When I worked there, the early seventies, it was known to outsiders for Harbour Bridge traffic and prostitution.
But there was plenty going on. Around Stanley Street there were those drab Italian cafes with “machines” in the rear. Men sat out front with their coats over their shoulders, talked soccer, mistresses, dopey Aussies.
Up the hill there were Maltese clubs with no machines where the cards slapped the tables hard all night long. Those Maltese! One of the many Galeas I got to know had his own Swiss Fondue restaurant further up the road. He wore plunging body shirts, with gold Maltese Cross against coal black chest hair. Once, prowling in his Ford GT, he pulled over to the kerb to show me his new revolver, a tiny Derringer like female saloon singers carry in old Westerns. He probably had no use for a gun, but that sort of thing went over in East Sydney.
Right opposite the restaurant where we worked a human fly lived on the top floor. Yes, a human fly! He was a wispy young albino in ashram clothes who simply scaled the wall of the terrace and stepped in through his front window. Never saw him use a door.
A couple of houses up, where we often parked our cars, a crumbling old terrace was being preserved by a Green Ban: a union-imposed heritage order. That meant that no building union member could touch it. Which meant nobody could touch it. One afternoon there was an almighty crash. Rushing to the window, we saw the old house sprayed across the road. No one was hurt. In East Sydney you had to believe someone “dun it”. Was it a developer? An owner? Was it the union, embarrassed by their own Green Ban? The place had been more wreckage than heritage. Anyway, that’s how they sorted things out in East Sydney, even if there was an easier way.
Gentrification had come to the ancient warren of tiny workers’ houses below Oxford street. The strange monochrome “restoration” of a whole block – you learnt not to say “development” – was a mix of agencies and pied-à-terre living for outsiders referred to as “trendies”. Locals tried to graffitti them out. PISS OFF TRENDIES was the most commonly seen slogan on the new walls. The developer – sorry, restorer – paid local kids to come round and cover the walls with any old graffitti. The campaigners gave up. I suppose that’s what makes a great developer in East Sydney. Sorry, great restorer.
We had the odd well known resident. A popular newspaper columnist had his “pad” in a stone cottage behind the restaurant. That man was beer made flesh. To watch him swaying and tottering along Palmer Street behind his huge belly, pulpy red face clapped in massive sunglasses, you’d wonder how he did it. Or how he did anything. Yet I once saw him sober: he was making his way to the Chevron, primly suited for Sinatra’s big reconciliation with Sydney. (Remember Sinatra’s previous time in Sydney? The unions wouldn’t let him leave because he called our journalists “hookers”. Frank!) Anyway, you just knew that this story of the return of the Blue-Eyed One really counted. Our man was sober, and was moving with a light, even springy tread. I suppose that’s what makes a great journalist, at least in East Sydney.
One of Sydney’s more famous “business identities” parked his Bentley right next to our premises. One day it blew up, fortunately in another part of the city. Nobody hurt. Insurance? Publicity? Or was Business Identity more than just an identity? Typical questions for East Sydney.
Then we were burnt down. A fire bomb! Middle of the night, no-one hurt. I’d been the last person in the building, baking big terrines for the next week.
So I was interviewed by the police up at Regent Street. They asked me who the last customers were and I had to tell them: “A couple of priests”. The detectives burst into snorts and chortles. “A couple of pricks!” one of them repeated. So I had to stress: “No, priests. A couple of priests.” So they got to do the guffawing thing all over again. It was the truth: a local Catholic university rector and his visiting English counterpart, who talked like Laurence Olivier, had stayed on drinking till late that night. Hope the police never contacted them.
Who burnt us down? The never-seen Hungarian Jewish owner? The guy with the Maltese club downstairs, another Galea? My employers? Enemies of any of the aforementioned? No one thought it was accidental. Not in East Sydney. We were back in business after a month. The Maltese club wasn’t.
In another part of the city, East Sydney’s biggest hoodlum, Wayne Anthony “Jet” Jackson was gunned down.
I’d never met him, but locals described him as good bloke, good son etc.
This was big enough news. Then they found Jet’s will. In it he confessed to the multiple murders of prostitutes and business rivals. He indicated that the remains were buried in the tiny yard of his terrace house. That house was in the lane across the road from our restaurant, just up from the corner where the Green Ban house had stood.
The lane was cordoned off. Police cars were parked everywhere. Excavation machinery was delivered. The street was full of onlookers, milling just below the window of our restaurant.
I ended up mingling with the crowd for a while.
Craig Farrugia and Warren Sultana, young Maltese cousins who washed our dishes on alternate nights, stood deliberately back and peered over the shoulders of the people in front. Craig was talking out of the corner of his mouth, but loud enough so a few around could hear: “Don’t show your face, Warren. Cameras everywhere, mate. If the pigs see us, mate….” Then a police officer came from behind, looked right at him, and said: “Thanks for staying back sir.” Then to the rest of the crowd: “Please be like this young gentleman and assist us by staying back!” I don’t know what the British or the Arabs or the Crusaders did to Malta…but I can tell you the Maltese don’t like to be accused publicly of law-abiding behaviour. Craig flushed, shook his head, glared over at me. “Pigs, mate. They don’t know you till it suits ’em to know you….Warren, just keep back. Those cameras, mate.”
Our Swiss Fondue Galea cruised past in his GT, steered to the curb when no police were watching. He waved me over to chat.
“They all thought it was the meat grinder at the Texas Tavern. But this is where he put ’em. Lucille, Sally…that Chinese market bloke. He as good as told me. Bloody Jet, eh? He wasn’t racialist, you know. Mad bugger never touched a Maltese. Thought too much of Perc…”
“But…what about Falzon?”
“That fat turd? He was from Gozo. I’d better take off. I’ve got a boot-full of you know what…”
I didn’t know what. It was probably a boot-full of table linen.
Shortly after there were shouts and people started pointing away from the lane. What was happening?
Human Fly had arrived home and was walking up the wall of his house! The crowd, most of whom had never seen it before, surged forward, shouting and pointing.
A policeman came running down the lane to see what had happened. In his haste, he dropped a sack which he’d been carrying from Jet’s house. Something came spilling out. Bones. Lots of bones.
Our journalist only had to stumble the short distance back to his pad to phone in the discovery. Which led to that headline with its deathless alliterations:
JET’S LAST JOLT: LETHAL LANE
By the next day it was known that the bones were the remains of years of lamb dinners, hoarded and buried by Jet Jackson to send the cops down one final dead-end. He got ’em from the grave.
And I suppose that’s what makes a great criminal…in East Sydney!
AFTERWORD: Much of all this actually happened, though not exactly as described. I changed names etc, dramatized a bit. It was based on events after the murder of John Stuart Regan. What I didn’t mention is that the restaurant used to be the home and brothel of notorious Tilly Devine, of Razorhurst fame.
Across the road was the notorious Tradesman’s Arms, just a pub by the seventies, and now renamed. It was a bloodhouse back in the days when Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh sent out razor gangs against one another. Why, people even smoked!
Both pub and ex-brothel now figure in old Sydney gangland tours.