Smith street is a stretch of bars, shops, warehouses and shady laneways where people get stabbed that marks the border between the thoroughly gentrified Fitzroy -which now serves as the primary hub for hip bearded artists on bikes, and club district for freshers to get wankered and dry hump each other in- and its neighbouring suburb of Collingwood, which has long been renowned for urban decay, branded factory outlets, dodgy pups, and freely available heroin.
Being the collision point between these two worlds lends Smith street an exciting energy, as it’s one of the few places where you can still go for dinner in a trendy restaurant, drink like a sailor in a dive bar, then score class A on the corner and punch on with lads from an estate on you way home. It’s one of the few places where you will regularly see alcoholics throwing up in the gutter before noon and be called a cunt by a stranger on your lunch break, but also bump into lovely, friendly people going about their wholesome business. It’s this mix of terrifying junkies, rough, working classers and young, hip urbanites that gives the street its charm. If you spend enough time around these people you will hear and see some outrageous shit.
These are the best things I’ve heard on one of the most characterful streets in Melbourne.
“Hey, wanna buy a watch?!”
This was said very loudly and directly into my face by a glassy-eyed, tracksuited and hectic as fuck Lad with freshly skinned knuckles and a broken nose, who practically sprinted up to me and held a (no shit) blood-flecked digital watch about three inches from my eyes.
My response was, ‘Sorry bro but right now I’m probably broker than you.’ Which he though was pretty funny and through nasal, sniffling chuckles said, ‘True, bruv, true. Sorry I’m acting weird. I just got punched in the head and I’m a bit fucked-up.’ Then ‘it’s my watch, but!’ before sauntering briskly away in that shoulder-rolling, hard-cunt walk that makes you fucking shit yourself when someone uses it to approach you at a train station after dark.
“My cat ate speed once.”
This is one of those stories told to you by a stranger in a pub which is most likely complete horse-shit, but you can’t help but make yourself believe it because it’s so good you desperately want it to be true no matter how unlikely it seems. True or not it goes like this; I was drinking in a bar on smith street one afternoon, chatting to the bloke who happened to be next to me, the conversation turned to drugs and he told me that one weekend he’d had a few mates around to drink heavily and rail amphetamine.
His friends went home when the sun came up, he left the room momentarily and returned to find that the line of speed he’d left cut on the coffee table had mysteriously vanished. He then noticed that the cat was acting strangely and putting two and two together, realised that his cat had eaten the gear. Uncertain what to do, and with little time to do it even if he had known the correct way to handle a feline loaded with whizz, he threw the cat outside and went to work for eight hours. He returned home that night to find the cat sleeping like a stone in a backyard that was absolutely blanketed in half-chewed, dead birds.
As I said, this story is probably utter bullshit, but still, anyone with the creativity to make up a yarn this fucking golden at least gets an A+ for effort, right?
“Can I at least get some chips?”
I was sitting in Effe’s Kebabs eating a falafel wrap at like 11am one morning (this might seem pretty gross under normal circumstances, but you’d be amazed what passes as acceptable behaviour on a street primarily peopled by degenerates), when a clearly homeless, filthy, weather-beaten and junkie-faced woman with about three teeth came in and started begging the staff to give her a feed. They pretended she wasn’t there and occasionally mumbled that if she had no money she wasn’t getting food. This just made her plead even harder, moaning that she hadn’t eaten in days, was starving, penniless and in the street, and eventually, even trying to haggle her way down, saying things like ‘What about some dim sims?” as well as the above line about chips.
She kept this up until a very smarmy looking, snake-oil merchant-type dude in a crumpled, cheap suit who had been sitting at one of the tables walked over and asked what she wanted to eat (a chicken kebab and large chips) and how much that cost ($15). His reply was ‘I reckon we can sort that out. Let’s go outside’. He then lead her out of the shop and they disappeared down an alley until they both emerged about 20 minutes later, him looking quite chuffed with a satisfied smile playing blissfully across his face, her looking world-weary and hollow-eyed.
He ambled off down the street and she re-entered the shop, walked unsteadily up to the counter asked for a kebab and chips and then, with misery, defeat and hopelessness practically coming off her in waves, weakly held out a grubby hand clutching exactly 15 dollars.
“You’re not some tough little beat poet, you’re just a cunt.”
One night after work I was waiting for the tram minding my own business and smoking a cigarette. A very down-and-out woman who looked like the poster-child for entrenched, first world poverty was passing by. Upon noticing me, she said ‘give us a rollie, mate?’ As I’m sure most of you know, living in the inner city quickly destroys your ability to empathise, so without even looking at her I replied ‘no’. She seemed genuinely shocked and became angry, blurting ‘why not?!’ ‘Because I see no reason to. They’re my cigarettes’.
At this point she was so incensed her mouth was swinging open and shut, groping for something to say. In a moment of pure brilliance and possibly divine possession she then screamed the above statement right into my face and stormed away, leaving me bent double with laughter and gasping for breath.
“… ~Silence, pleading puppy-dog eyes, shy smile, hands holding hat out for change~”
This is the customary greeting and modus operandi of one of Smith street’s regular beggars, a tall, lanky, bearded fella with long matted hair who is always grinning benevolently as he wordlessly holds his hat out for you to dump coins in. Because of this sunny disposition most people who live and work in the area know him only as ‘Happy’ and if you’ve ever spent much time around Fitzroy/Collingwood you’ve probably seen him panhandling by acting cute, pitiable and harmless, rather than angry, intimidating and mental like most homeless people.
However, word ‘round the campfire is that there is a lot more to this character than that.
Many of the bar and restaurant staff around the street all have stories to tell about times they’ve seen Happy verbally abusing and threatening other homeless people from around the area. Mine is that one time I went into a lane to piss late one night and saw him standing over the figure of a woman in the foetal position screaming ‘I’ll fucken kill ya, ya bitch, I’ll fucken kill ya!’
I found out why he does this when I was drinking in a bar with the staff who work there and Happy walked past out the front. Upon seeing him, the bar-owner jumped up roaring ‘You, you fucking cunt!’ grabbed the house baseball bat (which is nicknamed The Youllbee Stick, as in ‘You’ll be fucked when I hit you with it’) and chased after Happy (who was now running for his life) screaming stuff like ‘I told you to never let me see you again!’ and ‘You’re fucked now, cunt!’ The chase quickly ended when Happy pulled a set of keys from his pocket, unlocked a car that was parked nearby, jumped in and sped away.
It turns out the owner of the bar is mates with one of the other homeless people on the street who told him that the apparently homeless Happy has set himself up as a sort of slumlord who, through violence and bullying, extorts the other local homeless, forcing them to pay a tariff for the right to beg on his street. If they don’t he beats the piss out of them or does other things to make their already not-great lives even more horrible and there isn’t really anything that anyone can do about it.* Which is pretty much the most sickening, disgusting, shameful and borderline evil thing I’ve ever heard.
God I love Smith Street.
*Obviously this is all second-hand hearsay. It might have been relayed to me by people that I trust, but it’s still hearsay nonetheless, so writing this could be technically libelous. However, were Happy to ever try and initiate legal proceedings against me for saying it, the fact that he has a computer and internet connection with which to read this -as well as the means to pay a solicitor with whom to take me to court- would immediately validate my accusation that he is not living nearly as rough as he likes people to believe. So he can suck on that fat catch 22, the despicable gronk.
Words by Skinny Longlegs. Photo via Urban List.