A Teenager in Babylon

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St. Kilda, 1981.

 If I close my eyes and try hard enough, I can often still smell that distinct, peculiar odour of rotting carpet, dirty ice and teenage sweat that would fill the dank, cavernous expanse of the St. Moritz ice skating rink. It sat on the rim of the Upper Esplanade, overlooking Port Phillip Bay, the majestic art deco arch of the Palais Theatre and the iconic, gaping big-mouth entrance to Luna Park.

St. Moritz had opened its doors in 1921, and had been the place where my parents had met many, many midnights earlier. But by 1981, the building – just like much of St. Kilda itself – was in a state of decay and disrepair, and was only a few months away from closing its grand doors for good. After which, it would stand deserted until gutted by fire three years later, it‘s charred innards coldly hauled away by Whelan the Wrecker.

Tom Ingram and St Kilda Skating Girl. Photo: PENNY STEPHENS

St. Moritz became one of the hubs of my rapidly expanding universe in those days. Ice-skating was my elective ‘sport’ of choice while I was a student at the Christian Brothers College in East St. Kilda. Every Wednesday after lunch period, a groupof us would take the chaperoned walk down Dandenong Road to Fitzroy Street. I would lag behind with a small group of friends (school misfits, all) so that we could share a stolen cigarette and take in all the lurid sights that St Kilda had to offer.

The drab, dirty greyness and rustic brick of the landscape provided a suitable background for the diversity of people who inhabited it: the drunkards, whose better days were behind them; the musicians and the new wave hipsters, who did their best to look elegantly wasted and fashionably streetwise; the sickly junkies looking in

desperation for their next hit or stumbling around in the midst of the madness; the prostitutes who took us in with wary eyes as they chain-smoked and looked for trade. Not to mention all the other unique characters and desperados who wandered aimlessly and seemed to be doing nothing but killing time and waiting anxiously for darkness to fall.

At the time, St. Kilda was still looked upon as a dirty and dangerous place, full ofintrigue, crime, sleaze, sex and corruption. Fitzroy Street was seen as the beating heart that pumped out vice to the surrounding areas. It was a continual parade of buzzing neon signs, greasy hamburger joints (where it was often rumoured you could order a hit of smack with your Chicko Roll), badly-lit amusement arcades, seamy sex shops, skid row apartments, grotty milk bars, and the odd backroom gambling den.

The highlight of our walk would invariably be the sight of our horrified chaperone, frantically waving us past the Ritz Hotel, ordering us to avert our eyes, lest they be tainted forever. Long before it became just another faux ‘traditional’ British pub, the Ritz was notorious as one of the seedier hotels in the St. Kilda area (no mean feat, indeed). It was built in between the world wars, and by the 1960s, it had become a watering hole for hookers and local lowlifes. In 1970, it played host to Melbourne’s first drag shows. Signs advertising striptease shows and burlesque dancers boasted boldly and proudly: This Is The Show! The signs were garish works of art that should be proudly on display in a museum.

As 3:30 rolled around, I would start the short walk from St. Moritz to the relatively straight and secure confines of my weatherboard Elwood home. Usually I would stop by the Acland St. McDonalds, hoping I’d be served by the cute girl with the blonde sharpie hairdo – short and spiky on top with wispy rat tails at the back. She wore and silver lightning-bolt earrings, and the glittering outline of her homemade AC/DC shirt was clearly visible through her uniform. She was probably no more than a year or two older than me, but she already seemed light years out of my fumbling league.

I’d sit at a table with my fries and shake and watch the parade of shady characters as they wandered in and out of the notorious Esquire Motel, which was the scene of many drug overdoses and even a gangland killing before it was renovated and re-opened as an Easystay hotel. The new hotel provides a clean and safe environment for guests, and maids you can trust, but I can’t help but feel that it has robbed the place of its ambience and sense of sordid history.

My nights back then were almost always spent at Luna Park. How cool it was to have such an attraction a mere ten minute walk from my front door. Many locals may have taken it for granted, and some no doubt thought the place was behind the times and ready to be bulldozed, but that was one of the reasons why I was drawn to it so strongly. Walking around that archaic, wooden white frame and entering that creepy, gaping clown’s mouth was like stepping back to an era of rattling, death trap rollercoasters, dodgem cars that showered a continual rainbow of electric sparks over your head, a ghost train whose scariest feature was the occasional derelict slumped in the corner, cradling a half-empty bottle of cheap red, and huge bundles of wispy, sickly sweet pink fairy floss that had you running around on a sugar high for the next week.

It was a slice of Coney Island in my own back yard, and how could you not love the names of those rides and attractions? The Big Dipper, the Rotor, the Whip, the River Caves, the Giggle Palace, with its psychotic laughing clown looking down at you from his throne. All that was missing was the row of sideshow tents featuring tattooed women and two-headed fish boys. It was a magical and beautifully gaudy electric wonderland, one whose exterior still looks very much the same today, though the interior will break the heart of anyone who remembers and loves the place for what it once was.

After leaving high school at the end of 1981, I spent the remainder of the decade riding the coat tails of all the things that made living in St. Kilda so exhilarating at the time. They were simple but grand days: my years behind the counter of St. Kilda Video, on the corner of Acland and Barkly Streets (now the Big Mouth Café), where the customers often provided more drama, humour and horror than any of the movies we rented out; long drinking and bullshit sessions at the Doultan Bar, when it was still just a dim, smoke-filled little cubicle frequented by the same tiny group of regulars and the odd blow-in; devouring slices of Tony’s pizza – randomly cut into odd, almost Picasso-esque shapes – while marvelling at the huge collection of postcards from around the world that lined the wall of his Acland St restaurant (Tony would eventually die doing what he loved doing: keeling over his pizza oven, feeding his hungry customers); all night dope-fuelled marathons popping coins into the latest games at the Red Cave Amusement Arcade, just down from the Greyhound Hotel; dancing with drag queens at Bojangles and spilling out from the

cramped confines of the Linden Tree and onto Fitzroy St just in time to see the dawn break; feeling the visual and aural assault of the Bad Seeds, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Wall of Voodoo, the Huxton Creepers in the middle of the Venue’s sticky, beer stained floor.

Unfortunately, good times seldom last, and by 1988 the party was already beginning to break up. St. Kilda Video closed its doors, friends moved to outer suburbs to start families, the Village Belle got an upgrade, Chopper Read shot someone dead outside Bojangles, property went through the roof and sent many of the more interesting people fleeing in search of cheaper digs. Café culture started seeping in. That’s when I knew my time was up.

I still call St. Kilda my home, but its essence has been diluted and all but evaporated for me now. There are a few side streets, and the occasional sight and sound, which still take me back to those days. But I feel increasingly that I’m a stranger in a strange land, living in a world populated by people I’m not sure I want to know, and haunted by the ghosts of my past.

The St. Kilda of today prospers and thrives with a cosmopolitan elegance that attracts people from all over the world, but for me its true spirit will be contained forever within the dark shadows of its seedy past. It was a world I never fully appreciated while I had it, and it’s a world I’ll always miss.

By John Harrison

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