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.”
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