Outside the strip joints you’ll find slick, stone-faced business men in navy suits and shiny sunglasses brushing past scaly, Kmart-clad sex workers. Duck inside and you’ll see a stream of Sydney’s beautiful (or at least passable) girls and boys writhing and smiling on the laps of frivolous men.
A surplus of crumpled betting slips, free pencils, bad pizzas, scavenged butts, $6.50 Tim Tams and overpriced drinks can all also be found in this proverbial Pleasure Island, but that’s pretty much it.
Kings Cross is not really a tourist destination.
I’m standing on a corner watching crackheads ghoul around across the street. There are token, government-approved quotes about finding “merit in the muck” etched into the pavement, but vacant, evasive eyes don’t read them.
The poor are hanging around illegally and the rich are only passing through, strolling hurriedly by the succession of discount gift shops, money exchanges, kebab stores, pawn brokers, brothels, bars, burger joints, curry houses and tobacconists that constitute Kings Cross.
It is between these last two establishments that my hostel is situated – a slim wooden door creating an unremarkable break in the shop fronts sits underneath a tall, creamy, cracked facade.
As a general rule the hostel only accepted foreign guests. According to the clerk at the desk, the locals being junkies, sex workers, and other generally looked-down upon people in society, cannot be trusted. But as luck would have it, when I arrived to check in at midday the clerk was still quite drunk from the night before and, after looking me over and no doubt deciding that attractiveness somehow equates to honesty, he made me an exception to the rule.
He was a tall, pale Brit with a hideously unkempt ginger beard that, combined with a large yellow patch of plaque on his left incisor, somewhat detracted from an otherwise pleasant face. He was friendly, but he had the miserable quality of becoming quite easily aggravated by the mere prospect of having to do any more than the bare minimum required of him.
As he scrounged around for a clean towel, I told him about how my handbag had been pickpocketed the previous day while I waited in the local Centrelink queue. Glancing up, he handed me my key, two worn sets of sheets and a pillow case and smiled.
“Welcome to The Cross” he said.
My room was on the top floor, four flights of stairs up from the reception and six from the front door. The hostel walls had been painted with colourful graffiti-style murals of beach scenes and Australian wildlife. The intention was twofold: To greet incoming guests with a fun atmosphere just brimming with Australian culture, and to mask the layers of filth that had accumulated over the years. Every wall in that hostel was smeared from top to bottom with stains of unknown origins.
“Free breakfast” (read: two pieces of home brand bread and a bowl of cereal – if there was any of either left), fast wifi, and the invitation to use two hard drives containing six hundred pirated movies were the pulls of this, the cheapest hostel in Sydney.
But you only had to see once the pockets of dirt and dust grease had glued to every crevice of the garishly painted purple skirting boards and banisters. You only had to observe the ancient cigarette butts nestled indefinitely in the astroturfed stairs. You just had to breathe in one whiff of the maggoted death emerging from the doors of the communal refrigerator, to recoil from the various gobs of phlegm and unidentifiable brown matter making their slow descent down every surface of the shower to cling to the hairs in the drain, to notice that one large piece of hardened grey snot permanently adorning the top left corner of the toilet door, to unwittingly reach your hand into the sea of crumbs, hair and plastic captured in the foam abyss between the split couch cushions, to hear the rustle and hushed whispers of early morning fridge raids, to spy the long red list of tenants more than a week behind in their rent plastered on the reception wall, to read the words “fuck off” scrawled on the white board glued to the safe chained to the kitchen wall, to know what kind of place this was.
It was a place of last resort.
And I, having not hit rock bottom quite just yet, only lasted a week.
The all-encompassing grime was one thing, but the theft was something else. When my mie goreng were stolen from my bag under my bed and an Aldi bag of groceries (including my prized salami) disappeared from the fridge, I didn’t stop to think, “Who steals noodles?”.
I just got the fuck out.
I had a friend or two in the suburbs and I was desperate but I wasn’t Kings Cross desperate yet.
Did your cortisol rise when you read this? Did your dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin begin to flow freely?
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