It was lunchtime. I sat in the window of a Swan Street cafe with a chicken and salad sandwich on Schwob's multigrain and looked out at the grime. Of Richmond's three main east-west streets, Swan Street has changed least in twenty-five years.
There are new shops and too-expensive cafes in which to waste your money, of course. In fact, only two retail tenants remain from twenty-five years ago when I first frequented this street; and they are next to each other - Bertie the butcher and the Commonwealth Bank, except the bank was the State Bank in those days. But Swan Street has the same down-at-heel atmosphere it had when I used to stroll up here from Church Street for lunch in 1983.
That's not to say it has no charm. The Dimmey's building is still interesting, even though it looks like it hasn't been cleaned since Richmond football club last won a premiership. In the early 1980s there was another department store - Ball's - at the other end of the street, on the corner of Church. Ball's had those flying-fox money cylinders that shot across the ceiling on wires, like a kind of retail circus. Then Ball's closed and Dimmey's got lazy in the knowledge that it no longer had any competition for its $2 singlets, teamless football socks and 150 thread-count sheet sets and didn't even have to try to look nice any more.
I flicked through a copy of The Age ("Property of This Cafe Do Not Remove") and read an ad placed by a government department warning people of the dangers of returning to their burnt-out homes. One of the dangers was ash, and you were supposed not to raise dust. Good luck with that in 400,00 hectares of devastation. The ad cautioned residents of homes that aren't there any more to avoid taking children back to burnt-out properties where possible. Sure, just drop them off at the daycare centre on top of the mountain. One paragraph commenced with the following claim: "Bushfires generate large amounts of smoke and ash ...". Who writes this stuff?
I turned the page, finished my sandwich and went back to work.