February 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Sex and Secrets in Public Parks

By Sonya Hartnett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Beat Goes On

In a corner of the Darling Gardens in Melbourne’s boutique inner-city suburb of Clifton Hill stands a small, well-maintained toilet block that sports a sign warning that plain-clothes police regularly patrol the area. In the year I lived within a stone’s throw of the gardens I never saw anyone who looked purposefully plain-clothed, but I did see some of those whom the sign is supposed to deter: men who would pull up alongside the toilets, and watch the block anxiously. After a while – perhaps the length of time it takes to convince oneself there are no undercover cops in the vicinity – they would get out of their cars and take the plunge through the wrought-iron gate labelled ‘Men’.

More often than not their courage went unrewarded, and they’d emerge moments later, baffled and tense. Their reappearance would not surprise me: the Darling Gardens toilet block is not, as far as some beats go, particularly well used. The men were better off going up the road to the heart of the Yarra Bend beat, where business is always brisk and there are no intimidating signs. I would watch them return to their cars to sit and stare dully out at Hoddle Street, their lunch hours ticking away. Sometimes, very occasionally, they’d get lucky: another man would arrive, sniff about cautiously, perhaps exchange a glance with my man in his car. Then he’d duck into the toilets, and my guy couldn’t follow him fast enough; and I would always feel satisfaction that the situation had worked out well for all of us involved.

The toilet block at Clifton Hill sits on a perimeter of the Yarra Bend beat, which ranges across parkland surrounding the Yarra River and Merri Creek and hems the wealthy, family-oriented suburbs of Kew, Fairfield and Northcote. The beat has operated for at least 50 years and probably many more, making it one of Melbourne’s oldest; certainly it is one of the most historically interesting and environmentally beautiful. Men loiter in scrub that rings with the call of bellbirds.

Close to the river are the bluestone remains of an ancient insane asylum. Fairlea women’s prison used to be here, as did an infectious diseases hospital; a modern hospital for the criminally insane stands hidden behind trees. Fairfield boathouse sits on one side of the river, Kew’s stately Studley Park boathouse on the other. The park is a sprawling inner-city wilderness that extends for kilometres, a place of bike riders, dog walkers, giant trees, nesting birds. The website Cruising Gays gives the beat five out of five stars, advising visitors to “get out of your car and walk about”.

As a dutiful dog walker I have been an observer of the beat for a long time – long enough to know that observation makes cruisers nervous, although not so nervous as to abandon their quests. The toilet block off Yarra Bend Road, on the edge of off-leash territory, is one of the busiest hubs of the beat. The building has that despised look common to public amenities built in the ’70s, as if even the bricklayers hated it. Beside it is a tree-lined car park meant for the use of picnic-makers, but utilised most frequently by cruisers. In all the years I’ve been walking by, I have only seen this car park empty once, and that was when a divvy van pulled in. The cruisers reversed out in a smoking hurry while the divvy van looped the car park like a great white shark.

Raids, however, are unusual: a fragile truce with council and the police seems to exist, enabling the cruisers to conduct their business in peace – literally in peace, for the cruisers, at least those daytime subjects of my curiosity, are not chatty folk. Their language is a subtle one of glances and head-turns – I’ve never seen them converse. They pull into the car park, sometimes sit for a while, sometimes move straight to the toilets; there are always one or two lonely souls wandering the grass. The men size each other up continuously, hyper-alert to each new arrival. Some stay only briefly, others settle in for the afternoon. Cars come and go, all kinds of cars – muscle cars, tradesmen’s vans, family station wagons. The men are all kinds, too – young, old, business-suited, tracksuited. The handsome, the ugly. The busiest times are lunch and after dark – the narrow road becomes jammed.

Some nights – weekends, holidays – see the arrival of dozens and dozens of men. It seems impossible that this endless stream consists, without exception, of exclusively gay or openly bisexual men. There must be, among such numbers, those who consider themselves straight, who go home to wives and would die before admitting how they filled their lunch break that day. I itch to get inside such men’s heads, to hear how they justify what they do. On the other hand, it’s none of my business. Indeed, if a trip down Yarra Bend Road makes men better able to endure, who can but wish them well?

In fact, not everyone can: beats exist uneasily, always imperilled by eruptions of community outrage. These can be uptight times. Yet what’s admirable about beats is how men – gay, bi and straight – have organised a way of meeting their rawest needs in such a civilised fashion. Even on the wildest nights, violence is rare. A code of conduct seems to exist, and is willingly obeyed. At a beat, as in life, all men may not be equal – ruthlessness exists here, as everywhere – but they do all understand it’s in their interests to be on their best behaviour. So even in wildness there is decency, order, efficiency: the cruisers keep to themselves, attend to the task, do no damage, bother none of the park’s other users. Despite the comings and goings of so many, the Yarra Bend Road car park is tidy, with hardly ever so much as a cigarette butt left behind. This busy place is painstakingly kept clean, free of evidence.

Sonya Hartnett
Sonya Hartnett is the acclaimed author of Thursday's Child, Sleeping Dogs, Of a Boy and The Midnight Zoo. She won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's literature in 2008.

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