The street and suburb wanted it dead. They saw it as a malignancy made of psychosis and dependency that would kill them all unless it was killed first. And indeed the street was dying, empty shop after empty shop, their windows plastered with bills and streaks of sputum run dry. And everyone knew it was this place killing the street. That was accepted. We either excise this damned tumour right now or we all die.
Every dud restaurateur and clueless shopkeeper could explain their failure by saying it was the Gatwick that did them in. Even my peerless dumplings couldn’t pull a paying clientele with that seething Bedlam tossing cadavers out the high windows onto tourists. It became the default exculpatory claim after every commercial misadventure … the plan was good, but the sisters killed it off.
The sisters and their unwashed army of self-replicating zombies. Who can run a normal life in that scene? A typical comment from a typical newspaper article: ‘Would love to see this derelict hell hole demolished … has been left in the hands of useless owners for far too long—these sisters have practically destroyed Fitzroy Street.’ The sisters … Ettie and Rose.
Blame it on the Stones; blame it on the Stones
You’ll feel so much better, knowing you don’t stand alone
Join the accusation; save the bleeding nation
Get it off your shoulders; blame it on the Stones
Wendy, a poet and long-term resident of the Gatwick, wrote a poem called ‘Blame it on the Gatwick’ in which even Keith Richards’ fall from a tree is sheeted home to the sisters. If it wasn’t quite the witch hunt as described by Kris Kristofferson and Wendy, it was, anyway, a rising tide of scorn. The Gatwick had become a hideous legend. But, then, Keith Richards really did fall out of a tree, so …
So when the Gatwick’s sale was declared in March and Channel 9 admitted it was going to use the building for its reno-reality show, the people selling the story of a miracle cure and a Brave New St Kilda were happy. A newspaper quoted Housing Minister Martin Foley as saying, ‘With much of Fitzroy Street and surrounds being held back by the Gatwick we can now look forward to working with traders, Council and the community to turn a corner in the area’s future.’
Things were looking up. With the Gatwick dead and the sisters hounded out of town there’d be no more cadavers raining down in Fitzroy Street. A Brave New St Kilda was on the way and busloads of Chinese tourists would soon be gilding the place with their unimpeachable currency. No-one’s dumpling house will crash in the world to come.
• • •
Hair-trigger types are rocking foot-to-foot out front of the Gatwick. It’s hard to know what to make of a street addict. On one hand their circumstance is so dire, their history so grievous, their outlook so lamentable, you can’t help but pity them. On the other hand, they’re so angry and menacing your pity evaporates. Hard cases with soft insides? Oysters of the alleyways? Or soft souls permanently zombied by an accretion of harrowing circumstance?
A couple of twitchy-eyed guys have chocked the door open and are running in and out of the building carrying their worldly goods to a taxi. I wander in. The place is massive, bigger inside than out. A few people are leaning here and there in the lobby. An Islander tranny sits open-legged on the floor in a miniskirt. Attractive. But big. The cops are on the second floor trying to negotiate their way into someone’s room. Further down the hall a man is screaming violent threats at some memory or ghost. It is moribund, its art nouveau beauty winking through dilapidation, a light litter lies across the dark red carpet of the wide hall, and a pentimento of scent rises through an overlay of incense. All sense of ongoing enterprise has been surrendered. The party’s over. It’s 1 p.m. and no management here.
No-one’s seen the sisters. Not the cops. Not the transvestite. But people have been waiting for them. When Rose and Ettie arrive supplicants shuffle forth wanting many things and offering promises of rent … soon. Up the broad stairs out of sight on the first floor landing, just beyond the wrought iron balustrading with its lyre motif, a man and a woman are bellowing at one another. ‘I’ll just quieten these people down,’ Ettie says. This will be impossible. They are on the cusp of assault. But she disappears upstairs and the fight stops. As a boy I had a book in which a pet-shop owner dived into a pool with a goldfish that had been overfed and was the size of a bus. Somehow, magically, he shrunk that ogre-fish back to its normal size. Ettie has just done the same with the massive anger overhead; magically shrunk it to a tete-a-tete. Running this place you either learn the magic of shrinking anger and soothing psychosis or you become its fatalities.
We talk in their office beneath the stairs, a triangular space of dark Jacobean wood panelling with an angled ceiling and windows onto the lobby. I ask them, ‘How have you not been killed?’
‘Just part of knowing the Gatwick,’ Rose says. ‘If we were men we probably would have been. It’s a bit like being barmaids.’
They started getting to know the Gatwick young. Rose and Ettie left school at 14 and began work here because their mother, the Gatwick’s owner, had leukemia. They both still marvel at their mum, known locally as Queen Vicky, a Maltese immigrant who brought up seven kids while saving enough money to buy a boarding house. ‘A most amazing woman,’ Rose says. ‘I tell myself what a clever woman she was every day,’ Ettie says. ‘The knowledge she passed on.’
A globular man equatored by a rope belt comes into the office and scoops up a small dog and thanks the sisters for looking after it. He has the residue of many meals drizzled about him and has, perhaps, never washed as an adult. This is what it means to go among the lost. Jesus himself must have hung out with some truly squalid, fully noisome dudes. When he’s gone to the streets with his dog I ask them why they do it. Why didn’t you sell the joint? Bank the money? Lie on a beach in FNQ? ‘We’ve been looking after the homeless since before it became trendy,’ Rose says. ‘For the sense of helping someone. They’re all someone’s sons. Someone’s daughters.’
Local traders are cynical about the sisters’ compassion. I had it pointed out to me that if the sisters are renting 70 rooms at $200 per week with virtually no overheads, then the Gatwick is the most successful business in Fitzroy Street by far. Hard to get your head around that while blinking at the clientele and detritus. Like being told Angola is the richest country in the world.
As we speak the phone rings and Rose answers it. ‘I don’t know where he is, love. He hasn’t been here in a long time. I’m sorry, love, I just don’t know.’ I’d wager more calls for the missing come to this phone than any other in the land.
‘Does it ever get on top of you, make you sad?’ ‘Sometimes,’ Ettie says.
‘Closing saddens us,’ Rose says. ‘Some people were years behind in the rent. But we don’t chuck anybody out for that. We work out a payment plan.’ Can this be true? Wouldn’t non-payment spread like flu through the building and infect everyone?
A dishevelled woman with a child’s mind opens the door. ‘You’re not gunna just leave us? I’m gunna miss you guys. I’ve got nowhere to go. But something might fall my way this week.’
‘Have you eaten today?’ Rose asks her. It’s two in the afternoon.
‘Here. Have this. It’s honey cake. Very Jewish, very sweet, but nice.’ Is it just a psychological/metabolic reaction now, after all these years? Is it simply Pavlovian for the sisters to reach out to a child/woman who hasn’t eaten? Or is it peasant culture? Is this what Queen Vicky taught them? Is this how it played out in her war-torn village in Malta?
People say the sisters have been swamped by the tide of methamphetamine that has risen on the street in recent years. They disagree. ‘You can’t specify one drug from another. Users use everything. Only 5 per cent of our people are users anyway. Most are old people. They don’t party. This is a home,’ Ettie says. Five per cent might be nothing like a true figure, but the sisters are reflexively defensive of ‘their people’.
‘In the old days boarding houses were an acceptable form of accommodation. The Gatwick is the last,’ Rose says. She’s right. People think it a little ‘off’ when they hear of strangers sharing a kitchen, bathroom and sitting room now. ‘Our people will 100 per cent miss the sense of family here. Public housing is so sterile,’ Ettie says.
They used to get on with the cops, but they don’t any more. Lately even the cops have worked to get them gone. ‘We got an ultimatum from the cops. They said they wouldn’t attend when we called any more,’ Rose shakes her head. ‘But they come to suit themselves … chasing people they would’ve had to chase somewhere else if they weren’t here. The blow-ins are the problems. The non-residents. If the police can’t control that how can we? We’re not legally allowed to grab someone and throw them out.’
Every day the sisters arrive at the Gatwick about lunchtime and don’t leave until 2 a.m., when the place is still very much alive. The writer Kate Holden remembers ‘… coming home from working on the streets every night, early in the morning, like 3 a.m., and walking in and the place being full of people awake and talking on the landings, and how sometimes it was like a party and sometimes it was like hell’.
Vinnie is twitchy-aggro at the end of a week-long ice-binge. Scared to come down but running low on product. He needs money. Is it day or night? What time is it? No shirt, he pulls his Nike jacket over his head. The one with the Stanley knife in the pocket. Steps out of his room, along the hall, and onto Fitzroy Street … wait, no … this isn’t Fitzroy Street. That was last year. This is High Street, Northcote.
That’s the sisters’ argument in a nutshell. Vinnie exists. Vinnie’s high. If he’s not in the Gatwick he’s somewhere else. The problem is Vinnie. The problem is drugs. The problem is a 53-bean mix of psychosis on the streets since Kennett closed the asylums. The problem is yours. The Gatwick has nothing to do with it. It didn’t create these people. And you won’t solve addiction or madness by closing the place. I met Vinnie in the lobby of the Gatwick. He’d just found a place in Northcote. It’s arguable the Gatwick even had a quarantine effect; kept the infected together, away from the uninfected. But they didn’t come here and turn into addicts and crims. They came here because they were addicts and crims.
The Block’s executive producer Julian Cress has promised all the Gatwick’s residents will be found new accommodation. The Department of Health and Human Services says the Gatwick people will be rehoused and have better accommodation henceforth, with integrated services like drug and alcohol counselling. But the department’s own housing waiting list, issued in March 2017, says there are 35,020 applicants awaiting public housing in Victoria. I guess the Gatwickians are jumping the queue so the housing minister and the TV channel don’t cop any heat. Ahhh … prioritised at last.
The murders that happened v. the murders that didn’t
Eventually one has to confront the stats that surround the Gatwick. Because every newspaper article, street protest, political denunciation, TV story and radio jock gets to the stats. Dutifully, somberly, like a judge listing the convicted person’s priors before sentencing, the stats are recited. The murders, the rapes, the overdoses and bashings, the frequency of police visits and ambulance attendances, the emergency-service hours eaten up … The figures are ugly. And figures don’t lie.
Except by omission. You can tote up the horror that happened here. But that’s the easy accounting of the boutique hotel next door that wants the Gatwick gone. A corrupt accounting. One side of a ledger. The other side of the ledger is the horror prevented. It’s less easy to tally. There is no scale to weigh the lost against the saved because the saved can’t be counted. But might it not be fair to acknowledge there were lives saved here? By this place existing?
The sisters show me letters and cards. ‘I was at a low point. Thank you.’ They get fan mail … from survivors. ‘What keeps us going is people who get back on their feet again,’ Rose says. She shows me a letter from a long-term resident they called Sam Toucan who is living on a farm now and has a job. ‘He had a huge habit,’ she says.
There’s no way of knowing what would have become of the Gatwick’s countless transients if the Gatwick hadn’t been. But let me posit that things might have been a whole lot worse for them. And that it’s damned hard to accuse the sisters of carnage when it was the sisters who called the ambulances for the unconscious and the cops for the uncontrollable, and on nights when their accusers were home in bed, stood between bug-eyed antagonists and disarmed weirdos and nursed the fallen and fed the hungry and housed people who didn’t look remotely good for the rent. It seems a foul and biased mathematics to lay the dead at the sisters’ feet without subtracting the saved—a number we can’t ever know.
• • •
The room is large, partitioned by a wooden screen, with a plumbed basin in the corner in a closet, a bed on one side of the partition and a living area on the other. The Gatwick Private Hotel started in the 1930s as a luxury residence for single men. During the Second World War, officers of the US Navy stayed here, frequently visited by housewives from Toorak. Or is that story just St Kilda telling Toorak she’s no better than she ought to be? Anyway, you could film such a rendezvous in this room today without needing props. But many rooms are boarded up now. As the residents move out, council workers arrive to close their doors permanently.
It’s jarring to be shown through Melbourne’s most infamous hellhole, a place of easy infamy where rats and junkies are known to rip and tear at one another for the crumbs of yesterday’s honey cake, a place regular people would no more enter than dive headfirst into a furnace, and find its owner …yes, house-proud. ‘Isn’t it beautiful? Look at those windows.’ She points to old leadlight windows in the back stairwell, a ship on blue glass water. ‘They’re testament to how well people behave here. If this place was as wild as they say they’d be broken.’ Another leadlight has one pane broken. ‘We did that moving a wardrobe.’ Ettie won’t have even a smashed window blamed on her people.
They clean the whole place themselves. No staff. Whenever Ettie’s vacuuming someone will take the machine from her hand. ‘I’ll do that.’ She’s sensitive that I arrived before she did and she hasn’t had a chance to clean the place yet. ‘Normally it would be much cleaner.’
Upstairs, in the big old antebellum dunny of green and cream tile, she picks up needles, hardly breaking stride. Tells me a story about one journo who came here and poured the needles out of the bin in the bathroom onto the floor and photographed them as if that’s where he found them. Ah, the perfidy of the press. ‘They always say they’re going to write something nice,’ she says. ‘Never do.’
They love the building, the sisters. ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ They’re not oblivious to its decline, but it’s the beauty they see. If you first saw Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago, you always see the Julie Christie of Doctor Zhivago, no matter how age might weary her or the years condemn.
On the third floor a middle-aged man, a bald Tweedledee with his trackie dacks pulled to his tits, emerges from a room where honey-coloured lamps glow in the darkness, showing a patina of long-term domesticity. ‘I have the rent, love. Sorry it was late.’ ‘Oh aren’t you sweet,’ Ettie tells him as he hands her an envelope. ‘I’ve signed for a new place today. Come up and have a beer tonight.’
‘I’m going to cry,’ Ettie tells him.
‘We’ll all cry,’ he confirms.
‘How long you lived here?’ I ask.
‘Why?’ he’s startled.
‘Oh … no … I’m Sergeant Schultz. I know nothing.’ He retreats into the honeycoloured glow.
‘Most on the top floor have been there 30 or 40 years,’ Ettie says. ‘Our longest resident was Mr Farrago.’ As a young man Farrago fell in love with a woman, and they wanted to marry. Her father refused permission because Farrago didn’t own a house and was living at the Gatwick. The father told Farrago when he left the hotel he could marry his daughter. But Farrago never got the money together to leave the Gatwick and he never got another girlfriend. He lived his last 43 years in the same room.
The third floor of the Gatwick has a sort of post-battle tranquillity, in which its people, usually at war, smile stoned and stunned, not by the recent bombardment, the bombardment they well understand, but by the ceasefire, the peace, the unreal placidity of the here-and-now in this place. Off this hallway are cul de sacs of strange grace, rooms where exotic realities as multifarious as madness bloom. A signal has gone out to the gently loopy. They have been summoned here, the misfits and the laughing stocks, the wounded and the slow, the Chief Bromdens, Boo Radleys and Havishams.
Out there are people with urgent undertakings, surging go-getters. In here, queer fish who can’t cope out there. But if you put a queer fish who can’t cope among other queer fish who can’t cope he isn’t a queer fish any more and he can cope, as well, anyway, as the school of queer fish around him. This third floor seems a rare aquarium of queer fish … coping. And coping is no small thing for a queer fish.
The truth is the Gatwick Private Hotel had, by now, become a private asylum. How had this been allowed to happen? To the sisters? To the suburb? In these golden times in this rich city? How had a free-enterprise madhouse slowly risen up? Why did no-one stop it? The military talk of ‘mission creep’, a situation that starts as tinkering and ends up with you getting dragged into war. I think the Gatwick was a case of mission creep. Years ago it started as lodging for the poor and crept and crept the long journey into communal lunacy from there.
And I think the sisters became as institutionalised as their inmates. Having started here as teenage girls, they know nothing else. They can’t take a day off. They can’t enjoy the fruits of their labours. They’re locked into this world, this fight, imbued with a sense of mission and fired by a kick-against-the-pricks energy, each a mix of nun and hustler. No-one takes them down, but everyone takes their lunch. The Gatwick is their cash cow and their calling.
Down in the lobby a thin, lank-haired man, unwashed and one-armed, demands something of the sisters in a phantasmic creole, which, to my surprise, Ettie understands and answers, putting him at ease. She speaks all tongues. ‘Write something nice,’ Rose tells me. I feel guilty stepping into the light, leaving them to tend their ravaged Malta, their madhouse, this Bedlam that grew up around them as they grew up.
• • •
It’ll be dead by the time you read this, the Gatwick Hotel. And maybe its death will bring life to the street that willed it. Maybe. Let’s see. Without the sisters’ dark star pulling in trash, let’s see if St Kilda is restored and refreshed, made Nirvana-on-Sea with shiny-haired visitors stepping out for dumplings and Aperol. Cope somewhere else, you queer fish. Search for another rare aquarium. This one has gone to prime-time gym honeys wielding sledgehammers for their quarter-hour of fame.