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How Now, Brown Couch?

July 31, 2011

When I first started uni in 1995, it was possible to live on Youth Allowance. Not to live large, but to get by. We Gen-X slackers took our years of freewheeling adventure for granted.

I fled my mother’s Sydney house for the first of three unfinished degrees in Wagga Wagga. My first off-campus flat was next to a pub, so we never had to pay to hear bands; we could feel them vibrating through the walls.

My next house was a converted weatherboard shop with my boyfriend and a minimum of five other people, including a dreadlocked guitar god who organised a rock festival from our house, and a goth junkie couple who did a runner leaving behind a $300 debt in rent and bills.
We escaped to a shoebox flat with such bad ventilation that our paperbacks’ covers curled back in the night from the rising damp, and black mildew grew across the walls at a rate almost detectable to the human eye. The relationship soon grew mildew too.

In 1999 with my Youth Allowance tapped, I moved back to Sydney. I found a temp office job and a house in Enmore with lesbian-separatist Marxist vegans. I learned to cook bok choy and cohabit peacefully with cockroaches.

In 2002, three share-houses later, I followed a poet to Melbourne. The thing with the poet didn’t last but my love affair with the city is still going strong. I found a charming falling-down house in Brunswick and a part-time call centre job.

Most of my co-workers were twentyish students, and most of them, to my surprise, were still living with their parents. They didn’t seem unhappy with the situation. These parents apparently let them come and go without much interference, so why should their kids abandon home comforts for brown couches and pot noodles?

It’s understandable. Youth Allowance and minimum wage have spectacularly failed to keep up with skyrocketing living costs, especially rent. Share-house life still exists, but it’s no longer a universal rite of passage. And that’s a shame. Because share-houses are a crash-course in survival skills and human variety.

I’ve lived with art students, actors, poets, musicians, drag queens, hippies, computer geeks, activists, film-makers, Germans, Mexicans, French-Latvian backpackers and an acrobat.  I’ve shared late-night cask-wine and commiserations after failed romances. I’ve thrown countless housewarming parties as people moved in and out of our makeshift misfit families. I’ve learned a lot, and despite the occasional spat or rip-off, I wouldn’t undo a moment.

A version of this first appeared in RMIT Professional Writing and Editing newsletter The Squid in 2010.

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