The early 1980s: Life in the Inner West
THERE WERE MANY SHARE HOUSES in the Inner West during the 1980s, eclectic assemblages of people thrown together by chance and necessity. Offering benefits of economy with conviviality, share housing had been a popular way to live since the 1960s.
Number 245 Trafalgar Street—we knew it as 245T, the name of a potent insecticide—was one such place. It was an old, long and narrow duplex dating from the early twentieth century. There was an equally long and narrow back garden in great need of mowing, if for nothing more than to extract a resident’s broken down Alfa Romeo from the undergrowth.
When I responded to the ad for residents I was met by Phil, a tall, slim man in his twenties. The only other resident was a young Japanese man with a limited understanding of English. I felt uncertain for reasons that were hard to pin down but I accepted the offer of the middle room and moved in. By this time I had found a full time job at Lane Cove at an adventure equipment retailer, Mountain Equipment, a two-bus commute each morning and evening.
The Japanese left and the ad for his replacement was answered by Jim who had just arrived in Sydney where he intended to earn some money to take back to his family who were living up the coast. Jim was an easygoing man in his thirties who had lived in Sydney some time before when he owned an art gallery. He found employment driving a seafood delivery van.
Michael was next to move in, after Phil left, and he was to be the wonder and the bane of 245 Trafalgar. On the surface a friendly man in his thirties who had studied at ANU and experimented with heroin, he had come to Sydney from Canberra. Now he drove taxis when he needed money. His was a hand-to-mouth existence, the residents discovered. It would take a few weeks before they realised his was also a bottle to mouth existence. Michael was an alcoholic.
This trio… they were a happy bunch, eating together and enjoying such delicacies as garlic prawn and lobster that somehow continued to appear in the freezer, week after week.. no connection to the one of them that drove a seafood delivery van, of course. They spent evenings in the local pub, the Annandale, and, often, Saturday afternoons at the Leichhardt where The Bopcats pounded out an unchanging set of rockabilly standards in a lounge thick with the smoke of cigarettes.
One day after he left, the talk got around to Phil, the original inhabitant of the house when we had arrived. Michael said that he was a strange but interesting character. Once, Michael told us, Phil mentioned that he was interested in dancing and invited Michael to go along with him. That he did, to discover that Phil was Morris dancer, a traditional form of British folk dance. Michael thought this somewhat dodgy.
May would occasionally come around to see how I was getting on—I had stayed at her house for some time after returning to Sydney. We would sit in my room and talk, exchanging news of mutual acquaintances and the events and changes in their lives and, sometimes, May would feel a little amorous and that would change the dynamics of the conversation.
Life for Michael, Jim and I was a fairly conventional affair. We had day jobs and evening joviality. Although any evening between Sunday and Friday might be spent in the bar of the Annandale, evenings were more commonly spent quietly. Our working lives remained separate to our life as a shared household.
Also enjoying a kind of domesticity a couple kilometres away was May and Frank. I had spent time with them and their young children when I returned to Sydney and had come to know their lives. Their place—a Federation style duplex like so much of the housing stock in the part of Sydney’s Inner West, was done out in the heavy furniture that May favoured… a large, polished dining room table with turned legs of antique appearance and weight… a soft, comfortable living room couch and bulky, padded chairs. May would tell visitors that there must have been a couple gay men living in the house before they bought it—how else could she account for the maroon, velvet-textured wallpaper?
Evenings, May worked as a cook at L’Ironique, a French restaurant in Balmain. The owner, a heavily-accented Frenchman of middle age, had lived in what had been French Indo-China and eventually found his way to Australia. The restaurant offered what May described as a French provincial menu, dishes that were rich in garlic and sauces. She finished around 11pm and I would take their kombi and drive over to collect her. “What would you like”, the owner would ask when I came out to the kitchen. A free meal and the wine left by diners was usually on offer and I seldom refused it, just one of the side benefits of knowing May, I guess. Sometimes we would stop for a midnight coffee on the way home and on returning home we usually sat up chatting well after Frank went to bed.
At the time I was keeping semi-regular company with a social worker from Balmain, a woman modern in dress, appearance and lifestyle who was working with refugees. It was an affair doomed to transience.
Transient also was Michael’s brief encounter with a young and quite attractive Greek woman. Helen’s olive skin, dark eyes and dark hair would have made her attractive to any voracious male. She persisted for several weeks but gave up in the end, their nights dulled by Michael’s alcohol-induced lack of vigour and by the feeling that the relationship was going nowhere.
Speaking of relationships of limited duration, at one time a woman slightly older than I was living across the road and our encounter was accidental. She was an easy going, quiet and pleasant person… curly black hair and somewhat thin of build. She was engaged in university studies and our conversation revealed that she was studying something to do with monastic life in Europe. Later, she would leave to go live in France.
I encountered her when walking home one evening when I stopped at a pizzeria on Parramatta Road. There, I recognised her as someone a mutual friend had introduced me to, so we walked home together, ate our pizza and decided that my staying over might be a good idea. I was a woken in the early hours by a peculiar sound and, sitting up, found this woman busy being sick beside the bed. Amazingly, she paid scant regard to the event and rolled over and went back to sleep. Gross, I thought, deciding to leave at first light. Our second and final night was some months later when I had to hurriedly dress and escape through the front window when the woman woke me to say that her boyfriend had just parked his car outside. Fortunately, her flat was on the ground floor and nobody was out on Trafalgar Street at that time to have noticed a shoeless figure, shirt unbuttoned, hastening across the road.
Alcohol the fuel for conviviality
Michael’s alcoholism became apparent when Jim and I found him sitting in a living room chair, glass of red on the arm of the chair with his hand firmly wrapped around the stem. Apparently, this was how he had spent the night. We would repeatedly find him in this position and were amazed how he could sleep so still that he would not spill his drink. One morning, a woman visiting one of the residents went into the bathroom to discover Michael sound asleep—totally unconscious to the world—in a bath full of by then cold water, hand wrapped around a glass of cheap red that rested delicately on the edge of the bath. The most irritating aspect of his alcoholism was when, around two or so in the morning, he would crank up his electric guitar and play—repeatedly—the opening bars of Lou Reed’s Take a Walk on the Wild Side. It was a great song, but not at that hour, not played by Michael and not with the words slurred by him.
When intoxicated, Michael could be happy but he could just as often be unsettling. Jim knew how to handle him but I was wary at times, uncertain how to interpret what he said, the tone he said it in and his mood. There seemed to be an underlying anger, a malice in his voice but he was never angry or quarrelsome. I preferred to humour him awhile then make a getaway. He watched, one night, as he attempted to inject himself with heroin using a very blunt syringe, but this was the only time he was seen with the stuff. Perhaps his problem had to do with self-hate, I realised, after I had pasted up several photographs of the household on the kitchen wall. Next morning, all of those showing Michael had been burned off, black smudges all that remained.
Pierre was a Frenchman who lived with an Australian woman down the road. She was a school teacher, somewhat plump but of a jovial nature. He was a cook, slim, extraverted and loud. Only once can I recall seeing him sober but I do recall spending a long evening with the couple drinking tequila.
The last I saw of Pierre and companion was at his birthday party in a Turkish restaurant in Newtown when the manager asked the party to leave because of their noise. Perhaps it had something to do with Pierre’s persistence in rendering a full-volume rendition of La Marseilles, repeatedly.
Alcohol might have been a constant presence but it was far from the dominant element in the life of 245 Trafalgar, except for Michael. There were calm days of discussion and others when friends would come by. When Michael was not around, Jim and I would talk of our lives, our friends and our ideas for the future. When Michael was sober he displayed a sharp, keen mind and a political leaning to the Left. That was all too rare, unfortunately.
The Forest Lodge
Jenny and Melanie lived next street over. In appearance they were opposites. Melanie, short of stature and slightly dumpy with dark, curly hair, contrasted with Jenny’s fine structure and long, blonde hair that ended in a cascade of curls. Jenny moved with grace and elegance and had once been a model.
Neither had boyfriends, nor were they gay. They would visit 245 Trafalgar or Jim and I would occasionally visit them at their house, and on occasion we would see each other at the Leichhardt on Saturday afternoons. The relationship remained purely platonic. They were good friends and neither guys or women wanted it any other way. Cynics say that there can be no close, platonic friendships with the opposite sex, however this case disproved that theory.
At 245T, Sundays were for sleeping in, a shared lunch, perhaps, and a beer or two or more in the garden. By the time evening approached, I and, sometimes Jim would go with Jenny and Melanie to the Forest Lodge, a small hotel in the suburb of the same name. There, starting around 7.30 and going to 11pm, the Magnetics would blast their r&b into the little room out back of the public bar.
Like the Bopcats, the Magnetics were a tight, accomplished band, a trio. The singer and lead guitarist would conclude the night with a virtuoso, a prolonged version of the classic piece for guitar, Classical Gas, as it had never been played before, distortion included.
The end approaches
Unknown to the residents, their time together at 245T was coming to an end. But a few months before that, Jana, a Swedish traveller, came into the life of the household when she moved in with one of the residents. Jana was a happy sort of person with a muscular but slim body, a woman in her early thirties, probably, who wore her fair hair cropped short and who dressed plainly. A pleasant presence around the house, she stayed until her visa was about to expire. Soon after she went, Jim announced that he was returning to his family. The end of 245 Trafalgar was approaching.
The three of us had been wandering in life at the time chance and circumstance brought us together at 245T, Jim perhaps less so as he intended to return to his family. Our life there was somewhat directionless and lived very much in the moment, but life would change for all of us in the near future and for all of us that was change for the better. This was how we lived that short periods as the decade of the 1980s began, and it was not dissimilar to the way life was lived in other inner urban share houses.
Jim left for the north and then I left to move in with May’s cousin in a dilapidated weatherboard house in Balmain. Michael moved on to nobody knew where. A period in our lives had come to an end as it does for all who live in shared houses, for they are temporary arrangements in life and people go on to other things, other places.
Altogether, and despite Michael’s nocturnal guitar practice, life at 245T was a positive and enjoyable experience and it must have lasted one, maybe two years or thereabouts. People had jobs, and even if Michael’s was sporadic it was something he would do as he needed to. There were friends and we even had a home life, which was good.
It was years later that I encountered Michael in Newtown to discover that he was married and apparently happy… and also dry. It was good to see him this way and I hoped that both of these circumstances would persist. Later, I visited Jim and family in on the coast a number of times before domestic events brought an end to their relationship.
Neither Jenny or Melanie were seen after we went our own ways when 245T broke up, the last I heard was that Jenny was with a New Zealander and apparently happy.
May eventually found a new partner and later moved interstate, then overseas to work for a few years. She is now back in Australia and in occasional contact with me. Her partner of the time, Frank, lives in the same southern city were they both have contact with their children.
Lives, once brought together by chance, are now scattered.