Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Phoenix (or: I used to live in Canberra)

I used to live in Canberra. People assume you can’t live in Canberra, in any real sense of the term living. But those people are mistaken.

True, most of Canberra is an unbearably atrocious, soulless, neat, tidy, public servant collared-shirt-underneath-a-lovely-knitted-sweater-wearing hell. This is undeniable.

But there is respite. It is called The Phoenix. It isn’t just respite - it is quite possible the best pub I know of. There is an inverse relationship between The Phoenix and the rest of Canberra. The degree to which the rest of Canberra resembles hell is directly related to the degree by which The Phoenix resembles heaven. It is as good as the rest of Canberra is bad.

Everyone who doesn’t fit into the polo-necked shirt-wearing hell of Canberra seeks refuge in The Phoenix.

It is easy to find, too. It is in the closest thing Canberra has to a “city centre”, and it has a chalk board out the front with the word “pub” written on it and an arrow pointing to the door. You might have to queue on a Friday if you get there late enough, but it wont make any difference if you have on a three piece suit or are wearing thongs. (Pretty much every other place at a similar time is full of the polo-neck shirt-wearing prats).

The Phoenix is usually full of its fair share of drunks. As such, it pays little attention to the normal rules of the working week. Friday’s are usually packed out, it is true. But you have almost as much chance of find the place raucous until after midnight on a Tuesday or Wednesday night — depending on a combination of the mood of the clientele and the mood of the bar staff (who, when desperate to go home, will resort to shouting “it’s closing time, thanks for coming, now FUCK OFF!!!”)

However “closing time” doesn’t always mean “closing time for everyone”, and it isn’t unheard of for regulars to gain entry in the early hours of the morning to join other regulars, and the bar staff, in violating the licensing laws.

Amongst other features, The Phoenix also has a non-smoking section — as is only proper (to say nothing of “legally required”) in this day and age. Unfortunately for non-smokers, it is situated out the back. The section around the bar is “smoking”, and on a busy night the whole front section is barely visible through the heavy cloud of smoke. Not the most practical arrangement, but it does help keep out undesirable elements.

What sort of person frequents The Phoenix? Well, I provide one case study culled from an old email, from about five years ago, below:

I was in the Phoenix on Tuesday night. I wont name the person I was there drinking with, for fear of bringing their otherwise good name into disrepute by associating them with a den of sin and depravation such as The Phoenix. So let’s just call them “Kristian”.

Anyone who knows “Kristian” will know how out of character it was for him to be frequenting such an establishment. However, he is a person given to charity work, so clearly was there to see what poor souls he could assist.

Kristian introduced me to an individual, propped somewhat unsteadily up at the bar, called Justin. I wondered how Kristian could know such a clearly “dodgy” character, but figured that charity work amongst the less fortunate brings contact with all sorts.

Justin was in his late thirties, with short, balding hair and about four days growth. He was wearing an old woolen jumper, coming apart and full of holes, that almost succeeded in obscuring what was a generous pot belly. He was slurring his words a little and swaying a bit, but with all the air of a man for whom this is his natural condition — and a condition to be carried with pride.

He was someone who had not moved on in the slightest from his student days.

He told me proudly that he comes from a long line of radicals. His grandfather founded the Communist Party in Canberra. He even knows the exact address of grandfather’s house that served as the first Communist Party headquarters here.

“Me and Kristian used to walk past it on the way back from the pub in the old days.”

“Yes”, said Kristian. “You were so proud you pointed it out and told me the same story seven nights in a row.” (Note: clearly charity work amongst the less fortunate is a full time occupation.)

But particular interesting for me was he used to live in my hometown of Perth. Not just that, but he played a role in an event of some nostalgic significance for me — the first protest I attended as a student way back in 1995.

It was a protest against the then-Keating government’s attempt to introduce up-front fees for university courses. I followed when Resistance led a section of the crowd off to occupy the Austudy offices. Justin is especially proud of his role in this. He lead the way smashing the door down. Lost his shoe and appeared on the front page of the West Australian.

“They always want to condemn you for radical action, but it's like Castro said ‘History will absolve me!'” he says earnestly, almost falling off his chair.

Of course, radical action has its costs for those involved. Castro went to jail. Justin lost a shoe. And this meant that, having at the end of the protest only one boot (the cops apparently having stolen the other), he couldn’t get into the pub for after-rally drinks. Struggle exacts the harshest of sacrifices.

But politics soon moved onto a topic clearly close to his heart. Poohey pants.

“Who wants to hear a poohey pants story?”

He ignores the vote and stands, swaying with wild arm gestures, to launch into it.

He was, he says in the middle of a bender. “When are you not?”, someone suggests.

No, he insists, a real bender. One where you go for months drinking from first thing in the morning until you go to sleep.

He was wearing his good friend Scott's white woollen underpants. (His friend George, who was standing next to him and trying his hardest to ignore the “poohey pants” story, was forced to respond when Justin slapped him hard on his arm exclaiming “You remember Scottie!” George gave a reluctant nod of recognition, and stared into his schooner).

I asked why he was wearing his friends underpants. He treated my question as though the answer was obvious.

“It was the middle of a bender. There were no other clean undies.”

Anyhow, there was a dinner party. He had to take a leak. He goes to the toilet and he explains how, during a bender, things “get pretty messy out back”. He stands there and, as he pisses, his bowel simultaneously loosen…

“Oh fuck!”

He takes off his trousers and removes the now-poohey underpants. He is not quite sure what to do with the them, so he looks around and hides them under a washing basket full of clothes in the laundry. He figures they are safe for the time being. No one is going to notice them during the dinner party itself, and he can deal with them discreetly later. He goes downstairs to rejoin the festivities.

What he didn’t count on was the resident dog. The dog’ s keen nose leads it inevitably to the washing basket, and nosing around, it finds the thoroughly shit-covered pants. Proud of its find, it eagerly takes off down the stairs to show off. The dinner party, having only been recently rejoined by the secretly underpants-free Justin, is confronted by the happy dog, poohey underpants in its mouth, running around the table.

“It did laps!”, a hapless Justin tells us, pausing for a decent swig from his schooner.

He says there was nothing he could do. It was obvious to all present that he had just shat himself. Including Scott. Who, as the dog circled the dinner party guests, suddenly cried out: “Hey! Those underpants are mine!”

He tells this story without a hint of shame. It has his immediate audience in tears of laughter. Unfortunately, this only encourages him. He decides to tell another poo-related story.

It goes way back to when he was 19 and travelling in Europe. He was in Amsterdam, and not accustomed to smoking marijuana of the strength the Dutch provide.

One day he gets back to his hostel stoned out of his nut, and decides what he needs is a shower. With only two shower cubicles, he has to wait for one to become free. Eventually a guy walks out of one, and Justin walks in. He closes the door and sees, before him in the middle of the shower, a turd.

As he stares at it — stoned out of his skull — a queue is forming outside his shower. Paranoia begins to grip him as he realises that whoever comes in next is going to blame him for that shit. As he showers, he figures he has got to get rid of this turd somehow.

Water running, he uses his foot to push the shit towards the drain and his toes to forces it down the plug hole. A slow and unpleasant process, but, he says, it ultimately works. He manages to get rid of all the shit.

Relieved, he walks out of the shower cubicle and starts to leave when the German tourist who was in the cubicle next door emerges suddenly and calls out, in front of the long line of people waiting for a shower: “I saw the turd! There was a turd and you tried to get rid of it, but I saw the turd!”

So, that is the cliental at the Phoenix.