Colour by Numbers

Gutter street number

First published in The Big Issue (Australia) Edition 432, 10-23 May 2013

I wash the car about twice a year. There are better things to do on one’s weekend; in one’s life. But once or twice a year boredom or restlessness (one and the same thing, I suppose) rises to the surface and there I am in the driveway with buckets and sponges and rags, wiping down the sides of the car as if I’m brushing a horse – a grey mare, perhaps. As I wipe, the grey turns to white and the water and the sponge turn to grey.

I might have washed the car 30 times in the past 15 years. Some people probably wash their vehicle that many times in six months.

Fifteen years ago a blond teenage boy knocked on my door, holding a bucket, some sponges and detergent. “Would you like me to wash your car?” he asked loudly. His voice seemed to echo down the hallway, bounce off the kitchen wall and then return up the hallway.

I looked past the boy out to the dirty car and gave him the gig. He gave me a huge grin and his eyes almost lit up with excitement. I thought, It’s only a car… But I also sensed there was something missing in this boy’s life and he was keen to fill the gap.

Every few weeks Kris would return. We’d chat a little after I’d paid him, as I tried to piece together his story. He didn’t give much away – and he still doesn’t – but I gathered he lived with his mum a few streets away and I guessed he didn’t fit into school. Learning difficulties, maybe. He’d had a crack at being an apprentice baker but the early hours and the travel made it awkward. No trains at two in the morning.

One day he brought a long green hose because we didn’t have a front garden tap. As I paid him I reminded him to take the hose. “I only need it for this house,” he replied. “Okay if I leave it here?”

Kris washed the car for 12 months, by which time I thought my two older children could be earning some pocket money. I regretfully said goodbye to Kris but he took it well, knowing there were other houses to try, other cars to wash. I told him to make sure he took the long green hose. “No, it’s yours.” He walked away with his bucket, sponges and detergent.

We’d see each every now and then, sometimes at the train station. He would ask after the family –remembering everyone’s names – and wish us well. If ever he walked down our street he would have seen the car was long overdue for a wash.

He had started another enterprise, one that initially required a small baggage trolley laden with two orange witches hats, a roadwork sign, some paint, some brushes and cloths and stencils of numbers. He travelled the suburbs via train knocking on doors and asking if residents would like their house number painted onto the gutter. “It helps delivery drivers; you know, pizza drivers.”

He painted two neat white-on-black ‘12’s on our gutter. One beside the driveway and another just our side of the neighbour’s driveway.

Then I stopped catching the train and for a few years, maybe more, we hardly saw each other. But I’d see his numbers in my suburb, and sometimes beyond.

I last washed the car in January. Later that day, I rounded the corner in my clean car after a day out and there was Kris, small paintbrush in his hand, talking to a neighbour. After I parked the car I noticed fresh numbers up and down the street: 5, 7, 13, 17,  8, 8A, 10, 14, 18.

“I’ve changed the colours,” he told me. “Looks all right, don’t you reckon?” And the numbers did come up okay: white against a royal-blue background. Kris was now travelling light – no trolley, witches hats or roadwork sign. Now a man aged around 30, he just had his paints, brushes, stencils and a white white cloth. Plus a warm smile.

He asked after the family, doing well to know the names still. I offered him a drink of water, which he declined. “Gotta finish these numbers.”

I looked at the faded black-on-white ‘12’ in the gutter and asked Kris how much he was charging these days. He told me: “No charge for you, Vin. I’ve had a good day in this street. Nice people.”

I thanked him. And as I headed inside he sat on the nature-strip by the gutter and began his artwork.

Street number on gutter


  1. Thanks David, much appreciated. And thanks also to Kelley, who wrote to say:

    Such a lovely article. Thank you. I enjoyed it very much.

    When you see ‘Kris’ again, can you pass on my thanks as a paramedic. Those gutter number are very helpful, especially at night.

    Thanks for that.

    A longer version of Kelley’s letter is edition 434 of The Big Issue. (It is the Letter of the Fortnight!)

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