I’m standing at the exact spot where I died, twenty years ago. Those paramedics who revived me would be middle-aged men now, as I am. When I roamed these streets, it was a decadent quarter of Melbourne’s Inner-West, and I can see it hasn’t changed much. They say you should never go back, but what my newspaper want they get. Overdoses were commonplace at the end of the last century. The authorities did regain control of these streets, if only for a time. Now, a sudden surge in drug-related violence is all over the news and I’m looking for a place called The Exchange. I lock my car and begin to walk, passing the marketplace where I used to shop. It reeks of rotten vegetables and sweaty hagglers. The town square teems with quirky characters, who could be bit-part players in a Cohen Brothers production. The fat shouting man. The weedy beggar. A tramp lumbers over and asks me for a cigarette. Even he has a cinematic charisma of sorts. Occasionally, film productions do come to this part of Melbourne, but they’re few and far between. Gentrification that transformed other Australian suburbs, never really took hold either. I see no wealthy bohemians discussing antiques and sipping on soy free caffè lattes.
The buildings are run-down. Melbourne’s real estate market became reasonably buoyant for a time, and this area attracted some white-collar investment. However, if the middle-classes have arrived here, I can’t see them. Their absence is something I feel intensely when I decide to grab a drink. Cocktail bars and up-market venues are not visible, even though they’re currently in vogue everywhere else. I have to choose between a Karaoke bar and a dusty pub, but that’s not for me. Perhaps I’ll get something to eat. Now things begin to look up. Across the way, I see a swathe of Asian eateries and I choose an outside table. The Korean dish is adequate and I begin to scribble on a pad. A busker sets up in front of me. His guitar is out of tune and I pick up my notes, pay the bill and leave. It occurs to me how nice it would be to see a proper band, but music and the arts suffer from the same local malaise as the culinary industry. There is very little here for a sophisticated audience to enjoy.
Occasionally, surges of creativity have enriched the Inner-West and some trends were of cultural significance. At one time, a massive underground music scene flourished and the gigs laid much of the groundwork for the current crop of National stadium music events. The success stories never got the recognition they deserved, but perhaps the locals like it this way. As I wander amidst the bargain hunters, I notice the absence of that great contemporary human trait. Self-importance. Being the underdog is central to the resident DNA. From the Mediterranean to the Sudan, wave after wave of immigrants begun their new world journey within the bounds of postcode three thousand and eleven. It has all fostered a mindset of tolerance, arguably unmatched by any other community in the state. The Mall reminds me of Tolstoy’s Town Square. Any writer could spend their days drawing inspiration from these well-worn faces.
I pass through a laneway thronging with Africans, who all carry themselves with a kind of resilient dignity. They’ve made this thoroughfare their own, but I’m invited to try a slice of cuisine that doesn’t look like it would be offered in the trendier parts of town. The African star is on the rise but this is still a predominantly Asian suburb. Everywhere you look, busy Vietnamese families scurry about their self-owned businesses, carving out a stake in the Australian dream. The Inner-West may be a suburb awash with graffiti and the stench of un-emptied litter bins, but the aura of New Australian determination in the face of adversity is constant and tangible.
Now I’m facing The Exchange, and my focus is back on the story my editor wants. Underworld business is diversifying and people are dying. In the nineties, the heroin epidemic reached epidemic proportions. Scores of under-aged dealers openly traded caps of high-grade narcotics, whilst ambulances screamed from one overdose to the next. Hundreds of lives were lost before a battalion of police, on foot and horseback, moved in to reclaim the streets. The heroin drought that followed shook up the entire scene, as the dark captains of industry filled the void with a new crop of deadly, locally manufactured pharmaceuticals. Methamphetamine has replaced the threat of a hasty heroin death with a fast track to insanity. The medical establishment is trying a new approach. The Exchange gave up on Natural Healing and now trades in hypodermic syringes. I open the front door and brace myself. The place is full. It’s like I’m in a halfway house for the unsound of mind. ‘John’ is a forty-two-year-old veteran of this world. Looking closer to sixty, with his greasy grey hair and shabby clothes, he agrees to an interview. John continues to haunt the streets of the Inner-West as he has done for over twenty years. I ask him to characterize the scene before the advent of the methamphetamine epidemic and he sums it up with one word. Camaraderie.
“We used to call each other brother. I liked it here. As long as you got your dollars together, you could always score and you felt safe. We would talk to each other. Now, these young meth heads spend most of their time talking to themselves.”
I can see evidence of this analysis as I examine the patients, with their trembling limbs and pain expressions. It’s as if lunacy has ingrained itself into the systems and processes of this new generation of drug addicts. A couple of John’s friends join us. They’re happy to talk. Their lives are a roller coaster of staying awake for days on meth, followed by the frustrating search for sleep in the form of a cap of heroin. They know the journey will end up one of two ways. It’s a toss-up between wasting away on the ice tornado or managing the self-perpetuating slavery of smack.
“All the old-school junkies just disappeared,” says John. His head sinks. “My mates. Sooner or later they all went.’ Grief has chiselled away at his facial features. Every line on his head is reflective of a man too schooled in the ways of loss. Finally, he looks up. “When you stopped seeing somebody, you knew they’d probably been arrested, overdosed, or maybe they’d hit the road to escape debt collectors. These days, young people don’t really disappear, but their souls do. They’re too crazy to worry about debts. Most of them just walk in circles holding heated arguments with these like imaginary type friends.”
One glance around the room is enough to validate John’s observation. Along with their obvious psychological issues, some of the addicts openly sport untreated head wounds. It’s a confronting sight. I’m surprised at how old so many of them are, but one girl stands out. She sees me. Her stringy legs and haltering gait carry her over to our impromptu assembly. ‘Rosie’ is John’s partner, there to pick up a bag of needles and have a medical professional examine her thrombosis. She shows me an open wound in the crook of her arm. It’s like a small purple volcano. I look into her eyes. They’re bloodshot. I ask her if she’s ever been in trouble with the police.
“They catch ya. They’ve got their cameras everywhere,” says the blonde teenager. “Filming the deals as they go down. The bloody Response mob roll in here and put the ice-heads in the wagon. They keep us for a few hours. That’s bloody terrifying for sick people just looking to get some peace of mind. When the Jacks (police officers) start hanging around, everybody just moves across town. Later on, we all come back.”
The threat of arrest is still no real deterrent in the fractured mindsets of the users that now surround me. They have their avoidance systems, which weren’t available back in the day. The advent of the mobile phone has provided a means of staying out of the clutches of the law. Their standard system involves users locating and joining a group of addicts at set times of the day. For the newly arrived, the posses are not hard to spot but acceptance takes time. Any trustworthy drug user can run with the mob but everyone on the street is wary of undercovers. At pre-arranged times, and when all have the right money on hand, a series of text messages state the required amount of drugs and the number of people involved. Dealers relay instructions, normally involving a meeting point in a quiet neighbouring street or laneway. Upon liaising, the entire transaction is over in a matter of seconds. Addicts then disappear to consume their substances before returning to the streets to beg or hustle for the next fix.
I try to ask about Treatment, but John is dismissive. He cites the additional problems his addiction to methadone has caused him, for more than a decade. Like many users, John claims there is no promotion of drug abstinence by the primary medical specialists working in this area. Contemporary treatment programs tend to focus on signing the addict up for a lifetime dependence on legal substances. Committing to a course of treatment involves time-consuming bureaucracy, and a level of personal subjugation that is repellent to those who need it the most. Ultimately, the user would rather spend that time and expense on procuring the multitudes of illicit substances available throughout the city. It’s a seemingly intractable public syndrome.
“There’s something people don’t realize about meth-heads,” says Rosie. “Most of the users you see around you were mentally ill before they got onto the meth. It was something to keep them stable and a lifestyle around people who would not judge them harshly. But it doesn’t last. They go downhill pretty quick, no thanks to the Jacks.”
I look at my notes and know I’ve got some good stuff. It’s odd, but I feel like I’ve made some new friends. Now it’s time to wrap up. At the far end of the room, the twisted figure of an elderly addict begins to twitch. He shuffles to his feet. He wants to know what’s going on. We share a glance and I shoot him a smile, but it’s not returned.
“I know you,” he says. “You were a cop. You set up my brother. You set him up!”
“Steady on,” I say. “I’ve never been to this part of Melbourne. You’re thinking of somebody else.”
He advances, pulls a syringe out of his pocket and rips the cap off with his teeth. “Mikey stabbed ya. He killed ya. You were dead. He died in jail. I never forget nothing. I’m gonna finish you off.”
The pleasant group-chat is over. I search every pair of empty eyes for sympathy, but their glares are hostile. Rosy grabs my notes and I release them without a struggle. Slowly, I retreat as the man waving the syringe moves towards me. I turn and run, out onto the street, through the laneways and across the town square. I’m moving at pace. There’s not even time to say goodbye to Tolstoy. Ten minutes later, I’m at the wheel of my car and I tell myself repeatedly, what I should have told my editor.
You’ll never go back to that.
You’ll never go back to that…
This story first appeared in Ningbo Focus magazine in May, 2016.