kings cross apartment
Edgewater flats, Elizabeth Bay, 1937. Photographer: Sam Hood. Via State Library NSW. 

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Two Lives in the Cross

JOHN

My first relationship with the Cross was primal, as primal as you can get: my mother lived in the Cross.

I was nine when what seemed like decades of fighting came to an end and she moved out of the family home to live with the man who became her second husband, leaving my father, my sister and me spluttering like beached marlins in Cremorne.

Off she went, the person I loved most in the world, to a new (but disappointing) life; she didn’t move straight to the Cross but lived for a while with Keith, her intended, and his mother in pre-gentrified Paddington. Yes, she forsook a man who was wildly successful for someone who wasn’t, for someone who had lived with his mother since his first marriage failed.

Eventually she prised Keith away: this was her first foray into the Cross. They lived in a block of flats at 304 Victoria Street, opposite the fire station and up a bit towards St Vincent’s. The building was converted into a boutique hotel many years ago and still trades as Morgans. What I found fascinating about the flat was that it came furnished; my father, not a friend of the marriage, called it ‘cheap Italian stuff’. I thought it was beautiful simply because it surrounded my mother. I don’t know how long she and Keith were at 304, not that long.

The Cross that I remember was rather pretty in those days, with dress shops and gift shops and sweet little trees lining Darlinghurst Road, far from the interestingly ugly place it became during the R&R days in the late sixties and early seventies.

Back in the fifties it was marvellous, the most interesting spot in Sydney. If you wanted to buy a smart gift, the Cross was where you went; it had coffee lounges, cinemas, restaurants, clubs – and even then it had its seamy side, but what wasn’t wonderful about that? Sex workers thrived there and when my mother lived at number 304 she saved a woman from being attacked by calling out ‘Stop!’ from her balcony late one night.

Of course we had gone to the Cross as a family before my mother skedaddled. There were lots of trips to restaurants. My father was a bon vivant and an habitué of The Chelsea night club. The Chelsea was a very classy joint. It didn’t have overseas acts like Ethel Merman and Jane Russell and Shirley Bassey and Mel Torme – we went to see those too – but the Chelsea’s attractions were beautiful décor, a band, dancing, excellent food and an upstairs bar that served the most delicious champagne cocktails. I did go to see excellent overseas acts at night clubs from childhood on, many of them in the Silver Spade Room at the Chevron Hilton in Macleay Street. I didn’t start drinking till I was fifteen, and as there was no real reason to go to the Chelsea if you didn’t drink, I obediently didn’t go there till then. I suppose some readers will be scandalised to think I started drinking at fifteen but things were different then, thank god.

The one thing I knew about the Cross was that I wanted to live there. It was my place; and I eventually did; so that’s nice, isn’t it?

In the fullness of time my mother and Keith moved out of the flat in Victoria Street and then eventually my mother moved out of Keith. Before that parting of the ways they ran a sandwich business together in Alexandria, near the factories, called the Hollywood Sandwich Shop. It was decorated with movie posters my mother had got from a friend who worked at RKO. I can’t remember whether the Hollywood Sandwich Shop was a success or not but my mother got sick of Keith and decided to move on to another period of her life, this time not so disappointing – and back to King’s Cross. Oh, joy!

Her next residence was in 2 Birtley Place, just down from the entrance to Birtley Towers, the most beautiful high-rise apartment block in Sydney. I always imagined the Towers to be the sort of place that a famous actress would have lived and actually, one did. I think it was Aileen Britton. My mother however, lived in the more modest number 2 which was a guest house run by a woman called Mrs Popal.

There were no flies on the small, muscular Mrs Popal. She was a kindly woman – up to a point. You could sense a steely resolve past that point. She kept a pleasant house. My mother had a large single room with a kitchenette and shared a bathroom with one other woman. The house was dark and narrowly escaped being dingy only because the furniture and fittings were quite nice. I don’t know if Frau Popal served meals. I tend to think not. A lot of guest houses did in those days. My mother stayed in a number of them. I remember one in Ocean Street, Edgecliff that had a really lovely dining room with delicious food.

The big event at this time, as far as I was concerned, was walking into my mother’s room and catching her in bed with her new boyfriend, Teddy. Well, more ‘on bed’ than ‘in bed’ and fully clothed. They looked like they were resting after a boozy lunch. Teddy was the sort of man who doesn’t exist anymore, except maybe among the homeless. He was an intellectual who did labouring work on lots of building sites. Men like this lived in the Cross. He was incredibly well read; had been given a good education by his parents to the detriment of his three sisters, all of whom went on to have very successful careers in different parts of the world and never forgave Teddy for cadging the education because he was a boy and turning out, by their lights, a no-hoper.

He was great for my mother. Suddenly she was reading books by Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell and passing them on to us in Lane Cove, where we had moved to from Cremorne. I feel safe in saying I was the only fifteen-year old who was reading Henry Miller in Lane Cove at that time. As we got to know Teddy we all liked him, including my father, who still carried a torch for my mother. Unfortunately Teddy fell from the twelfth floor of the AMP building at Circular Quay when he was working there. He was a big man, strong as buggery, so survived in a weakened form and got a fortune in compensation – but was conned out of it by crooks soon after.

At this time my mother was working around the Cross as well, first at IBM just off William Street and then at the ABC on William Street. She did very well at the ABC, starting as a secretary in the typing pool and moving to the script department, typing radio and television dramas, then being promoted to the head of that department and finally becoming secretary to the general manager. It was a period of creative flowering for my mother. She moved into a one bedroom flat in an attractive block at 64 Bayswater Road, just around the corner from St Canice Church. This new flat was hers, as no other residence she had ever lived in had been. She furnished it and decorated it beautifully and threw parties full of ABC people which my father John, sister Wendy and I attended.

Number 64 was one of three adjacent buildings designed and constructed at the same time. Sixty-four and 66 fronted onto Bayswater Road and there was a smaller block behind them. In those days there were coffee lounges and small clusters of shops everywhere. It was not like today where if you are not in exactly the right position you get no customers and go out of business. Not everything was centred around massive shopping complexes.

Teddy was still on the scene and life was good. My parents kept on dating. That had never stopped, even when my mother was with Keith. My sister had become a successful artist and was living in France and I was struggling with the idea of being gay – no picnic in the late fifties.

My first foray into a gay establishment took place when some female friends and I stumbled by chance into a coffee lounge opposite my mother’s place in Bayswater Road. It was done out very prettily in pastels and was full of young men in their early twenties. The décor had a self-consciously ice cream parlour feel to it.  The girls I was with were childhood friends, slightly older than me. We sat down and ordered. One of my friends said, ‘Everyone’s staring at you, Johnny.’ I was about sixteen. I blushed scarlet – and was secretly thrilled. If only I was there alone – but I wasn’t and didn’t go back by myself. I was a late developer and then still really a gormless child.

At that time the Cross was the gay hub of Sydney. It was not until much later in the sixties that things moved over to Oxford Street. In the main watering holes were the Rex Hotel and the Outrigger Bar in the basement of the Chevron Hilton in Macleay Street, which I didn’t go to until I was in my early twenties. More on that later.

My mother moved residence once again in the early sixties around the same time that my sister reluctantly came back from France. She should have stayed there. It was perfect for her. In Australia she faced an art scene which she found irritating and which responded to the developments in her work with a lack of comprehension.

My mother moved into her new flat in 18 Royston Street, one up from where Nimrod Street runs off Craigend Street. To write this essay I visited all the addresses my mother lived in in Kings Cross. Royston Street was the one that moved me deeply. If anyone wants to see the charm of the Cross in its original form, it is there to see in Royston Street. As I remember it, the whole suburb was once like that – charmingly individual blocks of flats packed to the rafters. And I distinctly recall that it was then called, ‘Royston Square’; I realise that memory cannot always be trusted, so I may be mistaken. To me it will always be Royston Square.

This was the period where my sister and my mother were at their closest – this and a period later when my mother looked after my sister when she was dying. When my mother left us to be with Keith, Wendy had taken the departure hard. She was fourteen at that time – but at 25 she saw the marriage split with more understanding. I remember one amazing night in the Royston Square flat when my mother and Wendy belted up Wendy’s boyfriend Joe, also a successful artist. Wendy and Joe were having an argument and she threw a glass at him. He leapt up and advanced on Wendy – just as my mother came out of the kitchen. Both women set about him, while I sat stupefied on the couch. It was a marvellous moment of female solidarity.

Royston Square was my mother’s last home in the Cross. An era ended. For eleven years she had mostly lived in Kings Cross, which was home to many people who were not entirely at ease with the suburban life. Then my father bought her a house in pre-gentrified Queen Street, Woollahra. Just pre-gentrified – you could say my mother was one of its earliest gentrifiers.

Late in 1965 my father, sister and I caught a ship back from Los Angeles where Wendy had been having a one-woman show at the Bognar Galleries. I was 22 at the time and, like an overripe peach, simply begging to be plucked. There was an extremely pleasant purser on the ship who did the job. When we arrived back in Sydney he and I made a date to meet at the Outrigger Bar in the basement if the Chevron Hilton in Macleay Street, where Woolworths is now (not the whole of Woolworths, of course, just the fruit and veg section) – and so I went to a gay bar for the very first time, which was an amazing experience. I loved it. Everyone seemed to think I was very special and gorgeously attractive. It came as a bit of a disappointment to realise after a few weeks that I had been totally overlooked for the next new thing and my burgeoning self-esteem settled back into the more familiar territory of feelings of inadequacy. Still, what did I expect?

The Outrigger Bar was a vast place – slickly designed, lots of tiles – smart and easy to hose down. I never went there when it was not crowded to the max. I didn’t really enjoy the experience. I felt pulled in a thousand directions. Thoughts whizzed around my brain like flying monkeys. Was I attractive? Was the person who was flirting with me attractive? Did I like standing around talking nonsense and getting pissed? It was a bit like being at an opening night at the Sydney Theatre Company. Thank God I eventually fell deeply in love with the very person who is co-writing this essay and soon after we declared our love for each other we moved into a one-bedroom flat at 17 Elizabeth Bay Road, right next to hotel where all the rock stars stayed. And opposite – there was 2 Birtley Place, Mrs Popal’s, where fifteen years earlier I had walked in on my mother and Teddy having an after-lunch nap.

BILL

John and I have been happily unmarried for 44 years, half of which we’ve lived together and for most of that time we’ve lived in or around Kings Cross.

My prior encounters with the Cross had been eye-opening but minimal; the first and most glancing caught through the tram window en route to the Stadium at Rushcutters Bay with the girl who lived across the road from me in Yagoona and our accompanying mothers to see the Mouseketeers. Helen and I brought our precious ears to wear during the performance. The place, even passing through, looked lively.

Then there was quite a hiatus. I next saw the Cross by night, this time through the window of a TV producer’s Mini Minor heading along Darlinghurst Road in a southerly direction; bejewelled in neon, the place looked even livelier and otherworldly and sexy with promise various, pretty much immediately delivering on its unwritten mission statement. On this occasion I made footfall, our destination being dinner at the Belgrade, a cheek by jowl, cheap and cheerful Yugoslav restaurant in a Surrey Street terrace. At the next table a trench-coated stripper surmounted by a half-metre beehive of curls and daisies wrapped in protective plastic ate pola-pola between shows.

I was seventeen and everything within sight, hearing, smell and taste seemed different to what I was used to – and all a vast improvement. Half a century later the site continues as a restaurant, having segued through many a cuisine to find itself today dishing out mozzarella as the Buffalo Dining Club.

A year and counting on I was still a virgin and remained resolutely unzipped, unbuttoned and barely touched through the few dates an SP bookie I’d met at a party had taken me on. The first couple, to the Summit, to the Australia Hotel, I don’t remember a thing about – but the third, to the Cross, I do: the Rex bar, then across Macleay Street to Buena Sera at which Maggie Tabberer’s husband was the upfront restaurateur, then down to Vadim’s on Challis Avenue where liquor was served in coffee cups after whatever hour the law of the time decreed it couldn’t be served at all. It was the only time I ever darkened the doors of those three great spots and I’ve got passive prickteasing to thank for it.

When John and I set up in our twentysomething dollar a week love nest, Darlinghurst Road continued straight along the eastern side of Fitzroy Gardens to become Elizabeth Bay Road onto which we looked down from flat 47. There was no adjacent park, no underground parking lot, no cop shop; it was all an unmysterious void fenced off with high, dirty white hoarding. Graffiti in those times was primitive and feeble with zero colour palette.

The bench seat opposite was regularly occupied for hours, sometimes days, by fans of Sebel-dwelling celebrities barred from loitering in the lobby. They were prepared to sit it out in the elements hoping for a glimpse, a wave or better still, a chance to up their status to groupie.

The block of flats didn’t then have businesses on ground level. The present day café is where the caretakers, Cyril Bird and his wife, lived alongside a chained off A4-ish size lawn that Cyril kept rigorously trimmed. The concept of recycling was still as alien as the mobile phone and each floor had a chute that residents dropped everything down into the basement incinerator. The Cross is full of buildings with these conveniences abandoned and bolted shut. It is not too straining to imagine that the opportunities for a towering inferno scenario were legion though I can’t recall ever hearing of one that wasn’t considered deliberate.

Fire prevention in population-dense Kings Cross is a running theme. In the post-millennium years, sirens rushing to alarms calling wolf are standard. When we lived on the corner of Macleay and Manning Streets, the freshly completed Ikon building nearby could trigger these daily – or worse, nightly. In the block we later moved to on Victoria Street, the orientation program consisted of a lesson in dashing down to a panel in the foyer and punching in a code to turn off the alarm before the engine arrived (otherwise we’d cop a fine for their trouble).

But back in the early seventies, there was no such technology. Candles were making a hippy-led comeback and I was at my most hippy. Answering the door one evening I was faced with a team of firemen and a point-blank hose. They’d been tipped off by a vigilant neighbour who’d seen flickering on the window panes and clouds of dope smoke.

The  R&R era was over but the Bourbon and Beefsteak still drew crowds thanks to its position and the fact that it served breakfast till after midnight. The war debacle somehow hadn’t fully dented its yessir American attractiveness. You’d barely sat down but the waiter had brought crudités and poured iced water that smelled chlorinated. The hash browns that came with everything seemed such an exotic way to serve spud and grease. As the decades wore on the crudité got limper, the hash browns became as epidemic as cockroaches and the whole place including the band morphed into a dusty waxworks.

Eating out late was generally an easier exercise than it is now, at least in the memory: Chez Guy was hip, Mother’s Cellar was an after-theatre supper relic even then but at least open. Pinocchio’s, Neptune’s and Zanzibar were as yet years away but all are now gone and I’m not sure there is anywhere you can sit and have a meal and a drink at 2 am (or in the case of Pinocchio’s anything am). Still, I don’t try so I wouldn’t know.

The façade of the sex trade on Darlinghurst Road in the early seventies, as far as I recall, hadn’t assumed the mandraxed nodding off look that it took on in the eighties but it sure wasn’t taken from the Irma La Douce split-skirt and cleavage mould either: short cropped hair, jeans and t-shirt generally with a pack of ciggies outlined in the sleeve top was the go. No punter could have complained afterwards that they’d been lured in to expect enthusiasm. The women appeared to operate on autopilot. Regardless of how many hundreds of times you’d have walked past with bags of groceries, if you showed the slightest sign of acknowledgement you’d be asked robotically if you ‘wanted to see a girl’; I think ‘lady’ was a refinement of a slightly later period.

Way bouncier were the strip club spruikers. One guy, an Englishman in a series of loud suits and matching bowlers, stood in a raised alcove in the wall, his tireless patter punctuating with the catchphrase guarantee, ‘you’ll come before you go.’ That alcove much later became home to the ANZ ATM I often used; once when I had less in my account than the $20 minimum it dispensed and needed to go inside the bank to withdraw, I was almost pushed aside by the exiting manager calling back to the teller that he was off to lunch with a client whom he was simultaneously glad-handing – Abe Saffron. Ah, to know one’s place in the pecking order.

A decade later still, every bank on Darlinghurst Road shut down within a couple of months because, I was told, they had became uninsurable due to the strip’s vulnerability to robbery; bafflingly, a few merely relocated a minute or two’s stroll around the corner to Macleay Street, a feint line drawn in shifting sand.

‘Now that Sydney’s Kings Cross is no more…’ So begins John Ibrahim’s recent memoir. ‘He certainly seems to have pulled up stumps and Blind Freddy can see the big party’s over. Called me an old sentimentalist but I rather miss the weekend invasion of bazillions of girls in short dresses and scary heels and guys sporting the same drab scoop-bottomed shirt all queuing and negotiating on mobiles to link up and have as a good time as effort, luck and whatever they were on might lead to.

Ice has added a nasty layer of gibbering, strung-out desperation to the scene but, if the media’s to be believed, that curse is disseminated coast to coast across this wide brown land. I find it hard to believe anywhere has as visible a police presence as this neck of the woods: a welcoming dog squad regularly greets those arriving by train as they Opal off; outside the injecting centre bags are ordered emptied and shoes removed; on a Tuesday morning a couple months back I passed seven cops with two dogs ambling up William Street and the Christmas before last watched as three police wearing Santa hats searched the boot of a car they’d pulled over in Roslyn Street.

I’ve never once felt in the slightest danger of harm and honestly can’t remember witnessing much violence over all the years I’ve been here – a bit of hooning yes but, Jesus, it’s the Cross. There appears to be a push by aspirationals to refer to the patch on which they’ve pitched camp as Potts Point exclusively. It always has been on paper – but not in the mind, the soul or the imagination of most of those who’ve lived here.

Parallel to this is a growing cottage industry that mythologises the Cross: books, plays, cabarets, poetry readings, library events, photographic exhibitions, walking tours – all mining the usual suspects and venues to cobble a narrative from the fading chaos. I guess this essay is symptomatic of that pentimento nostalgia too.

The gentrifying juggernaut is of course inevitable and inexorable. Prams, once as rare on the streets as camels compete with schnauzers for tethering space outside coffee shops which themselves breed like lab rats. At ‘open for inspections’ of apartments estimated to get at auction what twenty years ago the whole block might have sold for, empty nesters studying floor plans mill with the lifestyle hungry and cashed-up locals seeking to augment their AirBnb portfolio.

Inevitable, inexorable – but hard to applaud. The Astoria, which had rooms set aside those just released from prison could rent, was gutted and luxed up by the developer for a market he felt certain would enjoy living in a raffish precinct; downstairs in the block we used live in on Victoria Street, the rooms of a psychiatrist who was one of the few to bulk bill made way for a hot lava stone massage and day spa centre. On it goes. I know it’s a worldwide trend but so’s morbid obesity.

I found out at fifty I’d been adopted. My birthmother worked at one stage at the Arabian Café in Darlinghurst Road and what evidence exists suggests her impregnator was a merchant seaman passing through.

As if it matters but I’m tickled to think that though reared a Westie there’s a chance I was conceived in the Cross.

We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish these essays.