A week ago, Monica Dux expressed disappointment in The Age Sunday Life magazine about the lack of community feel in her neighbourhood. It began to bug her, she claimed, when her young kids began to refer to their neighbours as “the guy who vomited on our doorstep” and “the one who plays his saxophone naked at night.” I can tell you that Monica was referring to Carlton, my neighbourhood. She lived next door to us. I don’t know who ralphed on her doorstep, but I can tell you that whenever I wailed Baker St or Careless Whisper on sax out my balcony window at night, I was always wearing pants.
Usually wearing pants.
Can’t say I share Monica’s sentiments. For me, living in Carlton gave more than just community. It was a locale rich with history and stories and characters; it made me feel like I was a part of something greater – a piece of historical lineage and legacy. Like Monica, I recently moved out of Carlton. But, wearing pants, I wail in the night, and glance back at my time there with nostalgic fondness.
On an ordinary summer evening a little while ago…
A cool change brews and the big tree where the possum that we call “Lick Assrey” lives flutters green leaves out front. The city is on our doorstep, its buildings glow in the transforming twilight. Wind invades the lounge room, flitting loose pieces of our giant Melways map on the wall; the gust charges down the stairwell, bangs the French lounge doors around, and I can hear its path as all the bedroom and kitchen doors clank and slam as far as the bathroom through the kitchen at the rear.
We live on Grattan St, by the corner near Drummond, an inner city block lined with terrace houses built in trios, and tall trees along grassy median strips. When I crawl out the lounge window I can see Drummond Street’s ornate cast iron balconies, some of the prettiest in the neighbourhood. It’s a sight I never tire of. They’re of the Victorian and federation “boom” style, typical of Melbourne’s inner suburbs after the gold rush. A row of three sticks out; 3-stories high, polychrome brick—the terrace that Silvana once told me used to house the Australian playwright, David Williamson.
“Oh, Carlton was a happening place back then,” she’d said, “When all the bohemians were around,”
That was back in the 1970s, when “La Mama” theatre was beginning to thrive, Gough was in power, and the neighbourhood swelled with university students as a fresh artistic scene fused with the suburb’s multicultural traditions.
I peer through the tree leaves and see Silvana on the footpath now. A stout woman with a wonky gait. She is the matriarch of “La Cacciatore,” the Italian restaurant on the corner opposite. Silvana speaks with a warbly chuckle, when her voice surrenders its leonine sternness – typically when she dotes on the past, finding respite from the present in the recollections of yesteryear.
Carlton is full of character, because it is full of characters. Knowing people like Silvana during my four years on Grattan St helped engender a profound sense of home.
We fended off 80 applicants to score the lease to 30 Grattan Street. It was the middle two-story terrace in a row of three, beige with green cast iron trim and 160 years of history that crumbled from the walls and high ceilings and shone through the stained glass rose mural at the crown of the staircase.
It wasn’t to everybody’s tastes. A powerful odour gripped you when you walked in the front door—the smell of “oldness”—water damaged stucco and dank, porridge-coloured carpet, freshly activated by a recent steam clean that awakened decades of student share house living.
Red light fittings throughout, coupled with nine mirrors in the bathroom suggested we’d signed the lease to a heritage brothel. I thought it was haunted too. With no electricity that first week, the old house played tricks on us with its night noises. In the dead of night, my French bedroom doors creaked and swung open as I lay sleeping—I hadn’t yet realised the staircase’s functionality as a wind channel—needless to say, I lost a good pair of underpants.
We christened the house “Prince Albert Mansion,” a no-brainer, as the exterior parapet by the cornices at the height of the façade had “Prince Albert Terraces” etched on it. Though worn and preloved, it felt like a mansion to us, because it was musty and grand and rooms and nooks unfolded off the staircase landing like the TARDIS.
It was a package deal; the location was incredible. Seconds from Carlton Gardens, vibrant Lygon St and its cafes and bars; a stroll from the city and café-laden locales, Fitzroy and North Melbourne; the city right on our doorstep. And, most crucially, spitting distance from the best pizza restaurant in town.
We dined at Silvana’s La Cacciatore every Friday night that year, sometimes midweek too. Their pizzas came in metre form, rectangular, salty and delicious. We ate so many metres of crispy “Americana” and “Salvatore Special” with its juicy salami and bacon that by the end of the year we figured we’d have eaten our fill to at least halfway down Grattan St, and perhaps the other side of Melbourne University. The 1-litre flagons of red wine were cheap and plentiful, and it became custom for us to roll out of that place, pissed and full, then walking just 10 steps across the road to our door.
We came for the food, and stayed for the décor. La Cacciatore was a time capsule inside, its wood panels, iron chandeliers and green felt carpet untouched from when it opened its doors in 1959.
Silvana’s father, Atillo Sartori purchased the property in 1956, as Melbourne was hosting the Olympic Games. He put in a kitchen and a bistro. La Cacciatore became one of the neighbourhood’s first Italian restaurants, offering simple, no fuss, quality Italian eating.
Atillo, or “chef,” as he was known, shot game birds in the day, returned them to the restaurant at night, where his wife, Katerina served them up to hungry locals. So fresh was the game that diners would have to spit out bullet pellets between bites, but these were the days before industry regulation. Silvana began running plates to the bistro from her Dad’s kitchen at the age of 16, and as a young woman, lived in the terrace house at #23. It means she has lived and worked on our corner block for the last 60 years; she has seen the characters and changes come and go.
But the first time I got talking to Silvana was not over pizza and wine, but during an open for inspection at the terrace next door to us. #32 Grattan was up for sale, and I’d become intrigued by its seemingly enormous depth—even more mansionous and sprawling than the Prince Albert. It also had a huge reputation as a party house. I’d met many people who had done time there, either living or waking up on its crusty floor at some point in their formative munting years. Curious, I went to check it out.
This joint had even more “charm” than the Prince Albert. There was a unique feature—a room at the rear that was inaccessible from the house, its one entry point, a manhole beneath it. This was no room; it was a cavernous loft with a pipe in the corner, which, according to Hunty (the construction student who lived there and would later become a housemate at the Prince Albert) used to have “shackles” attached to it. Hunty and his college housemates knew it as the “kill room”. Silvana shed some light on the grim anomaly.
“Oh yes, the place was an old gambling den,” she said, scrunching her palms together. I shuddered to think what sort of “negotiations” went on in the kill room.
“But after that, an old woman named Rosie lived here, an agoraphobic,” she said.
“What about our place?” I asked.
“Yours was always very well looked after. A professor used to live there.”
“The professor was good friends with Rosie,” Silvana said.
A friendship short lived. One day, Silvana added, the professor knocked on Rosie’s door, to find her dead. The agoraphobic’s house filled from floor to ceiling with stacks of old newspapers.
Silvana’s tales engendered a sense of belonging and respect for my area, and for the Prince Albert Mansion. We bonded over the past.
I envisaged our previous tenant, the professor, as a midlife academic in a grey suit and rounded spectacles, puffing on a pipe in our lounge, flicking through the paper on a Queen Anne chair by the fireplace. I thought a lot about him and Rosie and whether or not he might have loved her in some way, and if not, who he did love. Was he alone in our house? Did my bedroom act as his study where he typed letters and papers late at night? Then I thought about all the families that lit fires to keep warm in our lounge before the professor’s pipe smoke filled it; the families before them, and the lives and characters of all the post-gold rush Carltonians who called the Prince Albert Mansion home in the days after its final brick and cornice was laid.
I felt the ghosts of the past.
I moved out of the Prince Albert Mansion last week after four years to the day of moving in. I hadn’t dined at La Cacciatore for a long while and I’ve begun to crave its salty pizzas and cheap wine.
I already miss the familiar faces, like Silvana and her family and the melting pot of souls who contributed to my daily interactions and routines as a Carlton writer/layabout. People I got to know, and share interactions with—folks like “dogman,” the straggly haired eccentric who rides his giant hound around on the back of a modified-tricycle; Fernando, the Italian restaurateur who trundles the back streets picking flowers from yards, perpetually rolling his forefingers down a set of rosary beads. And Michael Kelly, my old mate, the bespoke cabinet maker/philosopher, who saws outside his doorway by the corner of Drummond and Faraday, brown dog by his side, and where he chalks a fresh piece of wisdom on a blackboard each morning and places it in the front window of his workshop for passers by to reflect upon on their walk to work.
I recall a few of Mike’s memorable nuggets:
“I think, therefore my head hurts”
“The love we give is more important than the love we get”
‘What are you competing for?”
“Beautiful cleansed earth at hand”
“It May not be New York, but it’s not a bad little port”
“How many people die in Ikea each month?”
“Carlton—distant outpost of the Roman Empire.”
Carlton, choc full of character and characters. Like those with Silvana, I’ll miss my chats with Mike about life and music on those Drummond St strolls, a walk I must have done at least 3000 times coming and going between Woolworths and home. So too, the chats with cafe baristas who have come to know me by name—the “Market Lane” hipsters, the ladies and quirky bloke at “Trotters,” the chatty Indians of “CVs”.
But the greatest character of the lot was the Prince Albert Mansion. It was so much more than just a dank smelling share house. It was a personality; it had life. As my buddy and old housemate Nae, one of the original Prince Albert gangsters, recently said, the mansion was “like an old friend who thankfully cannot blab about all the things it’s seen”. She added that it would have been interesting to get a tea reader in to read the carpet stains. Our steam cleaner, Vince, an Italian in his late 50s may not agree. I bought him a long black when he came in to clean the carpets the other morning and, breaking into a sweat, he seemed irked.
“Mayyyte, the water that came outta that carpet was blacker than this coffee.”
I spent three days cleaning the mansion from top to bottom, every dusty nook and dirty cranny, each cornice and balustrade. It made me wonder why the hell we hadn’t given it a proper clean in the whole four years we lived there. I saw parts of it for the first time I didn’t know existed, and probably would have preferred for it to have stayed that way. But it was good closure.
It triggered a torrent of memories. All the parties and gatherings and good times, the faces of housemates and all our friends—the Halloween bash where we had 5 televisions going at once, pinched from the dumpster of the nearby Quest apartments; the drinking game nights with the Adelaide crew, and when our housemate Shura, powerful after a few shandies, manhandled the men and wore them around her waist like a human belt. There was the Big Lebowski bash, my 30th, full of dancing and fist pumps to hair metal and dressing gowns and Vikings. And times of simple, wonderful cosiness, like much-cherished Tuesday mussel nights in the kitchen with Honburg, sipping mulled wine around the warming heat of the oven while Melbourne harshed outside in wintery chill.
I dusted the last of my room, my refuge within a haven, with visions of the deluxe Persian bed-lounge it once was, lit by Moroccan pink and orange lamplight, adorned with typewriters and literature. And outside the French doors, the square slat balcony where I used to lay on hot summer nights with cigarettes, Hunter S, Blake and Rumi—the balcony, a secret leverage spot that gave access to our rooftop; there, we’d sit on the brick landing high up over the “Prince Albert” parapet, kings of the town, sharing beers with pals on pitched aluminium under night skies, the cityscape of Melbourne gloriously lit, the smell of garlic and pasta wafting off Lygon, and on the streets and cobblestoned lanes below, the ghosts of the past, and the ever-warming amber-lit glow of Silvana’s La Cacciatore.
On the 26th February, four years to the day of moving in, I shut the heavy green door of the Prince Albert Mansion for the last time. The little iron knocker with the young piper on it clunked and clattered, as if saying one last farewell, that familiar sound of housemates coming and going—one of the many little quirks and idiosyncrasies. I breathed in the musty old dank smell one last time.
It was the house that kept giving, and asked nothing in return.
It will be missed.
And Carlton, I’m off to Berlin. But I’ll see you again soon.
* Header Photo courtesy of Honor Kennedy Photography