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
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
THE OLD WOMAN PEERED OUT THE WINDOW AND THEN HURRIEDLY STUFFED THE WEAPON INTO HER HANDBAG. A POLICEMAN STEPPED INTO THE BUS . . . NOT AGAIN, SHIRLEY,’ HE SIGHED
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
Louis Nowra in Kings Cross in the 1990s, far left; and with his dog, Coco