October 2021

The Nation Reviewed

A loss of character

By Richard Cooke

Remembering some of Sydney’s well-known streetfolk

Even before the lockouts and the lockdowns, the number of familiar faces on Sydney streets seemed to be in decline. Any city has a coterie of buskers and beggars, hawkers and preachers who become familiar and occasionally famous, the public-facing eccentrics who accumulate a local, almost parochial notoriety. Fifty years after her death, Bea Miles still enjoys name recognition, as the woman in a green tennis visor who recited Shakespeare on buses and harassed taxi drivers. She is recorded in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which lists her occupation as “Bohemian rebel”.

Perhaps when homelessness rises, individual homeless people become less distinct, but there are whole classes of transients (such as tramps or swagmen) who no longer exist, and gentrification is pushing the remainder away. There isn’t a good name for those who persisted and reached an analogue, pre-internet virality. “Celebrity street people” sounds callous, and anyway does not capture the proportion who only appear on the street rather than live there.

Many of the most well-known rough sleepers are no longer with us. John O’Connor, the shipwrecked-looking man with the blue eyes that everyone called “Pal”, has been gone 13 years now. Public services are said to have poured a million dollars into his salvation; Adele Horin, who wrote his eulogy in The Sydney Morning Herald, described an occasion where “twenty-five people from different services sat in a room discussing him”.

Others have surprising longevity. The gentleman in a green jacket who sells handwoven leather wristbands has been at it for decades, and seems so ageless that the satirical website Sydney Sentinel celebrated him with a parody ad: “Dermatologists Hate Him! He has been 60 since 1992”. His price for a wristband is less static – they now cost $50 without haggling. Some people call him “the Ibis Man”, and he has described himself as a refugee from Afghanistan, but when I tried to interview him, years ago, I could not make out anything he was saying.

Lately, the Ibis Man moves around the benches outside the Mitchell Library, after long years walking the stretch of George Street near the old Hoyts cinema. In that era, he was often seen near a street musician, a drummer who played the buckets and wore a traffic cone as a hat, for flair. (Once I saw him in Melbourne, then never again.) That atonal man-and-woman couple, who busk poorly with several instruments have moved on from the Central Station tunnel. There are no commuters in their former concert hall, and, post-COVID, they prefer to play in the open air. Their rhythm, off-kilter, together, has something romantic to it.

Others I have not seen for a long time. The woman known in less-sensitive times as “the Crazy Opera Singer”, who used to wander near the payphones in Town Hall Station, improvising arias in a prima donna’s wardrobe fashioned from a dressing gown. The panhandler who begged at the cafes along Glebe Point Road, seeking donations for an interstate Aboriginal dance troupe (in return, she offered a ticket from a raffle book “as a receipt for the tax deduction”). The disabled man who sold a clutch of pens and wore a sign around his neck that told passers-by he was not giving up. It is hard to imagine he was rescued by the NDIS.

I remember a homeless man in a beanie who would sit for hours in Regimental Square near Wynyard, where he played a new-looking, unamplified electric guitar, with a pair of soundless earphones jacked into it. The guitar disappeared, apparently stolen, and then he moved to Martin Place, where he strummed a yellow-and-black-striped road barricade instead. This time he took donations, underneath a computer-printed sign that said: “SWEDISH ANIMAL LIBERATION: STOP THE MADNESS”. I wondered how he accessed a computer, and, years later, by chance a Martin Place office worker told me he had made the sign as a donation. “I printed it off for him. Busking like that wasn’t working – he needed a cause.”

Even regular patrons seem less regular, as though Sydney’s new cultural regime interferes with their routines. Few cafes have an old-timer in the corner (remember Pasquale at Bill and Toni’s?), and I wonder, when we reopen, how many pubs will still have a pool table that comes with a player attached. There used to be many: Reggie at the Darlo Bar, that ginger guy at the Rose, Bert Bianchi, a former TV actor who played erratic, sweary snooker at the Willoughby Legions club. They used to be memorialised – the table at the Darlo Bar is still called Reggie’s – but now they seem to disappear.

The regular I knew best was Bootsy, whom you might call a barfly, though his true state was in fact travelling between bars. He always seemed to be arriving or leaving, and he hated walking, so he would move at the pace of a taxi. His nickname was borrowed from the funk musician Bootsy Collins, though he also went by his real name, Darcy. I first met him at Baron’s bar on Roslyn Street, where he was wearing wraparound sunglasses, indoors and at night-time. He had a couple of teeth missing (his dentition would decline further over the years) and a distinctive laugh, which started in the hinge of his throat, before rising up over any group conversation.

Darcy claimed to be the former bass player of the charting UK pop group Soul II Soul, and scepticism varied: it was both an unlikely claim to fame to fabricate, and a difficult one to verify. Our first conversation came to an abrupt halt: mid-sentence, he vomited discreetly down the front of his shirt, and was immediately kicked out by a waitress, who had been watching closely while holding a Chux wipe. It left enough of an impression for me to record the event in my diary: “Dignified, almost, the way he let out that string of poisonous white sick. He’d done it before.” He would do it again.

He seemed to know everyone, or at least everyone in Sydney who lived nocturnally. He had a mysterious source of income (it was not Soul II Soul royalties), and he was once arrested for trespassing on the property of the governor of New South Wales. A typical encounter might be seeing him being ejected from somewhere along Cleveland Street. “Hey, thin man, watcha doin’?” he’d say, before walking a few paces and sprawling across the footpath. Then a scheme would be cooked up and delivered with an inspirational pitch. “We will go to Leura,” he might say. “I am going to Leura to see my wife and you are coming with me”. Bar staff at the Hollywood Hotel got to know his wife, she came looking for Darcy so often.

I once found him at 4am, flat on his face outside St Andrew’s Cathedral, so blasted that I decided to accommodate him for the night; people in that position are sometimes murdered (that’s what happened to the Umbrella Man, who lived in the Domain, and used to describe his address as “the Starlight Hotel”). Darcy refused my offer to pay for his bus fare, though he did, on waking, put on a brand-new pair of my sneakers, announced he was taking them, and then used them to walk to the nearest pub. He left something unspeakable in the bathroom, an eloquent testimony to hard living.

When he hit late-career as a drunk, Darcy’s favourite day of the week was Thursday. That was gallery opening night, which meant he could go on a crawl, accessing a series of open bars. In time he became an art-world regular. His dress was almost a parodic costume of an art wanker: he would put on an expensive-looking suit, sometimes in tweed with a matching cravat, and arrive early, with a rolled-up copy of The Sydney Morning Herald under his arm. His laugh developed a second register, first mimicking a knowing, pretentious titter and then layering a genuine laugh on top of it, as though he couldn’t believe his ruse was working.

There were other ring-ins: Harry, who believed he was in the army and sometimes wore a helmet (TV Moore made an artwork about him), and a gang of superannuated “artists” who specialised in unwanted advances. But Darcy struck a unique balance between regular attendance, the amount of booze he consumed, and his reputation, which found him somewhere between tolerated and embraced. Very occasionally, he had to be kicked out, and he was once hauled away after passing out and pissing on the couch in gallerist Roslyn Oxley’s office, but he was never banned. People like to mock the art world, but it did hold a place for misfits when they were being priced out of everywhere else.

Darcy did not die during the pandemic, but that was when news of his death reached me, and the timing seemed to fit. Sydney, already sterile, was taking on a medical element to its sterility. Even Golden Century, less a restaurant than a kind of night embassy, has creditors sniffing around. What will happen to that woman who used to come to your table, take a photo and, for a fee, put it in a key ring? I have a collection of them, somewhere.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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