Sunday, March 15, 2009

This raging life

What happens at 9.30 on a Saturday night? 

Well about an hour ago, the kids of the neighbours next door sold 2 grams to the even younger kids from down the street, and with their spoils have headed off to the nudie bar up on Sydney Rd and are currently getting a private show from the freshest young thing on the menu who just this week arrived back from Bangkok with her new pair, which have been workin' a treat for her now for five nights running.  Right this minute, as she's blowing a bubble with her grape-flavoured gum and shaking her new acquisitions in front of young Aristos' slavering leer, she's trying to work out how many more weeks of bucks' parties and footy club break-ups she's got before she's able to pay off her investment.

Not all that long ago, I would have been down at the Evelyn by 9.30 on a Saturday night, already with six or seven pots under my belt and watching Matt Healey from The Fireballs bashing-out psychobilly power riffs whilst hanging upside down from one of the designer-unfinished-ceiling beams.  As I swayed and staggered back and forth across the sticky carpet (occasionally in time with the music), I'd catch the eye of one of my fellow revellers; an eclectic mix of piercings, fedoras, acid wash denim and faux fur-trimmed parkers, and give a conspiratorial nod which would be returned with a welcoming grin.  The Evelyn Hotel's always been a bit of a freak show, and back then, I was as much part of the circus as anyone.  At 9.30 on a Saturday night, the front bar of "The Ev" was a scene of tribal belonging, in which I, with my pains-takingly scuffed and muddied work boots, slashed jeans and skin-tight, Albert Einstein t-shirt, was as much a member of the community as anybody.

But things change.  Tonight at 9.30pm, I was on my way back from the convenience store where I'd been charged with the mission of procuring life-or-death quantities of chocolate.  I was in a tremendous rush to get back for RocKwiz, because sitting at home in front of the box watching people enjoying themselves at the pub on a Saturday night is about as close as I get to it these days, and I couldn't afford to miss even a minute of the fun.

In my urgency, I unthinkingly broke one of the after-dark golden rules of all discerning inner-suburbanites, and executed a short-cut down one of the sinister, cobbled alleys along which the night soil men once executed the householders' sanitation requirements in the wee, small hours, but along which decades of decay and misuse had left nothing behind but uneven, broken blue-stones and fetid microcosms of breeding parasites.  As if staying-in on a Saturday night and watching TV wasn't enough of a signal of the inevitable ebb of time, the contrast of my current circumstances with the good ol' days at The Evelyn was brought crashing home to me when a misplaced step into one of these breeding sites, from which my trusty, Saturday night work boots may once have spared me a pedal dowsing, saw my sandal-shod sock suddenly transformed into a stinking, slimy mess. 

I cursed as the mucky ooze blended with the tinea in my inter-digital spaces, and I staggered blindly around the corner of the alley before catching my dry foot on something soft but solid, and sprawling onto the dirty stones.  "Fuck off, will ya old man!" howled a female teen with pin-point pupils who was down on her knees in front of her male companion who, with equally narrowed, yet un-focusing eyes, was grinning slyly at me.  Clearly the afore-mentioned "even younger kids" had successfully cut their 2 grams into something a little more voluminous and were out here in the alleys making their product work for them as only crack can.  Shocked, disoriented and curiously embarrassed, I mumbled some lame apology for my disturbing presence in their nocturnal habitat, and I soggily and groggily hot-footed it back home with my chocolatey spoils to hug my wife in a fierce embrace which silently shouted, "Don't make me go back out there again!".

There's oh-so-much going on at 9.30 on a Saturday night, but that doesn't mean we all have to be a part of it.  There's a place for everyone, and being locked-up tightly behind security doors and shuttered windows, with a beer and chocolate and watching make believe junkies and whores in far-off America on CSI is definitely mine.

Don't go near Mebourne's alleys after dark if you're an old, yeller suburbanite.  Pic:

Monday, March 09, 2009

Underbelly III: a tale of no bollocks

If it had’ve been a young Donkey that had wound-up on a deserted beach with all the other scamps in that classic “survival of the fittest” tale, Lord of the Flies, I would certainly have been the first to have had his legs hacked-off with blunt stones by the other urchins in order for them to have something to rub together in aide of a fire, over which my tubby torso would’ve been slowly roasted in my own, succulent juices for the delightful consumption of the conch-holding bully-boys.

There’s no question – I would have been the odds-on favourite for a first-night bastin’. It’s a scenario which is about as natural selectionist as it gets; I was what Darwin had in mind when he was banging-on through his tobacco-stained beard about krill being the most likely organism in the sea to get its arse kicked. I am, and have been a spineless, snivelling Mummy’s Boy, ever since the days of my early childhood.

But it wasn't my fault; I blame my parents. Y'see, back in the hey-day of the corner store, before the advent of a 7-11 every 4.5 metres; back when no self-respecting suburban estate was complete without a decaying brick shopfront above which one dysfunctional, single parent family after another traded living quarters every four months and outside which a gang of six or seven tough-looking boys could be found, from midday until late in the night, loitering, fighting, sneering at passers-by and clumsily flirting with the other mandatory feature outside of any suburban Milk Bar, a solitary, early teenage girl with a penchant for Hubba Bubba, who’d recently discovered both thick, black eye shadow and that she and her parents just didn’t get along. Back then, I was completely smothered by my parents' over-protectiveness, and denied all exposure to danger and confrontation.

All through my early childhood, I was strictly forbidden from going anywhere near the Milk Bar and its undesirable entourage, so by the time I was four years old, I'd decided that I was man enough to subvert Mummy's strict instructions for the very first time, so I nicked five cents out of Daddy's change bowl and headed to the Milk Bar for some lollies. Geez I was tough!

Full of piss and vinegar, and with a heavy, echidna-branded five cent coin in my hot, mischievous hand, I skipped along down the road (in a masculine, the-world-is-mine-for-the-taking kind of way), and with a deep, excited breath, I rounded the corner which marked the furthest of my permitted boundaries.

As the Milk Bar came into my view, however, so too did I come into the view of none other than Johnny Butler; the biggest Neighbourhood Tough since Slobodan Milosevic assumed supremacy of the pre-school sandpit by burying the head of his rival, Antonije Bojan, in the corner where Sooty the cat always took her early-morning constitutional. Johnny Butler's reputation for cruelty and torture was legendary throughout the five streets of our suburb, and he was to be strictly avoided by any self-respecting youngster with an aversion to physical pain and suffering.

Seeing Johnny Butler positioned between me and the entrance to the Milk Bar, I immediately discharged a discreet, rabbit-sized poo in my Spiderman underpants, and turned to flee back to Mummy's skirts with a full confession and a promise to stay in my room for the next twenty years (how prophetic!), but by a stroke of extreme misfortune, as Johnny Butler turned his gaze from ogling the Bubblegum Goth beside him to taking-in my trembling form on the corner, the shiny five cent coin in my hand caught the afternoon sunshine, announcing to all gathered at the Milk Bar entrance that I was a well-heeled citizen carrying a substantial Booty.

Johnny Butler, far from shouting something menacing at me, rather called out to me in a friendly, welcoming voice (by name, mind you - man, this gangster was good). He asked what I was doing with that sparkling fiver, and when I told him, he asked if, seeing as though we were friends, he could have half of the lollies I intended to procure with my ill-gotten fortune. By this stage, I was so numb with fear that I could only nod in reply, so I walked through the front door of the Milk Bar with the murderous hand of Johnny Butler firmly gripping my shoulder, and trembling with abject terror, I proceeded to point out to the bored shop-keeper which lollies I wanted in my little, white paper bag.

After gobbling down the spoils of his protection racket, Johnny Butler took me under his wing, and for the rest of the afternoon, I became the second most important person in the neighbourhood. Johnny Butler talked to me of his hopes for the future; today this Milk Bar, tomorrow the one on Fraser Street, "and who knows?", he mused aloud, "maybe one day we'll be hanging-out at the Shell up on Springvale Road!" And then he looked me straight in the eye and told me that if I played my cards right, I could be there with him.

Imagine that! One of Johnny Butler's crew! Ignoring the disgruntled scowls of the other lads, I allowed myself to be taken-in by this juvenile delinquent's dream, and I too looked towards a future of being Johnny Butler's right-hand man, breathing in the heady heights of life at the top of the heap, terrorizing the young and the innocent.

But it was all too good to last. I was soon to learn that fame and fortune can be fickle companions, and that the green light wasn't all beer and skittles.

For Johnny Butler wasn't prepared to just hand over half of his terror network to any old would-be bad boy with two-and-a-half cents worth of mixed lollies to his name. "Oh no, Little Man," he said sternly, "I gotta be sure you're gonna be here for me when I need ya". Of course, by that stage I was fully hooked on the taste of power and privilege I'd enjoyed over those few hours, and I swore I would do anything he asked. So off we went, me and my new gang, to the nearby playground on Woodlea Drive (pretty tough, hey? Woodlea Drive was another place I wasn't allowed to go to).

As soon as we arrived, the other toughs and the Bubblegum Goth formed a tight circle near some trees at the back of the park, and Johnny Butler took me by the elbow and led me into the middle of the circle, where we both stood, shoulder to shoulder, and looked down at a completely unfamiliar object - what I now know to be a used condom. "Pick it up and give it to me, Little Man", he ordered. I slowly bent and reached for the oozing dinger, wondering as I did what it was. I hesitated slightly, but after gulping down a great, viscous lump of fear, I resolved to do as my new Master bade. But just before I grabbed hold of the sticky sheath, one of the toughs sniggered.

My hand froze, and I looked up at Johnny Butler, who was grinning down at me with a glint of cruelty in his narrow eyes. "Pick it up, Donkey, or I'll bash ya", sneered Johnny Butler. I stood up straight and ... did I actually shake my head defiantly, or was I simply trembling with terror? Regardless, Johnny Butler clenched both fists as he lunged towards me, and I sobbed in terror, before sounding-off a piercing howl that caught the attention of young Mrs Cherney, who was approaching the park with her two-year old. "What's going on there you kids?", she bellowed, and that was enough to put the wind up Johnny Butler and his crew, who hot-footed it off down Woodlea Drive towards the safety of their patch outside the Milk Bar.

And there it was. My big, life choice; do I pick up the greasy dinger and become one of Johnny Butler's crew, terrorising the neighbourhood youth before moving onto organised protection rackets, illegal poker halls and eventually leading a life of luxury on stinking, ill-gotten cash, socialising with society's most wanted, professional footballers and dodgy accountants, and snorting lines of coke off a prostitute's arse through a rolled-up fifty three times a night? Or do I defy Johnny Butler's orders, and tell him to stick his fawning sycophants and all-pervasive neighbourhood power where it fits, and head back to my homely existence with the family I love, who cares for and nurtures me, in good times and bad?

I'd like to think I actually made my choice that day, but the truth is I never had the balls. As Johnny Butler lunged towards me, I'd lost it, pissed my pants and cried like a baby. Mrs Cheney had saved my arse and held my hand as she walked me all the way home. I had survived, sure, escaping a bashing and possibly a sexually transmitted infection-induced skin rash into the bargain, but it hadn't been a survival of the fittest; my dignity and pride had been destroyed that day in the park on Woodlea Drive, when I had gone from being Melbourne's newest crime boss to being a snivelling mess in the space of a heartbeat, and the stink of failure and weakness has remained with me ever since; a stench which can be sensed immediately by any opportunistic predator who comes my way.

There's a lot to be said for the old adage, "We've gotta toughen you up son, it's a jungle out there and you'll get eaten alive." Too true.

"Hey Bitches. Hey Hos..." Jay and Silent Bob, two regulars outside the Quick Stop, were not as threatening as Johnny Butler, but equally as opportunistic. Pic: