Nicholson Street is a twentieth century shipwreck of architecture. It is a magnificent mess. It is a proud dowager wearing a faded dress and cobwebs. It is a jumble of Victorian shopfronts and Edwardian houses and 1950s grease monkey workshops and accountants’ offices and suburban law firms and Thai cafes and factories making God knows what. Nicholson Street is tattoo parlours and ugly video stores and bicycle shops and newspaper publishers and pasta manufacturers and student houses with Tibetan flags across their front doors, bikes on their front porches and naked bulbs glowing in uncovered windows.
And trams run through it.
I was on foot, heading south on the west side, the North Carlton side. It was dusk, almost six o’clock, and bleak. A tram trailing phosphorescent dust flew north, loaded to the gunwales with scarved and wired commuters bound for the home fires of East Brunswick, and red wine, and Mozart. I walked past Bande a Part, a pizza place for Franco-cinephiles where you can wear a beret and pretend you are Jean-Paul Belmondo while you read last week’s Le Monde - or at least the Tour de France results in the back of The Age. No Gauloises, however, unless you sit out the front in the cold air. As I passed, the door opened and a woman who looked like Anna Karina appeared in the doorway. Long dark hair framing brooding black eyes, full red lips and a worried expression. Or was that a half smile? ...
I didn’t know. I was walking too fast to notice. Anyway, I always preferred Truffaut. Godard took himself way too seriously. Although any 1960s French movie is galaxies ahead of the juvenile rubbish Hollywood pumps out these days. Walking makes you think such things. I was walking fast because I was on my way to the weekly exercise class I have taken up to ward off arthritis, and the thirty minute walk is my warm-up.
At the top end of its shopping strip (meaning Park Street – Nicholson Street meanders through to Coburg) the early iron verandahs that shade the footpath still bear some of their original wrought iron lacework; except where some wayward truck has torn it down leaving ugly gaps, like a Frankston smile. The older shops at this end have been hanging on for years; but they are, one by one, slamming their cast iron cash registers shut and giving way to the whirring credit card culture of a new era of cafes and bars and the 'eco-friendly' trade. But some old stores refuse to go, and crouch under their section of darkened verandah hoping no developer will notice. But they will, eventually. Some of the old traders still do good business, of course. Canals seafood has a sign on the front window that reads 'since 1917'. Natural Tucker bakery dates back a few decades, and if you happen to be out late at night you can watch through its front window as the bakers shove trays into the ovens. The smell of baking bread on the cold night air makes this a worthwhile experience. Next door, the dry cleaners has been emitting fumes since 1949, but only during the day.
I walked on. Now another cinematic allusion: Birdie Num Nums - a café, not a pet store or stock feed outlet. Then an organic fruit and vegetable store, the Milawa cheese shop, a Thai restaurant, and a kebab shop. I crossed the road near Moonlight Receptions, a fat square green 1980s building that is so ugly, they grew giant palm trees around it and festooned it with fairy lights. It looks like a bull elephant trying to be a ballet dancer; a piece of Gold Coast kitsch wedged into a Victorian streetscape. Next door is a specialist Italian sportscar workshop, so you can get your Ferrari fixed while you’re drinking spumante at the wedding.
Later, after the class, I walked back up Nicholson Street from Alexandra Parade. It was a clear, cold night and a crescent moon hung in the north-west sky, and a bright star beneath it. The moon was leaning back as if straining to tow the star across the sky. I walked past the art deco San Remo ballroom, which stares across the road at St Brigid’s church. In the old days the locals would have met on one side of the road and married on the other. Maybe they still do. Farther north, next door to each other, are Woodstock and L’Osteria, two old-style Italian eating places full of gingham tables and dark timber and customers and moustached waiters. More Edwardian houses, then on a corner, Fireflies wine bar, which has restored the lost art of exterior neon lighting. A few doors up, El Gaucho Argentinian Grill had a sign in its window Watch the Worl Cup here. I felt like adding the 'd'. Across from El Gaucho, Il Carretto was busy. A cook was twirling pizza dough in the window and a painted two-wheeled jinker sat out the front just to ram home the theme.
Then past the North Carlton bus and tram depot. At night the red and yellow buses fade to monochrome under the moon and their rooves glisten with dew. The buses are parked on one side of enormous diesel fuel silos. On the other side, behind locked cyclone wire gates, a brigade of W-class trams sits two abreast in stony silence, their Cyclops eyes staring at the old buildings across the road, as if to say We're older than you. Tomorrow, they will thunder and crash out onto Nicholson Street, just as they have done every day since when, 1912?
Visit: Happy Inn. A time-warp Chinese café with venetian blinds in the window and signage that is a bad imitation of the typeface that ANZ Bank used in the 1970s.
Browse: The Little Bookroom, a specialist children's literature store named after the Eleanor Farjeon collection of stories. I've been buying books here since the 1970s - originally for William and Thomas' much older brother and sister - but the store was in Elizabeth Street then.
I might quit the exercise class and just do the Nicholson Street return walk. It's more interesting than falling off a Swiss ball. And cheaper.