4 June 2011
In the pre-peakhour stillness, you can still get a sense of the squalor, the desperation and the hardness of these streets. Surry Hills, nestled between the colonial graveyard that became Central Railway Station and the once dangerous slums of Darlinghurst is these days home to fashionistas and barristas alike. If you can catch a glimpse down the crooked sandstone alleys you can, for a moment, imagine yourself in the early 20th Century – when “crime entrepreneurs” like Kate Leigh lived, worked, and kept the city’s underclasses well lubricated.
Months back I found myself taking a shortcut through Foster Street. I’d parked on the hill behind and started down the narrow, shaded roadway. The sky had closed over, glaring at me, spitting rain like an ominous threat. I’d taken five steps, perhaps six, and wheeled about on my heel. The sound of the city had dissipated – blocked by the tenements and warehouse apartment buildings that towered over me. It seemed darker – as if an early morning twilight had descended.
My footsteps cracked off the walls as I headed down Hands Lane. Behind me the heavy rain began pounding. Slightly ahead of the game, I spread my umbrella against the blackening sky but I could tell within moments that I would be swallowed.
My pace quickened along with my heart rate. I felt silly, foolish, a touch out of place. Wide eyed, I scraped my glance against the hard brick walls looking for a hold that would anchor me, a remembrance, a fleeting moment of recognition. And all the while, the rain pelted me like a sinner.
Suddenly – and almost without thought – I turned into the welcoming maw of a corner cafe. The shock of colour, movement and aroma slapped my dripping face and blew the clouds hovering over my mind. Within moments there were greetings, orders taken and tables organised. To my surprise I noted the people on the street, passers-by – the agency creatives, the models, the actor-singer-dancer and the homeless man pushing a shopping cart. I’d stepped out of my mind’s eye and into the world where I lived. This vibrant and sometimes darkly suggestive city had shown me just one of her secrets.
And I knew I’d survived the moment that coffee cup touched my open palm. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
By Gavin Heaton