Saturday, October 16, 2010

A TEENAGER IN BABYLON

(Note: the following short story was my entry in the 2010 'Essence of St. Kilda' short story competition. Unfortunately it didn't win, which was not a big surprise to me as, as I had suspected, the judges and sponsors seemed to favour the stories which exhalted what a 'cool, hip and chic' place St. Kilda is in 2010. Something which I have no desire to write about. It seems that St. Kilda's unique, sordid past is being swept under the rug. Cafes and cake shops is all anybody seems to care about these days. While I congratulate the winners wholeheartedly, one thing which participating in this competition has shown me is that the St. Kilda I grew up in has had the life strangled out of it. It is dead, and can never be resuscitated).

A TEENAGER IN BABYLON
by John Harrison

St. Kilda in 1981.

Twenty-nine years ago.

If I close my eyes and try hard enough, I can often still smell that distinct, peculiar odour of rotting carpet, dirty ice and teenage sweat that would fill the dank, cavernous expanse of the St. Moritz ice skating rink which sat on the rim of the Upper Esplanade, overlooking Port Phillip Bay, the majestic art deco arch of the Palais Theatre and the iconic, gaping big-mouth entrance to Luna Park. St. Moritz had first opened its doors in 1921, and had been the place where my parents had met many, many midnights earlier, but by 1981 the building - just like much of St. Kilda itself - was in a state of decay and disrepair, and was only a few months away from closing its grand doors for good (after which it would stand deserted until gutted by fire three years later, it‘s charred innards coldly hauled away by Whelan the Wrecker).

St. Moritz became one of the hubs of my rapidly expanding universe in those days. Ice skating was my elective ‘sport’ of choice while I was a student at the Christian Brothers College in East St. Kilda, and every Wednesday after lunch period a group of us would take the chaperoned walk down Dandenong Road and onto Fitzroy Street, my small group of friends and I (school misfits, all) lagging behind so we could share a stolen cigarette and drink in all the lurid sights the area had to offer back then, the drab, dirty greyness and rustic brick of the landscape providing a suitable milieu for the diversity of people who inhabited it - the drunkards whose better days were decades behind them, musicians and new wave hipsters doing their best to look elegantly wasted and fashionably streetwise, the sickly junkies either looking in desperation for their next hit or stumbling around in the midst of it, the prostitutes who took us in with wary eyes as they chain-smoked and looked for trade, and the collection of other unique characters and desperados who wandered aimlessly and seemed to be doing nothing but killing time and waiting anxiously for darkness to fall. At the time, St. Kilda was still looked upon as a dirty and dangerous place, full of intrigue, crime, sleaze, sex and corruption, and Fitzroy Street was seen as the beating heart that pumped out all of this vice to the surrounding areas, a continual parade of buzzing neon, greasy hamburger joints (where it was always rumoured you could order a hit of smack with your Chicko Roll), badly-lit amusement arcades, seamy sex shops, skid row apartments, grotty milk bars, and the odd backroom gambling den.

The highlight of our walk would invariably be the sight of our horrified chaperone frantically waving us past the Ritz Hotel, ordering us to avert our eyes lest they be tainted forever. Long before it became just another in a long line of a faux ‘traditional’ British pubs, the Ritz gained notoriety as one of the seedier hotels in the St. Kilda area (no mean feat, indeed). Built in between world wars, by the 1960s it had become a respite and watering hole for hookers and local lowlifes, and in 1970 played host to Melbourne’s first drag shows. The entrance to the Ritz, loudly advertising their striptease shows and burlesque dancers - This Is The Show! - was a work of garish art that should be proudly on display in a museum someplace.

As 3:30 rolled around I would start the short walk from St. Moritz to the relatively straight and secure confines of my weatherboard Elwood home. Usually I would stop by the Acland St. McDonalds, hoping I’d be served by the cute girl with the blonde sharpie hairdo (short and spiky on top, wispy rat tails at the back) and silver lightning bolt earrings, the glittering outline of her homemade AC/DC shirt clearly visible through her uniform. She was probably no more than a year or two older than me, but already seemed light years out of my fumbling league. I’d sit at a table with my fries and shake and watch the parade of shady characters as they wandered in and out of the notorious Esquire Motel, scene of many drug overdoses and even a gangland killing before it was renovated and re-opened as an Easystay, providing a clean and safe environment for guests and maids you can trust, but robbing the place of its ambience and sense of sordid history.

On the days it was open, my nights back then were almost always spent haunting Luna Park. How cool it was to have such an attraction a mere ten minute walk from your front door. Many locals may have taken it for granted, and some no doubt thought the place was behind the times and ready to be bulldozed, but that was one of the reasons why I was drawn to it so strongly and so consistently. Walking the outskirts of that archaic, wooden white frame and entering that creepy, gaping clown’s mouth, it was like stepping back in time, to an era of rattling, death trap rollercoasters, dodgem cars that showered a continual rainbow of electric sparks over your head, a ghost train whose scariest feature was the occasional derelict slumped in the corner cradling a half-empty bottle of cheap red, and huge bundles of wispy, sickly sweet pink fairy floss that had you running around on a sugar high for the next week. It was a slice of Coney Island in my own back yard, and how could you not love the names of those rides and attractions? The Big Dipper, the Rotor, the Whip, the River Caves, the Giggle Palace with its psychotic laughing clown looking down at you from his throne. All that was missing was the row of sideshow tents featuring tattooed women and two-headed fish boys. It was a magical and beautifully gaudy electric wonderland, one whose exterior still looks very much the same today, though the interior will break the heart of anyone who remembers and loves the place for what it once was.

After leaving high school at the end of 1981, I spent the remainder of the decade riding the coattails of all the things that made living in St. Kilda at the time so exhilarating for me. They were simple but grand days: My years behind the counter of St. Kilda Video, on the corner of Acland and Barkly Streets (now the Big Mouth Café), where the customers often provided more drama, humour and horror than any of the movies we rented out. Long drinking and bullshit sessions at the Doultan Bar, when it was still just a dim, smoke-filled little cubicle frequented by the same tiny group of regulars and the odd blow-in. Devouring slices of Tony’s pizza - randomly cut in odd, almost Picasso-esque shapes - while marvelling at the huge collection of postcards from around the world that lined the wall of his Acland St restaurant (Tony would eventually die doing what he loved doing, keeling over at his pizza oven in front of horrified and hungry customers). All night dope-fuelled marathons popping coins into the latest games at the Red Cave Amusement Arcade, just down from the Greyhound Hotel. Dancing with drag queens at Bojangles and spilling out from the cramped confines of the Linden Tree and onto Fitzroy St just in time to see the dawn break. Feeling the visual and aural assault of the Bad Seeds, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Wall of Voodoo, the Huxton Creepers and others from the centre of the Venue’s sticky, beer stained floor.

Unfortunately, good times seldom last, and by 1988 the party was already beginning to break up. St. Kilda Video closed its doors, friends moved to outer suburbs to start families, the Village Belle got an upgrade, Chopper Read shot someone dead outside Bojangles, property went through the roof and sent many of the more interesting denizens fleeing in search of cheaper digs, and the café culture started seeping in, which was when I sensed my time was just about up. I still call St. Kilda my home, but its essence has been diluted and all but evaporated for me now. There are a few side streets and the occasional sight and sound that still take me back to those days, but more and more I’m a stranger in a strange land, living in a world populated by people I’m not sure I want to know, and haunted by the ghosts of my past. The St. Kilda of today prospers and thrives with a cosmopolitan elegance that attracts people from all over the world, but for me its true spirit will forever be contained within the dark shadows of its seedy past. It was a world I never fully appreciated while I had it, and it’s a world I’ll forever miss.

St. Kilda in 1981.

Twenty-nine years ago.

Jesus Fucking Christ.

Copyright 2010 John Harrison

Below: the demolition of St. Moritz Ice Skating Rink, 1982.


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