The other day I was leaving Woolies (sic?). That's the usual Australian diminutive for Woolworth's Supermarket* in Prahran about 4 blocks from our townhouse in South Yarra, Melbourne. At this moment if I were using footnotes in my Letters I would have the asterisk direct you to the bottom of the page and make optional your reading this minor digression to the main theme of this opening. However, I'm sure that many Americans who have never been to Australia would be surprised and intrigued to read the Woolworth's name surviving and thriving Down Under. Is this the same Woolworth's chain that was a center-piece of so many American cities' downtowns: the low end retail variety/department store/luncheonette counter otherwise known as Woolworth's Five and Dime that thrived especially in mid-20th century America, but died a corporate bankruptcy death in 1997?
Well, the short answer is no. Woolworth's of Australia began in 1924. The name, Woolworth's, was not trademarked so the retailers used the name for their original variety store in Sydney. It is now one of the largest companies (I believe the largest retailer) of Australia, owning or partly owning such familiar brands as Dick Smith (home electronics), Safeway (now gone), Big W (homewares), Caltex (gasoline/petrol), Dan Murphys (biggest liquor retailer), Masters (failing big box hardware store), gambling (poker machines) and credit cards (with HSBC).
But now returning to the main narrative: as I was leaving Woolies mid-week afternoon, I was approached by a 20's something woman who asked, "Do you have any spare change?" She was not unkempt, nor looked especially to be suffering from a substance abuse problem. Notwithstanding, I only had a $5 Aussie note as my lowest denomination, so I said, "No." and went off to my car in the parking lot across the street from the market. I most likely would not have given her any change at that moment, if I had some anyway. In general I do not give change to panhandlers who ask, though I am not 100% on that non-practice.
But as I got into my car I was struck by the sudden realization of a continuing non-event that was only brought to my consciousness by this woman's request. I've been living in Melbourne for four months and this was the first time I was actively (very mildly aggressively) asked for money (e.g. panhandled or bluntly begged) by anyone. What a contrast to my American experiences in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, New York, Santa Monica, Downtown Los Angeles, New Orleans - where not in the States?
My wife, Denise, and I had reflected on the relative dearth of street people we've seen (or not) in Melbourne's downtown CBD. Indeed, the city may have a policy of sweeping these people off the street and moving them to another section of town, but I don't think so. I know that on Chapel Street, in front of Cole's Supermarket (the other major competing chain to Woolworths), a regular beggar or two sit quietly with a sign. These two guys do look like alkies but they do not call out or say anything when they sit. But that's it for Melbourne's down and out.
Maybe if I think hard, I've seen one or two other guys sleeping or lying around (Yeah, there was one in a doorway/alleyway off Flinders Street near Federation Square) but again I really have to concentrate and think because it's so rare. I am determined in my overarching goal of my Letters from Melbourne series to compare and contrast the two countries, Australia and the United States, in their attitudes and mores. But in this case, I was daunted by the idea of considering homelessness in the two countries, only because so much has been written about the terrible developments in America. I would be confronted with the sheer volume of data and theories. So I will not attempt to write anything definitive on this subject. I will offer some opinions and then take you to a surprising and very informative website I discovered along the way.
I'm old enough to remember state hospitals for the mentally ill in America. Many of them were travesties and were the subject of critical reviews in newspapers, books and movies (Titticut Follies, the 1967 Frederick Wiseman documentary, comes to mind). A genuine humanistic movement to empty the state hospitals and replace them with community based mental health centers in the 1970s never really happened. Psychotropic drugs like Thorazine and Haldol allowed the state to discharge patients but there was never really a replacement for the support and structure these people needed to avoid the streets.
Combine this exodus of the mentally ill with the increasing gap between rich and poor in America beginning in the 1980s, and I believe you have the general formula for one more seemingly intractable American problem. I never saw a real homeless person (and granted I've lived a fairly protected life) until 1981. I remember clearly Denise and I were heading to some public tennis courts in Santa Monica and two pretty down and out denizens were rolling up their sleeping bags on the hillside next to the courts. Both of us were mystified. What the heck was going on?
Any of you remember Moon Dog who used to frequent the 42nd Street area of New York in the 1970s. But he was of a different cloth (literally?) than these two down and outers. Moon Dog actually received a New York Times obituary when he passed. He was considered a New York phenomenon during his time.
More and more non-mentally ill people, who had lost their homes or apartments, were also on the street starting in the 1980s. The American safety net had also failed them. An extreme example today, is the area just east of old downtown Los Angeles. The downtown is gentrifying rapidly but if you drive on 3rd or 4th street to the Art or Warehouse districts you cannot avoid street after street ("How long does this sad, tragic horror go on for?" you ask yourself when you drive by -probably with your windows rolled up) of people living on the street, in tents, in poorly made shacks or just with sleeping bags. It's a goddamn barrio or favela in the heart of Los Angeles. This is America? Can you note some outrage and shame here?
Well there's nothing remotely close to this in Melbourne or in any of the Australian cities I've traveled to in previous visits here. I tried to look up on Google some explanations for Australian social policy on homelessness vis-à-vis America's. I'm sure there's some good stuff out there but I couldn't find anything specific enough. But then I happened upon the OECD Better Life Index for Australia.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was formed in 1961 and is based in Paris. It is really a continuation of the OEEC, an organization started in 1948 to assist in the reconstruction of devastated Europe after WW II. Its mission is to assist in national policy formulation by comparing certain living conditions in its different member countries ("to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well being of people around the world"). There are 34 member countries. Each country contributes to the OECD budget based upon its relative GDP. At this time the U.S. contributes 21% of the OECD funding. Japan is second. All the countries of Western Europe and many other European and 1st and 2nd world countries are members. Neither the Russian Federation nor China is part of the OECD but statistics are maintained for the former (as we shall see).
So in my interest to do some research on the causes and prevention of homelessness in the U.S. and Australia I discovered this treasure trove of comparison data on a whole host of living conditions. I think in reviewing this data in general, we may reach some specific conclusions on the causes for states of homelessness in the two countries. Here we go (all this is from the OECD's Better Life Index 2015):
(The numbers in bold represents rank from 1 to 34. Numbers following countries are often relative though for each category. Check the website on how the computations were made.)
Housing: your housing conditions and spending 1 US 8.1 4 AUS 7.4 34 Turkey 2.1 Income: household income and financial wealth 1 US 10.0 10 AUS 4.9 34 Brazil 0.1 Jobs: earnings, job security, unemployment 1 Iceland 9.5 4 AUS 8.3 9 US 8.1 34 Greece 1.5 Community: quality of your social support network 1 Ireland 10.0 9 AUS 8.2 15 US 7.4 34 Korea 0.0 Education: your education and what you get out of it 1 Finland 9.1 3 AUS 8.1 19 US 7.0 34 Mexico 0.5 Environment: quality of your environment 1 Sweden 7 AUS 8.6 17 US 7.3 34 Chile 2.0 Civic Engagement: your involvement in democracy 1 AUS 9.5 14 US 34 Chile 0.0 Health: how healthy you are 1 NewZealand 9.3 3 AUS 9.2 11 US 8.1 34 Russian Federation 0.6 Life Satisfaction: how happy you are 1 Denmark 10.0 9 AUS 9.2 11 US 8.7 34 Greece 0.0 Safety: murder and assault rates 1 Japan 10.0 4 AUS 9.6 15 US 8.9 34 Mexico 0.4 Work-Life Balance: how much you work, how much you play 1 Denmark 9.8 25 US 5.3 26 AUS 5.2 34 Turkey 0.0 Social Inequality: top 20% compared to the bottom 20% 1 Mexico13.67 5 US 8.19 16 AUS 5.42 34 Iceland 3.58
Here are some categories that really stand out to me when comparing Australia to the U.S.: income (US makes more) but in everything else Australian life seems better; jobs, community, education, civic engagement, health and safety. I'm curious given all these apparent advantages that Australians rate their life satisfaction only slightly higher than Americans. I think they may be spoiled. Actually most recognize they have a good thing going here and increasingly view developments in America with much alarm, even given the major cultural/marketing influence the States have on Australian society.
How do these societal/economic/cultural differences add up to addressing homelessness in the two countries? You figure it out. I might mention both countries have the same access to psychiatric drugs (they are less expensive in Oz). I don't know too much about Australia's involuntary treatment laws. They appear to vary state by state. Some require that the person be a danger to themselves or others which is typical for the U.S. But some states (like Victoria where Melbourne is located) only require a psychiatrist at a psychiatric facility designate the patient as suffering from a specific mental illness that requires in-patient treatment. This would appear to be less restrictive than the laws in America. I wonder again whether or not my oft-stated notion that American fervor in support of individual rights makes involuntary hospitalization and treatment more difficult than in Australia.
On a much lighter note [SENSITIVITY ALERT! YOU MAY FIND THE FOLLOWING TMI OR GROSS -- SO PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK] do you know you cannot buy an athletic supporter (aka a "jock strap") in Australia? In my recovery I have found this type of garment that I have worn since adolescence for tennis, quite useful in keeping certain pads I've need post-operatively in place. I had brought four supporters with me from America anticipating playing tennis up to four times a week, which I had been doing in California.
But I thought it would be a good idea to purchase a couple more for my recovery period (like wear one every day). So I walked over to Rebel, the large chain sports department store on Chapel Street near my house and looked for a section that might have them on display. After about five minutes a lovely experienced saleswoman asked me if she could help. I asked, "Do you carry athletic supporters. They're also called jock straps," I said in my clear American accent. "What are they?" she countered. She had never heard of them.
When I described them, she said the store didn't carry them. But as I described their purpose, (not for wearing protective pads but in active sports), she suddenly put her finger to her head and said, "I think I know what might work." We walked over to the cricket section of the store and she pulled out wicket keepers' briefs. I've learned a bit about cricket (barely but enough to follow and stick around for about an hour of a six or seven hour match) and knew that the wicket keeper crouches behind the wickets and receives the ball from the bowler who is attempting to get this pretty hard ball past the batsman who is standing in front of the wickets. Anyway, the wicket keeper is the only guy on the field with a mask, a chest protector, a glove (to catch the ball) and apparently some protection over the sensitive area around his groin, hence the wicket keepers' briefs for which one can also purchase a protective plastic cup (I didn't need that).
I was skeptical but without any other choices, I bought two pair (large) and took them home. I also went on line and searched for "athletic supporters/Australia" on Google and came up with nothing. You could buy them but only from American or British companies, pay a significant mailing charge and have to wait two weeks or so for them to arrive. I cannot remember exactly, but I think I then substituted jock strap for athletic supporter and suddenly found an Australian website that featured "jock straps."
I was terribly excited because the company's warehouse was located in Kensington about a 20 minutes drive away but as I looked more closely I was annoyed that the cheapest jock strap was $34! Then I started to recognize the provocative nature of the photos of the men's groins and realized I was onto a homoerotic website called The Undie Guys. I actually called the telephone number and spoke to Bowdie who said "Come on over." I don't think he meant it as a come-on line, but I was ready to go over, nevertheless. However, by the time I could get into the car no one was answering the phone so I passed.
Later at the tennis club I asked a guy my age who had also had a prostatectomy, if he knew how useful an athletic supporter could be. He said, "What's an athletic supporter?" I took him aside and showed him the one I was wearing (very discreetly). He said, "I never seen one before and I don't think we have them in Australia."
I called up my son (age 28), Martin, and asked him if guys still wore athletic supporters. He said they didn't and used briefs instead. I then called my buddy, Tom Revelli, the owner of Montclair Sports in Oakland. The store has been around since 1957. Tom started as an employee in 1968 and became the owner in 1977. I asked him about jock straps. I knew he still sold them because I bought two last year from him.
"Sales are almost gone, Larry," he said. He was tickled I was calling him all the way from Melbourne about jock straps, actually, for any reason. I told him calling internationally with Skype was pennies. "We still sell a bunch to boys playing Little League or Pop Warner where it is still a rule to have that protection. They absolutely have been part of the culture but it's dying out. We sell them for about $10 an item." I thought I had paid less but he probably knows better. He's the owner and sells them.
I considered giving him my credit card number and having him mail me three or four American jock strap (my favorites are Dukes). But I had already tried on the wicket keepers brief and they actually work great. They are my favorites for when I'm leaving the home because I feel so secure. I bought two more. I told my urologist about it and he was surprised and pleased for me (I think he gives me a lot of leeway because I'm American, meaning "overseas/self-paying/non Medicare"). Of course, I'm hoping in the next weeks to no longer need these accoutrements. AND I'm not going to try to figure out why America has jock-straps and Australia doesn't!
Finally, more Australian words that are not in the American lexicon: motza (or motser) - lots of money, especially a sum won in gambling probably of Polish derivation; pranged - to have collided or bumped into, as in hitting or denting a car (wonderfully onomatopoetic!) likely British slang; silvertail - a person of affluence or influence - Australian derivation 1895-1900; and finally, spruiking - to make or give a speech, especially extensively or elaborately (1915-20 origin unknown).
By the way many Australians don't know these words either, but I read all of them in the Age. Also an infringement is a parking ticket. I learned that by getting two of them in three days by not very closely reading the four parking signs involved each in the two spots I chose! Well that's enough on Oz and us (U.S.) today. G'day mates (I hear very few people here using that expression!).