History Echoed In Wall's Sad Trade

The Sunday Age

Sunday March 17, 2002

Matt Condon

He looks not unlike a ballroom dancer.

Narrow-waisted, in black slacks, patent leather shoes and a billowing ming blue singlet, he steps lightly from foot to foot, in and out of the shadows of the plane trees here on Darlinghurst Road, Sydney.

His name is Chris, and he is a rentboy plying his trade on this infamous 250-metre strip of inner-city bitumen known for decades as The Wall. At 32, ``boy" is hardly appropriate, although in the dappled shadows he hardly looks out of his teens.

Even as he speaks to you his eyes shift constantly, his head moving about as furtively as a sparrow. ``I'm waiting for a client," he confides, although he has been dancing from one side of the road to the next for more than an hour. No cars have stopped for him yet.

To understand the sex industry in Sydney you have to look not just at The Wall, but its hierarchy and history in a grid that takes in Kings Cross and Darlinghurst.

There are two primary ventricles: Darlinghurst Road and William Street. The former begins at the El Alamein Fountain in Kings Cross, festooned as it is with neon advertisements for strip clubs. This is the province of female prostitutes and drug dealers. Running perpendicular to Darlinghurst Road, cutting under its halfway mark, is William Street, the turf of female streetwalkers and transvestites. The second half of Darlinghurst Road, towards Oxford Street, takes in some of Sydney's most fashionable restaurants (including Salt) and the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Then, at the corner of Green Park and Burton Street, and down to the back of the Darlinghurst Court House and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, it becomes The Wall - this is the ``home" of male street prostitutes.

Since the 1960s it has been Sydney's most conspicuous gay beat. Attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to rid the area of rentboys failed.

Chris, who has just returned from 10 years working in Melbourne, has returned to The Wall, his first place of employment as a male prostitute. ``I follow the work," he says. ``It's a good time now, after the Mardi Gras and all that. I arrive after 9pm. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are the best. I have my regular clients."

Has he seen the entire spectrum of Sydney society in the course of his work?

``Oh, come on," he says. ``After 12 years I've seen it all, from celebrities to people on the bottom rung. Look there, undercover cops. They've been back and forth all night. I know them by the numberplates on their cars."

It is no accident this stretch is called The Wall. Abutting one side of this sliver of Darlinghurst Road is a massive edifice of sandstone that runs the entire length from Green Park to the courthouse buildings facing Oxford Street at the far end.

It is the eastern side of the old Darlinghurst Jail, completed in the 1870s. Its first governor was the notorious Henry Keck, and its hangman was Alexander Green, also known as The Strangler. He lived next to the prison, and it is believed Green Park, where today's rentboys take free coffee from the many mobile charity vans that stop by each night, was named after him.

To walk alongside The Wall is to feel the chill of its antecedents.

Troy, 43, recalls his days as a young man at The Wall with almost visible horror. He says it was the lowest ebb in his life.

``I was bashed here on several occasions," he says. ``A client picked me up once and we went back to his house where four men were waiting for me. It can be a violent place, and violent things happen, but you have to remember that this (danger) is what the clients are looking for."

Chris is still waiting for a job. But business is slow.

``Do you mind if I go now?" he asks. ``I'm expecting a client." He moves halfway across the road and says over his shoulder: ``I just want to bring a little happiness into someone's life. I want to put a smile on someone's face, that's all."

© 2002 The Sunday Age

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