Louis Nowra pens a love let­ter to Kings Cross

Louis Nowra’s first visit to Kings Cross al­most killed him. So the play­wright de­cided to stay

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

IWAS on a bus vis­it­ing Kings Cross for the first time when a woman pulled a knife on me. It was the late 1970s and I had just shifted to Syd­ney from Mel­bourne and was go­ing to see my agent, whose of­fices were on Dar­linghurst Road. As the bus was labour­ing up Wil­liam Street through the stul­ti­fy­ing hu­mid­ity of a sum­mer’s morn­ing, I was ex­cited to be go­ing to a place I only knew from news­pa­per re­ports and tele­vi­sion which em­pha­sised its dan­ger and moral base­ness.

If I knew any­thing about Kings Cross it was that its name was short­hand for broth­els, street walk­ers, junkies, gang­sters, strip­pers, po­lice cor­rup­tion, the des­per­ate and a neon jun­gle of de­prav­ity.

I had been gaz­ing out the win­dow at dreary Wil­liam Street, with its bland of­fice build­ings, tacky take-away shops and car show­rooms shim­mer­ing in the heat when, out of the cor­ner of my eye, I glimpsed an old woman in a heavy coat with a sheen of per­spi­ra­tion on her fore­head mut­ter­ing to her­self a few seats from mine. At the stop half­way up the street the hand­ful of pas­sen­gers, ex­cept for the old lady, hur­ried off the bus. As it started off again I no­ticed she was now stand­ing in the aisle, a hand­bag draped over one arm and bran­dish­ing a carv­ing knife in the other hand. She was talk­ing to her­self, say­ing re­peat­edly, in a quiet de­ter­mined mantra, ‘‘ I’m go­ing to kill you.’’

My body stiff­ened and I felt a prickle of fear course through me.

She snapped out of her self-ab­sorp­tion and turned to the front of the bus and yelled out to the driver, ‘‘ I’m go­ing to kill you!’’ He didn’t seem to hear and, as she ad­vanced down the aisle, she con­tin­ued to shout her threat. This time he heard her be­cause I saw his eyes widen in his rear-vi­sion mir­ror. They reg­is­tered con­fu­sion and then ter­ror. The bus be­gan to gather speed, as much as it could, and it lum­bered asth­mat­i­cally to­wards the top of the hill.

Then the old woman slowly turned, as if she sensed my pres­ence for the first time. She stared at me as if try­ing to de­cide whether I were real or not and started down the aisle to­wards me. There was nowhere for me to run or hide.

I heard the bus gears clank loudly, the horn beep­ing and, as it rounded sharply to the left, the old woman, put off bal­ance by the sud­den turn into Dar­linghurst Road, top­pled over into one of the seats. The horn was now blast­ing con­stantly as the driver weaved his way in and out of the traf­fic. The woman pulled her­self up into a sit­ting po­si­tion. She was now fu­ri­ous with the driver, shout­ing at him to slow down. When he took no no­tice she stood up again and waved the knife at me.

’’ I’m go­ing to kill you and then that idiot driver,’’ she threat­ened.

The bus swerved to avoid an on­com­ing car and the woman keeled over again. It picked up pace along flat Dar­linghurst Road, the driver thump­ing the horn. Then it turned a hard right and sud­denly braked to a stop. I was jolted back­wards. The front door hissed open and the driver jumped out, shout­ing for the po­lice.

In his hurry to flee he hadn’t re­leased the rear door. The old woman stood up and I re­alised it would be im­pos­si­ble to get past her to the front. I sat still, hop­ing not to be no­ticed. I could hear the driver yelling out, ‘‘ She’s in there! She’s got a knife!’’

The old woman peered out the win­dow and then hur­riedly stuffed the weapon into her hand­bag. A po­lice­man stepped into the bus. He glanced at me at the back and then at the old woman sit­ting half­way down.

‘‘ Not again, Shirley,’’ he sighed. ‘‘ Come on, out you come,’’ he said with the smile of some­one who had been through this many times be­fore, and held out his hand. She got up and, look­ing like a mild-man­nered grand­mother, meekly handed over her hand­bag.

He stepped aside to al­low her to pass and opened the hand­bag. He shook his head on see­ing the knife and looked across at me. ‘‘ She’s ac­tu­ally harm­less,’’ he said, amused by my predica­ment and no doubt my shocked ex­pres­sion.

I stepped out, wob­bly from the ten­sion, and walked back along Dar­linghurst Road to my agent’s of­fice. Stand­ing be­side the en­trance, as if guard­ing it, was a mini-skirted woman in her thir­ties with a hard face that her heavy make-up and vivid pink lip­stick couldn’t hide.

‘‘ Would you like a lady?’’ she asked. I didn’t re­ply and at­tempted to get past her. "You’ll get a good time for your money,’’ she added, with a touch of des­per­a­tion.

‘‘ Look,’’ I said help­lessly, ‘‘ I’m here to see my agent. I’m a writer.’’ She took a step back. ‘‘ A writer . . .’’ she said, shak­ing her head, ir­ri­tated she had wasted her time on some­one who ob­vi­ously had no money.

It was only later when I was on a bus head­ing back down Wil­liam Street that I re­alised I was ex­hil­a­rated by what had hap­pened.

I shifted into the Cross in 1990 af­ter a re­la­tion­ship broke down (a not un­com­mon rea­son for men and women to come and live in the area). I rented a room in a house in Brougham Street near the But­ler Stairs, then later an apart­ment in Ithaca Road. I was to buy an apart­ment in Oceana, at the end of El­iz­a­beth Bay Road, then at the turn of the mil­len­nium I rented a flat in Kel­lett Street and fi­nally I bought an apart­ment near the top of Wil­liam Street a decade ago, where I am writ­ing this.

Grad­u­ally I be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the com­plex­ity of Kings Cross’s hu­man in­ter­ac­tions and streetscapes, the stun­ning jux­ta­po­si­tions of


beauty and ug­li­ness, its tol­er­ance and its al­most ar­ro­gant sense that it is markedly dif­fer­ent from the rest of the com­mu­nity. At times it has been dan­ger­ous (ice ad­dicts can be ir­ra­tionally vi­o­lent) but that’s un­usual. I have watched it un­dergo sev­eral trans­for­ma­tions, as it in turn changed me, mak­ing me less judg­men­tal, more fas­ci­nated by the al­most Dick­en­sian range of char­ac­ters and ways of liv­ing.

It is the most densely pop­u­lated area in Aus­tralia, with res­i­dents who range from the wealthy to the un­der­class, peo­ple who live in some of the most ex­quis­ite ex­am­ples of art deco build­ings or sleep on the streets. Fa­mous peo­ple have lived in the Cross and oth­ers have be­come fa­mous by liv­ing there. Back­pack­ers, junkies, whores, strip­pers, chefs, mad men, beg­gars, book­sellers, doc­tors, mu­si­cians, writ­ers, gang­sters, drug­gies, deal­ers, ec­centrics, judges and artists live side by side. It has one of the most di­verse and tol­er­ant com­mu­ni­ties in Aus­tralia.

For decades it was the safety valve for our so­ci­ety and at the fore­front of Aus­tralian so­cial and cul­tural change. Its name has be­come short­hand for any vice you care to men­tion.

At the same time, the his­tory of Aus­tralia is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing the con­tri­bu­tion of Kings Cross to moder­nity, the art of liv­ing in high rise apart­ments, and how it pro­vided a refuge for those whose be­hav­iour, ideas, eth­nic­ity and sense of mo­ral­ity was, for many decades, at odds with main­stream Aus­tralian so­ci­ety and cul­ture.

Kings Cross’s his­tory has been one of rein­ven­tion and trans­for­ma­tions but it has al­ways man­aged to main­tain its own sin­gu­lar iden­tity; that is, up un­til now. The so­cial changes of the past decade are per­ma­nently al­ter­ing the Cross. THE first thing that strikes you as you turn the bend from el­e­gant Ma­cleay Street into Dar­linghurst Road is the sickly sweet smell of an ice cream par­lour. Then sud­denly the vis­ual mud­dle of Dar­linghurst Road greets you like a slap in the face. If the Ma­cleay Street sig­nage dis­creetly whispers, in Dar­linghurst Road it shouts at you in reds, blacks and yel­lows, the writ­ing, sizes and fonts all alarm­ingly dif­fer­ent.

If Ma­cleay Street ap­peals to the higher in­stincts, Dar­linghurst Road proudly flaunts its ap­peal to baser de­sires.

In 2013 there are three ho­tels in a row on the east­ern side, the newly ren­o­vated Bour­bon with its ‘‘ 1930s New York vibe’’ and Cre­ole food; Club Swans, closed and derelict; and the for­mer Les Girls site, now the pedes­trian Em­pire Ho­tel.

The Ve­gas is a few doors down from the li­brary. Fa­mous for its ‘‘ un­der­wa­ter pole dancers’’, who gyrated in gi­ant fish tanks wear­ing only strate­gi­cally placed crys­tals, and go-go dancers in cages, it makes most of its cash from thirty pokie ma­chines. They’re pop­u­lar with Kings Cross lo­cals, many of whom work the night shift and like to play the pok­ies in the pre-dawn hours. The Ve­gas opens early and its smok­ing area, which over­looks the street, quickly fills with men and women nurs­ing hang­overs, those on a ben­der, a de­ter­mined mi­nor­ity of al­co­holics, with flushed faces, bluish noses, red eyes, sag­ging lower eye­lids and rack­ing coughs. The hideous faces, some worn like an­cient driftwood, oth­ers blub­bery with booze, re­sem­ble those in a paint­ing by Hierony­mus Bosch.

The road is a hig­gledy-pig­gledy mess of con­ve­nience stores, to­bac­conists, back­pack­ers, cheap ho­tels, travel bu­reaux, tat­too par­lours, chemists, mas­sage par­lours, ke­bab take­aways, empty shops, hair­dressers, liquor out­lets, McDon­alds, adult stores and strip­tease joints. There is some­thing tran­si­tory in their tack­i­ness, like a movie set left out in the el­e­ments for years, lit up with neons in the evenings to hide their ug­li­ness and im­per­ma­nence.

The junc­tion with Spring­field Av­enue has changed from the drug deal­ing square it was a decade ago.

In the mid­dle of it is a row of benches, which lo­cals nick­name ‘‘ the Zoo’’. Drugged tran­nies, the home­less, ag­i­tated ice users, Abo­rig­ines and the stark rav­ing mad sit or squat there, the sight so of­fend­ing the Su­garmill man­age­ment that they wanted the coun­cil to get rid of the benches and their un­sightly guests who, ap­par­ently, re­pulse the pa­trons.

What you wit­ness can jolt you. One of the few times I was drink­ing at the Su­garmill I saw two Abo­rig­i­nal men col­lapsed against the op­po­site wall. There was some­thing limp about one of them. I went over to of­fer as­sis­tance. Both had shot up, one was over­dos­ing. The am­bu­lance was called and while wait­ing I learned from the older one that it was the first time they had tried the drug.

They had been down from the coun­try for two days, in­tend­ing to re­turn that day, but had spent all their money on heroin.

The junkies have only two topics of con­ver­sa­tion: scor­ing drugs and money. They wear the same dirty frayed clothes day af­ter day, their hair is greasy and their run­ners filthy. Their ar­gu­ments are a nasal ca­coph­ony of an­gry voices: ‘‘ I gave you half, you f . . ker’’, ‘‘ Where’s the money, c . . t?’’, ‘‘ Hey, you didn’t pay me back that dol­lar!’’, ‘‘ You f . . king ripped me off, you dog’’.

They are what I call the Wraiths, an ev­er­chang­ing col­lec­tion of the damned. They spend much of their time sit­ting on their haunches against the wall, their world nar­rowed to their ad­dic­tions. On wet and windy days they look their worst: clothes damp, shit and urine stained; hair mat­ted, body odour foul, anx­ious eyes fo­cused on the next fix; their pinched faces and rot­ten teeth a tes­ti­mony to their habit.

On weekend nights some 20,000 peo­ple come to Kings Cross and of th­ese there are about 6000 on Dar­linghurst and Bayswa­ter Roads around mid­night. Four open-air uri­nals, each de­signed for four men at a time, are set up in Spring­field Av­enue and are used by about 5500 men. Girls uri­nate and shit in door­ways.

Back on the main drag the girls tease the boys by flash­ing their tits or pulling down their knick­ers. One of the rites of pas­sage is to get a tat­too from one of the three par­lours on Dar­linghurst Road.

As the night grinds on, the vi­o­lence and ten­sion in the air rises and an­gry drunk men try to take on the bounc­ers or each other, while girls fight other girls. Some leave on the last train while oth­ers stay in bars drink­ing un­til the early hours of the morn­ing. Those want­ing to get home plead with or bribe taxi driv­ers, oth­ers sit ex­hausted in the gut­ters or on benches wait­ing for dawn.

About five o’clock on Satur­day or Sun­day morn­ing the changeover be­gins. The drunks and drug-ad­dled stag­ger out of venues, cou­ples and groups on ec­stasy laugh inanely and hug and kiss one another, the women wob­ble on their high heels, their make-up smudged, and groups of drunken and slur­ring blokes brag about their adventures, imag­i­nary or not. Res­i­dents who are up early try to avoid pass­ing the night­club Bada Bing, be­cause of its rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lence and the ag­gres­sive young men, bristling with testos­terone, who con­gre­gate out­side, de­cid­ing what to do next. Other po­ten­tial threats to avoid are the packs of young men, barely out of their teens, wan­der­ing drunk­enly along the streets, spoil­ing for a fight to make their night mem­o­rable.

By 6am Dar­linghurst Road is slowly be­ing re­stored to the lo­cals.

Res­i­dents come out to buy news­pa­pers and items for break­fast.

Waif-like hook­ers shiver in door­ways wait­ing for their drug deal­ers. Tired bounc­ers re­count their night to other bounc­ers, each try­ing to outdo each other’s sto­ries of the bad be­hav­iour of the visi­tors. Ex­hausted bar staff flop down on couches and re­lax.

Kings Cross now be­longs to the res­i­dents be­fore the hu­man tide ar­rives in the evening search­ing for fun, drugs, drink, ro­mance, sex and hard par­ty­ing. Where else would th­ese hordes go? Cities need places like Kings Cross — it ex­ists, and has ex­isted for decades, as a nec­es­sary relief valve for so­ci­ety. Some of the be­hav­iour of th­ese visi­tors can be ob­nox­ious, vi­o­lent and re­pul­sive, but then, the Cross al­lows them to be­have in ways that wouldn’t be tol­er­ated in the com­mu­ni­ties where they live.

In an area of 1.4km, where over 20,000 peo­ple live, and with over 2.5 mil­lion visi­tors a year, Kings Cross has a proud tra­di­tion of tol­er­ance and diver­sity.

Its res­i­dents have al­ways un­der­stood the Cross stood for val­ues dif­fer­ent from main­stream Aus­tralia, but now peo­ple from sub­ur­bia are shift­ing in, this tol­er­ance and sense of diver­sity is with­er­ing as the new­com­ers aim to rid the area of its dan­ger, edgi­ness and dif­fer­ence, re­mak­ing Kings Cross in their own bour­geois im­age.

The new ar­rivals have been at­tracted to the area be­cause of the name and its ex­tra­or­di­nary his­tory. But the irony is that it’s those au­then­tic parts of Kings Cross, the strip­tease joints, neon lights, spruik­ers and pros­ti­tutes, that Lord Mayor Clover Moore, rep­re­sent­ing her new con­stituents, wants to get rid of. There is no doubt that the Cross has been re­vi­talised by the new res­i­dents and it has a vi­tal­ity and swish am­bi­ence rem­i­nis­cent of the golden decades from the 1930s to the 50s. But th­ese new­com­ers also bring a mid­dle-class sense of ho­mo­gene­ity. Cheap cafes are sup­planted by soigne restau­rants; bou­tiques ap­pear and push out the sex shops. In­clu­sive­ness is re­placed by ex­clu­siv­ity.

It is in­evitable that the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion will tame the area. It was once a dan­ger­ous place, not so much for its crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, but be­cause it was the id of Aus­tralia, and that’s why it was feared.

The Cross con­stantly un­der­mined the myth of the up­stand­ing Aus­tralian, a per­son of strong moral val­ues, a paragon of nor­mal­ity and sub­ur­ban rec­ti­tude. The Cross of­fered in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, sex­ual im­moral­ity, neon-lit temp­ta­tions and il­licit plea­sures. It ap­pealed to the un­ruly de­sires of the id. What made moral­ists fu­ri­ous was that the Cross ex­cited pas­sions and loos­ened self-con­trol.

Moral lines were crossed as one slipped from the un­am­bigu­ous mo­ral­ity of main­stream so­ci­ety into a vague im­moral zone, where few things were for­bid­den and temp­ta­tions were ev­ery­where.

The Cross un­locked se­cret de­sires and al­lowed them to flour­ish, even if that meant some­times ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a hideous dark night of the soul.

This is an edited ex­tract from Louis Nowra’s Kings Cross: A Bi­og­ra­phy (NewSouth

Pub­lish­ing, $34.99).

Louis Nowra in Kings Cross in the 1990s, far left; and with his dog, Coco

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