Between The Lines: People Like Us
Adam McGrath on his song 'People Like Us', a childhood friend and a chance encounter.
When I think of Charlie Thompson, I think of his car. It had deep red seats. Charlie was skinny but the seats made him look skinnier. He sometimes wore a leather hat and grey pants. But I remember his car the most, because of one summer afternoon where we drove it to a massage parlour to have sex with women that Charlie had prepaid for, in an experience that made us confused about everything: each other, Charlie, and ourselves.
Charlie was my friend Brendon’s dad. In Europe they would call his accent a ‘dialect’. In New Zealand you could just say that the way he talked was hori as. It was often hard to make out his yelling voice from his laughing voice from his drunken voice. Each had a specific patina of sound, yet all had to be interpreted according to a set pattern of rules:
1. Listen hard and closely.
2. Nod, and pretend you understand.
3. Act out the instruction you imagined you heard.
Brendon and I were used to following the rules. When I turned 16, one December in the 1990s, I shared my birthday with him and our friend Nathan. I was 10 days older than Brendon. Nathan had been sixteen since August. It was December and the summer had been creeping up on us. Without knowing it we had grown stronger and older.
The birthday started well. Charlie was nowhere to be seen. We sat on the wide concrete porch attached to the sliding aluminium back door at Brendon’s, listened to Boyz II Men, and mixed ezi-filla bottle rum with Coca-Cola, chasing it down with stubbies of Canterbury Draught. We swore and sang, made fun of each other. We talked about Stacey Phillips, who we had all kissed. Brendon’s mum kept his sisters inside, and because we were sharing his birthday, she would bring chips in a frosted plastic bowl for us to devour with teenage famished fury.
We kept drinking the rum Brendon had bought from the liquor store, holding up a misprinted school ID that said he was 36 years old for the apathetic checkout operators. The late afternoon became the early crest of evening and the three of us were happy with all of the nothing we were doing. We were awash in nothing. We were happy. It felt good.
When Charlie’s car slammed up the drive and stopped centimetres from the garage door, nothing turned into something. We could tell he was pissed the way he stumbled out of the car. Brendon tried not to look at him. It was his birthday, Nathan’s and mine also in a way, but it didn’t feel like it anymore.
Charlie yelled at us in a deep, unreadable tone, “Brendon, Adam, Nathan”.
I was taller and thicker than Charlie, with a reputation for slapping my chest and screaming "c’mon" at anybody. Nathan was small, but ripped as shit and nugget hard, Brendon, the youngest, was the son, and all sons kill their fathers eventually. But that day, like many before, Charlie put the shits up us. He yelled an instruction, for once easy to understand.
“Get in the fuckin’ car.”
We stalled, unsure. He softened, “C’mon you boys, it’s your birthday.” We relaxed. “C’mon, we’re gonna go to town…c’mon, fuck ya”.
We were going to town. The joy of the waning light and the music and the rum and the company had become sticky and uncertain. It wasn’t that it felt bad; it just didn’t feel right. But Charlie, half-cut, insisted that the direction of the night was his to decide.
Brendon didn’t say anything. Neither did Mrs Thompson or his sisters. Nathan and I left quietly, walking round the crescent to our homes. I don’t remember if we talked. I knew though, and I think he did too, that Brendon was the bravest of our trio.
He wove and pushed the car twenty minutes to the city. Eventually we relaxed a little, but no-one spoke. We headed north until Charlie found our destination: a two-storeyed building, with a tan exterior and a black sign hanging above the door that led to the second floor. Its one touch of exoticism was the unlit, curved neon script that said that this place was ‘Charlie’s’ and it was a massage parlour.
I don’t know who the Charlie was that owned the parlour. The one driving our car ordered us to get out. He moved to the curb and opened Brendon’s door.
“Right, get out and get upstairs, you’re men now. I’ve paid for it.”
Brendon didn’t move, but Nathan and I got out, still processing.
“Get up there son, go get a fuck. I’ve paid for it.”
He reiterated the paid-for part, as if to suggest that this was all that Brendon or the rest of us could be worried about.
I would like to honour myself and suggest that no part of me wanted to go. I would like to think that my sixteen-year-old bearing held up and negotiated the issues around sex work with clarity and an open heart, all the while considering the safety and situation of women who Charlie Thompson had just paid to have sex with three drunk teenage boys.
I would like that. But it would be a lie to suggest any part of me wondered about those things. I was sixteen without a compass, moral or otherwise, and I was about to get fucked.
Charlie just stood there. Nathan and I stood there. Brendon stayed in the car.
“You’re a fuckin’ man now. Get up there. I fuckin’ paid for it.” Charlie said. “I paid for it!!”
Nathan looked at me, a rum-buzzed confusion combining with a half-smile.
“This is fuckin’ out of it,” he said. “Brendon! Fuck, c’mon man!”
We stared at him: he was going to ruin the whole thing and it was his fucking birthday!
Charlie looked like he was gonna hit him, right there in the car, on that little street under the black sign.
Brendon stayed hunched over in the car. He looked straight out the front of the window and he didn’t say anything.
Nathan leaned against the back of the car and said fuck once more. Charlie swayed by the passenger door. Even he looked confused. I looked at the back and side of Brendon’s head. Brendon looked straight ahead.
Then he started to cry.
It was just a little, just softly, like pieces of his heart were leaking from him in little bits of light. He just sat there.
I turned to Nathan. I didn’t say anything but we both got back in the car and sat down.
It would be better to say that Charlie realised what was happening, kept his drunken mouth shut, got in the car and drove us home, but it wasn’t as easy or as simple as that. Eventually though, he surrendered and took us home in silence. When we got back to the driveway, we got out and drove off.
Brendon didn’t say anything. Neither did Mrs Thompson or his sisters. Nathan and I left quietly, walking round the crescent to our homes. I don’t remember if we talked. I knew though, and I think he did too, that Brendon was the bravest of our trio.
I met Brendon when we were eleven. We lived in the same street but somehow missed each other until we started going to the intermediate school over my fence. During Cooking, we discovered we could both rap the entirety of the lyrics to “You be Illin’” by Run-DMC. From there we became brothers. Fighting, laughing, fucking up. Like brothers should do, and are meant to do.
Brendon’s house was always clean but his parents were erratic. Mrs Thompson was big and greying in a summer dress and slip-ons. She was funny, warm and tough. On her right arm, a home-stuck tattoo in teenage script declared she was ‘Born to be Wild’. She was second only to Charlie in the house, but it was Charlie’s house. The family was aggressive and loving in equal parts. Brendon was often embraced by his mother, kept at a distance by his father and both entertained and maddened by his sisters.
Once Brendon snuck me in to look at the self-loading rifle Charlie had stolen from the army. It was wrapped in canvas, hidden in his parents’ bedroom. One or both of his sisters told on us. I escaped, but Brendon carried it. He would often carry it; for himself, us, and his sisters.
He loved them and protected them, locking them in the bedroom while Charlie and his wife raged through their slurred words and mistimed blows. This happened often. Hanging out with him, it was hard not to get sucked into the dramas another parental drinking session would bring.
Sometimes he would be given Charlie’s keys for the night, and it would be his job to negotiate mum and dad back home, make sure his sisters were safe, and then somehow figure out whether he would get a hiding or a tearful expression of love. Sometimes I would ride shotgun on these nights, helping to prop the bunks against the door, or keep Charlie from killing his wife, or sit there while they got even drunker and slurred about how we were part of the family.
One night, while everything collapsed and shook outside the bedroom door I remember Brendon telling his sisters everything “would be alright soon”. The youngest one replied, emotionless and with amazing acuity, “it won’t”. She was right, then and now.
From as early as you can remember, the world outside your street tells you that all things are possible, that you should chase your dreams and that if you don’t, you’re blowing your chances on this glorious road trip called life. The world feeds you this over and over. It’s bullshit.
Some things just don’t get right. They may right themselves by morning, but only enough to allow everything to be redrawn and reshaped for the next round. Like a weird eternal performance piece, everyone is in a role, acting, then stage managing, replaying the script until the older actors die and the younger ones begin the show again, maybe in a different set with a different cast, but essentially the same play, all memorised, the lines set out in history, each role chosen or given like some haunted birthright. You know it in your bones.
From as early as you can remember, the world outside your street tells you that all things are possible, that you should chase your dreams and that if you don’t, you’re blowing your chances on this glorious road trip called life.
The world feeds you this over and over.
And Brendon’s sister - eight or nine - told us that in two words.
Brendon listened and I heard it too, and neither of us could or can unhear it.
I now write songs for a living, and sometimes people from my past fall into those songs. Brendon and his little sister, his mum and Charlie himself all fell into one of them recently.
This is the second verse:
She has a tattoo on her right arm,
that spells out she was born to be wild.
And on a Tuesday, before dole day
she pawns a vacuum cleaner
to buy new shoes for her youngest child.
Her and their father go out drinking
to the Bishopdale Tavern most nights.
They come home, lock the kids in the bedroom and they take turns starting fights.
The oldest says to the youngest,
“Don’t you fret, don’t you fear, one of these days we might make it out of here”
But the youngest replies,
“You know we probably won’t, people like us, just don’t”
The song itself started as a joke. On tour in Australia, driving out from a festival in northern New South Wales, we spied a man walking into the site carrying a stubbie in each hand. He had shorts on and was wearing his beer gut all the way out.
I watched this guy and built up a picture of him in my head from experience. I knew he liked to call people “faggot”, that he held his liquor not just in his gut but also like an invisible, invincible crown, or a medal upon his chest. That he was against Islam, immigrants or anything that disrupted his order and view of the world. He was tanned, had sunglasses on the top of his head that were held up by the brim of his faded cap. He walked with a cock-swinging swagger and that two-beer grin. He looked like a bully. Someone who could easily make young members of the upper middle-class feel scared outside a country pub, but would quickly become a figure of derision once they thought they were out of earshot.
When I got to this point of my characterisation I noticed a long pointed tattoo wrapping its way around the bare skin of his back. It was faux-tribal style, and although already faded by time and by the sun, it was unfinished. That became my focus. I obsessed about it, and it became the summation of all his parts. I began to sing, jokingly in my best fake honky tonk:
“He had a half-finished tribal tattoo from the nineteen nineties…”
My comrades in the van felt this was a good start a sing-along. I followed up quickly…
“On the weekend he goes out camping and drinking at the festivals amongst the pine trees...”
We tried a few more lines, but the song mostly stalled. Yet that first line kept swimming in my head all day, and for months to come. The guy that caught my eye for a few seconds on his way to the festival was bullying me from afar, unwittingly psychically fucking with me. Eventually I figured that unless I stared him down I would have no peace. So we got into it. And it was then that I realised, with biting clarity, that I was an asshole.
In my brief glimpse of this fella through the window of a rented Hyundai iMax, I had come up with a caricature that was one-dimensional, lazy, weak and a symptom of an ill heart. Ill because although my conception may have been based on previous interactions with similar men, I'd also had plenty where the description wouldn’t fit. In fact, when I thought about it, it wasn’t a stretch to believe that the man I had invented in my head could be me. Shit, I even have a half finished tribal tattoo from the nineteen nineties. It’s on my arm, and the young woman who was about to tattoo me recently laughed at me for it.
A person without empathy will always be a shit person. A songwriter without empathy may still be a songwriter, but he will be a shit one. If you’re locked in a vacancy trying to find some purpose for your nothing self, and using a guitar and a pen to do it, then you better get your empathy meter attuned and crank it to ten. Because if you don’t then no matter how successful your music becomes it will always be an empty shell of a thing. Heartless and cold, the Id turned to life and made to walk. As Chuck D said: “It might sound good, it might sell a little something, but fuck the game if it don’t say nothing”
In my conception of this guy I had chickened out and gone for a quick, cheap shot. And yet I still had this fucking line. I needed to find a way to give it empathy. To use it in a way that wouldn’t make me feel like a fraud. So I made him up again. I made him tired. I caught him when he had just finished work. I imagined his beer being one of relief, not of fuel. I gave him someone to talk to. I made it his lover. He had to talk because how else could I hear him if he wouldn’t speak? So he speaks to her and tells her how he feels, how work feels. Then she speaks to him.
He had a half finished tribal tattoo
from the nineteen nineties. He said
“It’s been twenty years standing around here, living on my knees.
I work for a man who works for a man, who doesn’t even know my name. I guess it’d be easier if I had someone I could blame.”
She said “you remember when I used to wear my ass hanging out of the backs of the holes in my jeans? now I’m cresting forty, I’m wondering what all this life means”.
“My honey, my girl, don’t you fret don’t you fear, one of these days we might make it out of here”
That’s where this first verse was taking me: to an uplifting chorus. But I got worried. An uplifting chorus would be too easy. I thought maybe I could get a little stronger if I didn’t chicken out. So I lifted and tried to heave my sorry brain onto something a little more weighty. All I had to do was invert the listener’s expectations. Just close the gate, shut the door and lock ‘em in. It was right then that I thought back a million years into the past, straight to Brendon’s little sister and her one line that sucked all the hope from me and has lingered in my heart for so long. Maybe it never gets right.
My honey, my girl, don’t you fret don’t you fear, one of these days we might make it out of here
But she replies,
You know we probably won’t. People like us just don’t.
And the people like them could be anybody, because we can all get stuck. I have to thank the guy that I saw walking to the festival for growing into something bigger inside my head that helped me figure that out. I’m grateful to him and his girl, wherever they may be.
About 16 years ago I met Brendon in town. He was pissed and on bail. The next day he was due to be sentenced for an assault or a burglary, which one I can’t remember. He was eating Burger King. He talked with a smile on his face. Mayonnaise wa glued across his cheek. It was hard to take anything seriously, but seriousness was all around us. The next day, he was probably going to jail and that night he was drunk and in between the laughs there were tears. He was going to miss his kids (he had two by then). His partner hadn’t let him see them for a while.
He told me he had to stop drinking. His mum had died and she was being buried up north and he wanted to skip town and his sentencing to be there. It would’ve turned everything to shit, but what did it matter: everything was already shit. He had nowhere to stay so was going to just stay up and drink and decide in the morning.
We sat by the fountain; surrounded by the flotsam of late night drunken takeaways that floated along the Friday night streets, carried by the wind and shoes, unsteady hands and taxi tyres. My girlfriend sat with us. She didn’t know anyone like Brendon and had never had to answer or even think about the kind of questions that Brendon was drunkenly trying to figure out, but she understood he was family. When he laughed I laughed. When he cried, I put my arm around him and my girlfriend put her hand on my leg.
I remembered that night where he had to choose between going to jail and going to his mum’s funeral and the choice he made and how it probably meant that his lag was going to be longer and harder because of it. I wondered about his partner and the point where she realised she’d had enough, and put that inside two figures I made up and let them speak the things I was thinking.
I convinced him to stay with me at my house and we could figure out in the morning whether he was to run or whether he was to stay. However, I shared my flat with two others and when we arrived, neither of them were having it. “What if he takes something?” one said blearily
There was no point asking her to go fuck herself. She was a good person, with a clear view of things that just didn’t include Brendon. Besides, as she spoke I had just made a decision to move out. You can’t roll the rocks up the mountain by spitting at them.
I put Brendon back in the car. There was nowhere to go. He said he wanted to see Jay. Jay was one of our best friends growing up. He called everyone’s mum ‘mum’ and we called his mum the same. His dad was dad. Jay’s job now was running a tinny house for Black Power. We would go to Jay’s. It’d been years since we had seen each other, but Jay had a big heart inside a big chest and he was glad to see us. We embraced, lay Brendon on the couch and drank a beer and played cards in the lounge. My girlfriend won the cards and hugged Jay as hard as he hugged her.
I told Brendon that I would find him in the morning and help get him to court or put him on the road. Whatever he needed to do. My head said court. My heart said run. I never saw him in the morning but he ran. Maybe it was worth it. I’m not wise enough to know.
It was about four years till I saw him again. He was at the park we’d played league at when we were young. He was flying a kite with his son and daughter. My heart shook and I beamed, and we embraced.
Years later, with Brendon fresh in my mind thanks to the second verse of the song I was writing, I made him up a little. I remembered that night where he had to choose between going to jail and going to his mum’s funeral and the choice he made and how it probably meant that his lag was going to be longer and harder because of it. I wondered about his partner and the point where she realised she’d had enough, and put that inside two figures I made up and let them speak the things I was thinking.
He said: "I remember when I took you down to the showgrounds
"That year you looked so pretty, you had your eyes closed up in the air"
She looked across at the visiting families
The iron doors, the tattooed tears
She just sighed and replied: "I guess, yeah..."
He said: "Don't you fret, don't you fear. One of these days we're going to make it out of here.
She said: "We probably won't. People like us just don't."
Sometime back we were playing at a union rally. Yes, they still exist. There were enough people there to fill an aircraft hangar. They had the things you’d expect; flags, speechifying, pamphlets, workers, organisers, the lot. We were there as well, doing songs like “Solidarity Forever”, trying to do the things folk singers used to do until they started singing about themselves and themselves alone.
I was touched and disappointed by the day. Touched because of seeing people move together; organising, talking, and sharing for a common cause. Disappointed because the common cause that led to the rally being held was still out there in the real world, beyond the flags and the proselytising, totally ignored and marginalised.
They gave the campaign the name ‘Fairness at Work’. It was about tilting the table a little ways back towards the workers, and away from the bosses. Anyone paying attention to the policies (and the distractions) of the National Government would have been aware that it seemingly takes from those with the quietest voices and the least resources, and tips the scales in the direction of those who want more of everything, while offering less and less in exchange. The Government’s actions at that time seemed like an assault on basic rights and protections for those who earned the least, often while working the most.
This seemed like a big deal; one I was sure my liberal-leaning comrades out in the world would start making a fuss about. But the campaign came and fizzled, the government continued to legislate against workers in a way that just plain scared me, and when the small amount of dust that did get kicked in the air settled I wondered where the noise was.
The things that the ‘Fairness at Work’ campaign were hoping to address were happening in real time and the effects would have real consequences, at work, at home, for people without a lot of power. The fact that they don’t have Twitter and loud voices shouldn’t have stood against them. There needed us, and we mostly let them down.
It seemed the left had little energy for talk about fairness at work. All the air in the room was being taken up by a large German man who had made millions aiding the free exchange of creative goods. Kim Dotcom had gone from trying to pay for influence amongst some of our worst right-wingers to being a national folk hero for deciding to bite the hands he was once intent on buying. And the nation wept for him and the loss of his helicopter, mansion and beautiful bride. And my team, the ones I could trust and believe in, they leapt into his corner and brought the bells and the whistles and the attention with them. And he bought them favours. And he made them music. And for some of the best, he even brought them a political party. They named that party ‘The Internet’ after the tool they described as our great instrument of freedom.
Kim Dotcom was right in some ways. We do need to fear those with the ability to manipulate our private spheres, and his rights shouldn’t be compromised any more than anyone else’s. But the things that the ‘Fairness at Work’ campaign were hoping to address were happening in real time and the effects would have real consequences, at work, at home, for people without a lot of power. The fact that they don’t have Twitter and loud voices shouldn’t have stood against them. There needed us, and we mostly let them down.
In the final verse of my song, I decided to sing about how I felt the system pans out for those people. I waved goodbye to Kim. I believed what I’d heard; that you should never vote for a man with a mansion. I would sit out his fight and find another.
That’s why the song ends the way it does. I found two characters were worth singing for. But I also felt like it would be cruel to leave them as the final two inhabitants of this little song with no hope, and all the doors locked. If I did that, it would be a sad song, and maybe a mean song too, and the world needs a little less meanness. Hence they have no chorus, the door stays open for them, and if they have nothing else they have each other and they have love, and if they can find that then maybe all things are possible, and maybe in time all things could be possible for the folks in the verses preceding, for festival guy and his girl, for prison guy and his partner and most hopefully for my brother Brendon, wherever he may be and wherever he may go.
She said she’d never been to a Coromandel beach for a holiday in all her life, she said “some people don’t get to do that, it ain't some inalienable right”. Her and her husband Sio will be cleaning offices at night, for pretty willing workers, most of whom who are probably white. Her and Sio will be working ten times harder, getting paid ten times less. They just go in after seven get it done they don’t complain about the mess. Sio says,
“My beauty, my love, don’t you fret don’t you fear, one of these days we might make it out of here,
We might make it out of here, we’re gonna make it out of here…”