This ain't Vegas, and it ain't Soho. And it sure as hell ain't Beverly Hills. This is Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia, and the other thing it ain't is pretty. In fact it's downright ugly. It's 1 o'clock on a winter Sunday morning, the footpaths are crowded, and everyone's got a story.
The four halter-girls swearing and giggling in front of the Kings X Bar would each have a story to tell, if you could get them to stop swearing and giggling. The adidas track-suit guy manning the tiny barbeque by the footpath would have a story to tell, but you’d have to buy a hot-dog first. Did I say hot-dog? More like a barbequed beef sausage in a bun, smothered in onions, cheese and mustard and presented in a paper serviette, the culinary intersection between Hill Street and Ramsey Street.
The two young Asian boys running and dodging towards us through the drifting early-morning crowd have almost certainly got a story to tell, and you can be sure it’s still pretty fresh in their memories. The two police – one male, one female – in hot heads-back pursuit would have so many stories to tell from this shift alone, if you could get to them in a quiet moment. And the soiled and staggering gent yelling after the runners seems anxious to explain to any who'll listen how he came about the streaming gash on his forehead.
My companions – both of whom are large and at a glance seem rich in potential menace – are hypothesising on the relative merits of assisting the police by the use of a judicious shoulder-charge. "The trouble is the cops around here would just as likely arrest you for assault," opines Joel, a copier salesman who moonlights as a doorman at several Sydney clubs. When asked how corrupt King Cross really is, he says that it's "not too bad at the moment", the unspoken suggestion being that corruption in this, the most unashamedly seedy part of Sydney, is cyclical.
Someone once said that each of us is a maximum of six aquaintances from any other person in the world. They even made a movie based on that very premise. If that's true then I probably know a friend of a friend of a friend who slept with the sadly pretty blonde who shivers in her Gosford-skirt, just next to the Pink Pussycat's brightly lit entrance. It makes me feel jaded just thinking about it.
"Come in, boys," says a man with a ponytail, a heavy jacket and a bow tie. He beckons to with a wide wave of the arm. "Live shows, beautiful girls, strippers. Come in, boys, come in and take a peek." He’s so stereotyped that he almost seems out of place. Joel says something to him, and the doorman responds aggressively, tilting his jaw up a couple of degrees and taking a step in our direction. But his hands remain in his pockets, and any chance of the exchange turning into something more is minimal, since we're not going to stop, and he’s not about to leave his post.
The general feeling of aggression and antagonism in the air seems to be catching. As we weave through the people my other companion Des, a high-level customer service manager in a large national firm, comments, "If one more person bumps into me I'm going to fucken smash him." Mental note to self: walk on the other side of Joel.
Later I'm paying for my meal in Hungry Jacks when I hear shouting behind me. Hell, everyone hears it. The exact topic of the debate is as much a mystery as the relationship of the two men having it. One of them is addressing the other by name, so presumably they're friends, or at very least aquaintances.
The security guards materialise but say nothing. They don't have to – everyone knows what a security guard is for, especially in the Cross. They seem to hold more sway than the police around here, probably because there's a whole heap more of them. Everyone knows who they are and what they can do to you, so when they arrive to break up the melee they need to say little. Instead they each take the arm of one of the combatants and calmly lead them outside. The verbal battle takes up loudly and publicly out on the footpath, but by then the security guards are just amused spectators like everyone else, folding their arms and listening to Craig and his friend (lover, it would seem) air their dirty linen at 1:30 on a Sunday morning. They've got a story to tell, and they're doing everything they can to do just that.
Sitting on the step which forms the boundary to Hungry Jacks (there are no walls to the restaurant – you can just wander into the place from pretty much any direction, since it never closes anyway) is what you might call a bum, a tramp, a homeless person, a lost soul. He wears several jackets, bell-bottomed trousers, and he owns a ghetto-blaster. It sits silently beside him on the step, and for a moment I think how easy it would be to walk past, take it by the handle, and keep walking. Not that I've ever knowingly stolen anything in my life, and it's this fact which frightens me most – that the mentality of the place is seeping through my skull and into my brain, and making me wonder how easy it would be to steal from a homeless man. Then I'm ashamed, doubly so when I see that the stereo’s handle is missing. Deliberately removed? Was I out-thought by a bum before I even got the chance to put my plan into action?
I wonder then if the guitar-playing busker under the ANZ Bank sign across the street has also out-thought me before my actions. This after I find myself saying to my companions, "Jesus, that guy’s terrible. How about we wander over there and bust that guitar over his fucken head?" It’s said as a joke – of course I have no intention of harming the poor man or his instrument, regardless of how badly he plays – but again I have to wonder why all the latent aggression within me is finding its way to the surface now that I'm deep within this place. Perhaps it's the constant ears-pricked stance you adopt, the sidling awareness of others nearby, the wariness you barely notice until you're back in the car and can begin to relax. Unspoken but strangely tangible malevolence dirtying the soles of your shoes.
Or maybe it's how another of my friends explains it. He believes that the rash of violent crime in the immediate area is largely borne of frustration and anger. He presents a scenario - a young man out for a brief and hopefully guiltless sexual encounter with a prostitute, whom he presumes will look like a Penthouse model. They rarely do - at least not the ones he can afford - and three hours later, after a browse through a couple of sex shops, a brief and disappointing foray into a strip club, and an equally disappointing hand-job or furtive quickie with a woman of especially disappointing appearance and physique, he finds himself feeling somewhat empty, his wallet moreso. And a long way from home. Not surprising then, contends my friend, that one bump or jostle, or even a verbal taunt, can escalate into a confrontation which often ends in violence.
But the myths persist, propogated by strip clubs and the soft-porn industry - myths of gorgeous women who claim to want a strong but sensitive man who is great in bed. Gorgeous intelligent women who will still show all the world their private parts in what any alien naturalist would have to assume is a clear mating signal. In short, these women appear to be freely available to all. In the several newsagents along the canyon-like Macleay Street, the men's magazine section is prominent, well-stocked and well-used, unlike most of its suburban equivalents, which are small and towards the back. In one of these stores six men stand before this section, leafing leisurely through their selections. One of them draws a mate's attention to the obvious virtues of one particular lady's bosom, and his friend agrees loudly. No one cares, no one seems to even notice. I mean, there's an X-rated bookshop a couple of doors up and a live sex venue next door, so to this market a selection of Playboys, Mayfairs and Hustlers is really like light beer to a hard liquor drinker - barely satisfying but probably not as bad for you.
We walk back the way we came. A drifter squatting down by a dark shop window is rolling a cigarette. A young man in a baseball cap sits a couple of metres away, smoking. The first man leans toward the second and asks him for a light. Cap-man shuffles up and, instead of providing a flame from a lighter, beckons for Drifter to light his smoke off his own burning one. So he takes the rolled cigarette, makes the tip of his own glow, and lights the fresh one that way before handing it back. Then, drawing on the kind of trust found between people with nowhere to go, they sit and chat about God knows what, as we continue by. It's almost three. It's early Sunday. It's winter. There have to be better places to sit and have a chat and a smoke. There have to be better things to be doing at this time of night. Like sleeping, for instance.
All these people with nothing better to do but walk up and down, then do it again. Could it be that they're all here watching each other, like I am tonight? Perhaps everybody is observing everybody else, like a role-play at the asylum. "Everyone here is mad except me." Maybe it's all just an elaborate laboratory experiment. No, I don't think that anyone could be that inhumane.
What is it about the Cross that makes these people swarm here? It's featured in most Sydney tourist brochures, and the Japanese, Americans, British and Germans come here in droves, wandering arm in arm as they soak up the so-called "cosmopolitan" atmosphere. They even build their own hotels just around the corner so they can get to the Cross more readily. But do they really love it, or are they all as disappointed as I was the first time I came to this place? Back then what chiefly drew me there was not the strip clubs, nor the bookshops, nor the dance clubs, not even the fast-food outlets without doors or wall. It was the enormous Coke sign, a sparkling Sydney landmark which years ago had singlehandedly put William Street on the map. William Street, indeed! As a young man discovering Sydney as a card-carrying adult rather than a hand-holding child, I believed that when I got to stand beneath that sparkling billboard I would feel the same sense of place and personal destiny as I did when I at last crossed The Bridge or strolled the forecourt of the Opera House. Not because I dreamed of standing under a big sign, but because I’d so often seen its photos in brochures, masquerading as a Major Place to Go. But when you stand there and tilt your head back to take it in, you see it for what it really is – a collection of red, white and broken bulbs coreographed to dazzle and amaze, or so it was originally hoped. But the closer you get, the less impressive it looks.
No, this ain't Vegas, nor is is Soho, nor is it Hollywood. This is Kings Cross, Sydney, and if it's like those other places at all it's because despite its ugliness people are still drawn to it. It's an infatuation, like an affair. And just like an affair, and just like gazing up at the Big Sparkly Coke Sign, it's never as good as you think it's going to be.