Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Palmer Street

[Warning: This is long and tedious and of little entertainment value. Just a meander down memory lane. Not of any interest to the casual observer. You have been warned.]

Sometime in early 1984 I moved into a terrace house on Palmer Street in Darlinghurst with my friend Yolanda and a bunch of skinheads. I wasn't quite 16 (or maybe just), I was a skinhead girl and I was having the time of my life.

I was quite a tragic for subcultures in those days. I had started off at 13 as a new wave, Rocky Horror type: black tutu, one leg red/one leg black leggings, pointy shoes and crinkly hair with a giant red bow. We hung around at the old (then brand new) Hoyts Cinema complex in George Street, the heart of Sydney. We drank cappucinos at the cafe and smoked cigarettes with an exaggerated coolness. We hung out with gay boys and older boys/men who should have known better.

From there I progressed to a baby punk, when Frank and his brother Alfred arrived at our school. They were punks and they introduced us to the scene and to two boys who were to become very important in my life and the life of my best friend A. Sid and Dean (aka Fang) were from the bad old Western suburbs and had just been released from Minda, the childrens' home, when we met them. We didn't know jack shit about "punk" but we were rebelling and this seemed like an express route to where we wanted to be.

Punk was good for girls who didn't fit in with the "pretty and popular" model. It allowed us to take ugly up to an art form. We thought we were saying "screw you" to the society and its rules and regulations but we were just signing up for another society with a different set of rules.

My uniform consisted of variations on this theme: tartan mini skirts with ripped fishnets, simple white dresses I had made myself with words of my favourite punk songs written on them in blood like scrawl, a giant jumper hand knitted on huge needles from green mohair (my green pubic hair jumper), resin penis shaped earrings.

When we decided to move across to the skinhead camp I think it was a simple style decision. We actually thought out parents would be happy at this change. Before I go any further it is important to clarify the skinhead thing. Most people think skinhead = racist thug. To a large degree that is true. But when I entered the scene it was neatly split down the middle: Oi skinheads (previously mentioned racist thugs) on one side and Ska skinheads on the other. As the name implies Ska skinheads were into Ska music (you know, The Specials, Selector, Bad Manners, The Allnighters). The Ska skins were into the look but had a much more benign attitude.

So that's where I found myself during Year 10 high school. Cropped hair with long fringe and tails, tight jeans or tartan skirts with Doctor Marten boots and Fred Perry shirts. I have to say it is still a look I love but you just don't see many skinhead girls (or punks or mods) around these days... or maybe I just hang around the wrong circles.

I started working full time at the beginning of December 1983, four days after I finished school at the end of Year 10. I can (modestly) say I was quite smart at school but I couldn't be bothered working hard to get the marks and I was anxious to get a job and start my "real" life. I was lucky to be offered a job at HCF, in their art department, after having done work experience there earlier in the year. Not only was I working and earning reasonble money but I was doing something "creative", the dream of any school leaving teen.

Life reveloved around working and partying on weekends. Friday after work we would hit the Royal George Hotel (now famous as the Slip Inn, where whatshername found her Danish prince). It was skinhead headquarters and where it all happened on Friday and Saturday nights. We would start by drinking copious amounts of KB lager (no wonder I can't even stand the smell of beer these days) and would end the evening by finishing up whatever drinks were left on tables. We had no shame; we were teenage pissheads.

What I remember most about that time was the "us" and "them". "Them" were the big boy skinheads and their girlfriends. John Duffy, king of the skinheads, is a name and face I will never forget. No-one fucked with John; from his bitten off ear to his stocky, brick shithouse build, everything about him yelled "don't screw with me, arsehole".

Then there was Big Phil, gorgeous, MG driving, in the Navy, so far out of our league he may as well have been from Mars. Big Brian, aloof, arrogant, gorgeous, we all hated him but secretly had a crush on him.

The "us" were me and my gaggle of skinhead girls. We were mostly middle class teenage girls having an absolute ball. We were getting pissed, taking drugs, seeing bands, dancing, living life. It was an amazing time. It was also the junior skinhead boys. The ones who weren't up to hanging out in the major league.

I fondly remember Little Brian, who was a sweetheart and with whom I had a one-time fondle in the dirty garden behind the Royal George. He came from Galston which was impossibly far from the heart of civilisation.

Later there was my Neil and Little Michael and Big Brett, but Palmer Street was before all that.

I got to Palmer Street via Paddington. Paddington was where Yolanda and her boyfriend lived in a tiny one bedroom flat when I moved out of home. It was very sudden. I think it came about like this: I was out on Friday night, I rang my mum to say I would stay at Yolanda's house because we were going to have a late night (and after all Yolanda was "older" at 21, and obviously mature and responsible), mum said if I didn't come home I shouldn't bother coming home. So I didn't. Well, technically I did the next morning to pick up some clothes in plastic bags, but I didn't live at home again for any considerable period of time ever again.

I moved onto a mattress on the floor in Yolanda's living room and life was so fucking good. It was the pub every evening after work, it was hanging out with my friends, it was no rules, it was sharing $2 bundles of newspaper wrapped hot chips for dinner.

Sometime during that first month or two we were taking a walk one night when we noticed a big terrace on Palmer Street with a For Rent sign. We thought it would be cool to get such a big place and fill it with our best friends. Somehow we managed to rent it (the concept seems so ridiculous today, when you virtually need a reference from the Prime Minister and a gazillion dollars to rent a studio flat). They rented a six bedroom terrace house 5 minutes walk from the city to a couple of barely employed teenage girls. Shit!

Yolanda lived there with her boyfriend (whose name escapes me, but I can picture him quite clearly). I shared a room with a girl called Natalie who was Brinley's girlfriend. At that point we lost all control and the other residents seemed to be a constantly shifting group of skinhead friends and friends of friends. You just never knew who would be at home when you got there from work every afternoon. One afternoon we arrived to find the living filled with a couple of the "regular" boys and the prostitutes from the brothel next door. In our weird "feminist" way we were not impressed.

An important part of that time was "Evil" Jeff. A skinhead with a monster reputation but a guy we loved and tried to take care of, despite, or maybe because of, his frailities. Namely heroin. The night he OD'd in the big front bedroom will always be etched in my memory. Being woken up by the commotion, stumbling into the room to find him cold and blue on the floor, standing aside as the ambulance people rushed in. They gave him an injection and he sat straight up and lit a cigarette, swearing at the people who had just given him back his life.

I remember preparing him for his regular court visits by putting foundation on his heavily tattooed face and neck; making him appear a total freak rather than just a very scary mofo. To the world he was frightening and the sort of person you would cross the street to avoid, to us he was a pussycat and we loved him. I heard much later that he got killed by a train, undoubtedly in some sort of drug induced stupor. I didn't understand what his demons were at the time, I was a baby with no life experience, but looking back I wonder what it was that had made him into who he was when I knew him. Rest in peace, dear Jeff.

We used to drink at the Lismore Hotel, which was on the corner of Pitt Street and the little lane which runs between it and George Street, right in the middle of the city. It's long gone now. The Lismore was run by a little mean Greek guy called Nick. He hated us but we were generally his only customers so he couldn't chuck us out, underage or not.

A skinhead called Spike, who originally hailed from Canberra, lived in one of the Lismore's upstairs bedrooms. He was much older than us, late twenties or even thirty (or maybe he was 22 and we just thought he was "old" in the way teenagers do). He was obviously a damaged man, to be living alone in a pub and hanging out with young teenagers. I'm sure we made fun of him but tolerated him because he was sweet and gentle and bought us drinks.

I have so many swirling memories which are hard to pin down, isolate, get into clear focus. I am quite sure that I have many of them confused in terms of the time line and who was involved. I want to document things as they float up in the murky pool which is my memory because I am scared that this precious time in my life will simply fade away like a cloud in the breeze. Those people meant so much to me and yet I am finding that their names are getting harder (or impossible) to recall.

For example, there was a beautiful young skinhead boy who hung around with us for a time. He shared Yolanda's living room floor with me for a while when he was coming into the city to do summer school at the University of Sydney in preparation for his HSC. He was big and tall and my memory of him is that of a labrador puppy, all eager but shy affection. He may have had a crush on me but I was after the bigger fish and looked upon him like a little brother (though he was probably older than me).

His time with us ended so tragically it makes me ill now to think about it. There was a party at one of the big league skinhead's flats in Bondi. We went for a while but it wasn't for us. These were the heavy weights and they were mean and drunk and even we knew that we were in dangerous territory. Our friend (why can't I remember his name? he was so special to me!) turned up at the party late, after we had left, or maybe he had stayed after we left. Either way, as these things usually happen, he had taken a beer from somewhere he shouldn't have or there was a misunderstanding about the beer he was drinking. He was a babe in the woods and the wolves attacked. We heard later he had been beaten savagely. He had ended up at St Vincents in intensive care. His family wouldn't let us in to see him (who can blame them). If he survived (and for some reason my memory tells me he did) his parents whisked him off to the safety of their suburban home and we never saw him again.

When I look back I know it was only pure, stupid luck which enabled our survival. We were such stupid, innocent, arrogant little girls playing in a very dangerous big world totally out of our league and out of our control.

But fuck I never ever ever felt so alive as I did then.


Kath Lockett said...

Bloody hell! This is like your very own version of 'Monkey Grip'!

And you're right. You were very lucky indeed to have enjoyed the experience and got out safely.

As a parent now - thinking that my own kid is only four years younger than you were when you moved out, left school and started working just makes my palms get all sweaty..... Yes, I was an A Grade Nerd who sipped a beer in year nine (but did smoke occasionally) and had her first pash at fifteen!

Julia said...

Kind of crying right now without actual tears.