MY (NOT SO DARLING) DARLINGHURST

This entry was inspired by the wholly amazing blog called “My Darling Darlinghurst” which just this week I was alerted to. And so I have spent considerable time devouring what is written and pictured and felt up there in MDD — and so my mum and me have put what is below together. I know this might seem a bit oblique and excessive, but part of my purpose in this bloggy adventure is just to document my life before I forget it or am too bitter to embrace it. So here it is — my “entire” Darlinghurst.

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From the My Darling Darlinghurst blog. (A ~1950s map of the area)

When I was still in primary school me and my dad were living in Brisbane and my sister and mum were living in Sydney but then my father suddenly got this job down there and within two weeks we had migrated.

While my dad looked for a place for us to settle in, I stayed with my mum and my sister in mum’s rented flat on the corner of Forbes and Burton Streets, Darlinghurst. For the Post Office worker it was #102 Burton and we lived on the first floor, (left hand side as you looked at it from the street) above an art gallery and a laundromat.

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Current Google Maps pic. Our flat was just above the awning and the two windows on the left. Bizarrely it seems the Laundromat and the art gallery are still there!

This place was quite an education for a very tragic and “little” kid from Brisbane. We didn’t lock our doors up there — yet here in Sydney you needed one key to get into the apartment building, and then another two to negotiate the deadlock and normal lock for the door to our flat.

It was a cold and a dark and a silent place you entered when you stepped off that manic street outside. Inside our corridor’s floor (I now presume) was polished concrete but it felt and acted like ice. About 15 slippery steps later it led you to a staircase and to an even darker first-floor corridor. By now I was taking two steps at a time, always listening for anyone else around and generally rushing to get through this creepy process. On that second floor there was just one lamp and it hung at the centre above the stairs — as if that was the only thing important — and consequently had little impact at our end of the hall where our door stood. Initially you just had to guess where the key holes were, but later you became Aware through fear’s necessity. There is a scene in Seinfeld where he pretends to his date that they need to get inside the apartment as quickly as possible because some crazed lunatic is bounding toward them.

Much later — when I saw that scene — I was more “oh yeah, that feeling really sucked” than amused. Because, to me, that seemed to be a very prescient and worthy insight into everyday-living in a dodgy apartment building above an even dodgier street.

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This photo of Burton Street is from my 2002 trip to Sydney and that year’s “nostalgia visit”

And so now I describe the street outside and I think you need to remember I was just a very fragile kid from Brisbane (via Ipswich). And here I will notate some of my revelations.

1) CONCRETE GLASS: I was horrified to see that the nextdoor terrace had set an epic amount of ugly, broken glass in home-made concrete all along the top of the wall that divided our apartment building with their yard. Every time you climbed those dark stairs there was a window (framed so well with all the outside sun) and it had the most perfect view of that considerable effort at properterial protection.

2) BAREFEET ON SYRINGES: There were used syringes everywhere. And this was the very same year all those Grim Reaper ads were displayed on TV. Meanwhile I had only one pair of shoes which (despite their age) were still in an almost perfect condition because up in Queensland (despite the bindies) you had precisely TWO pairs of shoes: shitty hard leather shoes they made you wear at school — and a pair of sneakers for after-hours (with velcro straps if you were lucky) which you barely used because shoes officially sucked. You went everywhere with naked feet and got enormously fantastic leathery soles and calluses and you rode your bike that way and if you wore shoes outside school your friends wondered if you were insane.

So I was used to walking around everywhere in just my feet, and here in Darlinghurst that seemed suicidal. But just cause I am a recalcitrant and a QUEENSLANDER I walked the fuck out of that neighbourhood in barefeet. I must have looked homeless but I would regularly go up to Taylor’s Square, dodging all the spit and vomit and glass on the footpath (and treat it like a game of space invaders) just to buy the latest comics. I loved the weird looks I got — especially in this town where every second person was certifiable. On the way home from soccer training I would take off my soccer shoes and just walk home from the bus-stop at Taylor’s Square in my socks. I never got a communicable disease or even cut or any grief from child services. So I guess I won.

3) TALKING TO PROSTITUTES: The prostitutes who congregated directly outside (and across) from our building were another awakening. I eventually got used to them and they just blurred into the neighbourhood and usually came out well after I had gone to sleep. But then I remember this time my best friend came for a sleep-over on a Friday night. It was my mate Siung and although he lived in the badlands of the western suburbs (although it was the nice end of Norton Street in Leichhardt) but he was still quite impressed by this adventure. See my room was at the very front of the building and just above the awning. You could literally open the sliding window and step down 2 feet and be on top of the awning’s roof. Which is what Siung did. And although I begged him not to, there he was. And so I followed and he started having this massive conversation with the sex-worker across the road. And I said “hi” but it was just out of politeness. Siung was asking all sorts of awkward and obnoxious questions like “How much do you charge?” and “Where do you do it?” I was horrified. She was surprisingly enjoying the banter. She refused to answer all of our stupid questions and instead asked us some which thankfully levelled Siung a bit — I guess he realised she was human and real and mocking her was going to be a bit more difficult than his tiny teenage brain was up to.

Eventually I coaxed him inside, mostly worried we would bend or break the awning and in that process she disappeared into that night. Only Siung was disappointed.

4) THE SMOKE OF BURNING BODIES: So I went to school at Glenmore Road in Paddington. And my walking route, with my much younger sister in tow (cramping my style it should be said), led me past the technical college (a former jail with walls accordingly suited) and then past a park full of homeless people and soon past the St Vincents Hospital which looked appallingly like a 18th Century Factory and definitely not a place of medical science — with it’s dark brick work, it’s ugliness and the enormous smoke stacks (for burning dead bodies I was told by the kids at school). Which I found out later was not so far from the truth.

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Taken on that 2002 trip

And then just past ‘the hospital’ was an overpass (picture above and below) and the footpath turned into a prison. It was caged from the road on one side and similarly caged from the 10 metre drop to the streets and houses below on the other. And for that 150 metres you were trapped in this death-zone. And this thoroughfare was populated by many, many dodgy persons. Perhaps now I would be oblivious — but back then I was literally pissing my pants and doing my best to be brave in front of my sister.

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2011 shot of Barcom Ave from that overpass’ ‘prison’ walkway

5) GLENMORE ROAD PRIMARY. So I went to this tiny school across the border in Paddington (chosen cause my sister went there (and not Darlinghurst Primary which was closer). Glenmore had less than 150 students and was under imminent threat of closure. It occupied amazing Paddington real estate — elevated and harbour-side. In the playground we had epic views of the Harbour and more space (per capita) than my subjects back at EJSS (my school in QLD) had enjoyed — although all our play area was covered in bitumen — not grass — and tiered like a Cambodian rice-paddy — which made running amock a bit awkward and dangerous.

6) COVERED IN BEER: The yearly Mardi Gras Festival was something else that became a challenge for me. My mum and her boyfriend were excited and decided to see it. After all — it was just about 300m up Forbes Street to Taylors Square. I came along, a bit reluctantly, and the crowds were intense. I was jostled around and because I was only a kid, had only the view of someone’s back for company. I looked up just as we got to William Street and there was a dude on top of the traffic light and he was treating the light like he was a cowboy and it was his horse and then he lost his beer bottle and it landed smack on my shoulder and then smashed at my feet saturating me with sticky, ugly mess. I instantly turned around and headed home — alone — and once sufficiently showered I watched the chaos below from my open bedroom window quietly thinking what a fucking mess this was. And I got so annoyed at this decadence, the grossness of it all. The fact a crowd of people could just arrive and do so much carnage to my home.  And I started to miss the prostitutes and junkies and the dodgy people on the overpass and the homeless people in the park (all of whom had quietly retired or taken the evening off) and were no where near as appalling as these absolute deadshits.

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A 2002 shot of the Courthouse Hotel at Taylor’s Square.

OVER TO MY MUM:

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That’s her — the ginger — second from left.

My first connection with Darlinghurst was a share-house in Womerah Avenue where my friend Mandy Pearson lived in the mid 80s. It was drop-in central for a bunch of writers, musicians and artists. The picture is of a street sale the house had one weekend. I’ll never forget the weird things people were prepared to buy if the price was low enough. Like a used bandage that someone accidentally left on the table!

My first own place in Darlo was almost on the corner of Burton and Forbes, the two highest crime streets in the eastern suburbs at the time. Rental places were in short supply (1987) and I had to pay more than the advertised rent to grab the deal. The place was on the first floor, overlooking East Sydney Tech onone side and a bunch of fire-escape gardens on the other. Although the layout was odd, it had plenty of space. Kate used the smaller of the two bedrooms; I had the main one and David got the sleepout. The trouble was that you had to walk through the main bedroom to get to the sleepout, so I had to improvise screens (can’t remember how). We had a black-and-white TV and a turntable for entertainment, but we were within easy walking distance of Oxford Street and could practically watch the Gay Mardi Gras from the front windows.  

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Kate, mum and me in the living room at Burton Street

During the day the area was fairly innocuous. A smart gallery and a shabby laundromat flanked the entrance to our building: snapshot of a slum in the throes of gentrification. Two doors down was a takeaway place that was full of art students by day and handy for fish and chips in the evening when I couldn’t be bothered cooking. 

After dark, though, this sleepy corner turned into a film noir set. I often used to joke that you could get dozens of script ideas dangling a microphone out the window. 

In 1989, I finally got to buy a place. After a crazy boom, real estate prices began to fall but interest rates were still stratospheric at 17%. Thanks to my job at the University of NSW, I managed to buy a place without a deposit—the uni guaranteed a second mortgage to cover that.  

Having fallen in love with Darlo, I’d narrowed my choices down to two apartments in the Paddington fringe of the suburb. While I was tossing up between them, we went to lunch at an amazing place in Palm Beach hosted by a film stylist called Lisa. Bob Ellis lived next door and he and his precocious son dropped in for a while. (Sorry, can’t help dropping names a bit. Thanks to my man at the time, we were always brushing against celebrities.) Anyway, I explained my dilemma to Lisa and she said, “You’ve already made up your mind. I can tell by the way you talk about these places. Go with your heart. When you sell, someone else will feel the same way.” So I bought the place that was much prettier but also smaller. It was so small that we pretended we were living on a boat. 

27A Barcom Avenue had no view whatsoever. David had the smaller bedroom and Kate and I shared the main one. You walked straight from the front door into a small windowless living area with a leadlight skylight. All other rooms led off this space so it was a devil to furnish. There was a back door off the kitchen leading to a cute little courtyard, about the size of a bathroom.  

Cats in the building shared the roof as territory and ours (Moochy) fought ferociously for her patch. She’d also make use of the gap under the front door to swipe-fight with rivals. Junkies tossed empty syringes into the courtyard and walked right in and stole stuff under our noses if we ever left the front door open for a minute or two. One of the neighbours was a gay guy who had lots of parties. They always ended up with old Winifred Atwell recordings! 

But I loved living in this area. You could walk down to the water at Rushcutters Bay or up to the shops at Paddington. There were lots of cheap ethnic restaurants and interesting 50s shops around Darlo and surrounds: Potts Point, East Sydney, Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross, Surry Hills.  

A BRIEF TRIP TO COOGEE

I would return to Darlinghurst, but before that my dad bizarrely got a place miles away on the corner of Coogee Bay Road and Beach Road. It was a fucking shit hole and perhaps an even more surreally intense living experience for this kid from Ipswich. I had the street-side room and it was like living in an all-night 4Corners documentary. There were fights and domestic violence and car smashes and people talking much too loudly and it was just generally impossible to avoid.

THE CEILING CAVING DOWN ON ME

In that place the plaster ceiling fell down on me while I was taking a shower. I could not help but scream cause I thought the roof was collapsing and my dad barged in and saw me naked covered in dust and plaster while the shower continued to run and I started crying, not just for the shock, but because my dad had seen me naked and heard me screaming but just (seemingly) over plaster and dust.

My dad then quit his job — after less than a year — and returned to Brisbane and I stayed behind. I had this gig at Sydney Boys High and so I thought that was important to whatever that pathetic future I needed to nurture seeing as how I was such a deadshit. And plus I was quietly getting accustomed or perhaps surviving in this city and living here was not sure a big deal anymore. I returned to that flat in Burton Street Darlinghurst and it was with the help of all my amazing friends at Glenmore Road who led me to realise kids could actually thrive in this dirty, intense and grown-up city. And so with that understanding I now realised I could blend into the detritus of Sydney, step over the glass (and spit, drug paraphernalia, and vomit), befriend the regular homeless eccentrics, dutifully ignore any domestic violence and thus actually enjoy this place which I now gleefully assumed was the centre of the universe. And I was a big fan of the universe. I was also a big fan of the news — now my favourite show on TV. And Sydney News was so much more serious and genuine than what they showed in my former deadshit home of Brisbane. So in Sydney I would sly home from school kinda imagining that effort was an adventure — even if it wasn’t documented on TV cameras or broadcast.

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This is a view of the amazing apartments and their gantry we could see out the window from that place in Burton Street. It looked like Art. 

BARCOM AVE, DARLINGHURST

And soon we quit that place in Burton Street and mum bought her first piece of property. It was a flat in Barcom Avenue on the other side of Darlinghurst and it was half the size of the place we had come from. It was just a two bedroom flat and initially I got my own room and my sister had to sleep in a bed next to mum’s. I guess being a boy I had my own room but later, sigh, I had to share that with my sister.

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This is me posing in my bedroom with my obsession with Michael Hutchence and INXS so exposed (taken by mum)

But I guess I should talk about the streets here. They were very different to the Burton Street hustle and bustle. And I will do it again in point form, mostly cause I imagine maybe readers might respond to that better than paragraph after paragraph:

1) ASHAMED — Where we were at the bottom of Barcom Ave was almost in Rushcutter’s Bay so that’s where I said I lived. I was officially ashamed of saying I was from “Darlinghurst” — even though Darlinghurst pretty much nuzzled my school and it took me only 20 minutes to walk there and back. But school was about appearances and I was already so damaged by being “the poor kid” at primary school back in Brisbane.

2) DIFFERENT, BUT THE SAME: This place wasn’t so much the centre of the universe but I did see Hugo Weaving nursing a baby one early morning (just a few doors up) as I walked to school for some HSC exam. I was too worried about the HSC to really care. But this end of Darlinghurst was still loud and grungy and full of syringes and the odd person that you considered crossing to street to avoid. Woomerah Lane (not to be confused with Woomerah Street) just up (and parallel to our road) had a few regular sex-workers and indeed I heard about efforts by the locals to install specific street lighting to deter them.

3) At the bottom of Barcom Avenue was a major, major road which basically ostracised us from the posh bayside house. But you could access it via a footbridge. Across that footbridge Mum’s boyfriend (Andrew) had a place in Roslyn Gardens. I wasn’t a big fan of Andrew but I conceded I was impressed that he had met John Lennon and Yoko and Jimi Hendrix. And the vibe over here was vastly different. It was so much closer to King’s Cross and in those days the Cross was scary — and even though I could go where-ever I wanted and I now had a great deal of Sydney street-smarts – I had no real desire to go there again. (I’d had a brief visit back when I first came to Sydney). Security at Andrew’s place was just gobsmacking. His one-bedroom unit had an inch-thick iron door. Like it was metal from top to bottom and weighed at least 20kgs and resembled a safe’s door, more than a door to someone’s home. It had this round lever in the centre that you turned which pushed a flat metal bar about 2 inches wide up into recesses at the top and base of the door. There was no breaking this door down. I am surprised drug dealers don’t employ this technology.

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This is the footbridge — taken by me on my 2011 nostalgia trip

THE END

I don’t really miss Darlinghurst, but I could happily live there again. I went walking around there last year for the first time in a decade or so and it was pretty cool. And reading Violet’s blog has really stirred something in me so that’s good.

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 Another shot of 27A Barcom — this time my sister in awe of our skylight and amazing lamp!

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Me on my 2011 nostalgia tour — the steps up to 27A. That was our door on the right 

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