Memories of drifters and dreamers

The Crown Hotel, tucked in close at the foot of City Rise. The mural was painted on its Broadway...
The Crown Hotel, tucked in close at the foot of City Rise. The mural was painted on its Broadway wall in 2015, by Aroha Novak and Guy Howard-Smith. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
City Rise is not really a suburb, it is a little city within a city. And it comes alive at night when the sifters emerge from their rickety flats and head down the hill to a gig at The Crown Hotel, writes Talia Marshall.

Talia Marshall
Talia Marshall
There used to be a lot of night life on Rattray St, I snuck into the Tai Pei nightclub when I was 13 during the street’s long inelegant decline. Six years later, during the last glorious days of The Empire pub and before the drinking age was lowered, I would move up and down between the Bavarian Bar and the bottom bar, which had Suspicious Minds on the jukebox. I was avoiding Norma, who knew I was underage. I would kill to look underage now. The Empire closed and tried to reopen briefly later but the wairua was gone. Pubs seem to have a soul. Thank God The Crown Hotel persists. Rattray St is a crumbling beautiful ruin, but The Crown seems eternal.

I used to go to The Crown quite a bit in my twenties. Not for the bands, I was there for the jukebox. Being in charge of the playlist in any social situation used to matter a lot to me. I’m not really into the Dunedin Sound, I’m into Al Green. Joe the barman could see me and my wretched song choices coming so he would jam up the jukebox with coins and his music in advance, but I was in it for the long haul. I would be hearing When Doves Cry, Sweet Child of Mine, Desmond Dekker crooning about the Israelites, George McCrae and Destiny’s Child before I went home to my toddler. I was a hazard dancing around the pool table, and no-one is worse at playing pool than me.

Nick, my boyfriend during my first year at uni, was a pool shark, but he was like that with all games, especially chess. I hate chess, because it requires a strategy and planning is alien to me. But I loved Nick, so I watched him play a lot of chess, gleefully talking too much while he and his opponent tried to think. How adorable of me!

Nick would come home too late after winning everything at The Crown, or just scoring a packet of Peter Stuyvesant someone had left on the windowsill, he was very particular about that brand of cigarette. Nick was always moving through the night like a secretive spider, or on his missions as he called them. He got so wasted at The Empire once I had to carry him up Manor Place over my shoulder like a fireman.

It was lucky he was so skinny, but I still kicked him lightly (quite hard) once I dropped him on the steps to my flat because the night had started off so well!

Nick was singing Eye of the Tiger at us outside a flat on Russell St before we took the Cannongate steps into town. A naturally cool person who wasn’t frightened of showing some enthusiasm. Nick was rare. And the only boyfriend I managed to stay friends with after we broke up.

I wish he were still alive; Nick has been gone a decade, seized by the little gods inside his head. But it is dangerous to try to cleave to the land of the dead, they are better left to their own devices. Memories will have to suffice.

City Rise will always remind me of Nick, and the flat on Arthur St that had carpet in the bathroom the same colour as Mr Snuffleupagus. Carpet that was so dank and mouldy it seemed vaguely alive. The kitchen was also foul. But I think of that flat fondly too. I never cleaned anything or washed a dish when I stayed with Nick and the rest of the guys who lived there. My feminism would not allow me to clean up after men, or myself for that matter.

I went to a gig at The Crown over summer because my young friend Angus was playing the saw. I comforted myself with the promise that once the bands were finished, I’d be having Maori karaoke time with the jukebox. Angus surprised me by making playing a piece of hardware look and sound compelling. Finally, someone who could make being alternative and free noise truly make sense to me. And who also agreed with my jukebox choices! Most of the Pakeha at the gig had gone home and suddenly there seemed to be a lot of Maori around the pool table and we were all singing along to Herbs’ version of E Papa Waiari. Especially Angus.

E Papa Waiari is the waiata that was traditionally used to accompany the Maori stick game. It teaches you rhythm and co-operation, two things I struggle with, plus I can barely catch. But there is something about tapping the sticks and swapping them back and forth between a partner that resonates for me. And maybe the old memory of sitting on the mat at school learning to be Maori with the other tamariki using rolled up magazines instead of rakau.

Maori believe there is a veil between this world and the one we leave it for, so maybe we are just like those sticks, going back and forth between the ringaringa of the atua, which translates into English as the hands of the gods. Back and forth between the veil.

And Matariki is rising soon, even over all the drifters, dreamers and beatnik sifters of City Rise. It will be a New Year as the frost sparkles with treachery, so be careful on the hills at night, as all our old friends shapeshift into new stars or taniwha in the streams under our streets.

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