An essay by Kayt Bronnimann
We lived above an S&M nightclub that was off limits to us. Urge was strictly boys only, and we were a flat of four girls. The dress code was leather (from the waist down), and upper attire was optional. Our only glimpse into the world below was the throbbing bass that filled our flat into the early hours of the weekend. Mike, the bouncer, was American. A self-professed bear: straight up biker daddy fantasy complete with motorcycle, chaps and a white beard down to his bulging belly. He never once gave in to our ploy to infiltrate Urge’s interior. But he did watch our place if we went out at night.
Our flat lay near the end of Karangahape Road–or K Road, as it is affectionately known– just before it intersects with the more gentrified Ponsonby. I would traverse its length each day: rushing to uni or work or the Lim Chhour asian supermarket. I would weave past the sex shops cum legal drug sellers, the Las Vegas Strip Club, past Family with its rainbow sign and 24-7 clientele. I’d cross diagonally over Pitt St and walk by the vintage clothing stores inside St Kevin’s Arcade: Vixen, Fast & Loose, Peachy Keen all suggesting, maybe, different personas to put on for the night. I’d saunter past Rasoi, with its array of Indian sweets tempting in the window, and the plethora of plastic proffered by Iko Iko. I’d cross over Queen Street and walk all the way to the road’s end. For a place so full of life it finished at a graveyard. I could walk that path with my eyes closed.
Karangahape Road existed long before colonial contact. Part of a ridgeline that stretched between Auckland’s twin harbours, its Māori name lasted past European arrival, a rare act of survival for the time and in part due to its long history as a thoroughfare for iwi. When European settlers first arrived, their plans for Auckland did not include Karangahape– for a long time the unskilled tongues of the colonisers simply referred to it as ‘The Road’. Attempts were made to change its name to something more palatable for Pākehā, with Elizabeth and Victoria offered as alternatives. But K Road is for queens, though not of the monarchical variety. It belongs to the drag elite, seasoned performers like Tess Tickle and Buckwheat ruling from the palaces of Caluzzi and Family. We created names for our own gender-bending alter egos. My best effort was Urethra Franklin.
I lived in a room that had no window. The carpet had a stain like a bruise from the time my friends had misjudged their strength when charging their wine bottles together– the merlot didn't survive the encounter. Our flat sat between two art galleries. As broke students, their openings were an opportunity to appear cultured while filling our bellies. We would peruse the art, enjoying an hors d’oeuvre dinner washed down with the complimentary booze. Wine glasses were frequent casualties of war in our flat but were easily replaced by the art gallery stock. Other days we would traipse over to Hare Krishna where five bucks could get you a tray laden with comforting vegetarian food. We’d smoke shisha outside the kebab shop and watch the midnight masses flow past.
K Road attracted a multitude of personalities. My favourite was an older trans woman who strutted down the road languorously each day. Stockings laddered, wig resting precariously upon her head yet, she oozed poise. One day, as I passed her by, someone called out “Have a great day!” She turned and gave a satisfied smile. “I always do”, she drawled. The tone was a perfect companion to her swagger.
There was Dancing Stevie. A delightful juxtaposition to the monochrome malaise of the scenester kids (Hipsters of our day). His ubiquitous red velvet blazer would be buttoned over an ever changing array of brightly patterned lycra tights. Perfect for agility (and his signature late night dance floor lunges). He would pirouette past you, a perplexing combination of grace and anxiety, moving like a whirlwind to his job at the second hand bookstore in George Court. One of many historical buildings in the area and where, in the thirties, my nana sold clothes to fashion-conscious women.
There were other recurring characters upon which we bestowed nicknames. Epithets that sprang from the bold insensitivity of youth. Rapist Man: sinewy limbs, bookended with cowboys boots and hat, his shiny silver belt buckle the single counterpoint to his uniform of black. Pink Cardie Lady: A middle aged sex worker whose beat lay in our line of sight. We drank wine and smoked cigarettes on our roof, watching her climb into idling cars. Rod Stewart Guy: a grizzled, miniature version of his rocker doppelgänger, once found blissfully sleeping on a scorched rush hour footpath, vodka bottle for a pillow. Sticks: a wandering prophet whose staff was a thin piece of wood encased in a rollerblade topped with a plastic doll. One Dread was more elusive. Dressed in communist grey, his giant matted dread was a thing of legends. Falling nearly to his feet, I often wondered how heavy it felt to carry around.
But The Countess was the true face of K Road. Margaret was her real name, though she had as many monikers as the rumours of her past. She had been a model, she had been an heiress fallen from grace, a rich widow. Every day without fail found her parked up outside St Kevin’s arcade with jandals dangling from her purpled feet. She chain smoked cigarettes while drinking port in a plastic cup. The kind you find in the dentist’s office. The Jurassic Park warning sign. The type of cup that can easily crack between careless (or nervous) hands. When she died, there were endless tributes on social media and newspaper articles written in her honour. I wonder if she knew how her presence became part of all of our history, bound up in the memories of K Road.
Just as it was in pre-colonial history, Karangahape Road is a place to connect you to somewhere else. Buses idled on the K Road overpass before heading down Great North Road towards the black sand beaches of Waitakere. Once traversed on foot by local iwi, moving between the Waitemata and Manukau, now more modern forms of transportation carried people away. But these people, sequestered away in their vehicles, had it all wrong. Streets should not be held at a distance through moving windows. A barrier between you and the life they hold. These thoroughfares are meant to be walked. Perambulated. Traversed. Loitered. And loved.
Blarney St in Cork was where I escaped to after Uni. It rose steeply from the town and was home to a whole host of dingy pubs. Their darkened windows gave little away of the activities that went on inside. My Irish flatmate John told me I’d best not venture inside. The patrons were older men, gaelic speaking, and not partial to the company of women when beer was present. Once again my gender excluded me. Then there was the stretch of road that once held the Berlin wall– a place I had wanted to visit since my high school German days. This ideological divide had stretched 155km, separating Germany and entire families. By the time I visited, what was left of the wall had transformed to an outdoor gallery. Street artists had painted its drab facade with murals. Tourists recreated Dmitri Vrubel’s painting, the iconic image of Brezhnev and Honecker sharing a kiss, but holes from bullets were a reminder of a more dangerous time. But these days the gaps in the wall were more likely to have come from keen fingered visitors. Signs dotted along the wall asked people to kindly refrain from nabbing their own piece of cold-war history.
These days my love is centred on Newtown. Its inhabitants are a mix of social housing, idle youth and immigrants. A welcome change from the civil servants suits swarming through the central city. It has managed to resist the pull of gentrification that other streets have fallen prey to. A man who looks like Karl Marx is a permanent fixture outside People’s Coffee. Holding court with whoever joins him on the wooden benches outside in the sun. I trawl through its second hand stores, enjoy the array of foods on offer at the halal store and watch people while drinking beer at Moon.
Then there are the places that stretch the possibilities of what streets can be. Like Taiwan, where a footpath is merely a suggestion. A pavement only for walking is a frivolous waste of space. Footpaths double as front yards, garages, scooter car parks, shop fronts, plant nurseries, a place to hold offerings during ghost month, when acrid smoke from burning ghost money fills the air. I think about the airport runway in Buka on Bougainville Island. Which, after the final plane of the day departs, becomes the town’s favourite hangout. Children kick soccer balls across its hot surface. Friends gather in clumps at its heart to sit and chat while music blasts through boombox speakers. In the early mornings it’s a short cut for women taking their vegetables to the market. They protest when a fence, to keep out unwanted vehicles (read: humans), begins to be built.
Urge and the galleries are gone now. The exterior of our flat has been repainted to another shade of the not quite white spectrum. And K Road’s red light district reputation has started to fade beneath the inevitable creep of gentrification. The roads have changed but we remember their past shapes, held in our mind like collective palimpsests. Our shared recollections of these streets become internal archives in the face of external transformations through the years. A collection of experiences– mundane and magical– that played out on their tarmac, beneath their awnings, that sit in layers in the infrastructure of our mind. A place to retreat and wonder, what it was like all those nights beneath our feet, in the throbbing disco beat of a night club not for us.
Kayt is a writer, photographer, researcher and feminist who lives in Whanganui-a-Tara but hails from Te Tai Tokerau. A nomad at heart, she seeks to document the unnoticed and capture the quiet in her writing and photos.