As I walk into the Gap Road Smart Mart, my local store in Alice Springs, one Friday evening, a small Aboriginal woman sitting on the pavement reaches out, grabs me by the arm and says, ‘You give me lift into town.’
She has a strong grip; it takes some time to extricate myself. ‘I’m going to buy something in the shop,’ I say and walk inside.
It’s 8.30pm, and I’ve had a virus hanging around all day, which manifests itself in aches and pains and a sore throat. I’ve decided that Lemsip is the answer, though after perusing the store’s shelves, I find it’s no longer in stock. The Smart Mart has changed management, and the fancier, middle-class items like pesto, pecorino cheese, bundles of basil and parsley – and even Lemsip, it seems – no longer make an appearance. So I go for a traditional approach, and buy a couple of lemons and Paracetamol.
The Gap Road Smart Mart is one of a chain of independent grocery stores dotted across the suburbs of Alice Springs. It is a couple of blocks up from the Gap – the slash in the MacDonnell Ranges that provides the main entrance to town. The area is popular with Aboriginal visitors as somewhere to cadge lifts back to communities, and for its proximity to several cheap liquor outlets. Traditionally, the store has sought to court the out-of-town Aboriginal customer by selling grog, and serving hot, greasy food and kangaroo tails, a local delicacy.
I’ve been living in Alice Springs for six years, having relocated there in late 2003 in search of a ‘desert change’. Before this, I worked as a bureaucrat in Indigenous Affairs on the east coast for several years, often using Alice Springs as an entry point to conduct research about remote-living Aboriginal people in central Australia. I became increasingly interested in the issues affecting the region: enough to take up a policy position in a government agency in Alice Springs. At some level, I probably nurtured an overly romantic and idealistic desire to get closer to central Australian Aboriginal people and their concerns. But if anything, most of my time in Alice has been characterised by a sense of distance between its Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations. I may be able to observe what to outsiders might seem like subtle shifts in the lives of local people after changes in government policy, but I certainly feel no closer to Aboriginal people in particular, or to understanding the daily realities of their lives.
The Gap Road Smart Mart, where I queue almost daily with Aboriginal customers to buy basic items, is a case-in-point. A couple of years ago, the Smart Mart appeared to be going under because of the federal government’s introduction of income management through its Northern Territory Emergency Response – the ‘Intervention’. Compulsory income management was implemented in stages in seventy-three prescribed communities and town camps across the Territory from August 2007. Under this regime, welfare recipients receive half their income support or family assistance payment in a bank account or by cheque, while the other half is held in an income management account to pay for priority items. These include food, clothing, rent, utilities, health-related products and transport; certain items, such as alcohol, tobacco, pornography or gambling services, are excluded.
Originally, income-managed funds for purchasing essential items could be allocated to a specific store in a remote community, or to a store card for use at a retail outlet in town – mainly larger franchises like Woolworths, Coles and Kmart. Ever since then, Aboriginal people, especially women, have had a much greater presence in these franchises. But the fortunes of small businesses, like my local Smart Mart, plummeted once they lost Aboriginal customers from communities and town camps. Many of the Smart Mart’s shelves were bare for months: some products weren’t backfilled and whole aisles were sealed off. The then-owner complained in the local paper, saying that he and some of the other independent grocers across Alice Springs might have to close shop. It was also rumoured that several secondhand clothes stores had shut down once the large chain store cornered the market.
In September 2008, the government introduced a BasicsCard system that enabled those on income management greater access to their funds through EFTPOS at approved stores and businesses throughout the Territory, the independent grocery store chain in Alice amongst them. The Gap Road Smart Mart gradually took on a fresh lease of life. The shopfront was given a lick of paint and rebadged with the friendlier moniker of Pigglys Food Barn. Brighter lighting and refrigerated display cases were introduced. Aisles were reopened. A new owner, who’d reportedly run a store in an Aboriginal community, took over and the Smart Mart was stocked with the kind of things you might see retailed in large remote centres: sports clothes, cheap sandshoes, billy cans and other camping stuff – even trikes and bikes. Shelves were stacked with simple, plain food staples of the meatand-three-veg variety, along with a range of canned food: stuff for making an easy meal on a hotplate or over a campfire. The ubiquitous roo-tail fridge – a small, domestic freezer with a kangaroo logo on its sides – remained.
The shop was deliberately ‘Aboriginalised’. It had always been dependent on Aboriginal clientele; now, with the BasicsCard, it was cashing in even more heavily on their welfare dollar. Non-Aboriginal customers like me often got waved over to the register in the adjoining grog shop to check out more quickly. Shopping on income management seemed fiddly and time-consuming, involving consultation and phone calls to Centrelink.
On this particular evening, after I’ve queued and purchased my old-fashioned Lemsip ingredients, I find the little woman still sitting outside the shop with her bags. The area is alive with Aboriginal people – out-of-towners, many of whom are probably visiting for the central Australian AFL grand final. The youth centre next door is also open, and staff and kids are out on the pavement, sometimes drifting into the shop.
‘You give me lift,’ the woman repeats.
I hesitate. I’m reluctant to give in to humbugging, but is it really any skin off my nose to give an old lady a lift? I suspect she’s drunk, but she’s smaller and slighter than me. I can’t imagine she’ll give me much trouble. In some ways, she’s no different from the average homeless or street person anywhere. But the situation is overlaid for me with the ongoing sense of stand-off, of the almost unbridgeable apartheid between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations in Alice Springs.
‘Come on,’ I say, waving her over to my car. But she wants me to pick up her bags and carry them. She has three Woolies green bags that appear to be full of old clothes. She doesn’t have any food. Some young Aboriginal people who look like townies – well-dressed, cleancut types – look at me and snicker as they walk past. Do they think I’m a sucker?
Once inside the car, I ask the lady (‘lady’ is the term central Aboriginal women prefer) where exactly she’d like to go. The centre oftown isn’t very far away: maybe two kilometres. I’m hoping this will be, at most, a ten-minute random act of kindness.
The woman is vague. ‘I’ll show you,’ she says.
‘Hoppy’s, Namatjira…?’ I say hopefully, naming some town camps.
‘You buy me beer?’ she says instead as I pull out of the car park. There’s still time, I guess, for me to run back inside the grog shop.
‘No,’ I say. If she’s asking me, it means she’s probably run out of cash or reached her daily quota of grog: we have to show photo ID each time we buy alcohol in the Territory, to record how much we’ve bought that day.
The photo ID card is one of a raft of alcohol restrictions that have been trialed over the past few years in the Territory, with specific measures introduced to combat excessive drinking and its effects in Alice Springs. There is a strong local perception here that alcoholism is the province of a small group of (mainly Aboriginal) problem drinkers, with a lobby group of middle-class white burghers claiming that restrictions unfairly punish everyone in town. The reality is, however, that the Territory has a major issue with excessive drinking, regularly reporting the nation’s highest rates of alcohol consumption: in 2005–06, Alice Springs alone recorded twice the national average and four times the planet’s average.
Personally, I’ve felt the compulsion more strongly to drink in Alice Springs than in any of the east coast cities where I’ve lived: drinking provides a form of entertainment, bonding, diversion from some of the harsh realities of living in this desert town, particularly on long, hot summer nights. Distances are short in Alice, and it’s usually easy enough to get back home from a pub or a friend’s: that is, if you are white, can afford a cab fare, grab a lift from a mate or ride a bike, and have somewhere to live. As a result, you’re less likely to be ‘moved on’ or to be picked up by police. Aboriginal people’s drinking is more publicly visible, because much of it takes place outside in Alice Springs.
This largely relates to a lack of cheap and available accommodation in town, especially for itinerants, as well as an absence of safe places for Aboriginal people to drink indoors.
As I swerve out of the Smart Mart car park, I ask the lady again where she wants to go. She gestures, saying ‘up here’, meaning Gap Road: the narrow, white-gum-lined boulevard that leads into town. I have no idea where we’re going and how long this will take. I try to make polite conversation with her, asking where she’s from, but she closes her eyes and says, ‘I rest now.’
While she dozes, I consider dropping her off in the CBD, only a few minutes’ drive away. But where would be a safe place to drop off an inebriated old woman? I say ‘old’, but she might only be a few years older than me: mid to late forties. Her face has fallen in, her eyes are encrusted with gunk; she breathes heavily, phlegmy, like a percolator. Her body odour is strong, like that of a typical streetperson, except that it’s overlaid with smoke and the smell of kangaroo meat – I’ve been in central Australia long enough to recognise its distinctive tang.
When we get to the CBD, she opens her eyes and waves again, indicating that we’re to turn left and head up Larapinta Drive, the road running west out of town. We stop at traffic lights, and the lady winds down the window and loudly projects a volley of spittle outside. Once we cross the intersection, I tell her I’m tired, I’m not feeling well, and I’d like to get home myself. Where are we going?
She says what sounds like ‘Delward Street’. I don’t know where that is, or if I’m hearing her correctly: her accent is quite thick. We keep on driving; I slow down every time we pass a turn-off to a town camp or a caravan park, but she waves me on. My hands tense with frustration on the steering wheel.
Perhaps I’m not really cut out for being a soft touch, after all. In my experience there is – or there was – a fashion in some local non-government organisations to drop everything when an Aboriginal person walks through the door to immediately attend to their needs. I don’t believe this approach is healthy or ultimately helpful; it encourages dependency and is open to manipulation. I think it’s reasonable to maintain your normal parameters, unless a person is clearly in crisis. I’m trying to be kind but to also retain my boundaries here, and my virus-laden patience is wearing thin.
We reach Mount Gillen, a foreboding promontory in the MacDonnell ranges, the marker for the town’s western-most point. For my first six months in Alice, I lived in a government-owned unit in the opposite pocket of suburbia, informally known as ‘Larapinta’ because of its location on the road of the same name. My unit was in the last street in the town’s furthest-flung satellite, surrounded by tussocky, rolling bushland punctuated by sudden extrusions of orange rock. I thought of the area as the ‘wild west’.
I begin to fear that the lady wants me to drive her to a property out of town or perhaps further, to an outlying community like Ntaria, another ninety kilometres down the highway. Instead, she indicates for me to turn right at Albrecht Street (perhaps what I was hearing as ‘Delward’), the dividing line between the white middle-class residents and the largely Aboriginal housing commission ones. When I lived there, things were definitely livelier and noisier across the road: kids rode their bikes until late, adults drank on porches and there were often sounds of fighting at night.
We drive slowly up and down several blocks of Albrecht Street, past the stark front yards of dirt by the poorer dwellings. The lady says ‘it’s here’, then ‘no, maybe there’. She accuses me of driving too fast; I point out that there are three cars on my tail. We eventually drive into an old Crown land area that’s been sold off to developers, and reach a dead end.
All the while, she has been dropping me snippets of positive and negative reinforcement: ‘you lucky for me, lady’, followed by ‘anyway, you make me sick’. I’m hoping she means ‘you’ll make me sick’, rather than a moral indictment.
I turn back down Albrecht Street but the lady still can’t find the place she’s looking for, or remember the number of the house. Then she starts waving at the crossroad leading into the primary school; I object and she gets annoyed. I offer to take her up Lyndavale road, the crossroad on the next block that feeds into the housing commission area, where I suspect she really may have meant me to turn. She agrees.
We cruise slowly along Lyndavale, and round to the Larapinta grocery store, where she says, ‘you buy me beer’, followed by ‘you buy me smokes’, to which I reply ‘no’. Suddenly she remembers somewhere on Lyndavale she thinks we can go, and the whole procedure starts again. I’m wondering how long I can keep this up without going crazy – and more to the point, how long she can keep it up. I could take her to the women’s shelter, I suppose. But it probably would have been more practical for me to call the night patrol, an Aboriginal-run service dedicated to assisting people at risk on the streets of Alice, although who knows when they would have reached my old lady. There are plenty like her in town at the moment. Part of my Good Samaritan antics have no doubt been fuelled by the guilt and discomfort of living so close to a group of people on whose behalf I claim to be working but with whom I have few meaningful encounters.
But suddenly it seems there’s to be a happy ending, after all. The lady points out a block of flats with an ‘alcohol-restricted premises’ sign out the front, and gestures for me to drive into the car park round the back. We get out of the car, and she goes to a flat at the rear of the block. A couple of skinny, bushy-haired women come out. They give me a cursory glance, and start talking in their language. A man stirs in the darkness of the flat behind them. I don’t feel unsafe, but I don’t feel part of the picture.
I go back to the car and get the lady’s bags out, and give them to her.
‘Wait,’ she says. ‘Wait.’
Some negotiations seem to be taking place on the doorstep. Maybe this is just a stop-off? I fear the lady wants to go somewhere she can get booze.
‘What’s happening now?’ I ask. ‘Are you staying?’
‘Just take it easy!’ she says heatedly, and goes into the flat.
I’m not sure that I want to stay round; I don’t have the patience for this, and I’m feeling crook. I wish I was at home, making my old-fashioned Lemsip and climbing into bed. The old lady’s sicker than me; she probably has a chronic respiratory condition or even multiple serious diseases, none of which are uncommon out here. But she seems comfortable with these people, and I reckon they can deal with her.
I walk back to my car, jump in and drive off. No one appears to see me go or tries to stop me. I drive back towards the Gap area where I live, passing the Smart Mart on my way. The place is now dark and shuttered. When I get home, I drink my Lemsip, then watch a DVD. The next day, the smoky smell of cooked kangaroo gradually dissipates from my car.