Wednesday, April 25, 2012


To see a short trailer of a video project in progress of Ernesto's story go to:

Bill's (Ernesto's) house

Driving home from work one day, I noticed a place that I had passed numerous times over several years which had always intrigued me. It was an old, ramshackled house with 2 sheds and an array of interesting detritus scattered over a large corner suburban block. There was a hand painted sign placed out the front, near the roadside that simply read, ‘Wagon Wheels for sale’. 

On other occasions, I had noticed other hand painted signs, selling things such as pigeons and various other objects. I had always wanted to stop and investigate this place whichplagued me with a voracious interest, but I never had the courage. To my delight on this day, a new sign appeared which read ‘clearance sale’. As I was looking for antiquated kitchen objects for a project I was working on, I had the perfect excuse to stop and take a closer look.

I went home first to get the back-up of my trusty assistant on occasions such as this, as it seemed like a place you wouldn’t want to approach alone. As we drove up and approached the crumbling concrete wall of the front fence, a tall, stocky, young man with unruly black curls wearing a black t-shirt with marijuana leaves and black jeans greeted us. He introduced himself as Charles. We shook his giant, grubby, hand for which he apologised, as he had been helping to clean up the property. At this point I wondered whether I might have misjudged our visit and perhaps we should quietly disappear from the scene.

I asked him if he had any old kitchen utensils or object that he may be selling and while he looked a little perplexedafter my second time explaining, he said he’d have to ask ‘the boss’ who was inside on the phone. I was relieved when he didn’t invite us in. He yelled inside the door, down the long dark corridor until eventually a small silhouette slowly approached from the depths of the house. The stooped figure limped slowly, leaning heavily to one side, until he reached the daylight of the doorway where we stood.

Ernesto in the back of his house

Charles introduced us to ‘Bill’ in a loud yelling tone, then in a normal tone, as if Bill wasn’t there, explained to us that he was hard of hearing and we would have to speak very loudly. Bill had long, unruly grey hair which reached his shoulders, in a style not unlike Albert Einstein. He wore a blue long sleeved button up shirt and a pair of baggy, cream pants, which were dishevelled and dirty. We shook his rough, hard hand which showed evidence of  years of manual labour.  Charles had finished work for the day and left us in Bill hands.

I nervously, and loudly explained to him that I was looking for old kitchen utensils while he rubbed his stubbly chin, thinking hard of what he might have. He finally stated he might have some things that were suitable, but would have to remember where they were. He told us to look around to see if there was anything we might see interested in. I had already eyed off a few rusty items strewn amongst other debris in the front yard, and calmly put them together in a pile.

By the way they were stored, it appeared that they mightn’t have much value to Bill, but as I asked him whether he might part with each item he hesitated, told me a long story about each one and then said he wasn’t really going to part with it just yet. I later learned that these rusty kitchen implements which were no longer functionalhad belonged to his mother and then understood that they would have far more sentimental value than monetary.   

Ernesto in the corn patch
He explained that he was cleaning up the whole property and was selling everything as the council had been harassing him for years to clean up the property and now threatened him with prosecution. As his property extended to 2 large residential blocks, he was clearing all of his things from one to the other and selling all he could so he could sell the vacant block in order to help his family financially.

He invited us to look around and see if there was anything else we might be interested in. My heart lit up with excitement. He had two hand built sheds on one of the street fronts which I agonised to see inside. To my delight, he invited us in, and although my trepidation was still strong, it was overcome by my curiosity. As he struggled with the heavy chain and lock, we anxiously helped him drag the massive steel door along the ground in anticipation.

We weren’t disappointed as we looked inside what was like an Ali Baba's cave, for aficionados of junk like myself. The shed was overfilled with an array of eclectic chaos, ranging from furniture, rusty tools, wagon wheels, scraps of metal and a myriad of other objects I couldn't even identify. Bill's most proud item was a 1920's horse drawn Amish carriage. We politely asked if we could have a look inside and he welcomed us, but remained at the door as he couldn’t walk well and there was hardly enough room for passage let alone 3 people entering at once.

My eyes were overwhelmed by the wealth and breadth of Bill’s stash and I found it hard to hide my excitement, not really knowing where to look first. As we carefully climbed over objects, we slowly moved deeper into the den of antiquities. As daylight was becoming dim, I figured that if allowed, we would have to come back at another time to see everything in detail. We finally found an item that Bill was willing to part with and made a purchase of anold metal 3-wheel scooter.

Bill asked if we would like to return the following week as he remembered that he had an old knife somewhere that I might be interested in. I asked if I might bring my camera the next time and take some pictures of him and his amazing array of treasures and he kindly agreed.

Ernesto cooking pasta on his wood stove

On our next visit we brought some scones and Bill invited us into his home. We sat around the kitchen table as he shelled a great load of fresh peas he had just bought from the market. The kitchen was large and dark with one small window behind where he sat. There was a wood fire burning on an old stove and he told us he hadn’t used the electric one for years after it stopped working. A pot very slowly was coming to the boil for the pasta dish he was making.

As Bill continued to shell his peas he told us many stories about his youth and his family. Bill’s parents had built this house in 1950 after immigrating to Australia from Italy in 1927 and he had lived there ever since. The house was like no other in the area. It was symmetrical double story house with a gabled roof on each side. Each side also had a small balcony which a door from the second floor opened on to.  All of the windows downstairs were beautiful lead lighting and a small porch covered the front door in the middle of the house.  The house was now very dilapidated and run down as Bill told us he had let it go. In its day it must have been quite magnificent and relatively unique for this area. 

Bill had 3 sisters, one of which had died in the house as a teenager when Bill was very young. He told the story with great sadness in his voice and a heavy heart. She had contracted an infection from what he believed was an infected tooth after swimming in a public pool. He pointed upstairs where her room was and told us he never goes upstairs now. He told of how his mother and father were always singing prior to her death and how the singing and music in the house stopped after their daughter’s passing.

He told us of how the Australian’s he had met had treated his family in the 1950s and how they were made to feel like outcasts, being were called names and ostracised. He told us the story of how one of his sisters worked in the city and how her colleagues wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street as her because of her ethnic background. Bill seemed to still be living with the ghosts of thattitudes towards immigrants at that time.

He became very interested in our backgrounds and when he learnt that I was of Spanish heritage he began to sing in perfect Spanish. Solamente una vez, only once time, a beautiful love song about only once finding true love and then no more. I asked him if he was ever married or had any children. He said that he nearly got married once but it didn’t work out and the song became all the more significant.

Bill’s stories nourished us with history, richness and sadness, regret and optimism. His biggest hurdle was that his health was ailing and he had the pressure to clean up his property and get rid of his many loved possession and tools. He had a condition in his leg which caused him a lot of pain and couldn’t walk very well and his deepest regret seemed to be that he couldn’t stand at his forge anymore and continue the profession which he had practised all of his life.
Ernesto in the corn patch

He then told us about one of his proudest achievements, which was his corn patch in the backyard. Bill loved corn but this wasn’t just any corn, it was special maize that he planted from seeds he had sent from overseas. He told us that he couldn’t live without corn and when we expressed interest he slowly struggled down the stairs into the sloping backyard to show us his pride and joy. There were several rows of small seedlings, not unlike sprigs of new grass poking out of the newly toiled ground. He asked us to carefully mind our step to make sure we didn’t step on any as some were haphazardly placed. Bill talked at length about his love of corn and how we would have to come back again when the corn was ripe so we could try some.

As time went by, I noticed that the great collection of items slowly disappeared from his front yard as I drove past on my way to work. It saddened me to think how he must be feeling about this change and how this once amazing site was beginning to loose its unique character and interest. For Sale signs went up and I figured it was just a matter of time before this history was lost and thought of the importance of documenting the site and the man who had created it. 

We continued to visit Bill and watched his corn patch grow larger each time until small ears of corn appeared. It wouldn’t be long now before we would be feasting on this succulent harvest. Bill told us that this was corn like no other and not anything like the corn you could buy in shops here. He didn’t trust a lot of food. He didn’t eat meat as all because of the chemicals he believed were added to them. He also never drank or smoked and lived a relatively health life. On one of our visits Bill notified us that the corn would be ready in 2 weeks and that we were to come on Sunday to share in a feast.

Ernesto's office where he does all his paperwork

About a week and a half passed and I got a phone call from an unknown number. A mans voice introduced himself as Jo, Bill’s cousin and he sadly informed me that Bill had suffered a heart attack while alone at home and had also fallen in his broken his arm. My heart sank. He was in intensive care and when he had gained consciousness had asked his nephew to call me, to let me know what had happened as we were expected at his place on Sunday.

I couldn’t believe that in Bills state of crisis he was worried we might turn up and he wouldn’t be there. Through his life-threatening crisis he thought of his new friends and his promise of corn. I asked Bill’s cousin to send him my love and wish him all the best for a speedy recovery as I was waiting to try that corn finally. Jo told me that Bill’s face lit up when he mentioned this and I felt grateful that I could bring some happiness to him at this time.

I asked Jo if it was possible to go and visit Bill in hospital and he said that Bill would like that very much. He also told me that only 2 family members were allowed in ICU at a time but didn’t seem to think we would have any problems. With much trepidation, we snuck into the hospital, passed the front desk and finally, trying to look inconspicuous, located Bill’s room.

Bill was lying in the bed with all kinds of machines hooked up to him making lots on beeping sounds and buzzing. His arm wasin a plaster and he was dressed in a hospital gown. His complexion was a shade of grey but he was conscious and his face lit up and we entered the room. There was another woman in the room who introduced herself to us as his sister.

We greeted Bill and asked how he was feeling; to his sister’s disgust when we called him Bill. She was horrified that he was using that name and told us it was not his real name, which she then informed us was Ernesto. Bill seemed a little embarrassed when we found out. Like many immigrants, we figured Bill used this name as it would be a little easier for Australians to get their tongue around as well as less ethnic, attitudes Bill expressed he had been troubled by previously. Our visit wasn’t long as I felt it was really a family affair and didn’t want to impose ourselves, but just let him know we were thinking about him. He also seemed very tired and in pain.

I kept in contact every few days with Jo’s to find out how Bill was. Jo told me that Bill probably wouldn’t be going back to his house to live and would likely be going to live with his sister on his recovery. I imagined that this would come as sad news to Bill and he was fiercely independent and lovehis home and all of the treasures that he had there.

A few weeks passed and Jo informed me that Bill had been moved to a ward and was out of intensive care. One day I got a call and was delighted to hear Bill’s voice, he was still in hospital and hating every minute. He had had a pacemaker put in and his arm was healing, he couldn’t wait to get home. I asked him if he was allowed to go back home and said he would but only to finish clearing up and then may go live with his sister.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit Bill again in hospital as I got sick and myself ended up there at the same time. I was pretty much unable to do anything for 2 monthand was stuck at home, during this time Bill often entered my mind.
Ernesto in the backyard, home from hospital

One day not long ago I received a phone call and it was Bill. He was back in his home and attempting to continue to clear everything up. He seemed well despite telling me that while in hospital; he had put any pills he was given in his pocket rather than taking them. I warned him strongly against this, but he didn’t trust the medical profession at all. He also told me that they had given him medication to take home and he didn’t really know where it was. I asked him how his heart was with the pacemaker and he seemed to think he was fine and was asking the doctors when they might be able to remove it along with the steel rods that they had placed in his shattered arm which were likely holding it together.

Ernesto with his new haircut

I asked Bill about his corn patch. He sadly told me it had long gone to seed and we would have to wait until the next season before we would be able to feast on his very special corn. We soon visited Bill again and we found a looking different man. He told us that he was now Ernesto and that he was liking everyone calling him that now. He told us Bill was gone. He had warned us on the phone that he had had his hair cut and that the nurses in the hospital kept telling him how handsome he looked. He seemed happy to be home and told us all about his ordeal in hospital. Then we went out to the corn patch to salvage the dry seeds from the cobs to plant in the Spring time.

Ernesto picking corn for seeds