Down on the Corner

Trendies traipse the footpath past cafes, bars and expensive salons. Old Greek men linger, smoking cigarettes in zippered loafers and blue wool slacks, whilst elderly ladies push pleather shopping carts over cobbled gutters. Faded department storefronts speak languidly of consumerism’s past, their interiors now at odds with the reputations of the golden era that spawned their inception.
Smith St is gritty and raw, grimy and real. It is a veritable melting pot of characters and lives, Collingwood’s rich heart and tainted soul.
On the corner of Moor and Smith sit the Aborigines. They lounge with longnecks of VB and Draught, parked at the benches under the leafy trees, each day losing their minds to the drink and repeating it all the next. This corner is their turf. Sitting around, seeing out their sombre days, wasting in numbers, together under that tree.
Washing away their lives with the grog.

One afternoon down at Smith St Safeway Liquor I joined the queue of people waiting to purchase their booze. Directly in front of me a dark frizzy haired woman tipped one of her VB longnecks off the bench, averting a floor smash with a swift last minute catch. The woman made a bit of a commotion. She turned to face me.
“Lucky I caught that one ay?”.
The woman was quite tall, full lipped, roughly middle aged and visibly indigenous. I recognised her from the corner. She got talking to a blonde girl ahead of me, and occasionally glanced behind to include me her chat. She’d been drinking heavily and talked at us with a husky thick voice, but not in a threatening manner and hardly overbearing. The richness and candour in her voice drew me into her words and cradled my attention. She reeled off jive, something about how she’d been here earlier, what her fella was up to, how she needed to get the grog back to her mates on the corner. The blonde girl seemed a little cautious, and the store attendant behind the counter eyed subtly to see where the security guard was. I made some small talk with the woman and she went on to dominate the chat.
“Buried me brother today…gunna drown me sorrows a bit”.
She informed me matter of factly that her brother had been stabbed to death in a backstreet in Preston five days earlier.
With little repose, she presented to me a picture she’d been holding. It was a blown up police photograph of an old grey haired fella sitting cross-legged and handcuffed on a kerb, flanked by two indigenous women and a couple of officers.
“Not a bad shot is it ay?!”, she asked with relative enthusiasm.
She began to sway her head gently from side to side, noting the two ladies in the shot.
“These are me sisters”.
She directed my attention to one of the ladies.
“…Lost her last year”.
She pointed to the older man in handcuffs, parked helplessly in the gutter.
“Lost ‘Im few months ago as well”
I stared into the sadness permeating her deep brown eyes, bagged and welling. She pointed to the other woman in the photo.
“Can’t afford to bloody lose her”, she stated with pity, her tone amazingly measured and more reflective than remorseful.
I was taken aback, transported to another world. I continued staring into her eyes. They were nothing but hazy wells of sadness and sorrow; in looking through them, I saw into her life. It was full of pain and sadness, routine tragedy and the acceptance of misery. The death of her brother was just another ‘fuckin’ one of ‘em dying’. Like the others, she would accept it. And as she had done before, she would drink these longnecks to drown and forget.

Most days I still walk past the corner slightly unsettled and wary. I dislike that I feel this way. There’s normally about fifteen of them, young and old, bound in alcoholic solidarity, a united clan. They belch out yelps to disarrayed mates over the road, all the while imposing an unmistakable presence and shady vibe on the whole street. The trendies and elderly stick out like sore thumbs, and so do i. Through a five minute booze purchase at the local supermarket, I gained an amazingly emotional insight into a world I’ll never have to be in, know, or endure. I felt deeply for the woman, wondered what must go on in her head, wondered how she deals with the ongoing sadness in her life, and the lives of those around her that sit by the corner day after day. I understood then how important it was for them all to stick together, to rock in the same boat, present a united front and get through life with arms linked. All they had was each other, and none of them could afford to lose anyone else. I’ve crossed that street before to avoid the confrontation. I hate that fear could do that to me, and refuse to cross anymore. I don’t fear these people. They are me. I love these people. I hate that they have to be there every day drink away their humanity. I hate the emptiness and sorrow that I saw in that woman’s eyes. I hate that she had to bury her own brother that day and lose another family member and friend to her adverse existence. I hate the hopelessness of the situation.

The Smith Street corner is just a microcosm of a much bigger theme, our collective failure to imagine and empathise on a grand scale, to have a go at sensitively righting some enormous wrongs committed in our past, however frought with emotional difficulty such an undertaking might be, however steep the upward slope. To acknowledge that we are bound together in humanity and do what needs to be done.

"It begins, I think with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask, how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded us all.”

- Paul Keating. Redfern Address 1992

1 comment:

Aunty Jac said...

Good on you Cam! We can all do better, be better, and be more understanding. You're travelling the road we all need to travel, stop, and think about, even for a moment. Your writing is inspirational. Keep it up! Always your literary fan (well, always a fan in everything you do!) Your blogs are a great retreat from playgroup and kinder chatter. Keep 'em coming. Love ya XX