Ithaca

Like Ulysses long ago
I have fought, and now I row
Past the cliffs and through the fire
Into the whirlpool of desire

Twenty thousand years have passed
Since you tied me to this mast
You’re the siren, I’m the song
Which drives this ancient boat along

You’re the string and I’m the bow
You’re the dart and I’m the blow
I’m the giant, you’re my sight
I’m the wind and you’re my flight

You’re the fire the fates employ
I’m the burning walls of Troy
You’re the sleeping prince of night
I’m the gloomy northern light

You’re the whisper in my blood
The raging vein that’s now in flood
I’m the sailor roaming far
You’re the shores of Ithaca

September 2009

Chilly Young Suits

2006

Until September I’m the Word-Excel-PowerPoint guy in the Corporate Finance division of Kuchs, Buchs, Ilgott & Gainz (KBIG), a blue chip firm in the city.

Initially, I’d turned the full-time job down. During my interview, the blond, bosomy Human Resources lady hinted at ambiguities in the power structure and possible late nights at very short notice. I have regular evening commitments to keep, and so the job sounded iffy and tiresome even though the money would be good. I said no.

Human Resources lady called back a day later and asked if I’d do a contract to get the position up and running while they kept looking. I agreed, after pushing my hourly rate up a few bucks for the temporary work (a friend said I should have demanded more). Looking back, it’s clear that contracting has paid for most of the paving stones that have lined my path through life.

*****

The longest stretch of my working life has so far been served in New York. During my first years in the Big Apple I worked as a freelance singer on weekends and an office-horticulture guy during the week. I was a downtown Plant Guy for five years until I hurt my back in the mid-nineties, lifting a Ficus tree into a service elevator at one of the World Trade Center towers. It was for an executive office on the 106th floor. I had to rest, then rethink my major source of income.

I did temp jobs for the next decade, mostly in lower Manhattan, getting a corporate start—after a year proofreading good history books and dreadful novels for Simon & Schuster—as the Quality Control guy on the 17th floor at Goldman Sachs, proofing text, charts and numbers which the Desktop jockeys churned out for the bankers.

The document manager on that floor was a big black queen from San Francisco, and most of the computer operators were fringe showbiz types. The big queen was a friendly tease during my first couple of weeks, my shy period, but when, in our rowdy little forum, I finally whipped my wit out, measured against his I became an unwanted challenge. Drag names went round. I dubbed him Tequila Mockingbird and I was cast, contrary to type of course, as Helena Handbasket (Hell in a Handbasket) by one of the young playwrights, a skinny downtown type who we dubbed Tawdry Hepburn. There were a couple of soap-opera hopefuls working with us too, and they’d do huffy mid-afternoon melodrama for our amusement.

“Don’t try to tell me the words ‘Rockwell Extra Bold’ mean nothing at all to you Slate.”
“Ever since you came back at me with those font changes Sable, I’ve seen the hatred in your eyes…”

One morning Mockingbird asked me smoothly “so Larry, which one of our bankers do you think is the cutest?” I responded with unthinking candour. The next day and thereafter, that executive (a tall, blushing American Dane in his twenties) along with all the other young Masters of the Universe on our floor avoided me like I was a leper.

I never found out what was said.

I did well for a year, but lost my proofer’s gig during a rundown period. I’d been popping Prozac for a month and had not noticed its edgy side effect. I became reckless, and started scribbling the occasional editorial comment in the margin of a financial document.
“Interesting oil price spikes!”
“Downsize at GE by 15,000. Why not 150,000?”
One morning my agency called and told me not to go in. I heard on the Goldman temp grapevine that my immediate manager wasn’t told why I was no longer required.
I ditched the pills, did a two-week Microsoft Office software course through another agency, and got a seat in the 24th floor document production room at Merrill Lynch over in the World Financial Center.

Merrill is apparently known for its affirmative hiring policy, taking on award-winning percentages of minorities, meaning, giving African Americans a fair go. I saw only a few black executives during my time there. Most of the “minorities” were hired as managers in Support Services such as Desktop Publishing. Each floor at Merrill had its own DTP centre and almost all the bosses were big black women. A steady but rotating stream of temps of all colours, shapes and opinions got the work done. We sat hunched over our computer cockpits, mouse-clicking by the seats of our pants with the sword of Damocles dangling over each carrel. We traded skill tips and learned fast.

Our 24th floor boss was a tyrant named Patty. We’d be copying, pasting and formatting away, our fingers tripping and dancing over our greasy black keyboards like fleas hopping on and off hypodermic needles. As we slaved away, Patty would sit her huge rump down on the front desk talking big and loud with her sistahs about “who gonna get sanctified at church this Sunday.” We were terrified daily of losing our assignments.

Disappearances were barely whispered about. Patty would get back from lunch and stomp around the corner into the document production room glaring left and right, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland: “I’m gonna faah me a temp today!” she’d roar. “Now which one of you ‘m’ah gonna FAAH?” No one crossed her. Work got done.

I stayed nearly two years, learned the trade, paid off my credit card debts and put ten grand in the bank. The day I left I got hugs and kisses and shouts of “oh we gonna MISS YOU Larry” from Patty and her friends. I’d survived, and went on to earn a few bucks an hour more at Deutsche Bank, McKinsey and PepsiCo. But I haven’t had such terrorized fun in a corporate office since, though I’ve still got the scars to scratch.

Occasionally a half-familiar face, one of the show business hopefuls from my Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch days appears for a few minutes on the New York cop show Law & Order. He’ll either be a sardonic, fast-talking, “I seen-it-all buddy” Deli Guy, or she’ll be a sardonic, fast talking “I seen-it-all buddy” serial rapist victim’s ex boyfriend’s estranged sister.

I smile warmly at them for the three minutes they’re on screen. “You made it in New York like I never did.”

*****

This three-month gig in Melbourne has to be about recouping losses and saving money. Went to Target and bought new business pants for forty bucks, a ten-dollar silk tie and a few twenty-five-dollar cotton-polyester shirts off the mark-down rack and wore one of them on my first day. Maybe the young dudes in suits didn’t notice, but I looked and cheap and discomfited in the elevator mirror. A greyhound in black cashmere and pearls gave me a sympathetic look as I stepped off on the second floor. Wearing a TARGET designer label on my shirt pocket would have been no more down at heel. I spent a few bucks more on muted shirts and ties the lunch hour after that.

I got a cubicle, a laptop, and no introductions. I started by saying hello and goodbye to the guy in the next cubicle, and he responded nicely. The guys on the other side didn’t return initial greetings, and things haven’t warmed. Early this month Friendly Guy moved to a faraway cubicle in the centre of the floor. Most of the Corporate Finance executives do not want a “desktop publishing” person there to interfere with how they do their PowerPoint presentations, even though they spend too many hours fiddling with bullet points and ugly financial tables. There’s apparently confusion and procrastination a step or two higher up than me, and key power wielders have been off on summer vacations in the northern hemisphere. I am often idle. Idling all day at work depletes anyone’s tank, unlike running around and getting a chance to pump some gas back in every now and then. On busy days I feel I earn my pay.

KBIG’s grey imperial atmosphere is much the same as that of Goldman Sachs, though with somewhat lower roentgen levels of oppressive self-importance than that radiated by Wall Street firms. It’s an iceberg of chilly young grammar school men in suits. For the most part the female executives are self-effacing versions of the boys. The ones I overhear in the coffee room chat in better-suburb accents about their private school days and their corporate boyfriend prospects. Most of them wear black dresses or black pantsuits and black pumps.

It’s a relief that my supervisor is mellow: a non-chilly and very pretty blond. She’s risen to management from being a Personal Assistant a year ago, which shows what she’s made of, but the young dudes don’t respect her behind her back. Maybe we can help each other out. Maybe I’ll meet an interesting middle-aged weirdo during my short time here, someone to hold heretical conversations with.

An enriching education once consisted of the Trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic. From that three-fold path was built the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and cosmology. These days, the replacement for these ancient disciplines is a lean, results-oriented quinquepartite path: the outcome of a corporate suit’s education being mastery of the five viable roads to fulfilment: money, sport, women, real estate and cars, prioritised according to the seeker’s inclination.

It must be a stressful life, balancing the shifting burden of Things, having to win the game on a daily basis, and not just play along. Furthermore, corporations seem less like competitive capitalist enterprises and more like ministries in centrally planned totalitarian states, allocating resources and rewards according to obscure formulae. Sometimes I wonder if success is based more on favour than merit, with a toadying, sniping culture deflecting threats to personal or departmental prerogatives.

Last month my supervisor sent me up to Sydney for a day, to sell them on what I am hired to do, and help them with “template conversion issues.” I got my old job interview suit cleaned, and a new hundred percent cotton shirt. It was a long day. Up at five, and at the airport by six. The plane was supposed to leave at seven. Even though it was two or three degrees Celsius (above freezing but too cold for us) there were icy fuselage issues. Melbourne has no de-icing equipment so we had to wait on the runway until the sun rose and warmed the plane. The flight got off the ground at nine thirty.

I walked into the Sydney office at eleven thirty, and gave a couple of short info sessions, nerve wracking at first, but easy. The people who came wanted to be there. After the sessions I opened up and spoke my few words of Corporatese to a couple of hard talking, humourless Associate Director hunks whose brief was to get document creation standards up to those set by KBIG London: global branding, the right fonts, standard colours, professional reports and presentations. I larded my conversation with words such as “scope” and “directives.” It seemed to go over well enough.

I was supposed to go around to various young analysts, introduce myself and talk about the standard of their work. I did with a few, but some responses made me feel like a bashful middle-aged school teacher confronted by the passive, insolent triumph of teenage boys, their faces wearing an easy confidence which comes from a lack of experience. After a few tries I left them alone and snuck out at four forty-five. At least I got to spend the evening with an old high school friend. We went to Chinatown and feasted, and I staggered off to the airport at nine, and collapsed into my solitary bed sometime after midnight.

Before my term ends my supervisor wants to send me around the country to do software-training sessions in the major offices and troubleshoot everyone’s bad habits. I’ve been dreaming about templates, spreadsheets and formatting before waking in the weekday wee-hours, tossing and turning until the alarm goes off, squirming under an imaginary sword dangling from its thread. There are several lines of authority over my head that don’t interact, and foisting my “services” onto a floor of dudes who don’t want them will not work. It’s getting to the point where I’m making comments, opining last week to a young suit as we walked from the privacy of the coffee room onto the busy floor, “you know, this is really not my universe at all.”

I got looks.

On Monday the manager two levels above me, the one who’d pushed for this position, came over for a chat. She’s Irish and sensible. I vented freely. She liked that I don’t give a shit about office politics. She hinted at the stonewalling blocking my job. The Partner who doesn’t give a damn about what I’m hired to do is moving on, and the Partner who does is moving in, so there’ll be a change in attitude in a week or two.
It’s like working the Kremlin, the Vatican, or one of the squabbling Nazi Reichs ministries.

*****

And as I observed once, a shot at the top of the corporate ladder can fail spectacularly. It was back in my Merrill Lynch days in the late nineties, on a lunch break in one of the cafeterias in the World Financial Center’s Wintergarden. I became aware of a big commotion a few tables over. Some corporate guy had collapsed off his chair and was wailing, “I wanna die, I wanna die!” the smooth bass timbre drumming urgently under his piteous, crackling agony. It was a shocking sonic spectacle in that muted, power-drenched space.

I thought I recognized the suit that’d lost it; an extremely haughty young Merrill go-getter, one of the few African American executives I’d seen. He had obviously worked too many hours vaulting intangible odds before snapping. I kept my distance but got my journal out. Nearby, a thin, helmet-haired blond in a navy blue power suit sniffed, “Christ, he shat himself.” She pushed her coffee away from her in disgust, got up and hurried off, frowning at the tiny steel watch hanging off her chicken-bone wrist.

I turned my attention back to the drama. I saw an older, heavy-set, motherly woman, someone from the typing pool, lean over trying to calm him down until the medics arrived, but even she started to sound impatient. There was a rank whiff in the air. People hurried past, hiding their ice-tempered Schadenfreude behind tungsten-tough Manhattan faces, hints of disdain, embarrassment, maybe crumbs of empathy, but not too much. Overt pity would be patronizing. It might also draw unnecessary attention to one’s self.

I sometimes think about that guy, desperately trying to hide a mortifying physical crisis under a loudly emotional one and hope that he bounced back, or rather, sideways and forward.

Melbourne, Australia, 2006

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

The Mother of Life

The Australian continent is believed to have existed as a stable tectonic entity for two billion years, and over that time it has drifted from the arctic north to the southern hemisphere. Some of the rubble-strewn outcrops of Central Australia are 1.8 billion years old.

Here, great mountain ranges have been ground down to red stumps. Their remains are like the roots of ancient teeth barely sticking out of a fossilized jawbone. More than six hundred million years ago, when Australia straddled the earth’s equator, Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed from debris torn off what was once an enormous pile of mountains to the south, eroded and washed north during aeons of torrential storms. The sediments settled over a hundred million years into a two-mile-thick sheet of rock, a huge inland basin. Fifty million years later a shallow sea covered the alluvial deposits.

Then for a hundred million years another uplift caused massive compression and faulting in the region, and the sandstone layers forming Uluru were folded nearly vertically. The softer surrounding rock was worn away for several hundred million more years by the waters of another inland sea. The land changed again. Wind and rain of millions of years of tropical climate then shaped the rocks until the centre of the continent dried out during the last ice age. The great outcrops, Uluru, and Kata Tjuta, labelled until recently Ayers Rock and The Olgas, form the mystical heart of the continent, jutting up like great sandstone bergs from the vast dry peneplain of central Australia.

Saturday 25th August: Driving south all day through an ancient landscape, on the arduous red track from the McDonnell Ranges to Kings Canyon, where I stopped for a stiff hike and climbed down several hundred feet for a swim in a deep, chilly rock pool. I wanted to get to the famous Ayers Rock, or Uluru, by sunset. It took a fast four-hour drive on the narrow tourist road from King’s Canyon south, and then west, to reach it. By late afternoon I could see it rising in the distance like a grey ship on the horizon. By six pm, I was speeding along the paved roads of the park with the stupendous yellow rock sinking and bobbing out of the Spinifex dunes, deepening in colour every minute. I got there just in time. The main western viewing area was crowded with cars, buses, 4-wheel drives, and hundreds of people with folding chairs, beers, binoculars and cameras on tripods. Years of travel-brochure hype had prepared me to be under-whelmed, but when I settled down and opened my eyes fully to it, my brain was as if newborn. The rock, as big as a city, swelled and receded in the changing light of dusk, from marigold to the fiery red of an old bloated sun, to cool ochre purple. The monolith radiated an immovable intensity, becoming delicately reassuring, and then brute heavy as it settled into dark, spiritual silence.

The ancestors of this land, half human, half animal, created the landscape and the laws still held by the local Anangu people. Uluru is the snake from the higher realms. Uluru brought forth the rainbow. And on this rainbow Uluru slithered down to earth. The serpent lies curled up like a heavily pregnant animal resting on its side. The lower part swells with eggs. The figure is both male and female and is considered to be the mother and father of all forms of life.

The landforms of the Red Centre radiate emotional power, and like truths that strike the human heart before language arises, the power is subject to interpretation. The region is considered by many New Age savants to be the heart chakra of the planet, as though mother earth has risen above the surface to embrace visitors. Even the 18th century French mystic St Germain is believed to have uttered so in one of his trances.

Sunday 26th: Last night, after visitors and workers had driven back to the busy resort with its restaurants, hotel rooms and campsites, I drove ten miles out of the park to bivouac away from scrutiny and extra fees. Found a rough track into the scrub, and drove, headlights off to avoid blinding and confusing the kangaroos, several miles north onto the cold and windy plain. Spread my mat and bedroll, and set the alarm. Too tired to cook. Ate bread, cheese and drank a cup of wine before settling my spine onto the ground.

The alarm woke me at six, the world of shapes still dark and colourless. I rose to face the first rusty smear on the horizon. Not so wintry this morning. The car, and most of my equipment spilled fine red dust. Packed up and headed back to Uluru for sunrise, on the northeast side of the rock this time. Only a few were there, bundled up against the morning cold. The sun rose behind us, heating our backs. The raiment of the rock changed suddenly, its folds made visible, and colour welled up through its veins and spread across its skin, purple ochre, a brief rosy blush and then trumpet blasts of brilliant red before settling down to amiable orange-gold for the day. Made coffee on my spirit stove, toasted and ate a mouldy crumpet, and set out on a three hour walk around the base of the rock. Bare toed in sandals, still cold. A batch of joggers with a few chatterboxes among them preceded me. I was glad they were in a hurry to get their exercise. An old earth mother with a walking stick hiked alone, quiet and smiling as she passed me going clockwise, and it was sweet to return the silent friendly greeting. Long stretches of solitude: the dimensions of the monolith unfolded before me as I hiked in and out of its flanks. Uluru jutted out and drew me in on my left as I passed, its dimensions folded in again behind my line of sight. Purple flowers, grasses, clumps of spearbush, fragrant mulga and skinny silver eucalypts dangled their brittle fingers over the path.

Many areas around the monolith are fenced off, sacred to men’s and women’s ceremony and education, and no image taking is allowed. Two of the women’s sacred places are hidden under great genital gashes, like lips hundreds of yards wide. A mile later a roo paw print a hundred yards long appeared, gouged out of the rock face above me. Further around a silhouetted native face hundreds of feet high came into view, a great brain carved by rock fall, rain and wind over the ages. The rock, its features, caves, rippling walls and many folds, crannies and waterholes sing of man’s relationship with nature.

I discovered I had walked around Uluru with my fly undone after having peed behind a bush. A few might find spiritual significance in that.

Some biblical creationists have written at great length, that the freshness of the feldspar in the sandstone, which according to science degrades into clay over millions of years, proves that the great flood of Genesis shaped these rocks a few millennia ago.

But the Anangu also sing the following story: At the end of the time of creation when heroes carried out mighty deeds, a great sandhill turned into stone and became Uluru. The carpet-snake people, the Kuniya, camped here, but the Liru, venomous snake men, led by their chief Kulikudgeri, attacked them. A powerful Kuniya mother, Pulari, wishing to protect her newly born child, spat death and killed many of the Liru. Kulikudgeri slew a young warrior who challenged him to a death match, but the youth’s mother struck Kulikudgeri a blow on the nose with her digging stick and he died writhing in agony.

Sunday noon: The ancient spirit ancestors, the hare-wallaby people, had in mythic times climbed over the rock on their journey east. This is now the climbing route for visitors, but with discouragement from the local Anangu people as it is considered an affront to the spirit of this place. People have died on the climb, especially those with high blood pressure. A few dozen visitors were hauling themselves up the path by the chain-link guardrail as I passed that spot, nearest the parking area full of cars and buses. They were like a ragged band of ants streaming up a boulder.

Back to my wagon parked on a quiet stretch of the road. Four men and two women wandered by asking for cigarettes. They were a group of dusty, weather-beaten outcasts, ones who could not be saved from drink, and who had been abandoned by the tribe. I doled out papers and wads of tobacco. A couple of the fellows peered into my station wagon and saw the empty wine cask. One of the men asked for a drink. “No mate,” I replied, “it just takes away your manhood.” But it was a bit late for that dry response, as I could see from their red and yellow eyes, bruised, alcohol puffed faces, and bodies bloated with ill health and despair. They shuffled on, and squatted down a hundred yards up to roll and smoke their tobacco. They sat in the dust by the side of the road waving at cars, none of which stopped for them.

And others, watchers of the coming Aquarian Age, adepts of the divine life force to the Elemental Kingdom, say they await certain grid activations awakening the primal Record Keeper Crystals which have been held in Uluru for safe keeping since the sinking of Lemuria aeons ago.

Monday 27th: I spent the afternoon until the close of sunset at Kata Tjuta. This place (the name means Many Mounds, in Anangu) made an even deeper impression. But I had some tourist irritation to overcome. I made my first easy reconnoitre up the paved path to the Olga Gorge and the viewing platform at the end. There, some tallow limbed Britons were talking amongst themselves, loudly regretting the presence of so many other tourists. I waited a while and they bumbled off, and there was silence between these 1500 ft high smooth and sheer red walls. I doubled back to a longer and much rougher trail and spent the last few hours of sunlight hiking and clambering the circuit deep into the canyon and around the Valley of Winds. But, dammit, a noisy German family preceded me. If I were to pass them they would catch up eventually and ruin the reverie, so I hung back. Their two girls fought and whined. The father clambered up onto every erect piece of rock to have his photo taken by his wife, who like a barking sergeant organized his poses for him. They were a German version of the Griswolds, heroes of those National Lampoon Vacation films. Earlier I had encountered other herds of tourists, bellowing away about nothing, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. I got sharp a couple of times, and gave withering looks as I passed them by, remarking, “silence is wonderful isn’t it?”  People got the message but I felt weary and ashamed of my impatience and righteousness.

Little is spoken or sung about Kata Tjuta. A few say it represents the petrified remains of giant creatures. The largest of the monoliths is the home of Wanambi, a snake with long teeth, a mane and a long beard. During the dry season he lives in a waterhole in the gorge where his breath becomes the wind. And some of the domes are Pungalunga men, giants who once fed on the Anangu.

But then I had a quiet laugh to myself as I followed the last of my fellow creatures. Perhaps I had found my vocation: by divine self-appointment, official shusher-upper to the world’s parks and wildlife areas.

A bit of patience got me a long stretch of peace. I hung back and let the German Griswolds disappear ahead, and ended up striding along in my bare feet on the pebbly path until my soft city feet could bear me no more, the only human soul in the valley these last hours before dusk. I hiked between the crack of Kata Tjuta’s great terracotta thighs, like the fat thighs of a Neolithic Venus opening to reveal a fragrant garden. A glorious red-green valley under the bowl of blinding blue, with kangaroo grass, silvertail flowers, saltbush, desert oak and everything else I could not name surrounded by huge domes of oxidised sandstone. Kata Tjuta enveloped me, reluctant to let me go, even as the stories surrounding it cannot be spoken about outside secret circles. I sat on a rock wishing never to leave. But if I were to linger after the sun abandoned the earth I might not have found my way out.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

In the Cathedral of St John the Divine

do you kiss
many hushed feet
kissing the flagstones
do you rub
the silken pall
make sacred
the great oak jaws
of choir stalls
would you drink
heady red sweat
drinking the rarefied
sexual wounds
our careful argument
consumed
unction from the grail
dispersed between tips
of marble fingers
do you dance
in refined dances
your aural garment
issuing from the lungs
of middle-aged men
are you drunk
are you the drunken
sensibilities of
hagiomaniacs
our love erupting
roaring organ fantasies
our dormant worship
seeping milk
as candle wax

New York City 1991

Taylor Square

I’m out on a summer afternoon jaunt to mingle with Gay Sydney. I’ve ridden my bike from Glebe Point, down murderous and smoggy Parramatta Road, past the huge sandstone pile of Central Station, through the rumbling traffic and yowling sirens that herald the southern fringe of the skyscraper city, up a desolate stretch of Goulburn Street and east to shabby, trendy Darlinghurst.

The section of Oxford Street from Hyde Park to Taylor Square, once fabulous, is now stale, piss stained and rubbish strewn. It’s no longer considered the Mecca of Australian gay life, which over twenty years of empowerment has spread to Potts Point, Surry Hills, Newtown and the formerly rough blue-collar districts of Sydney’s Inner West. But the strip still roils with tacky, edgy, tinsel-bedecked life. Every second shop front is a cheap Thai or a South East Asian food joint. You can still get “gayboi” muscle clothing and an expensive haircut here. There are discount CD outlets, cheap Indonesian furniture, second hand books, chic kitchenware, cheap bric-a-brac, greasy takeaways, and coffee and cake shops. There’s a Lebanese restaurant with a “Cushion Lounge” upstairs. There are internet hubs run by quiet young Asians, and too many quickie sex joints all within a couple of blocks. There’s Headquarters, URGE URGE URGE Cruise Lounge, PROBE (“serving the gay community with professionalism and pride” states the sub heading, archly), Pleasure Chest, KAOS Konsepts For Men (the “O” in KAOS is a puckered red sphincter on black) and The Toolshed. And these are just the ones on the southern half of the strip.

There are the watering holes: The Burdekin, The Midnight Shift, The Columbian, Gilligan’s, Exchange, Oxford, Stonewall, old Aussie pubs done up as American bars, like honest slabs of mutton dressed up as trendy rack of lamb. On weekday afternoons you can get a stool and plenty of elbowroom with your beer, but Thursday to Saturday nights the bars are packed and screaming with Hi Energy dance beats until the sun comes up. Only the Courthouse Hotel on Taylor Square retains the beery air of pre-gay Australia. It’s open twenty-four hours and is the redoubt of whistle-toothed old men, brawling sports punters and a few well-worn women. You can get a cheap steak there too.

The young, the rich, the alternatively hip, sneer at today’s Oxford Street. “We’ve arrived. We’re proud. We don’t need it anymore.” They call it a leftover for the older crowd, the leather core, the lifers with AIDS on state pensions and subsidized rent, the after work closet cases who come on quick detours before getting trains back to their wives and kids in the western suburbs, the male sex workers and the tourists. But Oxford Street is still packed on weekends, and it becomes party-central for every beauty caste and income bracket during the Autumnal bacchanals of Mardi Gras. It’s on all the tourist brochures so all the tourists go there. And as I’m nostalgic for travelers, and am no longer young, and have never been hip, I go there too.

Early on Friday and Saturday nights hordes of straight couples clutter its black sidewalks, splattered with decades of chewing gum and ground-in tobacco ash, on their hike from Museum Station to the Big-Night-On-The-Town restaurants half a mile further up in Paddington and Kings Cross. They head back down to the trains between 11 pm and one in the morning. Packs of young men with gawping, or urbanely indifferent, or disdainful girlfriends, middle-aged husbands and wives staring straight ahead, silent on their homeward run, a few oldies smiling at the sleek gay plumage drifting in and out of the cafes and bars, everyone stepping over the rivulets of piss that well out from under the crumpled trousers of mumbling, purple-skinned drunks propped up in the alcoves of shops shut for the night.

Here comes a happy couple in their late twenties heading home after dinner and a movie at Fox Studios. He’s tall, good looking, with curly black hair and shadowy jowls. He’s got a bit of a gut on him too and he doesn’t care who’d notice. He’s wearing a black suit with a pink shirt from Country Road and no tie. He’s got trendy square-toed boots on. His girl is thin, with small, real breasts, and almost as tall; she totters along on sparkly high-heeled sandals. She’s got a scarf of long, straight blond hair, a powder-compact tan on her face, metallic pink lipstick and dangly silver and pink quartz earrings. She’s wearing tight blue jeans with a flimsy, shimmery strapless dress over it, a little dress that looks like a square gauze tablecloth, the rage with many young women these days. They pass by, arms entwined, leaning into each other. He’s drunk and stunned under his mullet cut, but as confident of his place in a real man’s world as we are of ours in our universe. She smiles down at the pavement, watching for stray rivers of piss, careful not to spear a patch of blackened gum on her stiletto heel. They don’t look at us as they run our glimmer-eyed gauntlet, but we look up at them from the pavement tables as they rush past. We smile our superior little smiles and murmur the score softly between each sip of our cigarettes.

But on this hot and sunny weekday afternoon I’m heading to my usual spot, a still-reasonably-trendy Gay Eatery on Taylor Square, the sort where they serve organic burgers, wheat grass juice and good strong espressos with little dark chocolate penises on the side, “with the compliments of the management”.

I pass by the Courthouse Hotel. Inside, fifteen or twenty men lean up against the bar watching a horse race on a wide screen TV. Around the corner a bedraggled woman in black denim has just vomited on the pavement. She is swaying, held up by a fat middle-aged man. He wipes her mouth with a handkerchief and murmurs something kind to her and I give them a wide berth.

The café I’m heading for has tone and colour-coordinated class. Last year they went through an early 80’s nostalgia theme, black, pink and chrome. Then they closed for three weeks. They opened again before Christmas, with blond wood trim and injection moulded pistachio ice cream coloured chairs and tiny tables. It’s an attempt at I’ve got a Fantastic Job In Media style, very cool, but relaxed enough for obvious kerbside cruising. I like to waste an hour or two here on sparse afternoons.

I’m going to sit and have a coffee and write my journal. I can look up after a sentence or two in my literary hideaway and admire the flow of carelessly arranged sculpted couples rushing by. I know they’ll never notice me. I have fallen, due to lack of fashionable attire and poorly maintained physique, to that unbearable heaviness of being, the Gay Of A Certain Age. It’s the age, relative to the glow of wealth, at which a man becomes invisible to the laurel-wreathed phalanx of the urban Theban Band. I don’t mind, and I enjoy the many forms of beauty and ugliness that pass above my eyes.

So how does a barista attend an invisible man such as me? He’s small, slim, stubbly, peroxided, with brown doe eyes, and he’s chatting up a storm in a teacup with his friend. I wait at the counter for a while. The barista knows not to lose a customer so after a minute and a half he turns my way with raised eyebrows, a “yess?” and one second’s worth of free smile. He works efficiently with a pert indifferent look and steams my cappuccino, still talking relationship drama with his long limbed, shaved and tattooed friend. He brings me my brew and I get another half second of smile, compliments of the management. I am content. I eat my little chocolate penis demurely the way Proust would have nibbled his Madeleine.

Occasionally I will forget myself and imagine vainly that I too resemble a Fantastic Job In Media man. I’ve spent an hour trying to catch the roving eye of a fresh looking lad sitting at the next table. He’s watching for guys coming around the corner from Oxford Street. But when a likely prospect gets too close, I see him look away quickly and fiddle with his mobile phone. As a song lyric might put it, “from fifty yards away everyone looks like your destiny”. Maybe my blond country boy needs new contact lenses. He can’t be that shy.

I’m heaving a sigh in the direction of a skinny drugged out youth sauntering twitchily around the corner by the Courthouse. His pale rib-shadows are showing through his unbuttoned shirt (if only you had a nice big brother when you needed one, like me for instance). He looks down with a start, a jolt of electricity twitches through his bony frame, and he leaps back from the woman’s beery breakfast spreading across the pavement.

I’m struck by a delicious distracting pang. Two men twenty years younger than I have just swiveled in, ordered from the bar, and sat their glorious bottoms down a few tables away. They’re style queens of satin cheek and indefinable accent, both in dark tank tops and off-white shorty-shorts. They exude hyper masculinity and whiffs of dry, herby fragrance. One is smooth as a eunuch and the other has fine black stubble on his upper back and neck. The blond country lad is interested now, but they don’t return his glances.

They lean back into their chairs and gaze for a moment at the multitude, like two young sons of gods carved on a temple pediment, mythic twins Castor and Pollux. The prompt, doe-eyed barista brings them their coffees. I hear a sibilant snip of conversation.
“. . . Got started on me new protein supplements. . .”
I prick up my ears, glance over at the twins and listen happily. One of them is talking Gym Routine, and the other is responding, his partner’s echo and muse. I fish a piece of paper out of my bag and scribble away.

Here are bits of that divine dialogue, recorded on this sunny afternoon at my café table on Taylor Square. It’s a conversation that might have unfolded in Rupert Street in Soho, or The Big Cup on Eighth Avenue, except for the utterly unsubstantial but devastatingly different twist in the accent in which it was delivered.

Castor: “I love your upper body. It’s really grate.”
Pollux: “Thank-yuuu!”
Castor: “How long have you been working out Paul?”
Pollux: “Been going for a year since I quit smoking. Mmm,” he lifts his cup and sips, “religiously.”
Castor: “You look really defined, I mean you’re GLOWING!”
Pollux: “I’ve got to work on me legs though, what about you Carl?”
Castor: “I’m building up my top end. Pecs, biceps, triceps.”
Pollux: “Mmm. I’m doing me bum and me six pack.”
Castor: “I do an hour of free weights Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I do treadmill for thirty minutes every day, I used to do stair master but not anymore.”
Pollux: “Hmm. Stair master is for fat fish and amateurs, you’re not serious until you run and row. You know?”
Castor: “I knaa-ü!”

I look across the paving stones of Taylor Square to the stainless steel water jets and the grassy embankment on the Flinders Street side. A few cigarette-bumming rent-boys are lounging around on the concrete retaining wall. A tanned man in a flannel work shirt lies on the grassy slope, dozing perhaps, with concrete dust on his massive spread legs and work boots, and a copy of the Daily Telegraph over his head. A steel-muscled fifty-year-old military looking queen with a salt and pepper crew cut squats near him, staring at good-looking passers by with his hand at ease in his shorts pocket, ignoring the riff raff.

The youths never buy coffee or organic wraps from this café. They go to the Asian takeaways, or the 7-11, or one of the two cheap Indian diners further down near Crown Street. They bring their hot and greasy paper bags and stubbies of beer, or cans of rum and cola, and lounge around the narrow square to eat, gossip and finger their flies. They’ll wander off when the police dog drug patrol saunters through, usually a pair of cute blue-clad coppers with a couple of happy looking Labradors. The kids will be back after the patrol disappears around the corner, like flies settling back on your face after a lazy summer afternoon swipe.

My immortals finish their coffees and swivel up out of the injection moulded pistachio ice cream coloured chairs. They put their sunglasses on, ready to part.
Castor: “Got a four o’clock with Armando. Bye darl.”
Pollux: “Getting your back crack and sack done?”
Castor: “Shut up ya hairless cunt.”
Pollux: “See you at Sleaze, bitch.”
They kiss the sky between each other’s lips.

A wholesome and chunky couple in gym shoes, white socks, Hawaiian shirts and moustaches walk by clutching cameras and maps. Their beaming cheeks proclaim “we’ve arrived in Gay Downunder” but the familiarity of the spectacle seems to leave them faintly disappointed. I go back to gazing at the military muscle queen who hasn’t moved, the dusty workman still dozing, the bored youths available for business. The vomiting woman and her chivalrous friend from down by the corner stagger back into the pub. A skinny old leather man with a wiry beard and a chrome nose-bone lopes by, his chains rattling behind him. Two smooth, pale, giggling Chinese boys stop at the kerb to light cigarettes and wait for the signal to turn green. The juvenile street traders pass by on their reconnaissance run from Oxford Street, back down, then up the street again. One of them ambles over, his scraggly pubic tuft showing, his baggy trouser cuffs scuffed and scraping the ground. He serves me an imploring look.

“Scuse me can I have a dollar or’ve you got a spare smoke?”
His thin face is burnt and his nose is peeling. He has fine grimy lines around his mouth and under his eyes. His eyes are pale grey. They flicker with hunger for a second. His face is no longer young. The boys ask everybody, and I usually dole out. I put a wad of tobacco into a cigarette paper.
“Do you want me to roll, or can you roll it?”
He’d prefer to roll it and lick it himself. “Thanks buddy. Do you live around here?” he asks.
“Sorry matey, I don’t.”
He looks bored and tough again. He drifts off, but wanders back half an hour later.
“Scuse me can I have a dollar or’ve you got a spare smoke?”
Maybe he forgot the turf he’d already raked. Maybe I turned invisible again after having been asked.

An hour later I pack up my books, pay the doe eyed barista, and weave my way through the crush of tiny tables. I’ll wheel my bike back down Oxford Street to have a bit more of a look. I pass by the Courthouse Hotel and the patch of vomit on the hot pavement. Two pigeons and a young magpie are pecking the gobbets out of it. They scatter as I pass, then hop back for more. Drying in the sun, the puddle has lost its liquid gloss and texture. It looks like a small sprawling city on a dark, barren desert plain seen from an aircraft window at thirty thousand feet as you pass slowly overhead.

 

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

From the London Quatrains

At Canterbury

My thoughts inspired by music, senses honed,
the chronicle of Man’s sublimest search
is then with weary elegance intoned
by stately, slate-faced princes of the Church.

Theosophical Sunday

The crowd sit restless, waiting to be read.
The medium points at me with mystic signs.
“I see a tin of beans above your head.”
Amazed, I cry, “You’ve guessed my name is Heinz!”

Priests

Two well-upholstered, vintage portly vicars
whose lacy liturgies outdo the Pope,
snicker at tales of nuns in soggy knickers,
then pious, tend us tiny coins of hope.

Verse Workshop

The poet’s pallid brow belies his powers
he wears, thick glasses, corduroy and tweed.
His mind a maze, a tome of ivory flowers;
his heart, a weed that died and did not seed.

At the  Academy

Invited to a Royal Private View
I thought I heard a well-heeled lady fart.
Around the paintings and the poseurs, flew
the smell of nature, imitating art.

On the Piccadilly Tube

Beside me sits a pinstriped city gent.
A fleshy perfume his appearance mocks.
The crowning glory of his urbane scent
exudes from sweat encrusted Argyll socks.

Sarabande

Her nimble fingers dance across the keys,
teasing the tendrils of an old French air
whose ornaments of melancholy ease
drive barren harpsichordists to despair.

London 1988

Pre Dawn Psalm

the world rests at the bottom of a glass:
it lies still in a bath of brandy.
the earth is drunk and dreaming:
in its bowl of honey the bronze dawn won’t quite wake.

the horizon has become uncoloured silk:
dawn will draw the fan away from heaven’s face.
arrows shot from the east sail across her pale blue brow:
rosy arrows dribble haze over grey lips that meet the earth.

the ivy covered bluestone walls are rising green:
the rusty rippled iron roofs begins to glow.
across the lane a jasmine boa drops a dark tendril:
it sleeps like a cool snake on top of some garage doors.

I hear a sparrow breaking open a nut of high notes:
or maybe it’s a cricket rubbing his early morning legs.
I hear two pigeons coo roo, coo roo:
then several more pigeons coo rooing in wooing echoes.

a mountain range rings the city north and west:
a wall of white cliffs at least a mile high.
these massive mountains were not there yesterday:
and the risen sun will burn the lot away today.

why must a wall of cloud be like a range:
because my soul needs the icy mountains to be whole.
I long to climb ascetic flanks and reach serenity:
to gaze at the small world in its bronze bowl far below.

the waxy jasmine clusters quiver in the breeze:
the fragrant symmetry and ripe white weight is a poison you want.
why must jasmine fragrance be a poison:
drunk on this you want heaven and on tasting this knowledge you die.

again, from the kitchen window I look at the horizon:
why does a colouring sky seem like a blushing cheek.
because a blushing sky must share a desire with me:
the shame of dreams that want more than earth and heaven give.

the sun strikes the eyes of birds:
in the treetops magpies yodel their canyons of notes.
a thousand pigeons woo in canons:
twittering sparrows rage, blasting their fugues in the splintering light.