We have all heard stories about the genius guitarist, who lives out his days muddling away in a bedroom, unknown to the world at large, subsisting at some shit job when he could be benefiting the universe with his talent.
Robert is a whole lot like that. Robert, the scientist who inhabits my carport together with his antique industrial machinery. Who also happens to be an historian of aviation and shipping, a metalworker, a carpenter, a chemist, a sailor… the list is long, but very specific. As Lynne suggests, tunnelvision is one of the symptoms that makes unique minds so brilliant. They’re crap at most things, but startlingly talented at others.
Take movies for example. Robert has real trouble dealing with logical inaccuracy, anachronism and discontinuous narrative. If things don’t happen according to a natural timeline, he gets bewildered. Any sort of clever artistic affectation confuses him. Myth Busters is one his bugbears. It was good in the beginning, he says, but its sold out. They’re addressing myths that everyone knows are bunkum. He has zero tolerance for scientific inaccuracy and he invariably sniffs it out, even if something is set thousands of years in the future.
Politicians can’t get a word in edge way. He doesn’t believe a word they say. He despises police too. I put it down to his early days in the Young Socialists – unfortunately it’s impossible to convince him to move on. I've tried to bribe him to register as a voter but, because he claims to remain an anarchist, he refuses.
Moving out of Park Towers in South Melbourne, where he lived with long time female accomplice Lorraine, he found a place in a nearby rooming house. Robert can be difficult to house owing to his packrat-like habits. With no car, he’ll arrive home on his bike with lengths of scaffolding, pumps torn from washing machines, damaged solar panels, sheets of galvanised iron, worn out machine tools, random appliances, all on his back or in his long suffering bag.
Every few months he falls off. It’s obvious why. On sultry summer nights he rides all the way home from Mt Waverley, just because he enjoys it.
We keep finding new bags for him, but they don’t last long, given the industrial-grade use they endure. Shoes too, and clothes, but he’ll never look neat. Lorraine looks after his long hair, trimming and plaiting it. He buys cheap over-ripe fruit from South Melbourne market, if he can’t find anything bin-diving. He’s a vegetarian; we’re always reminding him to watch his protein intake, since he’s so very active, but he still has that vegan-style pallor.
Funny thing. I was at Science Works with Polly one time, watching a time lapse movie of some decomposing bananas. We played a game, guessing at what point Robert would turn up his nose. A vegetable can travel a long way down the track before Robert will judge it putrescent.
Anyway, wherever he settles, there also settles a huge pile of junk which, of course, according to him, is nothing of the sort. Lately, since his latest obsession is metal-work, the salvage has been largely metallic. Obviously, Lorraine reached a point where she was forced to move him on. He’s far worse an accumulator than me. I see it in his eyes as we pass nature strips strewn with hard rubbish.
The rooming house is good for Robert. They won’t let him pile things in the grounds, which is a restriction he requires. He spends little of his pension on rent, little on food, so that every few months he can afford to buy a new piece of heavy machinery to dote over and restore in the carport. His tiny room is jam packed with tools, chains, bearings, cowlings, housings, chucks, finials, meat hooks, beakers, aging computer peripherals and antique machine manuals. There is just room enough left for his futon.
Once, needing to score, Robert pawned his oscillator. Has anyone ever in the universe pawned an oscillator before? I don’t think so. Once Robert spent half a day turning a solid steel flush button on his lathe, because the plastic one in the communal toilet had failed.
Every so often, given the nature of the rooming house, trouble brews. The place is home to old alcoholics, divorced migrant husbands and crinkled thin-lipped junkies. Everyone there has some sort of issue, whether it be mental, physical or circumstantial. Lately it’s been calm, but recently the management - part-timers with nice cars pulling down a full time wage - thoughtlessly sent three red-hot junkie crims along to fill some vacant rooms.
The result was turmoil. They treated the place like a jail. They tried to establish jail-like hierarchies of power with threat and intimidation. They stood over people for money, cigarettes. Robert described them as submorons, who would get pissed and roam noisily downstairs, breaking anything they could find while the house was trying to sleep.
But worst was their treatment of the old blokes. They stole and made threats to kill. Consequently, these poor shattered wrecks began to live in fear. A pall descended on the building.
There were communal meetings and a myriad of complaints were made to the people who, without thinking twice, had cast these spitting vipers into a peacefully functioning home - and then gone on holidays.
Finally, very late one night, a couple of these dickheads were stomping about in the TV room, complaining noisily of having no money, cigarettes or booze; [having blown their cheques on ice]. They’d already knocked on everyone’s door demanding money. When the answer was no, they’d insist the person tell them why. Why don’t you have any money? What have you done with it? The more courageous ones asked what business it was of theirs.
Then they started talking loudly about killing Peter, an old man with only a few months to live; so loudly that Peter would be sure to hear. That was when Robert lost his patience. He stepped out of his room and told them to go out, find some butts on the footpath and roll them up. [I’ve done it, Have you?] But the behaviour downstairs did not abate. Robert emerged again, angrier this time – if you want money go out on the fucking street and sell your arse, then shut the fuck up.
- What did you fucking say, mate?
Robert repeated himself. One of them, Alan, a quintessential crim with feeble mind and tracksuit pants, leapt up the stairs and challenged him. Robert made the mistake of turning his back to re-enter his room. Alan sucker punched him in the head. [A week later the bruises are still bright and crimson] And Robert retaliated.
Because Robert does so much bike riding and heavy lifting - among a thousand other arduous activities - he has a lot of whole-body strength. Alan was shocked to find himself in a headlock, getting his skull pummelled. Robert then braced himself, forced Alan’s body against a wall, and used his feet to compress his chest. Alan was immobilised and gasping for dear life. That was when his mate, Ian, the dominant of the two, crept up and kicked Robert in the head.
The fight must have broken up then, but Robert had a 5 mm tear to his cornea which took three days to heal. Alan was in far worse shape.
Sordid stuff isn’t it? But the upshot was good. The eruption got things moving. One guy was taken off by the cops. The other, due to enter jail in a couple of weeks, went on the lam. The third and most sensible one was given another chance. And management pulled their head out of the sand.
So goes life in the underbelly of South Melbourne. I wonder if the yuppies see much of it? The house of one neighbour is plastered with fascistic signs about trespassing and a number of those false security cameras.
The boarding house has calmed and Robert is functioning again, which is good because basically we couldn’t get by without him. He’s the king of handymen; he can fix just about anything. Show him a random piece of machined metal or plastic and he’ll tell you its precise provenance. It’s unbelievable. We’re blessed to have him. Often, I tell him he should start a business, but he’s too busy restoring his Deckel tool mill.
Living where he does, and having the weaknesses he does, he has encountered vampires. Mindless arseholes who’ve effectively tried to imprison him, believing he can turn pills into heroin, [it wouldn’t surprise me if he could]. Once, I chopped down an invasive camphor laurel tree and he explained to me exactly how to process it into ecstasy. His lifelong dream is to make a single batch of fentanyl [among the very strongest of the synthetic opiates] to last him the remainder of his life.
Because he can’t say no, he’s always fixing people’s TVs and microwaves, and blenders. Though most people don’t pay him, he continues to do it. He’s genuinely sweet, thoughtful, kind. I saw him crying during the long death of Lorraine’s cancerous pet rat.
Robert is utterly unique. Viva Robert! Why does he have to put up with what he does, when he should be raised high upon a golden pedestal?
'the swarf that penetrates' - an introduction to the Weird of Robert