Michael’s family came to live in Lawson Street, Redfern, nearly 60 years ago and he was born there. His father left the marriage when Michael was 7 years old. He began school at St Benedict’s Catholic School when the teachers were all nuns. He only stayed there for two years, after which he moved to Redfern Public School and, later, spent a few years at Newtown High School (long before it was a school for the arts).
He left school when he was about 12 years old and worked in many different “dead-end” jobs, including being a “paper boy”.
In those days Redfern was basically a working class suburb, no trees in the streets, more poor people and no public housing, few Indigenous people – generally a struggling community. Having said that, Michael remembers that many people were truly good neighbours to each other – offering to carry furniture around, gathering at everyone’s funerals, knowing each other’s names and generally taking an interest in each other’s well-being.
There were pubs on virtually every corner, various factories, like the large building on the corner of Lawson and Abercrombie streets, which made leather suitcases, and lots of corner shops. People could have credit arrangements with the corner shops and the purchases would often be things like half a bottle of milk, half a loaf of bread and some loose cigarettes. Mothers would call out to the kids, “Dinner’s ready!” and castor oil was commonly used to “wash out” someone’s system.
The “Potato Man”, the “Rabbitoh” (who sold rabbits) and the “Soft Drink Man” drove around the streets selling their wares and collecting bottles. There were sometimes prizes that people could win in shops, like the gift-filled stocking in the local butcher shop.
Michael’s mother worked in two jobs to support her family, as a cleaner at “the Herald” and at night as a machinist in a factory, neither of which paid much in wages. On top of that, she also had to cook and care for her children.
Michael finally found a job as a night porter at the Hilton Hotel in the city, a job he held for 25 years. He worked from 11pm to 7.30am each day and was expected to generally look after any needs of the guests, and to be a handyman. Over the last decade, he has needed to end that work due to a heart condition.
In this period, his friend Mark Hurt has been life transforming for him in both advice and practical help. Mark once worked for Mercy Arms, until he had a heart attack and, at that time and ever since, has helped Michael sort out various issues related to his housing and future. They are a great demonstration of what true friends and neighbours can be for each other.
Michael has now sold his house in Lawson Street and will be moving into a unit some suburbs away, but still near to Mark. He knows he will miss Redfern with all his social life there and the many memories of more than half a century spent in this area. When we last saw him, he was cherishing a hand-written letter of farewell from local Federal Member, Tanya Plibersek.
Many other people here will also miss “Big Michael”. Go well, Michael!