Take 24 single people from diverse backgrounds. Add poverty, disabilities and old age, then house them among drug dealers and creeping mould. A recipe for chaos? Not at all. Here's proof that life, in any circumstances, is what you make it.

By Mandy Sayer
16 May 2017
Reading time: 22 minutes

“You know how we can tell that someone has died?” asks Woolley, standing in the corridor of his Department of Housing building.

He nods at the door of the apartment adjacent to own unit. “Flies on the door handle. The flies always figure it out before the smell gets going.”

Woolley tells me that last week he noticed the insects buzzing around his neighbour's lock and called the police, who broke into the flat to discover the corpse of Peter, in his early 50s, who hadn't been seen for three days.

“He was a bit of a conspiracy theorist,” adds Woolley, the unofficial caretaker of the building. “He reckoned JFK was murdered by the Mob.”

Woolley, however, suspects no foul play in the death of his neighbour. Now there is a sign on the door, posted by the authorities, warning that the interior has been contaminated and that no one should enter until it has been detoxified by forensic cleaners.

“Probably an overdose,” he murmurs.

Residents call the building “Ponderosa”, in reference to the ranch on long-running US TV western Bonanza. It’s a block of 24 studio apartments in Sydney's Eastern suburbs, built in the 1970s, filled with single disability and aged pensioners. All but one survive on Centrelink payments and donations from charities. The majority, Woolley tells me, have no family support.

“You don't want to plan too far ahead, because you don't know who's going to die.”

It's now 10 days until Christmas, but he is ambivalent about organising the annual party because four of the building's residents are in hospital and the recent passing of his neighbour puts Ponderosa's death toll for the year at three (thus far).

“You don't want to plan Christmas too far ahead, because you don't know who's going to die between now and then.”

Woolley leads me into his studio filled with clothing racks and his collection of vintage Hawaiian shirts. A three-quarter bed is wedged into an alcove. A flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall, below a small round table. It's a tight squeeze, even for one person. I ask him about the actual size of the unit. He shrugs and replies “Nine paces by five paces. That's how I measure it.”

We walk out into his small, private courtyard and he shows me a huge freezer he's installed under the awning, where anyone in the building is welcome to store their frozen goods. In order to provide round-the-clock access, Woolley has removed three palings from his fence so his neighbours can duck in and out without disturbing him.

“Three good square meals a week. That's enough to keep us going.”

As we walk back inside, 84-year-old Don, who lives upstairs, limps through the open door carrying a steaming plate of fish and chips. He delivers it to the kitchen counter. Don is the unofficial chef for six other Ponderosa dwellers who are either too ill or too lazy to cook a hot meal at night.

“Sunday is a baked dinner,” Don says, leaning against the wall and lighting a cigarette. “Wednesday is spaghetti bolognaise, or lasagne. And Friday is fish and chips.”

“Three good square meals a week,” adds Woolley. “That's enough to keep us going.”

Every Friday morning, Don gets up, collects his shopping trolley and limps 15 minutes to the local outlet of the charity OzHarvest, where he selects donated fruits and vegetables for his various neighbours. “I know that Jose likes Asian greens. And Butch loves kiwifruit. I know what everyone wants so I can pick up stuff for them.”

“And on Fridays we do the washing up and return the plates to Don,” adds Woolley. “And we check his fridge to see what he needs.”

“Do you charge people for the meals?” I ask.

Don smiles and glances at Woolley.

“We've got a kind of bartering system,” says Woolley. “It's all based on reciprocity.”

“If I run out of wine, I can stroll into someone else's place and help myself.”

He tells me that some years ago the residents of Ponderosa worked out a plan that would benefit them all—and one that would remove the need to constantly borrow and repay money to each other. “For example, we all buy the same cask wine—Golden Oak, $12 for four litres from the cellars down the road.”

“Sometimes it's $10,” chimes in Don. “When it's on special.”

“We all smoke the same tobacco – 'Endless Blue'– and use the same papers, 'Tally Hos.'”

“It's an open-door policy…” adds Don stubbing out his cigarette.

I glance at Woolley, hoping he'll further explain the scheme. “… So we can walk in and out of each other's apartments. Say if I run out of wine, I can stroll into someone else's place and help myself. Same with tobacco. And food. And they can let themselves into my place, without having to find me.”

The 90-year-olds are housed on the second floor, so they have level access to street exits. Woolley also tells me that all the men in the building have swapped three sets of keys, so that no-one is accidentally locked out of his unit.

“And when one of us goes to hospital,” he adds, “the rest of us sneak into the empty apartment and clean it all up – like a bunch of elves!”

Sixteen years ago, when Woolley and Don first moved in, the side garden was denuded and filled with trash. Drug dealers stalked the security gates. When Woolley called the police, he was referred to the Department of Housing, and when he called the Department he was always referred back to the police. So Woolley and his neighbours decided to take matters into their own hands, marshalling sentries at the windows above the security gates. Whenever a dealer was spotted lurking outside, he'd be pelted with rocks and buckets of water. After a month or so, the block was free of both junkies and dealers.

Bottles and glasses shatter on the street; car alarms wail. Soon, police sirens are howling over the shouts of neighbours.

It was then that Woolley, Don and their new friends set about turning the building's common property into a sanctuary. They cleared the garden, planted trees and ferns, and set up tables and chairs in the shade. Now, it exudes the cool green light of a tropical rainforest.

“There's a Chinese guy upstairs,” says Woolley. “He's 86—and we call him Jose.”

“Why do you call him Jose?”

Woolley grins and lights a rollie. “'Cause he's always hosing the garden. We've sort of given him permission to use a fire hose on the third floor. He stands in the corridor and waters the plants from there. You see, we're only supposed to use the hose in the event of a fire. But because Jose is Chinese, we figure that if he ever got into trouble from the authorities he could pretend that he doesn't speak English.”

As Don bids goodbye and disappears into the corridor, Woolley sprinkles his hot dinner with water and pops it into the oven on low.

At night, Ponderosa becomes an amplifier for the many frustrations of the neighbourhood. A guy upstairs has been yelling obscenities over his balcony for five hours. Woolley tells me that he and a neighbour have been warring for days, but no-one can remember how it started exactly. Bottles and glasses shatter on the street; car alarms wail; and, just before midnight, I can hear somebody spewing. Soon, police sirens are howling over the shouts of neighbours.

“Raid,” says Woolley, calmly, topping up his drink. “The house two doors up – they're always getting busted.”

Unofficial chef: Don, 84, in the kitchen.

The front door swings open. “You there, Woolley?” cries a man in an urgent voice. “Woolley, are you there?”

I look up to see a solid, dark-haired man, wearing sunglasses, peering down at me, sporting a wide, maniacal grin.

Woolley rises from his chair and introduces me to Leo, who, at the age of 48, is the “baby” of the building. They've been close friends since Leo moved into Ponderosa 15 years ago. Every morning, he arrives at Woolley's the same time – 9.30am – and they walk around to a local pub to buy takeaway coffees.

“You know, some of these blokes don't have much time.”

Today is no different. Woolley grabs his mobile phone and they disappear out the door together. I stay behind to await the arrival of a health inspector. Woolley has told me that five units have been badly affected by mould and has already shown me a photograph on his phone of an 87-year-old man slumped on a bed, with the wall behind him furred with mildew.

“Maybe we can paint over it,” says Woolley, as he and Leo return with the coffees.

“You can't paint over mould,” I say. “It'll make it even worse.”

“Well, it'll look a lot better,” Woolley reasons. “You know, some of these blokes don't have much time.”

Theo, 87, in his mouldy apartment.

Theo, 87, in his mouldy apartment.

We wait for the health inspector. Leo, who is on the autism spectrum, tells me a little of his life. He was born in Australia to Italian parents who returned to Naples when he was two years old. He grew up speaking fluent Italian. When he was 11, however, his family moved back to Australia and Leo struggled to adapt both culturally and linguistically. Hence, when he speaks English, he is compelled to state everything twice.

“When he speaks Italian,” says Woolley, “he only says things once.”

Leo does his bit for the Ponderosa community by repairing second-hand mobile phones and giving them to neighbours.

“Since Junkie John moved in, the cops have been called twice and Bikie Dan has stabbed him once.”

“Everyone gets a basic Nokia when they move in,” explains Woolley. “And we get them all on the same plan. Thirty bucks a month. It's cheaper than a landline.”

Suddenly, what looks like water or weak tea begins falling past the open door and into the courtyard. It continues for eight or ten seconds and stops as abruptly as it began.

“When we get junkies in here,” announces Leo, “it wrecks everything.” After repeating the statement, Leo lets Woolley pick up the story.

“Since Junkie John moved in two months ago, the cops have been called twice and Bikie Dan, who lives upstairs, has stabbed him once.” Woolley sips his coffee slowly and lights up a rollie.

“Was that just someone pissing over the balcony?” I ask.

Woolley replies by rolling his eyes and shrugging. He goes on to explain that Junkie John supports his habit by stealing luggage from the carousels at Sydney airport. “The only problem,” he continues, “is that John's a clean freak. As soon as he moved in, he ripped up the carpet of his unit and dumped it in the garden. And he had his own washer and dryer in his unit going 24/7, laundering all the stolen clothes and luggage before he sold them on.”

Leo chimes in – twice – that John also threw his television from his balcony and damaged the herbs that Jose had planted. And one day, a neighbour grew so tired of the noise of the washer and dryer, he got up in the middle of the night, broke into the power box and secretly turned the junkie's electricity off. So the junkie moved into the communal laundry, sleeping there and monopolising the three available washing machines.

“And he lives off eggs boiled in an electric jug!” adds Woolley, shaking his head.

We hear footsteps outside and turn towards the open door, anticipating the health inspector. But it's only a neighbour on his way upstairs.

“My name is Henry and I'm a spendthrift. It's been six weeks since I bought my last roll of toilet paper.”

“So how else do you cope?” I ask, “When you're living on such a tight budget?”

“Lowes!” announces Leo enthusiastically. “Lowes!”

Woolley tells me that all the male residents of Ponderosa have secured a loyalty card from Lowes department store. “During sales, it's 15% off. You can get a whole new wardrobe for 70 bucks!”

“Tell her about the toilet paper!” enthuses Leo. “Tell her about the toilet paper!”

Woolley laughs and explains to me that a few years ago, several residents of the building used to raid the expensive restaurants and bars in the area and steal rolls of high-quality Sorbent. They would then meet at a local pub with their bounties and pretend it was an Addicts Anonymous meeting.

Woolley stands up and strikes an embarrassed pose. “'My name is Henry and I'm a spendthrift. It's been six weeks since I bought my last roll of toilet paper.'”

Leo laughs and slaps the table. “So we gotta have a Christmas Party this year, Woolley! We'll have it at your place.” Leo gets up and disappears into the bathroom. “I'll chip in and bring a case of beer!”

Woolley turns to me and lowers his voice. “Leo says this every year. 'I'll bring a case of beer!' But I'm the one who has to buy the food, and I also have to host it.”

The building's youngest resident is Leo, 48.

It's so hot today that waves of heat rise through Woolley's courtyard like funnels of steam. I open the freezer and briefly stick my head inside to cool off. Since my last visit, the health inspector has been and gone, yet still nothing has been done to remove the life-threatening mould.

“Usually it takes up to 14 working days for them to fix a problem,” explains Woolley. “But with Christmas coming on, it won't be done until next year. I don't blame the Department of Housing. They're doing the best they can.”

Trailing cigarette smoke, he leads me through the gap in his paling fence and onto a narrow strip of common property. We spot a heavily-tanned man sitting in his undies in the sun, drinking yellow liquid from a plastic one-litre bottle of Coke.

“That's Butch,” whispers Woolley. We nod a greeting and continue walking.

“What's in the Coke bottle?” I ask, curious.

“Golden Oak,” replies Woolley. “Butch used to be a two-cask-a-day man. And he lived under the Harbour Bridge. But after he got a home here, he got a job as cleaner, which he's managed to hang onto for years.”

“Don nailed chicken wire over our bathroom windows... but the rats ate right through them.”

He points out a honeysuckle tree further ahead. “Butch is also the building's spotter.”

“What does he look for? The cops?”

Woolley shakes his head. “The rats.”

At first, I think he is joking. But Woolley tells me that the rats come from three sources: the first is the nearby bay where naval ships dock; the second and third are an old hotel and a community centre on the next block, both of which have been recently renovated and re-plumbed.

“They come up through the pipes,” he explains. “Don nailed chicken wire over our bathroom windows…” – he points up to a mangled screen – “…but the rats ate right through them. For a while there, I thought someone was coming into my unit and stealing my soap all the time. That is, until I saw a cake of Sunlight on the floor of the shower recess, covered in bite marks! Apparently they like the taste of the fat in the soap.”

“He good man! He very good man! He look after me!”

We walk up the concrete stairs to the open corridor of the first floor, where the branches of macadamia and umbrella trees form leafy canopies. Woolley knocks on a door and we're soon greeted by Flora, a smiling, petite, Peruvian woman in her late 60s.

He begins to discuss Christmas plans with her: if he organised a party on the day, would she care to come along? Flora is more than enthusiastic. “He good man!” she announces. “He very good man! He look after me!”

Woolley promises Flora he will be in touch with the details. I can sense that he still doesn't feel motivated to throw a Christmas party, but it's lonely residents like Flora and Butch who will probably change his mind.

“Flora likes to sew,” remarks Woolley, as we walk up the stairs to the second floor. “She does all my mending for me.”

“Does she charge you for it?”

He glances at me as if I've just asked a silly question. “When she moved in, we found out she liked to sew. So we sourced a sewing machine for her and hooked her up with the local community centre to take lessons.”

We reach the second landing and are now facing the tops of the many trees. “There was a neighbour here a couple of years ago, Neil; he had a tumour on his side the size of a basketball.” Woolley pauses and relights his rollie. “And he couldn't leave his flat because nothing would fit him.”

“It's no use putting a band-aid on when the body has already bled out.”

We continue walking down the corridor. “So, we went down to Lowes and bought two oversized shirts. Flora cut them up and sewed them into one big shirt. That's how Neil was able to go out when he had cancer.”

Woolley stops in front of a screen door, opens it, and sticks his head in. “Is it OK to come in?”

“'Course it is!” we hear a voice call.

We walk into the unit filled with shelves of books by bestselling author Wilbur Smith. Don's kitchen is equally packed with pots, pans, colanders, utensils, and crockery. Don is sitting on a chair in his singlets and shorts, watching the cricket.

“Is it OK if I have a drink?” says Woolley, heading towards the fridge.

“Course you can!” he replies. “You don't have to ask.”

Woolley returns with a tumbler of Golden Oak and ice and sits across from us. He and Don begin again to discuss the problem with the resident junkie, and how they'll manage him, and the rat and mould problem, over Christmas. They've resorted to buying their own baits and laying them throughout the building.

“The Department of Housing will not respond in a timely manner,” says Woolley in a deliberately mocking tone. “It's no use putting a band-aid on when the body has already bled out.” He lets out a loud huff and reaches for his tobacco. “It hurts poor people who have been promised help and don't receive it. It hurts.”

Don mentions that Junkie John keeps leaving the laundry door unlocked, which could result in the theft of the building's washers and dryers. More worryingly, John has also been spotted trying to enter the units of his neighbours early in the mornings, while they're still asleep.

“Just one person can fuck it up for everyone else,” says Don, wagging his head.

Party time: resident Carl with some of Don's Christmas food.

Last night, for the first time in 16 years, Don locked his front door, afraid of Junkie John and his rumoured light fingers. Over his first coffee of the day, Woolley smokes and broods for a while, and soon decides on a plan of action to deal with John over the holidays.

It's mid-morning and already the heat inside his unit is stifling. Sitting at the table, he lights a rollie and rings an officer at the Department of Housing. After greeting her with usual niceties, they discuss the problems of the building. Together, they collaborate on a letter for her to type up, photocopy, and send to him, so that he can forward them by hand to all of his neighbours.

By composing the letter, rather than making a general complaint, the matter will be dealt with immediately, rather than lingering on into the following year. “Dear Residents,” begins Woolley, “Just a reminder… that the laundry door is to be kept closed.”

“Under no circumstances is anything to be thrown from the balconies.”

He goes on to cite the reasons why: safety in the event of a fire. He also reminds residents that they must do their washing between the appointed times of 6am and 11pm.

As Woolley continues to talk, Leo appears in the open door, grinning. “Does this mean we're gunna have a Christmas Party?” Leo asks.

Woolley waves to him to be quiet. He clears his throat: “Finally, it is important that residents… dispose of any unwanted household items… safely.” He draws on his rollie and shifts in his seat. “Under no circumstances is anything to be thrown from the balconies.”

He winds up the phone call and drops his rollie in the ashtray.

“Does this mean we're gunna have a Christmas party?” Leo repeats.

Woolley stands and smooths down his Hawaiian shirt. “We're going to have to write up a shopping list,” he announces. “And a guest list, too.”

“I'll throw in a case of beer!” announces Leo, thrilled with this development. “I'll throw in a case of beer!”

Don in his apartment at the Ponderosa.

Multiple copies of the letter that Woolley dictated yesterday have arrived at Ponderosa via Express Post. He rips open the envelope and takes them out. I expect him to begin slipping them under the doors of his neighbours immediately, but first he takes a pencil, turns the letters over, and begins numbering them with a tiny scribble in one corner. Once all 23 pages are numbered, he walks out into the corridor and begins making his rounds.

An hour later, with a shopping trolley borrowed from Don, Woolley and Leo make the trek up the hill to Coles. They plan to finance the party through the judicious use of vouchers, which they collect year-round from ATMs and supermarkets.

“Another lurk we've got,” says Woolley, following Leo onto the escalator, “is we volunteer for scientific experiments.” He explains that only just recently he and four other Ponderosa dwellers signed up for medical research into liver function. “All we had to do was fill out a questionnaire, have a blood test and a liver scan,” he says.

We step off the escalator and Leo runs towards the meat section like a kid let loose in a toy shop. “And for that, we each get a $20.00 voucher for Coles,” continues Woolley. “It all adds up, you know.”

We arrive back at Ponderosa, laden with bags of kebabs, bread rolls, and frankfurts. As Woolley pulls the shopping trolley along the ground-floor corridor, he spots a balled piece of paper lying in the garden. Shaking his head, he pauses, picks it up, and smooths it out. I can see that it has the Housing NSW logo on the upper left-hand side. Woolley turns the piece of paper over and studies the number pencilled in the corner.

“Bloody Sharkey,” he says. “He's taken a notice about not throwing anything over the balcony – and thrown it over the balcony.”

“Who's Sharkey?” I ask.

“Lives on the third floor,” says Woolley.

“He was once a cellmate with Ronald Ryan!” announces Leo. “With Robert Ryan! He was once a cellmate with Robert Ryan!”

Woolley notices the puzzled look on my face, and leans in to explain. “Ronald Ryan was the last man to be hanged in Australia.”

A local girl plays on Christmas Day at the Ponderosa.

We walk outside from Woolley's unit to find someone has tipped white powder all over the trees, the plants, the flowers and the outdoor furniture. Woolley drops to one knee and fingers the coarse, pale granules, lifting a sample to his nose and sniffing expertly, like a forensic scientist analysing a drug sample.

“You reckon it was Sharkey again?” I ask.

“There's only one person in the building who uses this brand of washing powder.” He tilts his head back and gazes up at the third floor.

“Not the junkie again,” I say.

Woolley rests his hands on his hips. “Maybe he thought it was artificial snow?”

Today, Ponderosa wakes up to more items that have been tossed over the balcony throughout the night: a tube of toothpaste, biscuit wrappers, and what looks like a large puddle of porridge lying on the walkway. “But it could be spew,” observes Woolley, leaning closer.

“One day, that cunt threw a drawer over the balcony,” says Don, “and it crushed a lime tree that I'd just planted.” The avid gardener and chef has been up half the night, marinating and preparing kebabs for the Ponderosa Christmas Party, and he is not impressed by his neighbour's attempts to sabotage the celebration.

Meanwhile, I return to Woolley's unit and inspect the tiny courtyard. Overnight the rats, too, have been hard at work. Three holes the size of basketballs have appeared in the ground, with burrows that curve beneath the paling fence. I glimpse Butch the spotter a few yards down, sitting in the sun, his eyes closed.

I am shocked to see a thick grey sludge growing across the walls, like some gigantic, toxic blob from the set of a horror film.

While Leo fills recycling bins with bags of ice and beer, Woolley prepares salads and nibblies. A table already sits in the rainforest garden outside, surrounded by empty chairs. At around 4pm, the first of the guests begin to arrive, cradling beers in stubby holders. Leo introduces me to 87-year-old Theo, a pensioner whose unit is rumoured to be the worst affected by the building's mould. As Theo leads me to his door, I noticed how impeccably he is dressed on this hot and steamy day: crisp white shirt, a tie, a waistcoat and matching trousers.

When he opens the door, the spore stench hits me before I even cross the threshold. I follow him inside and am shocked to see a thick grey sludge growing across the walls, ceilings and kitchen floor, like some gigantic, toxic blob from the set of a horror film.

Almost gagging, I ask, “How long has it been like this?”

“Seven years!” he replies, exasperated. “Seven times they visit to look at the unit. And seven times they do nothing!”

“I'm 87 years old! They probably wait until I die before they come to fix the place!”

He points to the ceiling of his bathroom, which is sagging so severely it looks as if it's about to collapse. Theo tells me that it's due to a faulty toilet upstairs which, despite many complaints, has never been fixed. He then calls my attention to the shower recess. Sixteen years ago, a former tenant removed the tiled barrier along one side of the recess and so, for the past decade and a half, every time Theo showers, the water runs straight across the floor and into carpet in the living room.

“I'm 87 years old!” cries Theo, shaking a fist. “They probably wait until I die before they come to fix the place!”

Don gets to enjoy some of his own food.

Don gets to enjoy some of his own food.

I take photos of the mould and reassure him that I will try to help in any way I can. I lay a hand on his shoulder invite him back to the party, but he is too upset to socialise – even on Christmas Day. I leave him standing in his kitchen, arms hanging at his side, bewildered by the conditions in which he is forced to live.

Back outside, someone is strumming a guitar. As I walk along the path, a bar stool comes flying over an upstairs balcony, arcs through the air and crashes onto the paving, barely missing Don. Those who are chatting and drinking pause briefly to look over at the missile and return to their conversations. I pop my head into Woolley's unit and am met by Leo, who has been charged with delivering plates of food to any resident too ill or too shy to join us. I offer to help and follow him down the corridor.

For 16 years, Leo, Woolley, and Don have always ensured that Albert has a good, solid meal on Christmas Day.

He knocks on Butch's door; the door opens a little and Leo passes the plate to a gnarled hand that quickly disappears before the door is slammed shut. “Butch is too pissed to come to the party,” explains Leo. “But he told me he wanted something to eat.”

Our next visit is to 89-year-old Albert, who opens his door and receives his Christmas meal with gratitude, thanking Leo repeatedly in a soft, strangled voice, before erupting into a coughing fit. For 16 years, Leo, Woolley, and Don have always ensured that Albert has a good, solid meal on Christmas Day.

We climb the stairs to the third floor and stroll along until we come to Sharkey's unit. Leo bangs on the door and suddenly we see the peephole darken.

“Merry Christmas, Sharkey!” cries Leo. He holds up the plate of food.

We can hear Sharkey snorting for a moment, but the eye remains glued to the other side of the peephole.

“Fuck off, Leo!” he shouts.

Leo picks up the last hotdog, flashes his manic grin, leans in close to the peephole, and takes a huge bite.

“Merry Christmas!” he announces, laughing. “Merry Christmas, Sharkey!”