I live in an incredible area. It’s a tough inner city hood boasting an elite private boys school, where doss houses sit alongside mansions and where strip clubs jostle with Portuguese butchers. Six months ago, one of those strip clubs, the iconic Sydney institution, the Oxford Tavern, closed down.
In its place a hip and sprawling new venue set up by a local entrepreneur group known for putting the ‘tude in decrepitude (one of the two surviving CEOs—the other died earlier in the year in an accidental overdose—has said in an interview that he draws inspiration from the Patrick Swayze film, Roadhouse, ‘you know, before the bar gets cleaned up’), for buying existing down-at-heel landmarks and keeping their essential vibe while replacing the gambling dens with cocktail bars or courtyards, amping up the music and installing a phalanx of pretty young things behind the bar. Not to mention a hip new South-of-Somewhere menu.
I don’t know how I feel about this.
On the one hand, it gives me a place to drink within walking distance. Up until now there were no decent watering holes in Petersham and my husband and I love our bars and pubs, probably because we met at one. So there’s that. We’ve been there twice now, once on opening night and once on hump Wednesday. The new owner has done an impressive job. Nothing yuppy about this joint. The Oxford Tavern is still a joint. Raucous, rowdy, great music and great food. A good mix of customers—curious interlopers and locals of all stripes, from arty nerds to construction workers, old guys hunched over newspapers and the after-work crowd. It could have been my imagination but it seemed to me that the sirens were noisier than usual on the weekend— no doubt the rebooted OT will have to deal with its fair share of homeys in from the sticks to break bones and make memories.
But going back to hump night. I’d noticed a noisy and raggedly multiplying group at a table near ours. Inked lovelies surrounded by a corona of guys with lazy grins and unfashionable clothing, jumpy slicked-back types and not-so-jolly white giants.
‘Ex-staff,’ I said to my husband. ‘Betcha. Those girls are strippers and the men are ex-customers and that guy there? He was the bouncer, minder what have you.’
Turned out I was right. A friend asked. But he didn’t need to. In researching this piece I read that the old staff and patrons are unhappy about the changing of the guard, that they’d become like family, and mourned the loss of their home. That for them, the ritual of drinking under the new roof—devoid of stage, of emcee, of ogling patrons—was akin to a wake.
I understood. I worked for seven years as a waitress—food and cocktails— after I failed high school and thought I had no where else to go. I loved the life and I was great at it. I loved the camaraderie, the tight-knit group mentality that after-dark employment often engenders. I worked for one boss that insisted we recycle napkins. The deal was you shook ’em, checked them for stains. If what you tried to shake out didn’t actually stick to the stains, you folded them up and re-used them. I worked at another place where the boss’s wife dressed us all in floral Josephine gowns and we carved Chateaubriand at the tables while her old man did lines in the back room. Allegedly. I worked at a place with a massive open grill, one of the first in Sydney, where the owner used to come in drunk every night and try and pimp us to the celebrity customers. We just laughed it off and robbed his cellar dry. That owner ended up in jail for trying to shoot his wife. The point is that what this kind of work gives, it takes away. You work together, often room together and always drink together—usually on the other side of the bar that pays your bills. And when it’s over you cry together. I met my best friend at the place where the guy tried to shoot his wife. Allegedly.
But I digress. The Oxford Tavern. I’d been there only once years ago, when an Irish restauranteur friend of mine and his wife were looking for a kitchen to run. I front-of-housed a couple of places for him in the suburbs and when we all moved to the city, he took me scouting with him. We stopped in at the Oxford Tavern and my memories of it are of anemic lingerie waitresses in see-through peignoirs and panties, listlessly dancing for the sad sacks. I think I found it pretty depressing.
Who knew that I’d be back one day, living with my family right around the corner? That my kids and I would walk past the Golden G-String banner and Neon Rita on our way to catch the train or buy milk. Or that I’d have to run the gauntlet of fighting dogs and dealers in the surrounding flop houses that held the establishment’s clientele captive to the promise of girls girls girls, or the dream of winning the jackpot in the VIP lounge (got to love that uniquely Australian turn of phrase) that is now a beer garden. The new owners maintain a gambling-free ethos and have gone on record as speculating that the closing down of the poker machine room will attribute to the heaviest loss of custom for the bar, not the fact that the staff is now clothed.
So how do I feel about this? A while back I wrote about Richard Blackie, the local memorabilia owner who inspired a character in my novel, American Monster, and whose iconic store closed under tragic circumstances. Overlooking my backyard is Petersham Town Hall, which was the setting for Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film, Strictly Ballroom. On May 2, 1945, Flight Lieutenant David Rochford’s body was found in the grounds of Petersham Public School when his Mosquito HR576 RAF fell out of the sky. Petersham Train station was once the only grand station outside of town from which its elite—bankers and brokers—used to commute. Hence the preponderance of posh schools. Now Petersham has Sydney’s most concentrated population of Portuguese immigrants. The best charcoal chicken, the only Portuguese tarts worth eating, my Portuguese butcher with boxes of Bacalhau against the wall and presunto hams and football scarves hanging from the ceiling—these are all here in the dusty, down-at-heel shopping strip where up until now there wasn’t a single hip cafe, just unfashionable bakeries and brothels and restaurants playing the UEFA cup from TVs in the corner. Stout Portuguese businessmen going about their business at the Lebanese run post-office. We bought our house from a rheumy-eyed property agent called Luis with booze on his breath. The seller, a Portuguese solicitor whose father had been a junk man, conveyanced from the front room and rented the rest of the house out to lonely old itinerants who grew chick-peas in the garden. There is so much scrap metal buried beneath the soil that every time I dig I pull out another piece of wrought iron fence or a half a stove.
How much do I want all this to change? How much do I really want to walk out my front door and find the same cool cafes and post-industrial artisan beer-and-beard bars that you find everywhere else in Sydney? How many more Bugaboo strollers can cram into the little park across the street, a gorgeous cluster of ancient trees that was the local nursery before the area’s decline after the war? Where just five years ago, when we first moved here, dealers prowled and itinerants slept and where, from my balcony on warm summer evenings I can still watch the lorikeets scatter like drops of blood from the high foliage, and coming home at dark, the palm fronds are alive with screeching fruit bats.
So I’m going to have to think about it. I’m going to have to think about it tonight over a Little Creatures Bright Ale and Dino’s BBQ chicken with Kicktang sauce and a Van Kalen Salad. I hope the ex-staff are still there, keeping their vigil. I like watching the old bouncer, or minder, a patient baldie in baggy shorts and lobe plugs, and the new bouncer, a mildly lethal looking babe who looks like he just graduated from the local private school, lock eyes. I like the look of the girls—not the sad hoofers from that long-ago visit but these zaftig maidens of the new millennium, poles apart from the wan hipster-chicks and smuggly yummy mummies you see at the artisan beard bars. I like the sisterly way they keep their male entourage—men who’ve seen better days, boys for whom there may be much worse to come—full of hope. So here’s what I think. I hope they refuse to be ghosts. There are already too many ghosts in Petersham.