Destiny Rogers recalls a misspent youth in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. In the days before the Fitzgerald Inquiry, crims and corrupt police ran much of Fortitude Valley, though in 1976 when she arrived from the country, the corrupt underbelly of Brunswick St stayed out of sight and, for most people, out of mind.
After twelve years of schooling, I could now finally learn something of life. On the final day, I packed my few belongings and caught the train from the country to the outskirts of Brisbane. My parents moved there from our hometown a few months before. The next afternoon, they dropped me into the city to check out share accommodation. Wednesday, I would start work at a newspaper in Fortitude Valley. After I missed the last train back, I rang my parents from a public phone. Then I stood on the corner of Brunswick and Wickham streets and waited for them to drive the hour into town.
A man watched me from across the street. I wondered why at first, and then worried. However, when he came and said hello and asked if I’d like a drink I realised how friendly people were in the city, or at least in Fortitude Valley.
We crossed the street, went through a glass door embossed with a large coin – a silver dollar – and downstairs into a basement club.
A fat man with a stubby of beer in his hand stood near the bottom of the stairs and scrutinised newcomers. His beer belly spilled over his belt and his receding dark brown hair fell in a mullet to his shoulders. His eyes were small and intent. Intent but not intense. These were not windows to the soul, but mere instruments of observation.
Within weeks, I would know him as Fat Mal. Within a few years, he would be dead – murdered… garrotted – but we’ll get to that…
A bouncer glared at us. He glared at most people. I would also meet Bob down the track, a friend of the manager’s and a thug. A gay thug? How? Gay people were cultured and artistic and flamboyant. I knew this from books.
A few years later, he went to jail for killing a man or, as I discovered only recently, two men, neither of them Fat Mal. We’ll get to that too…
A man with a perpetually perplexed expression served us – the manager. Back when Botox was still botulism and cosmetic surgery the preserve of Hollywood stars, some hoped artfully plucked eyebrows might substitute for a facelift. They hoped in vain.
What would I like to drink? My family did not really drink but on special occasions, we enjoyed a glass of Blackberry Nip with lemonade. I asked for that. Everyone within earshot laughed. Cough medicine probably had a higher alcohol content. My escort changed my order to a vodka.
And then he stuck his tongue down my throat.
Now, I long ago accepted my sexual interest in men and even enjoyed some clumsy adolescent fumbles, but a tongue kiss! Goodness me! I left.
I returned within weeks.
By then, I worked at the newspaper. I lived in the neighbouring suburb of New Farm with Rocky, a Fiji-Indian with dark glossy curls spilling down onto his shoulders. I was effeminate but he was pretty. My god, was he pretty, but straight. Well, everyone was straight in 1976… even men who had sex with men… they too were straight.
I was also straight. I lusted after men and had no sexual interest in women, but I never did anything with men, so I was straight. Anyway, no one ever asked. Why would they? Everyone was straight.
When I drank, which was often now, I became camper with every drink. By the end of a night out, I appeared possessed by characters from the television comedy Are You Being Served? A messy blend of the clumsy forced innuendo of Mrs Slocombe and the mincing insinuation of Mr Humphries.
Fortitude Valley: Romeo’s
Rocky took me one night to Romeo’s, the ‘black bar’. We got pissed rotten – or at least I did. Rocky held his drink well. Not me.
Late that night, three glamourous older white women entered the bar. They wore evening gowns and fur coats and false lashes and piles of make-up. A crowd of admirers flocked to greet them.
“Are they movie stars?” I asked Rocky.
“They’re men. They do a show down the road at the Silver Dollar. It’s a gay place.”
“I think I went there once,” I said.
“Really?” He was a little incredulous, whereas I never stopped to think until decades later why he would know about the place.
But I was also incredulous. Here I was – in the same room as actual female impersonators. This was better than Hollywood. What’s more, they performed at a club I once went to, if only for a few minutes. Wow – just weeks ago I was a hick from the sticks, and now – I found myself surrounded by glamour and sophistication!
A few years before, I saw the Peter Moselle All Male Revue on television. I envisaged the show this trio must perform at The Silver Dollar – high-kicking in unison, dressed in glittering spangly corsets and belting out Broadway tunes into radio microphones. Wow. I had to see it.
Fortitude Valley: The Silver Dollar
Rocky laughed and took me to The Silver Dollar the next weekend. Fat Mal still stood at the bottom of the stairs ogling newcomers. Had he moved at all in my absence? Ken, the manager stood beside him. They recognised me. The manager looked surprised but of course, it was not surprise but overenthusiastic tweezing. Fat Mal and Ken exchanged glances. They knew I’d be back. We always came back.
After a Broadway overture, the DJ pleaded with the patrons to put their hands together for The Old Boilers.
Back when many households kept chooks in the backyard, an old boiler was a hen past her best egg-laying days. In one final contribution to the family larder, she was killed, plucked and boiled to make soup.
The Old Boilers consisted, as Rocky promised, of the three glamourous old birds I so admired the week before. Perhaps I drank less on this night because I quickly decided these chooks required more time in the pot to make them palatable.
Freda Mae West
Freda Mae West wandered onstage in a tatty op-shop bridal gown, waving her arms about awkwardly and opening and closing her mouth after the manner of a ventriloquist’s dummy. In the background, I heard a scratchy recording of a dated music hall tune.
“There was I, waiting at the church, waiting at the church….”
“They don’t sing?” I asked Rocky.
“No. They mime.”
Mime? Luckily, we never used the term ‘lip-sync’ in those days because there was certainly no synchronisation between the record and whatever Freda was doing.
Amy was a Kiwi with one leg shorter than the other. Despite orthopaedic shoes, she walked with a noticeable hobble. She performed to a recording of English drag queen Lee Sutton, “Drag bag, they all call me drag bag.” Okay.
I have no memory at all of what the third queen performed. Marina worked as a car detailer, an occupation everyone thought incredibly butch in those days. Perhaps solely because that’s what Marina did for a living, because – fuck! was he butch.
He wore a pastel apricot gown of floating layered chiffon suspended from broad, hairy, tattooed shoulders by delicate string straps.
Stubble decorated his chin and top lip and a bushy moustache sat above each of his budgie-blue painted eyelids. He kept those eyes firmly closed other than when he clomped on and off the stage, his arms out in front of him as if to push an imaginary wheelbarrow.
The show finished, we obeyed the DJ’s entreaties to applaud and Rocky stood up.
“I’ll go to the toilet and get a couple more drinks on the way back.”
I just nodded, still shellshocked. That was a drag show?
During the show, a few men seemed to loiter nearby and observe us. A couple drifted off after Rocky left and the others gave up when the drag queens, as I now knew to call them, exited the dressing room and headed straight for me.
“Hello, I’m Amy,” said Amy, who was lovely.
“Gidday, I’m Marina. Is that your own hair?” bellowed Marina, who was a buffoon.
“Of course it’s her own hair,” said Freda, a transparent schemer.
I had shoulder-length blonde hair. My high school crush and I perhaps first bonded over our individual defiance in growing our hair long despite the opposition of family, school, and community. But we were obstinate. They got used to it.
Freda grabbed a strand of my hair between two fingers and looped it into a curl.
“You’re a nice-looking lad.”
I was flattered. I never thought of myself as attractive and to the best of my knowledge, nor did anyone else.
‘She’s trying to pick me up’, I thought somewhat clinically. She was, but she wasn’t. She wooed without conviction – just went through the motions.
Freda’s experience of seduction stretched back decades. She knew when men truly desired her and saved her real exertions for the genuinely interested.
Rocky finally returned, though without drinks. All eyes turned to him. My nice looks apparently evaporated on his arrival. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
“Well hello!” said Freda and Amy.
“Gidday,” bellowed Marina.
“Hello ladies,” said Rocky, “Great show. We’ve got to go.”
We stumbled home through Fortitude Valley to New Farm.
And as we stumbled, I pondered, as drunks do, on my life till now, the revelations of the evening just past, and the meaning of life. Of course, my drunken stupour assisted in making complete sense of it all – especially the meaning of life.
Throughout my teenage years I seized on scattered references to gay culture in books and on television in anticipation of the time I would participate in it myself. I knew that despite persecution, oppression and unjust laws, gay people triumphed by their creativity. Their pursuit of artistic endeavours made a dull world sparkle.
Then what the fuck had I witnessed tonight?
Besides the Peter Moselle Revue, I’d seen the famous English female impersonator Danny La Rue on television. His unrelenting glamour, his loving portrayals of famous female singers and his glorious camp wit stood in stark contrast to the inept frolicking of The Old Boilers.
Is that all there was to a drag show? Not illusion, but disillusion.
“If that’s all there is my friends,” sang Peggy Lee, “Let’s break out the booze, and have a ball.”
Any interest I had in drag died that night. What an awful embarrassing thing it was.
The Sunday Sun in Fortitude Valley
I ploughed through books from a young age. Loving writers and dreaming of writing, I contributed articles to the local paper during high school. I considered a newspaper job my destiny.
Until I had one.
The Sunday Sun in Fortitude Valley was once a daily tabloid called the Brisbane Truth despite the lies and hyperbole that littered its pages.
It competed with the more highly regarded and authoritative broadsheet, the Sunday Mail.
Most of the paper rolled off the printing presses Thursday. Then, on Saturday afternoon we composed and printed the outside four pages in a surprisingly successful attempt to appear to report ‘news’.
The rest of the paper?
A teleprinter sat on a bench in the corner of the newsroom. By some miracle of modern technology, when someone at a remote location hit a key on their teletype machine, the corresponding letter typed out on a sheet of paper here.
The machine clattered away as missives arrived from proprietor Rupert Murdoch’s British and American publications.
“Joan Collins today told The Star…”
Whoever walked by tore off the sheet of paper, crossed out ‘Star’, wrote in ‘Sunday Sun’ and sent the article off to the compositors.
Various celebrities contributed columns. However, a famous cricketer’s column perhaps never featured a single word written by him. Rumour had it the sportswriters actually authored the column below his by-line and he only showed up to collect his pay.
The paper frequently employed his model girlfriend to showcase lady’s apparel in the weekly fashion feature.
Some staff members discovered they could stand on a bench and look over a partition into the dressing room where she changed. Although not in those days a sackable offence, harsh words did result.
One columnist most definitely authored her own column. She was a renowned housewives’ advocate and offered solutions to reader’s problems.
“How do I remove chocolate stains from a plush carpet?”
“Can you advise how to clean red wine from my husband’s white business shirt?”
Although intended to include a dozen or more queries each week, the column took up only a quarter page. The more letters answered, the better. Correspondents would buy the paper to see their name in it and show all their neighbours. A primitive version of boasting about Facebook shares.
Unfortunately, the columnist’s replies were both verbose and illegible. She scrawled three foolscap page replies to every query.
Older hands found great sport in watching young neophytes struggle to first decipher her writing and then condense the three pages into an intelligible fourteen-word reply.
Finally, someone would take pity and point out the house method. Draw a red line through all but the first and last sentence and send it off to a typist.
Did the result make sense?
Did anyone care?
Readers didn’t really require a solution. They wanted their name in the paper for something other than a court appearance.
It’s in the stars
The newspaper’s astrology column enjoyed a particularly devoted following. We knew because the fans wrote to express their gratitude to the astrologer.
That gentleman possessed both an exotic name and an exotic and mystical appearance. Of course, any name not English sounded exotic back then. And his mystical appearance benefitted from artfully applied eyeliner.
Not that the man existed. He was a complete fiction, the name an invention and his portrait a stock photo of some forgotten actor.
The person assigned to the stars went, scissors in hand, to a stack of old magazines piled in a corner. They chose a mag, tore out the astrology page and then cut out the predictions for each star sign. They taped those to a sheet of paper in no particular order and sent the end result off to the compositors.
And so bit by bit I became reconciled to the great disillusionments of adult life.
I endured my childhood on the promise of better things to come. However, despite the reality check provided by the Sunday Sun and The Old Boilers, one hitherto unimagined component of adult life gave me endless joy. Alcohol. To be honest, it also gave me hangovers, but everything has a price.
At the paper, frequent hangovers proved an acceptable part of the daily ritual. Our usual workplace practice included slumping on our desks for the first couple of hours to sleep off our hangovers.
We grumbled and ignored any occasional impertinent request to actually do some work. Of course, we awoke for morning tea. No longer requiring space for our head, we rearranged our desktops to better facilitate the demands of the working day. For most of us, this entailed moving our ashtray within reach. And then we read a book. At lunchtime most people scampered to the Empire Hotel next door for a little food and a lot of drink.
I’m sure I did some work during my two years in that job. I just don’t remember any of it. I read some very good books though.
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