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A decade turns

The steps

It has taken generations of feet to wear these smooth indentations into the steps: bare feet; feet in working men’s boots; feet in stylish city shoes; military-booted feet; clattering high heels; the sandaled feet of the Cross’ bohemians; the corporate, black-shoed feet of suited office workers; feet in the sneakers and sandals of 60s youth; the well-clad feet of the 1930s well-to-do coming down from their Art Deco apartments; the shambling feet of drug users and alcoholics; the urgent, smart-shoed feet of opportunists; the pseudo-working class feet of leftist politicos in cheap shoes; feet in thongs; the feet of the poor from the valley in their dirty shoes with worn soles.

It is an old staircase, an ascent of sandstone from the nineteenth century that took walkers — and most people then were walkers — from the narrow valley of Wooloomooloo to the ridge along which Kings Cross blends into Potts Point.

Half way up those steps I stop and look into the shaded backyards of the terrace houses that occupy the slope. Small they are and not appealing, even in the romantic sense that they are in the city’s old quarter with its history of poverty and crime, opportunity and disadvantage. Alien they are with their miniscule backyards in which the washing of the non-affluent hangs limply and the occasional housewife goes languidly about her domestic life.

That impression evaporates on reaching the top of the stairs. Victoria Street with its avenues of trees and grand-looking terrace houses presents a vision, perhaps a illusion, of comparative prosperity.

Prosperity, too, is visible in the other direction, the prosperity manifest in the city’s high rise towers that form the crenelated horizon. Australia Square, that landmark of sixties modernity, and the Park Regis apartments, a thin pencil of a building, trigger the question of why, really, would anyone want to live in such a place and in the centre of the city, too. This, after all, is the age of the city’s suburban expansion.

A new decade looms

It was almost 1970 and this was Sydney. Propelled by a decade of affluence, the city had started its growth binge, expanding westward over old farmland as a blanket of low-density suburbs and upwards at its centre as a cluster of high-density towers.

Yes, a decade was about to pass and a new one begin. We had our youth in this passing decade and it would continue into the next. What would those years bring? Opportunity? Change? New people in our lives?

We — me and the people with whom I associated — seemed so immersed in our lives, our circles of friendship and in the geographies that we inhabited in this city. How could that change?

We thought little about it. Focused on the present moment and having come of age over the past decade, we afforded too little thought to the next ten years… the next five years… the next year. I guess we imagined, if we actually did this, that it would be a continuation of the past few years. But… would what we imagined be born out in reality?

There was an subdued air of excitement about the coming decade although I have no idea on what this perception rested. We would have to wait and see.

I found pleasure in standing at the top of those steep stairs and looking over Wooloomooloo to the city beyond. It was a pleasure I would take after climbing or before descending this long, sandstone staircase trod by a myriad of people in a bewildering assortment of footwear.

In the ‘Loo

A year goes by and here I am in Wooloomooloo, not far from the lower end of that long flight of steps.

Woolloomooloo – the ‘Loo’ as locals called it – now looms large in life and it is no longer so distant in mind as it was in the days I walked from my room at the Cross to my work in the city. Then, I skirted the ‘Loo along its William Street edge; now I am immersed in its core, its narrow, grey asphalted lanes and grungy, poorly lit streets. I breathe its air and its odours, I hear its sounds, walk its footpaths and live in one of its buildings. Yes, Woolloomooloo is crumbling but, for a while at least, it is home.

I ended up here because this is where my friends lived in an old, three storey Victorian era terrace house on Cathedral Street. I moved into this share house with its core of longer-term residents and a periphery of people who were to stay awhile before moving on in location and in life because… well, I’m not really sure why.

An image of 168 Cathdral Street made in the years after its life as a sharde house. The building still stands, the ground floor now a commercial presmises.
An image of 168 Cathdral Street (house on left) made sometime in the mid-1970s in the years after its life as a shared house. The building still stands, the ground floor now a commercial premises.

Also present is Yvonne, and perhaps she had something to do with my moving in. Had I had the presence of mind to do so, I would have seen the start of that assertiveness in her that would later grow into boldness, but at this time she is still a quiet young woman though sometimes stubborn. Hers’ wasn’t yet the outgoing personality she would later become and I think there is much she kept to herself. It’s just little clues that gave me this impression… the way she looked at me sometimes as if turning something over in her mind before answering a question or before she went on with whatever she was doing. It made me ask myself unanswered questions like how much can you really get to know someone, even someone you spend a lot of time with.

Yvonne in Woolloomooloo.
Yvonne in Woolloomooloo.

I looked at her to see her dark, chestnut coloured hair hanging loose below her shoulders. Parted down the middle, it was a minimum-maintenance style that fell into place by itself and had not seen the services of a professional hair dresser for some time.

New decade, new era

1970. The new decade has started. There is still an optimism, a sense that the future will be one with options. Life retains its freshness and an expectation that opportunities have yet to present themselves.

After the Calder Road share house in Chippendale closed, its residents dispersed. Then, Yvonne and her friends leased the old terrace house at 168 Cathedral Street. It was a tall, narrow building in what was once a bit of a roughhouse of a neighbourhood.

Woolloomooloo at the time was a run-down grid of streets lined with decaying buildings housing low-income residents. Just the sort of place a bunch of people with counterculture leanings would favour.

Wooloomooloo was transitional terrain between the city and the Cross. Cathedral Street was the main east-west thoroughfare that transited that terrain. Walk its length past those old houses and dingy commercial buildings and you would come to that long flight of old stone steps. The route from the city was to become familiar to us over the coming year.

Just a casual decision

I suppose I made the decision to move in here in the usual casual manner by which I got into such arrangements. More interestingly, how did I come to move in there with Yvonne? Whose idea was it? And how did we come about that idea?

Whatever the answers might be, there we were in our own slum, as Yvonne would later put it. Sharing a room at the top of the second flight of stairs. Just a mattress on the floor, a wardrobe that came with the house for our clothes and a small cassette player. Maybe there were other furnishings, but I don’t think so. It was extreme minimalism without ever having heard of the word. Our single window looked out onto the grey asphalt and downmarket terrace houses of Broughton Lane.

In the now

In 1970 we were still under the heady influence of the preceding decade. Life was very much in the now and we were happy to live it that way. We were creatures of the moment, cruising along on the energy that each day brought, on the people who came and went at 168 and on occasional weekend forays into the country where we would set up camp and cook meals of canned food. It was very much a spontaneous way of living and we were perfectly at home in it.

What we did not recognise, of course, was, with the age range of the Cathedral Street cohort, such periods of life are transitional, an unnoticed segue from one period into a new phase of living.

So it was. 168 Cathedral was to be a brief period — despite feeling at the time that it was longer — during which a group of young people who had come to know each other over the previous few years would share an address before going their own ways to lives sometimes close to 168 Cathedral, sometimes far, far away.

Working life

With the exception of Sol, Yvonne’s sister whose baby bubble disclosed to even the most casual observer that she was soon to give birth to Sasha, and Bron, the residents worked for a living with the exception of Charmaine Gibson who was a medical student at Sydney University. Rob Dummet worked for the Post Office as did I. I had intended my sojourn there to be a mere six month stint, however it was now moving into its fourth year.

Sol, Yvonne's sister, maks a note.
Sol, Yvonne’s sister, makes a note.

Yvonne worked, too. I think it was when we moved into 168 that she found a job down the road with a local business that bottled French perfume, so-called. After she had had enough of the cosmetics industry (she was not a user of its products) she took a job that led to her disappearance for a few days at a time.

At the start of her regular disappearances she would make her way to Central Station, there to board the North Coast Express to make the journey up and down the coast. Yvonne had found a job with state rail catering. Though it was not an oganisation known for its fine cuisine, she persisted there for some time. Cooking was something Yvonne would return to a number of times later in life.

Sometimes, on her return, I would meet her at Central at the top of the stairs from which staff emerged from the hidden bowls of the building.

Life at its own pace

Life developed its own rhythm at 168. The residents went about their business and sometimes when they returned in the evening there would be a shared meal.

Recalling life at 168 is like trying to pluck fish from a whirlpool. Life seemed to move with a rapidity made up of a swirling continuum of people and happenings. At the same time, there was a stabilizing countercurrent imposed by our jobs, by sharing the preparation of meals, by conversation around the table.

What I can say with surety is that in an old house in a dingy, decaying enclave in a city far, far away in place and time for some of us now, there lived for just a short period of their lives an ad-hoc collection of young friends in the business of setting out in life.

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