The Last of its Kind…

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It’s 2001, I’ve been living in Melbourne for less than a year and life is just getting more interesting.  I’ve spent some time writing a script for a short film and my plan is to film it this weekend.  This poses a few problems; paramount among them is that I don’t even own a still camera, let alone a video.  Fortunately my friend, Ray, has one and is happy to work with me on the weekend to make the film.  So it’s about a guy who suffers from a very curious psychological condition.  His world is split into left and right, but he is largely unaware of everything on his left side.  I’d read about this condition in an amazing book called ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’, by Oliver Sachs.  In the story from the book this person would eat everything on the right hand side of a plate and leave everything on the left – it was invisible to her.  Oliver teaches her to turn the plate to make the rest of the food visible and she was always surprised when more food suddenly appeared as she turned the plate.  I thought a short film about such a person would make pretty fascinating viewing.

So the main character, to be played by myself, manifests this disorder in a number of ways, but the most obvious is that his right hand side is cared for and dressed as a corporate professional, but the left hand side is always unkempt and shabby.  The most startling manifestation is that the left hand side of his face is dominated by a large, red beard, whilst the right hand side is clean shaven.  The hair on the left side of his head is long and ratty, on the right it’s kept very short in keeping with the professional appearance.  So it just so happens that at this point in time I have a huge beard that reaches to the centre of my chest and I have long hair a couple of inches past my shoulders.  The first thing I have to do, then, is shave off half my beard and heavily trim the right hand side of my head.

In a delightfully random coincidence an old friend of mine, Andrew, will be staying with me on Friday night while he visits Melbourne for the weekend.  Now Andrew is a very conservative type, his job involves legal financial consulting for fairly large companies.  He also spent most of his youth in Darwin, we met at high school, so there’s still a degree of larrikin spirit alive and well, hiding behind the corporate exterior.  Which is why his smile becomes large and mischievous when he walks in the door, fresh from the airport, and I hand him some electric hair clippers and say,
“Ah Andrew, glad you’re here, can you shave half of my head for me please.”
He takes to the task with a delightful, but responsible, glee – making sure to understand what is required and executing it to perfection.

Standing in the mirror I’m finding it hard to reconcile the image with myself.  Your eyes travel one side of my face to explore the shaggy beard and hair and just can’t stop swapping back and forth to see the smooth shaven other side.  As though continually checking it, will make one or the other turn into an illusion and disappear.  I decide the effect will be marvellous.  In an unusual fit of responsibility, I’m determined to have an early night.  The next two days will involve about five hours of filming each day, during which I’ll have to be running the show to make everything happen.  We settle down with a couple of friends to have some beers and laughs together.  I’m in bed by one in the morning filled with enthusiasm about the weekend.  It takes me a while to get settled, however, because I’m amazed by the new sensation of lying with the shaved side of my head on the pillow.  I’ve had a beard for about four years now and this is now the kind of new, weird sensation I always crave.

The house is awake about eleven and we bid Andrew farewell as he goes to meet his girlfriend and Don and I go to meet Ray on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.  This weekend also happens to be the Brunswick Street festival.  The famous stretch of road is closed to traffic for the weekend as all the artists, freaks and undercultures of Melbourne gather for a party.  One of the highlights is the street parade, which is happening this afternoon.  This involves a large number of groups displaying their passions openly and proudly for the world to enjoy.  The street is packed and we find ourselves a spot to watch the parade.  Even while we’re doing that, people keep grabbing me to have a photo taken with this half-shaved lunatic.  The reason we’re particularly interested in the parade is that Ray is in it.  He’ll be riding the custom hot rod bicycle he’s spent a couple of months preparing for today.  He’s a part of a group of people who love to build and ride these amazing creations and when they come in view we step forward to cheer extra loudly.  Ray spots us and cracks up at my new hairstyle, then calls out for me to join the parade.  It’s about the fifth time someone has asked me to do that, but this time I join them.  So I find myself walking down the street with the hot rodders having my picture taken a thousand times.

The parade comes to an end and we repair quickly to our chosen pub to catch up and plan the filming.  There’s only one problem, Ray’s forgotten to bring the video camera and we’re all enjoying ourselves too much in the festival atmosphere to deal with it.  We discuss going to fetch it, but suddenly it’s nine o’clock at night and Don and I are meant to be at a house party in Kew.  We’ve been invited by a local friend of ours to come join a costume party with a bunch of her friends from university.  Now Maria is an accountant and busily studying to become a chartered accountant.  So Don and I are highly amused by the idea of two larrikins from Darwin turning up to push the party level up a few notches.  Don’s also kind of interested in Maria, so that result seems inevitable in the course of proceedings.  The pair of us buy some takeaway beer and jump a taxi to Kew.

We arrive at the point in the party where most people are wearing some kind of costume, but nobody’s had enough to drink to really relax into it.  With about eight years history in Darwin performing on stage in comedy and musical shows, I’m quite prepared to go nuts for the cause.  On our arrival, Maria introduces us to the one guy who lives in the house with three girls.  It takes thirty seconds for someone to reveal he’s the twenty-six year old virgin and everyone starts giving him hassle.  He does, however, proudly show me a 1.5 litre bottle of Grolsch beer that he has in the fridge.  He seems to think that’s somehow astonishing and praiseworthy, I ask if we can have some.  He looks horrified and moves it to the back of the fridge explaining it’s not for tonight.  Apparently it’s just so he can boast about being all international and worldly with his beer.  Moving as one, Don and I open one of our own beers each, share a ‘cheers’ and head to the backyard.

So what follows is hours of random party moments.  Everyone wants to know what my costume is exactly, so I ask them what they think it is and then agree wholeheartedly – telling them they’re very clever for working it out.  So I’m a biker trying to please his mum, a failed catholic priest, a corporate executive trying to break out, an Irish dancer who changes side to do the men’s and woman’s parts and a serial killer.  One guy asks if I can stand side on to him while I’m talking, as he’s finding it impossible to concentrate as his eyes keep wandering back and forward across my disjointed face.  I do so, but change which side every couple of minutes to keep him on his toes.  He actually comments that he wants to talk to me differently based on which side he sees; corporate or hippie.

At some point the singing starts and I get into it a lot.  All that practice at university left me with a crazy strong voice that I enjoy using for fun.  Our twenty six year old virgin appears to ask me to quiet down a bit, since it’s so late.  I agree and end up talking to some young guy about how to learn to sing.  I suggest I can teach him enough in five minutes for him to come back in and give it a burl for everyone and we disappear into the backyard.  I run him through some exercises and ideas on singing and get him to choose a song he likes so we can practice it.  He picks ‘stand by me’ and I do the backing bass line as he falters through the lead.  For some reason I decide he needs more confidence and I try to teach him the Haka I learned during my theatre days as a way to develop that stage presence.

By the time that’s all over, I wander back into the house to find Don and Maria have disappeared.  I’m a bit annoyed, since I was hoping for a lift home, and wander around deciding what to do.  The only reasonable thing is to lift that 1.5 litre bottle of beer from the fridge and hide it in the shadows of the brick fence in the front yard.  I do so and call a taxi to come and find me, noticing it’s now after four in the morning.  I don’t even want the beer, I really don’t like Grolsch, but the idea of messing with the twenty six year old virgin is irresistible.  He appears filled with accusations that I’ve stolen his beer.  I ask him where it is and bend over the fence so he can search me.  Amusingly I bend over exactly the part of the fence that is concealing the bottle.  He gives up and goes to find his younger brother, who apparently is in possession of a pair of testicles.

This guy yells at me for a while, demanding the bottle and asking why I drank it.  I keep checking the time to see when the taxi should appear and make the same offer to him to search me.
“Why do you think I have it?”
“My brother told me to get it off you.”
“How does he know I have it?”
“Umm….he just does”
“So where is it?”, I ask holding my hands above my head making it clear I have no bags and nothing in my pockets.
“You’ve put it somewhere.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you want to drink it later.”
“Mate, I’ve got a fridge full of beer at home, why would I waste my time with this Grolsch crap?  I don’t even like it.  I ask again, what makes you think I have it?”
“My brother told me.”
“So you have no evidence, you have no idea and you’re now acting as your brother’s bitch.  Do you have to do this for him often?  Maybe he just doesn’t like that all those girls were talking to me and not him.”
“Fuck you, where is it?”
“It’s BEHIND you”, I offer pantomime style.
Amusingly, he turns around to look.  It actually is behind him, but hidden in shadows.  A minute before the taxi arrives he notices the bottle next to the fence and seizes it glaring at me.
“I’ll accept your apology now, mate”, I offer generously.
He snarls and prowls back into the house and I find my way home wondering how I’m going to make this video in one afternoon.

I shamble out of my room and into the shower around about three in the afternoon, then give Don plenty of hassle for ditching me at the party.  It’s just on principle really, I don’t actually care and soon discover that he had some fun.  So we head back to Brunswick Street for the second day of the festival.  There’s stalls all down the road now and we spend some time meandering through them on the way to meet Ray in the pub.  We arrive after four and settle in to discuss the filming.  Ray does have the camera this time, but the chief problem is that all of us were on the piss until after four and are largely too hungover to handle much more than having a beer and some greasy food.  It seems the grand plan is slipping away minute by minute and I don’t seem to care.  We hang out until after ten, when Ray heads off and Don and I have a couple more beers up the road in another fine establishment.  Don heads off a bit before midnight and I find myself wandering up Brunswick Street in the aftermath of the weekend festival action.

The street itself is mostly empty, but groups of people are still strolling in every direction – heading for the next party location.  There’s a dance party happening in a side street with the music coming from a second floor apartment driving about a hundred people in the throws of anarchistic pleasure.  You don’t get to do this in the city at any other time.  I notice a stack of empty ten litre steel barrels of olive oil in front of an Italian restaurant, they’ve had a good weekend.  I’m thinking of just getting up to Alexandra parade and finding a taxi when I notice a small group of people playing drums in a circle on the side of the road.  Well, they’re holding a great rhythm, but those aren’t drums.  They’re making use of those empty oil cans, plastic containers and anything else they can find to make the music.  There’s some people sitting on the corrugated steel canopy covering the pavement above a restaurant playing djembes with them.  They live in the apartment above the restaurant and have climbed out their window to join the festival.  There’s only one thing I can possibly do.  I go back and grab an oil can and sit down with the group.

I’m welcomed by smiles from everyone and I find myself supporting the main bass line to help keep everyone in time.  For a while the group gets bigger and smaller as we play, enjoying our time sharing music together.  People take turns leading new rhythms and the music carries us through the night with shared smiles and random happiness.  I don’t exactly know when or how it happens, but I look up from the drum to see about a hundred people gathered around us dancing.  There’s now about ten of us supplying the music and, as I’m looking around, two women start dancing with large single colour flags in each hand – making them turn and swirl with the beat.  I look down for a while and then glance up to discover some fire dancers have found us and now four or five are putting on a show for everyone.  The crowd grows with people watching on both sides of the street as we take over the festival and bring life to its dying hours.

There’s love shared amongst this crazy group of festival people.  We have nothing but a will to enjoy our lives and to share that joy with everyone around us.  We create music on whatever we have at hand and other people have come to share the sudden flame of passionate living with us.  The feeling lasts an infinite time and no time at all.  I don’t know when I first look up to see the line of eight police officers spread across the road and wielding nightsticks, walking towards us.  The outskirts of our group melt into the night as the threatening line of uniforms approaches.  Behind them is one of the armoured personnel carriers the Melbourne police use to move themselves around to deal with riot situations.  I glance around and fail to find any kind of riot, just people enjoying the festival night.  As the police get closer, more and more people move to the sides of the road, but do not leave.  You can feel the mob anger building.  We did nothing wrong, nobody is being hurt, there is no problem.  Why are the police here?

I keep playing my oil can drum until the line is less than a metre from me.  Someone from behind me takes the drum suddenly and says in my ear,
“Mate, lets just get out of the way, it’s not worth it.”
My hands play three more beats in the air before I emerge from the music trance to look up at a female office wielding a nightstick with intent at me.  I feel arms under my shoulders, lifting me up and I come to life, moving to the side of the street.  The mob anger is growing by the second.  There was no problem and now the police are on the verge of causing a riot.  The mob lets the line pass, then converges on the amoured personnel carrier.  Things move quickly, the situation is out of control.  There’s people yelling at the officers, at the driver.  There’s a surge in the crowd and I find myself a part of the mob of well over a hundred people surrounding the vehicle and the eight officers outside it.

The uniforms look tense now and gather at the back of the amoured vehicle ordering everyone to disperse.
“There was no problem until you came”, one guy calls out strongly, facing off with the apparent leader.
“We have to clear the street, the party’s over”, comes the reply.
“If you waited another half hour it would’ve been over anyway, then there’s no problem.  But you just have to get your cocks out and make trouble don’t you?”
“Disperse now if you don’t want to spend the night in the lockup.”
There’s a flurry of action as two officers seize the guy who called out.  Another man steps forward and starts asking for the names and badge numbers of every officer present; noting them down in a notebook he has.  The guy who’s been seized struggles and starts tearing off his clothes.  A third guy steps forward with a digital camera and starts taking photos of this guy and the officers.  This causes a standoff, the two officers trying to get the guy into the back of the armoured carrier let him go.  They all know how this will look in court; not good for them.

The guy finishes removing all his clothes and stands naked for a photo session.  The guy with the notebook calls out loudly for everyone to hear,
“Now we know exactly what condition he was in before you took him into custody.  If there’s one fucking bruise or mark on him, you will be responsible.”
He finishes the sentence pointing at the senior officer while stepping backwards into the protective embrace of the crowd.  The officers look confused now.  The senior officer points to the naked man and announces,
“Lock him up and anyone else who resists our lawful order to disperse.”
I can’t believe I’m in the middle of this.  I’m standing calm and still one metre from the senior officer and the naked man.  The seven other officers surge into action and pile three people into the back of the carrier as the crowd surges around them.  More cameras appear, two video cameras appear.
“Why the fuck are you cunts here to ruin the night?”, demands one angry woman.
There’s no answer, but the mob gives way and moves to the side of the street.

I’m dumbfounded.  I’d heard Melbourne police were thugs, but this proves the point beyond all doubt for me.  For no reason they surge through and cause the problem.  If they’d waited a short time, the group would’ve dispersed and nothing would have happened.  I find my taxi home and I end up getting Don to shave the rest of my hair off and trim my beard.  I lay awake for a long time pondering what just happened to my weekend.  Eventually I notice the time is almost four in the morning and realise in just five hours I will have to be back at my job working as an IT professional for the federal public service.

It turns out that this was the last Brunswick street festival ever held.  I was proud to be a part of the parade and stayed with it right until the end.  I still regret that I have absolutely no photos of myself and I never made that short film.  It still amuses me to think how many other people at the festival that day must have pictures of me, either in the parade or standing with my arm around them.  The time lives on in those pictures and the hearts of everyone who loved the weekend of the last Brunswick Street festival.

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