A few night ago, my son and I checked out a well reviewed new restaurant. The food was tricked up Cantonese. OK. The space was very Melbourne- although we were in Sydney – high black ceiling with pipes laid bare, Chinois motif with touches of shabby chic.
The remarkable thing about it was the location in a wide street of dark empty commercial buildings with their closed lunch cafes underneath. This was the street, Chandos Street, Crows Nest, where I grew up.
Fifty years ago, before the inevitable (close to a railway station) re-zoning of perhaps 3 decades ago, this was a neighbourhood. This was a street of working class semi detached houses with a corner shop and a life being lived by a motley collection of characters.
As the cliché goes, it was like yesterday. I can still see them all, hear the laughter and the shouting, smell the crackers and taste the pennyworth of lollies from that corner shop opposite.
If my family was colourful, the working class neighbourhood was more so. Every Saturday afternoon (until school sport spared me) I ran down the back lane to give Mr or Mrs Wilbow, the local SP bookies, some coins wrapped in a torn off page of a school book with the name of the favoured horse written on it. The Wilbows also ran a hamburger joint at St Leonards and their son Bobby was a magician.
A few doors down Keith, around my age, lived with his parents; his father sold clothes props from the back of a horse and cart. I remember Keith being beaten with the horsewhip in the lane one night. No-one did anything.
I was not allowed to talk to the Peterson girls who were around my own age. I gathered from overheard whispered gossip and hearsay that the father, a garbage man, was suspected of having “behaving badly” towards his elder daughter under their house. Again no one interfered in another family’s business.
But it was the Targets who took the prize. They lived on the other side of the common wall and I learned much of my later colourful language by listening to their fights, ear pressed on the end of a glass held against the wall. Both Mr and Mrs Target were alcoholics and some nights she wouldn’t even make it rolling home from the pub a few blocks down. Mrs Target would have to be helped from her prone position in the lane to her gate.
Cracker nights a large neighbourhood bonfire would be piled high in the back lane. Catherine wheels spinning on rough paling fences, foolhardy boys lighting rockets in bottles, squealing jumps over Tom Thumbs going off. One year Mrs Target got right into the swing of it pouring kerosene over her husband’s clothes on the line and setting fire to them. I remember the drama when my family called the ambulance to them a few times.
New Years Eve we would stand on the front verandah banging away with the saucepans frightening the evil spirits away from the year to come.
There was always someone around in Chandos Street or in the lane behind. Kids playing cricket, telling questionable jokes, planning cicada expeditions, dawdling from school or just sitting on the rough grassy edges of the bitumen backlane in the searing heat.
On Saturday afternoon, the pigeons had to be coaxed into the pigeon house after a long race from some exotic country town and their times clocked.
Lives were lived; women walked up to The Nest to the haberdasher or the ham and beef shop; families drank innumerable cups of tea and men boozed; passions boiled over; curtains were drawn and gossip crafted.
Now I see the dark silhouette of a commercial streetscape, within it the lights of a new restaurant or two. Urban adaption is again rolling over this street of my childhood. How many decades I wonder before people live here again and will it ever be as colourful as it once was?