Barry Dawes sits at the Apex Cafe on Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross. In front of him is a latte. The scene couldn’t be more different from the last day he spent in Sydney’s notorious red light district and epicentre of vice. When he was here before, almost two decades ago, the strip was grittier, the denizens more foreboding, the drinks more toxic. Barry’s poison back then was methylated spirits diluted with Coca-Cola. His hand shakes too much now to keep a spoon steady, so his carer, Paul Brophy, pours the sugar to sweeten his coffee.
Dawes is 62. He wears a brown, camelskin-esque jacket over a red woolen jumper and black slacks. His upper body is festooned with a Sydney Swans scarf and cap. He needs a walking stick. He is not spry but his mind is still sharp. Dawes had family trouble growing up and dropped out of school before graduating. He found himself living on the street near Central, doing what he could to cobble together the cash for alcohol; first wine, then harder spirits, then the really hard stuff. With nothing to tie him down, he travelled the length of the continent, north to Alice Springs and south to Hobart, falling more and more into alcohol’s thrall. When he was last in Sydney, he stayed occasionally at the Matthew Talbot Hostel, a St Vincent de Paul shelter for homeless men in Woolloomooloo, or slept on the street. His travels took him to Melbourne, where he found residence at Sambell Lodge, an aged-care residence for socially disadvantaged people run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence. But ever since his time at the hostel, he had stayed away from Sydney. Until now.
Brophy is a manager at Sambell Lodge. When he arrived, 27 years ago, he noticed a culture of older residents being shut off from the world, spending most of their days in their rooms, emerging only for meals.
“The problem with many of these facilities is they tend to lock up residents and never let them leave,” Brophy says.
“We had one resident who simply slept and ate in his room all day. I brought him some clothes and some shoes so he could become more active. I encouraged him to start some basic exercises and stretches and being more physically active. I encouraged him to watch the 6pm news every night so he can get more cognitive action.”
This is part of Brophy’s aged-care mantra: to keep the residents active and engaged with the world around them. That’s why when he asked Dawes what his dream was, and the reply was “to return to Sydney and see the Swans play”, he sprang into action. Although there was some red tape to negotiate – Dawes is a state trustee, meaning his finances are managed on his behalf, which caused a few headaches gaining access to funds – overall the process was quite streamlined. Brophy noted that the Sydney Swans had been accommodating in helping to arrange tickets.
On match day, the two travellers are up at 4:30am for the trip to Melbourne Airport and then the flight to Sydney. On the train into the city, Dawes looks out the window, recalling CBD landmarks where he once slept rough.
As they walk through the Cross, Dawes notes how gentrified the area has become. “That used to be a pub, that used to be a takeaway shop; now they are all cafes and restaurants,” he says.
Dawes leads us on a serpentine trail through East Sydney, confident he can take us back to the Matt Talbot Hostel of his past life. We are sceptical and at several points reach for Google Maps, but eventually Dawes’ atavistic sense of space clicks and we are back at the front gate of this residency. Management at the facility allow us to enter so Dawes can revisit his old stamping ground. Tired from his walk and perhaps overcome with emotion, Dawes takes a rest.
The next day, Dawes and Brophy head to the SCG to watch the Swans play Port Adelaide. The weather is inclement and the match is one-sided – the Swans led 41-0 at the first change – but neither dampens the mood. Dawes was invited to view the match in a private function centre with all the trimmings. Watching the game from the expensive seats, with a nourishing lunchtime spread and a photo with Swans forward Kurt Tippett is a world away from Dawes’ last weekend in the city.Do you have an idea for a story?
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