redfern would be spared a sighting of some domestic object branded with an ad for a queen bed or similar. Almost as compelling a conversation topic as the Olympia Milk Bar, Bar Fridge Man fuelled much speculation. Was it legitimate? Was it art ? Or could it be made into art? There was at least one exhibition of a collection of these ads at Slot Gallery in 2004, with an accompanying text linking them to themes in contemporary Australian art, and also the chalk messages of Eternity, written on Sydney streets by Arthur Stace hundreds of thousands of times between the 1930s and 1960s. Could “Single Bed $100” be the work of a contemporary, commercially-minded version of Stace?
Before getting carried away with interpretation, there were more pressing questions to address. What happened when you called the number? Here, stories varied. The person who answered laughed and hung up. Or, they responded seriously to the enquiry, but said the single bed was sold. Or they made arrangements to meet; a number of people claimed to have visited the BFM headquarters. Someone had even bought a bed from them. Was the person behind the ads really a nice old guy, bemused by the attention he received? Stories varied enough for there to be a sense of mystery about the ads, which had almost ceased to be ads altogether and become more of a game, or a souvenir. Plenty of inner west houses had a BFM advertisement on the mantelpiece, mine included.
I did feel a little guilty about removing the painting from its location – amid a pile of trash outside the long-closed Castle Connell pub on Regent Street – but there were so many of these ads around the place that it didn’t seem as if it would deprive the seller of customers. Some ads, placed in more out-of-the-way positions, remained for years, such as this folder, hung up above the electricity meters of a block of apartments on George St, Redfern. It remained, rusting and water damaged, for more than a year before finally disappearing, although it was readable to the end: white-out on plastic folder is a durable medium.
As someone who always favours the DIY and unofficial, these ads were like small deposits of treasure, the kind of urban secret that was a reward for those who looked closely. They drew attention to the otherwise ordinary pockets of space in which they were left, on the fences of vacant lots, in the corners of stairwells, in disused corners. The street was transformed into one, vast community noticeboard.
While no successor to Bar Fridge Man has yet arisen, the most recent trend in street advertising are ads offering to buy houses. They appear on telegraph poles and fences, for people to notice as they drive by. The message is usually the same: WE BUY HOUSES. Every time I see them I try to imagine their target market: the kind of person who has it together enough to own a house, but would sell it to someone advertising on a telegraph pole, with an ad written in permanent marker on a square of corflute.
[A note about phone numbers: I have obscured the classified ad phone numbers but left the bar fridge man number, as numerous photographs of their ads exist already online. I also left We Buy Houses, as these signs are visible on fences all over the suburbs.]