It covers five suburbs and is home to numerous public transport hubs, parks, churches and supermarkets – not to mention an array of bars, cafes and dairies. But can Shanti Mathias lead a fulfilling life confined to New North Road?
A few months ago, I moved into a new flat – one on the same street as my work. New North Road: it runs for 6.5km from Eden Terrace in central Auckland to the edge of Avondale in the west. My flat is in Mount Albert, less than two kilometres from The Spinoff offices in Morningside. Because my mind has been twisted by writing content, this coincidence seemed to beg the question: could I live on New North Road for a week? What would I discover? I made the mistake of suggesting this at a pitch meeting, then procrastinated for months, because it turns out I like going places. But good, bad and mediocre ideas all have their own timing, and last week was mine.
- I am not allowed to enter any buildings that do not have a New North Road address.*
- I am not allowed to set foot or wheel on any tarmac or footpath that is not part of New North Road.**
- I am allowed to enter all parks that can be accessed from New North Road (don’t want to go insane due to a lack of green space) but I am not allowed to use their non-New North Road exits.
- Use at least four different forms of transport to move along New North Road.
- Hang out with at least four different people beyond workmates (I am spending a week on New North Road, not giving up on having a life).
- Traverse the entire length of New North Road in one go.
- Talk to at least one stranger on New North Road.
- To the maximum extent possible do all the things I normally do (exercise, shopping, seeing friends) – it’s just all on New North Road.
- Go to at least one “event” that I did not arrange.
*If a disaster of some kind happens, ie a serious injury, I am allowed to leave New North Road to seek medical treatment.
**I am allowed to use public transport eg trains that leave New North Road if both the stop where I get on and the stop where I get off can be accessed directly from New North Road.
I bike home from town along the Northwestern cycleway. A friend and I have just been to see a collection of short films about cycling, where people do things like cycle around Tasmania in three weeks, and bike 320 kilometres on gravel in 24 hours while pulling a child in a trailer. I feel ready to do something extreme myself: to live on New North Road, exclusively, for a week.
“Everything I could ever want is here,” I think to myself as I park my bike at my flat, hoping it will be an affirmation.
I encounter my first hurdle: an email from the library, saying that a book is due back in a few days. There are no libraries on New North Road. Maybe I can ask someone else to return it for me? I put the book in a more prominent position on the floor – that’s a tomorrow problem.
I twisted my ankle last week, so I go for a walk instead of a run, wondering if I’m being overly cautious. I like my brain to be stimulated at all times, so while walking I finish a podcast about Republican candidates for next year’s US election, then call my mother. It’s hard to hear her over the morning traffic – I keep yelling that I’m on New North Road, where I’m confined for the week. “But how will you get to work?” she asks. It takes quite a lot of back and forth to make the situation clear.
“There are very few opportunities in life that you get as an adult to do something fundamentally absurd,” I explain to her. This is a good line, I think to myself; I’m already imagining typing it into a document. Maybe I can talk about post-structuralist theory or something in my article, because I want people to know that I am smart as well as stupid. That’s a desire I should probably interrogate, but that’s a tomorrow problem too, or maybe a next year problem.
My mother has to go – she’s driving somewhere, probably experiencing “turning corners” – but I’ve just remembered I have to explain to a friend who is in town that if we want to meet tomorrow, it has to be on New North Road. I try out the “fundamentally absurd” line on her, too. When you think of something good you might as well reuse it.
Work editorial meeting, pitching what stories we want to work on this week. I manage not to say anything stupid like “I will spend a week on New North Road.” I’m only going to make that mistake once.
I sit at my desk all afternoon working on a story – exactly the same thing I would do if I were not on New North Road.
I often go to my grandmother’s for dinner on Monday nights; instead, I have dinner at my house, then my grandmother comes over for dessert while I help her transfer photos from her phone to her laptop. I love being a tech support granddaughter. When I go to bed several hours later, I scroll on Google Maps, wondering if I can visit every single park that adjoins New North Road this week.
I go for a bike ride in the apricot dawn, right to the north end of New North Road, at the Mt Eden Road intersection. It takes me 13 minutes to get there; I nearly get taken out by a bus on the way. It’s a strange feeling, to look at the cars trundling on to Symonds Street and know I can’t go there. I think about how 15-minute cities – the idea that most of what you need should be within a 15-minute walking, cycling or scootering radius – have become a conspiracy theory du jour. In choosing where to live, being close to the places I spend the most time, like my workplace and my boyfriend’s house and the beach, is important to me. When not confined to New North Road, I spend most of my time in a 15-minute radius of my home anyway, and I like it that way; if anything, being stuck to one road is making me go further afield.
I look at Symonds Street with no longing or desire; I’ve been there before, and I don’t think I’m missing out on the geography of that stretch of tarmac.
I have a physio appointment; luckily, I thought ahead, and found a physio on New North Road. I bike there in the lovely sunshine, then start fretting when I park my bike: in locking it to the pole on the outer edge of the pedestrian crossing where the street meets another, have I broken my own rules? Where does one road end and the other begin? What does it mean that we apply names to these stretches of tarmac, which meld together so seamlessly?
The physio is fine. I love going to the physio, it makes me feel very special, and I get told I’m doing a good job for performing basic tasks like flexing my toes. It feeds the part of me that loves attention.
I’ve been writing a story about mangoes which has been making me want to eat a mango. On the way back to the office, I stop at one of the Asian supermarkets and score a Mexican mango. It’s not really relevant to the story, so I take some pictures of the mango display I can use in the article to make it worthwhile.
There’s a Wikipedia page for New North Road! Who knew? It began as a track in the 1850s called Whau Road. Local landowner Allan Kerr Taylor, whose name still decorates streets and parks in this area, gave some of his land for its construction. Wikipedia doesn’t describe what this route means to mana whenua, who lived on this land before it was being named after white men. In the last 160 years it’s become an arterial road, as cars have begun to dominate travel, although there are also well-used bus routes and train stations attached to the road, and a few stretches of bike lane.
I leave work early to meet my friend at a park, to assist in my goal of going to all the parks along New North Road. We eat cookies as the sun sets, then she goes to find a bus and I drift dreamily through the Mt Albert PaknSave, feeling completely relaxed. I have nothing urgent to do this evening, the kombucha is 99 cents and in the queue for the checkout, a dad with five children lets each of them beep several of the items, which I find delightful. Maybe all this experiment will reveal is how boring my life is; how little it takes to enchant me.
New North Road is infesting my subconscious: I dreamed of being a tour guide to my colleague Tommy, showing him important landmarks on the road, like my house. Tommy keeps trying to give me coffee to drink, and is also concerned about a nearby nuclear power station. We’re riding bikes.
I sleep through my alarm and wake up a little discombobulated. Is there a nuclear power plant on my street I didn’t previously know about? (I don’t think so.) I never know the protocol with telling colleagues about dreams in which they feature. It feels overly familiar, perhaps. But for what it’s worth: Tommy, you were a very pleasant person to bike along New North Road with in my dream.
I go for a short walk, having to eschew my normal loop around a park for a pace up and down the street. When I get back to the office I read a New Yorker article about the state of media or something. It describes how journalists in the digital world spend a lot of time sitting at desks producing stories rather than reporting: talking to people in the real world, building relationships, asking questions, getting ideas that you didn’t see on social media. Is writing an article describing my fairly quotidian life as a digital media worker who lives on a relatively major road in the biggest city in the country a perpetuation of this? There are so many things that matter that don’t get noticed, or recorded, at all; is the time I’m giving myself to this article just a way to continue to talk about myself (university educated, middle class background, fluent in English, young – among the most overrepresented demographics in the media) rather than report about something that actually matters? Would it help, perhaps, if I turned this paragraph into a reason to sign up to The Spinoff Members?
Anyway, I spend the rest of the afternoon working on a story about Facebook Events. I’ve been trying to report this story for several weeks, attempting to find confirmation of my hypothesis that one of the reasons people keep their Facebook accounts is because they, like me, crave that glowing feeling of being invited to things. I’ve sent a lot of emails, but I haven’t found anyone who will say this directly to me, so instead I go for the easy option and write about myself. I find it quite easy to describe my actions in amusing terms, or amusing at least to myself.
Maybe I just have a fear that I will, in trying to be entertaining, discover that I’m not very funny at all. It’s not like “thinking existential thoughts while doing a stunt that turns your life into content” is a new contribution to the genre. I reread The Spinoff classic where Madeleine Chapman tried to eat only red meat for a week, like Jordan Peterson. But my article doesn’t really respond to any big questions about anti-feminist reactionaries, it’s just about a road.
While my dinner cooks I answer some messages. My friend invites me to go mountain biking with her this weekend, and I have to decline, because of New North Road. Another friend tells me she can’t see me this weekend because she has something else on; does she simply not want to come to New North Road? An acquaintance wants to meet up and hear a bit about writing and journalism; I reply, telling her we have to be on New North Road. She doesn’t get back to me – am I putting off future journalists by doing ridiculous things that make this profession, truly the most enjoyable job I can imagine having, seem completely unappealing?
Yesterday my colleague Charlotte invited me to go with her to the museum, to see a preview of the new Egypt exhibit. I couldn’t, because of New North Road. This anxiety is obviously lurking in my brain; in my dream, I am at the museum with Charlotte, feeling dreadfully guilty that I’ve left the road, wondering if I can explain to readers that my integrity has been compromised by my enthusiasm for attending exhibits. I wake up wondering if I need to apologise for my psychic transgressions.
I go running; my feet almost instinctively turn up the road to go towards Ōwairaka, which I like to climb at least once a week. Instead, I plod dutifully down New North Road, past the twin BBQ Noodle Houses, the train station, the traffic lights. On the way back I notice sections of rippled pavement where intrepid tree roots strain against the tarmac, their bodies – do trees have bodies? – wanting not to be constrained by a mere street. I’ve never empathised more with a plant.
I take the bus to work, to fulfil my promise to experiment with different forms of transport. With a bus stop right outside my door and another right next to work, it’s a very enjoyable way to travel. Four brief minutes, and I hop off, having had not one single thought pass through my mind as I sat in the vehicle.
I don’t even particularly like New North Road. I don’t have any feelings towards it; it’s just a street I see often on account of my house and work both being located on it. It’s not the kind of road that ignites passion like Karangahape Road or Cuba Street. It’s just a thoroughfare: roads and buses and bikes and trains, shops and houses, all those people going up and down the street to useful places.
I buy tickets to a documentary showing next week in Newmarket. It’s starting to feel strange to imagine going anywhere that isn’t on New North Road; the prison, clearly, is in my own mind. I look up “prison of your own mind” in case there are any inspirational quotes or stories that can show me the key to having mental freedom while choosing to stay on New North Road entirely of my own volition, but all that comes up is off-brand TED talks and scammy SEO copy from life coaching companies. Searching the internet seems to get worse by the day – but what about searching for meaning on New North Road?
I mean, that said, is there anything unique about any road? Most people spend their lives in buildings and places; the road is the conduit to the people they see and the places they go, not the thing itself. In Auckland’s suburbs, New North Road, being longer than most, has more of the things that make living in a city nice, like public transport and places to eat, for which I am grateful. I kind of feel like going into the CBD is an event, because on a non-NNR week, I only go into town once or twice a week. But here I am in my ordinariness – is this an invitation to be at peace with where I live and why I live here?
I suppose most people feel like their lives are normal: indeed, at least half of the dramatic things that could happen to a person are unpleasant, so to be boring is perhaps a good thing. Even those that aren’t – a new house, the welcome end of a relationship – involve work: people to tell or boxes to pack. It’s not that I want my life to always be in some form of everyday stasis, but (Stockholm syndrome voice??) I like my everyday, I really do.
To help me experience New North Road from within a private vehicle, my colleague Charlotte drives me to Kingsland, to get a drink with friends at Garage Project. In the several weeks since I was last in a car, I’ve forgotten how comfortable it can be to sit in a warm shell while being propelled forward with essentially no effort. The thousands of people who drive up and down New North Road every day get to experience this all the time!
After farewelling everyone else, I walk to the Kingsland train station to catch the train home. The sight of a skeletal tree poised against the deep blue sky, a train skimming across the overpass above, makes me feel like I’m living in some dreamy urbanist paradise: bikeable, trainable, bussable, walkable, with the weather usually pleasant enough to be outside. I try to take a photo of it but it comes out blurry; what’s around me isn’t able to contain the feeling I am experiencing at all.
Another message from the library about an overdue book. I add it to the pile on the floor.
I find running in the Auckland suburbs uninspiring at the best of times, and the thought of plodding along the street again is barely enough to get me out of bed. Instead I walk up the street, listening to the whoosh of traffic – it’s absurd how much traffic-induced noise pollution cities are expected to get used to. I see two pigeons, then four sparrows, then two mynahs, then four blackbirds, as if I’ve stepped into a learn-to-multiply children’s book.
It starts raining heavily and I completely change my outfit – voluminous pleated skirts don’t fit well under raincoats. In the flurry of looking for my waterproof backpack cover (the kind of sexy accessory Auckland in winter demands), I manage to leave both my voice recorder and glasses at home, but on account of the rain, don’t feel like turning back to retrieve them. I can believe all I want that everything I need is on New North Road – I can arrange my life to make this possible – but I can’t control the weather.
I am being paid to spend an entire week without leaving one road. Do I need to revisit all the things I once said you “couldn’t pay me to do”? You couldn’t pay me to ascend K2 in winter, obviously, nor could you pay me to go on a cruise. Those are two of the most unpleasant things I can imagine ever being compelled to do for money. You couldn’t pay me to watch The Breakfast Club (horrible movie) again. Well, maybe you could – how much are you offering? The point of this absurd phrase is that most people who aren’t Mr Beast don’t get paid to do ridiculous things.
What if I found someone who wanted to live for a week on Great North Road, which runs parallel to New North, and then we had a debate? Now that would be content. But where would we meet?
My boyfriend comes over to watch the Drive to Survive Tour de France knock-off. It’s amazing how sports are helping these men express strong emotions. The people on bikes going fast are inspiring me to … bike the entire length of New North Road tomorrow?
“How silly do you think it is to spend a whole week on New North Road?” I ask my boyfriend. He doesn’t answer me directly.
“I wish you could come to my house tomorrow… it would be nice,” he says.
“I can’t, though,” I say. “I have to stay on New North Road.”
I roll over and read my newsletter (which you should subscribe to) before I send it. I realise several hours later that I’ve left a sentence unfinished. Don’t proofread your work first thing when you wake up!
I have to get out of bed quickly, because I signed up for a 90-minute yoga class on New North Road that Spinoff CEO Amber recommended to me when I said I needed some New North Road weekend activities. Even though I am very flexible, I’m not very good at balancing. I try to neuter my natural urge to perform but can’t resist showing everyone that I can touch my head to my toes – childhood gymnastics has a long-lasting impact! Sadly as a consequence of this, my muscles hurt for the rest of the day.
It’s raining and I have nowhere to go. I file my tax return, which I’ve been putting off for months, and check my student loan balance. Has anyone else paid for their education by not leaving the road on which they live?
What if someone tries to cancel me for cosplaying lockdown? Even worse: what if I confessed that I was kind of hoping to get Covid this week so I didn’t have to make as much of an effort to see people?
My new friend comes over to my flat to discuss our different creative endeavours (she is writing an amazing-sounding play; I am thinking of things to do that don’t involve leaving my street). After she leaves, I look at the grey weather outside. It’s time to stop procrastinating and traverse the length of New North Road in one go – by bike.
At the north end, I nearly get taken out by a bus. This is possibly because I am standing in the middle of the street trying to take selfies with the road sign that says New North Road – mea culpa. While most of my attention as I head south-west is dedicated to not getting run over, I manage to look up at the traffic lights. The late afternoon has a taut clarity, that just-rained blueish light. A shawl of cloud clings to the shoulders of the Waitākere Ranges far ahead of me. Flecks of grey road dust flick up from the wet surface and cling to my legs, but I’m soaring downhill, past the office, the yoga place, my house, the physio, the PaknSave. I meet my boyfriend at the only park I haven’t explored yet and I lock my bike up and we run around it while I tell him about the stray thoughts that are passing through my brain, much as I am doing to you now. The air is cold and lovely, my skin is cool and my legs are tired; there is perhaps no better way to be.
I bike to the other end of the road, where it meets Blockhouse Bay Road and splits as it heads towards Avondale. This end of the road is nice, too; it ends in a little ascent, and the streets before me suggest the appeal of being connected to all the suburbs this road doesn’t touch. I can’t go there yet, though; instead I turn around and glide back home in the thickening evening. Because I have to go along the road twice to get to each end then back to my house, I have experienced the road from both sides, which pleases my desire to be thorough. According to Strava, it’s 13.79 kilometres, which includes multiple stops, and it took me 53 minutes.
Still bored, still nowhere to go. I invent a new game where you go for a walk while eating an ice block to see how far you get before you finish it, at which point you have to turn around and walk back on the other side of the road (novelty). Restrictions breed innovation.
I might be on New North Road but that doesn’t mean I need to miss out on Jesus Points*. There are, if I’m counting correctly, at least five churches on New North Road, so even though my usual church is not accessible I can at least go to another service and see how another denomination does things. My boyfriend suggested yesterday that I do a speedrun, and try to go to 10 minutes of each church service, but that sounded stressful, and the point is to more or less do what I normally do except on New North Road, so I just go to one service. Even though it is a maximum of five minutes’ walk away (at a slow amble), I still manage to be three minutes late; being three minutes late to church is one of my specialties.
Staying for the church morning tea lets me tick off my “talk to a stranger” check box in abundance. I talk to one person about archaeology, another about recycling, and a third about his grandson who is studying journalism in Argentina. I love getting a little glimpse into people’s lives.
As I walk home from church, a rainbow arches over the street, which is nice. I think of the song about Dominion Road “shining like a strip cut from a sheet metal plate because it’s just been raining”, which also applies, evidently, to NNR. There also used to be a band called Great North. But has anyone made music based on New North Road, those fine streets’ lesser cousin?
*I am not a theology expert but I need to clarify that “Jesus Points” do not actually exist, everyone is equally able to access Jesus if they wish.
I’m thoroughly sick of my house so I walk up the street, planning to read a book like Barry Soper (al fresco). The minute I sit down on the park bench, it starts raining. I run back to the house and situate myself optimistically next to the dehumidifier. I’m finishing reading a book about climate change in New Zealand, which I try to let buoy me with hope and optimism, but thinking about how dreary it is to be continually rained on, and how much likelier that is in our wetter and stormier future, is depressing. I finish the book and read several articles about the effect of air conditioning on electricity systems in a warming world, which is something I’ve been wondering about for a while.
I normally fix bikes on Sundays. I wonder if I should try to recreate this too. I go and look at my bikes in the garage and half-heartedly drip some oil on their chains.
Do you want an opportunity to do tasks that you’ve been procrastinating? Try this weird tip and don’t leave your street for a week!
It’s rained most of the afternoon, so I do several more things I was putting off; sort out an automatic payment to my savings account (there has been more financial admin in this diary than I was expecting), answer three emails, and RSVP to a wedding (and write it down so I don’t forget). I can’t help but feel that my week on New North Road has ended with a whimper, not a bang – the thrilling discovery of bank statements and finished books.
I make a quick dinner – instant noodles – and gulp it while listening to the Trespasses audiobook. The clock ticks to eight o’clock, signalling the end of my week on New North Road. I’m free! There’s one more task I’ve been avoiding. I pick up my overdue library books and make a night-time trip to the library returns slot, six minutes’ bike from New North Road. The world outside has changed a lot (there is new road surfacing next to the library) – but the week is over, and all I have to show for it is a clean conscience and the desperate urge to move somewhere else.