… as with any story told in the known universe, you can go as far back in time as the Big Bang, as far in distance as any galaxy or star, or it could be about anyone’s life on this planet, but this story talks about some people in Australia, myself included, on a random early-July-2020-Tuesday, a day in which I was busy moving things in and out to equip and change houses in Melbourne…
I first came to collect a vacuum from an Indian’s house in Brunswick West. It took him a while to come downstairs after I announced my arrival to the unit condominium through a ‘Facebook Marketplace’ instant message. He showed up holding the vacuum. We both knew that a second-hand house appliance had to be tested before closing the deal.
- Come on in, he said in a thick Indian accent as he opened the door .
- Ok, I said in a thick Mexican accent.
- Sorry mate, we’ll have to go upstairs to my house, he covidly said after browsing and unsuccessfully finding a powerpoint in the parking lot.
- No worries, I covidly responded.
We did go upstairs but didn’t enter his house. We tried out the vacuum on a second floor in what seemed to be a storage room. The air exhaled when it turned on, was what I assumed his house smelled like. Sweet spices and scarce sunlight what my nose perceived. After a (very) clumsy demonstration of the quality and functionality of the vacuum, we closed the deal. For my own peace of mind, I attributed the clumsiness to the (very) few times he had used it which meant the air sucking machine was newer than older. I must confess such clumsiness also gave me what I thought was good leverage to bring the price down. You must be clumsy-less to gain negotiating leverage with an Indian. I wasn’t.
The next stop was a couple of suburbs down south in Flemington. I drove the mobile-app-hired ute with the vacuum resting at the back of my seat, and an overdose of technical discomfort sitting behind the steering wheel. It had been too long since I drove on the left side of the road and my brain struggled to acknowledge the existence of the left half of the vehicle. I managed to get safely to my friend, Guillermo. He uncovidly welcomed me with a smile, a handshake, a hug, and another handshake. A Mexican greeting at its best.
- ¿Qué pedo carnalito? – What up little bro?
- ¡Tranza carnal! – What up bro?
Guillermo had recently moved houses as well. He had a spare bed waiting for us to pick up in the house where he used to live in Brunswick. Before going to collect it, we took advantage of the ute and of a rubbish tip’s closeness to his former house to bring and drop a useless washing machine he needed to get rid of. After getting rid of it, we came to get the queen-sized mattress which perfectly fit the ute’s cargo tray and also allowed enough room to fit the pieces of its unassembled base.
- Acá en esta bolsita están los tornillos para que la armes, wey – here, in this little plastic bag you’ll find the screws to assemble it, dude.
- ¡Cáaaamaraass! ¿Necesito algún desarmador especial? Cooooool! Do I need a special screwdriver to do it?
- ¡Nel! – Nah!
Next stop, bringing the mattress into my new ground floor studio. We unloaded the mattress and its base and left it in my room – my one and only room. Justin, my 3% Spanish neighbour welcomed me to the building while taking the rubbish out to the recycling bins.
- Hey mate!
- You’re new to the building? he covidly asked, keeping a safe 1.5m distance.
- What’s your name?
- Oh! I’m Justin and I’m 3% Spanish according to my DNA test!
- Cool man!
- See ya!
- See ya! (¡Justino, el buen vecino! – Justin the good neighbouur! I said to myself and smiled because that phrase rhymes in Spanish).
We headed back to Guillermo’s new house. I dropped him there because understandably, he chose not to come with me to the mazed materialisation of the Nordic minimalistic capital of modern consumerism, IKEA.
- Ve a comprar tus cosas carnal, aquí te espero para ir por el refri al rato – you go get your stuff mate, I’ll wait for you here to then go pick up the fridge.
- ¡Cáaamaraass! – Ooook!
After eating two one-dollar hotdogs and a three-dollar Swedish meatball sub in the covid-free parking lot I grumpily did the shopping of all the basic utensils needed for a 21st-century life. As is usually the case in the palace of minimalistic Nordic design, I walked out with a couple of extra things they incisively made me think I’d need one day (Hey, do you mash potatoes? No! For $1.50, would you? Yes, yes I would!). I went back to my new studio to drop off the appliances designed for my comfort and then came back to Guillermo’s house.
St Kilda, a southern suburb over the Yarra River, was our next stop. We went to collect a mini-fridge that would hopefully fit my limited space. We arrived a few minutes late for our appointment because an ATM stop was necessary before the day’s final transaction. I tried to reverse park the ute to enter the second unit condominium of the day. It didn’t happen. Guillermo and I came up to the unit where the fridge was waiting for us with its soon-to-be-former owner.
- Hello, please come in! our host said distancing himself.
- Thanks! we said trying to decipher the covid etiquette rules of the house. Guillermo went in before I did.
I looked at the fridge and took out my measuring tape along with my little reporter notepad where I had captured the exact measurements of the space where I would later try to fit the fridge. It was perfect.
- Can we plug it in to make sure it works?
- Yes, he confidently said.
It worked perfectly fine. We made small talk for a bit longer to return him the favour of welcoming us into his house. Guillermo and I didn’t say anything about this interaction but our gesture felt very Mexican to me, and our host welcomed it. The house smelled like Middle Eastern food.
- Where are you from? He asked.
- Mexico, we said smiling. What about you?
He proudly illustrated our vague or inexistent knowledge of the typical Iranian home decor by pointing at a rug in his room lying next to the bed. It was anything but minimalistic: on the contrary, it was a complex and colourful mazed design.
- Very beautiful! we said looking at each other while nodding along. How are things in Iran with the virus?
- Well, you know the government makes it complicated. In Mexico?
After exchanging “let’s go” looks, Guillermo and I said thanks again and headed out. Once again, I fruitlessly tried to bargain the price down before leaving, this time with no leverage at all. We carried the fridge down and tied it to the ute’s cargo tray. I reversed our way out telling my brain there was a left half of the vehicle that shouldn’t be unattended.
We drove back up to Brunswick. It was a smooth ride. I can’t remember what we talked about but my guess is covid, music, women, and/or useless home appliances. Back at my studio, we carried the small-sized fridge and placed it in its perfectly measured nest. My last drop of the day was Guillermo. I drove him home and uncovidly repeated the Mexican greeting to say goodbye.
- Chido carnal, ¡gracias por tu ayuda! – Cool man, thanks for your help!
- ¡Ps a huevo, ya sabes carnalito! – Of course, no worries little bro!
I finally came back to my last stop, my sort-of-furnished new place. Way too tired to assemble the base for the mattress, I decided to get some sleep first and assemble it the next day, so I took IKEA’s sheets, pillows and quilt to dress the mattress that laid naked on the floor.
I slept fairly well. I opened my eyes the next day on a random, crisp Wednesday morning with that weird feeling of waking for the first time in a new place. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was – the smell of new carpet, the early conversation between magpies and crows, and the view of freshly painted white walls were too new for my senses and not quite homey yet.
I woke up, stretched my arms, and organised all the things that rested all over the studio’s floor. Once I felt ready to assemble the bed, I started to put the pieces next to each other until I realised any future efforts were futile because I lacked a key that I was unintentionally misinformed I wouldn’t need. An allen key was missing to screw the base together.
- This can’t stop me!, I silently said to myself
I didn’t want to sleep on the baseless mattress again, I wanted to sleep on a proper bed. While browsing through the house to test my luck, I heard someone walking outside the window. I could see a person in what was clearly a uniform, a fluorescent and navy blue uniform, a tradie!
I walked out of the studio to find him face to face. Unfortunately, his uniform proved to be nothing but a costume when I heard him saying with a thick Aussie accent:
- Sorry, mate! I didn’t bring my set of tools with the allen keys.
- No worries, mate! I said with my thick foreign accent.
For some reason that I’ll never try to understand, he gently said:
- Thanks, mate!
I came back into the studio, looked at the bed-to-be and asked myself, do I have anything else to do than find an allen key and build my bed today? The straight answer was no. Still wearing my PJs (a french bulldog/David Bowie cartoon t-shirt and black running shorts), I put on my orange hiking boots, grabbed a couple of screws, and went out decisively to find an allen key.
Where would I find it? I didn’t know. Standing at the entry of the building I wondered, right or left?
- Let’s go right! I told myself silently again.
Going right was one of those why-because-why-not-choices in life. As I started walking, questions started bombarding my brain:
How will I find it? Lying on the street? From a properly-equipped tradie? Will it be soon?
I didn’t bring any money with me so buying it was out of the list of questions. I knew I had to keep my eyes wide open. And so I did. After walking a few metres I started paying more attention to the houses. Maybe I’d see a neighbour having coffee on the porch, repairing an old bike, or destinely waiting for someone like me. None of the above.
But while keeping my explorer hopes high and paying more attention to the imaginary scenarios of how I’d find the allen key than to actually looking for it, I glanced at a window on my right-hand side. I kept walking and when the details of that glance gained colours and edges in my brain, I stopped and moonwalked. It was a workshop in the front room of the house!
Ok, was it really? I hadn’t even walked a full block. This wasn’t my usual kind of luck… but maybe today it was! No doorbell on the white wooden fence, so I unlocked it and uncovidly walked into the porch to knock on the front door.
- Yes, how can I help you? A middle-aged man said with a thick German accent. He perfectly matched with whom I thought would work in that workshop.
Trying not to over explain myself I said:
- Hi, I just moved in next door. I’m assembling some furniture but just realised I don’t have an allen key.
I showed him the couple of screws I was holding on my right hand and added:
- Looking from outside your window – (I led his sight with my eyes and my left hand to his workshop) I assumed you would have some tools.
Covidly looking at me, he murmured:
- Hold on…
And so he stepped into his house. He came back with a plastic bag with all sorts of allen keys of many shapes and sizes, screws, and other small tools I don’t know the name of. Looking at all those allen keys, I smiled and silently told myself: another victim of nordic minimalistic cheap and probably-functional design!
We tested the ones that seemed to fit better until one beautifully and perfectly clicked on one of the screws.
- Ha! Perfect! I said grinning.
With an expressionless face, he made eye contact with me and refraining from handing me the appropriate key, he looked at the house right next to his, then looked back at me freezing my grin, and asked:
- So, you moved in next door?
I instantly noticed he knew I wasn’t giving him complete information. Fair enough, I mean how can you trust someone with an allen key when he might be selling a falsehood… to your face!
- Oh! Well, I live half a block down this street…
There was a pause…
- Unit 32 number 122 Albion Street, I detailed my still incomplete answer.
He looked down at his hand holding the key. By this time, I was unsure if covid was taking over the situation, so I desperately added:
- I promise I’ll bring it back when I’m done. Half an hour, one hour tops!
He handed me the key. After building some basic trust and having my precious treasure with me, I felt entitled to ask:
- So, what do you build in there?
- Violins and cellos.
- Wow, do you teach how to do that? By the look on his face, I felt this was a question no one ever asked him before.
- No, I only make them.
… another brief pause.
- Do you play any instruments? He asked with the sharp and targeted curiosity of a professor.
- No, I said kind of ashamed of not passing the first test, but I do listen to a lot of music! I kind of desperately added.
Seeing little room to continue the conversation, the failed potential apprentice said while holding the key in front of his face and smiling:
- Well, I promise to bring it back!
I was so happy. I had the key to my comfy dreams and had met a person that I probably wouldn’t have in other circumstances. I assembled the base of the bed and thanked the god of the internet for keeping nordic minimalistic instruction manuals. I put the mattress on top of the base and made the bed. I looked at my studio and vacuumed it, I cleaned everything up, put the cutlery and the potato masher in its drawer, the food in the cupboards, the bags on the bins, the cleaning supplies under the basin and I opened the tiny fridge to grab a bottle of cool water to pour some in a tiny nordic glass and drink it. Looking around, I nodded along to no one with a resting bitch face in a sign of satisfaction and pride which suddenly disappeared when I saw the allen key looking right back at me! Time flies when you assemble bed bases! Two hours and I promised to be back in one!
Still in my PJs and hiking boots, I made my way back to my neighbour’s house, unlocked the gate and knocked on the front door. He opened the door knowing who it was. I gave him the key.
- Thanks a lot!
I could tell that, even when an hour late, I had gained his confidence when he unexpectedly said smiling:
- No problem. Was it a bed you were assembling?
- Yes, it was!
- So, you’ve never thought of having an apprentice?
- Not really. Why are you interested? You don’t play any instruments.
- Well, sheer curiosity. Would you mind if I came one day to watch you work?
I could tell he was somewhat flattered with my question but not comfortable enough to say yes.
- Maybe one day…
- Is it the current situation?
Wordlessly, he also said: even this interaction is way too much for me.
- Fair enough! What if I come visit when things go back to normal?
- Yes, ok.
- What’s your name?
- Martin, Martin Herzog.
- I’m Pablo. I said my name imagining we were shaking each other’s hands. Where are you from?
- Germany, you?
The last gentle pause came,
- Ok, Martin thanks again and I’ll see you hopefully soon!
- Ok, take care.
I could hear him softly closing the door behind me. I walked back to my brand new studio which had a vacuum, a fridge, home appliances, and a bed in it.
… and while the universe keeps expanding itself, the earth keeps spinning, and the sun keeps shining, this is a brief episode of some people’s lives in Melbourne, mine included, and how I covidly and uncovidly met Martin Herzog.
Exhibits (in order of appearance)
Exhibit A – Sweet spiced air-sucking machine
Exhibit B – Mobile-app-hired-ute
Exhibit C – Unassembled bed
Exhibit D – Nordic Potato Masher
Exhibit E- Former middle-eastern-food electric cooler
Exhibit F – PJs and hiking boots
Exhibit G – Key to my comfy dreams
Exhibit H – Home to my comfy dreams