First published on 10 Sep 2008. Updated on 12 Apr 2010.
As I recorded in my book Unreliable Memoirs, I did a disastrous stint as a Sydney bus conductor to earn money while I was a student. The story about trapping the old lady's head in the folding doors was true. But I did something even worse to Bea Miles. She was the town's most famous eccentric, even more famous than Arthur Stace, the man who wrote "Eternity". Everybody in Sydney knew that Bea Miles was allowed to travel free on public transport. The main reason was that she kicked up a tremendous fuss if she was asked to pay. She looked like a bag lady minus the bags but she could kick like the wrestler Chief Little Wolf uncorking his celebrated flying body-slam at Leichhardt Stadium. Everyone had heard of her except me. I tried to sell her a ticket and she went for me.
Luckily most of the violence was verbal, at least initially. "You fucking c***t!" she explained. After that her language got worse, but I valiantly persisted in trying to extract the fare. The bus came to the next stop and I attempted to ease her out of the back door. It was like trying to shift a grand piano with rusty castors. The driver got sick of waiting and we were off again, while I continued to point out to her that travelling without paying the correct fare was an offence. Finally a Kelly climbed aboard.
The Kellies were the transport inspectors who trailed the buses by car, ever on the alert for a conductor who might supplement his income by taking the money without pulling the ticket. The Kelly on my case must have been some kind of philosopher. Patiently he explained to me that Miss Miles (the appellation Ms was not yet in vogue) was an asset to the city and that any attempt to extract a fare from her was like trying to argue with the Harbour Bridge. Well, I could vouch for that. He praised her to the skies, specifying her individuality, her bravery, and her incarnation of a modern city's success in preserving the spirit of the frontier. She listened to his encomium, nodding her head in approbation at each point, and then called him a fucking c***t.
In the next few years, as I roamed the city in search of new pubs where a poet in flight from his allotted studies and yet another failed romance might sit and compose masterpieces, I often saw her jumping on and off buses. I was always careful not to be on any bus she might catch, but one night there she was, sitting down beside me. She searched my face with a burning stare, but nothing happened. She had forgotten me. I have never forgotten her. The difference, there, between an upstart and a legend.
Somebody must know the precise day she disappeared. I suppose it is recorded in the register of births and deaths somewhere. Like thousands of people, I only noticed that the days when you didn't see her were accumulating into weeks, then months, then years. When I myself was down and out in London, I thought of her often. I wondered if my true vocation might not be as a vagrant, and wondered also if I had the panache to bring it off. It takes a kind of courage. In New York, which was the world capital of the bag ladies before Mayor Giuliani waved his magic wand, there was definitely a ranking from stardom to non-entity.
A run-of-the-mill bag lady had only a few plastic bags full of stuff. A top-echelon bag lady had a shopping cart piled so high with precious junk that she had to periodically shuffle sideways to see where she was going.
But she had confidence that wherever she was going was no less important than where you were going. And of course it's true. We will all come to dust.
The derros, as we once cruelly called them, just start early. Some of them do it with style, and become part of the city's everlasting poetry, like the word Eternity. Bea Miles was one of those. Indeed, for a long while she was the only one: a solitary, mobile memento mori roaming without a destination, but reminding us that we, too, are going nowhere in the end.
1902 Born in St Ives
1919Studies at Sydney University
1923 Committed to insane asylum. Remains there until 1925
1926 Leaves home, never to return
1938 Breaks up with man who wants to marry her. Starts sleeping on the streets
1955 Makes a taxi driver take her to Perth
1956 Takes taxi to Melbourne via Broken Hill. Journey starts on Christmas Day.
1961 Subject of painting in Archibald Prize
1964 Moves into Catholic aged home
1973 Dies. Cremated after outlandish funeral
1984 Lillian's Story by Kate Grenville, loosely based on Bea's life, wins the Vogel Award.
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