In the pre-production years of a cinéma-vérité documentary, I travelled regularly to Melbourne to film the Australian master painter John Percaval. I had Australian Film Commission funding to film and write this documentary and it was the Commission that stipulated cinéma-vérité style. I was living the dream. I worked at SBS TV in Artarmon in Sydney, and I regularly rode the one hour flight from Sydney to Melbourne for filming and research. However, in a mad moment I decided to take the train. This was something like ten hours of torture, rattling its way through the night, arriving at Spencer Street Station around 7am, on a Sunday morning in 1995.
I was staying with a group of artists and SBS TV friends at St Kilda. To get there, I had to catch a tram from the stop immediately outside what was then called Spencer Street Station, now know as Southern Cross. I could hear the typical roars and cries of drunken men leaving the strip-club district of Kings street after their Saturday night. I never imagined I’d be assaulted at a bus and tram stop in Melbourne, but that is precisely what was about to happen. I had foolishly worn a suit, a light brown one, but a suit nonetheless. At the time I had pledged I would change my image after a nasty breakup with a tall, beautiful artist who liked dressing in torn clothes and living like a derelict.
The men were coming closer; I sensed they were coming for me. I sensed, too, they hated me, my suit, demeanour and what to them I represented. I was successful with women, they were not. After a night of gazing at naked women they could pay to watch but never have, they staggered home, drunk and ready to find a victim. When these bull-roaring drunks reached the station, they were slighter than I imagined, based on the level of noise that they made as they approached. Their first point of call was a group of young women who looked as though they were school girls on a Sunday excursion.
Soon the leader swung around, as if he sensed me: here was a man in a suit, a man likely to be successful with women. He strode straight at me, pulling out a seven-inch folding knife that flicked to the erect position with a soft click as he walked. On arrival, he this loser runs the flick-knife blade up and down my throat. I felt its blade, I felt its sharpness, and particularly stressful was its point that might any moment slice into my aorta – surely not with all of these people watching. He seemed to enjoy this, as if it gave him sexual pleasure; his eyes glowed, the corners of his mouth smiled with upturned snarl. Oh, how he hated me. This group was younger than I thought, their leader, probably a year older than the rest who were about final year high school. Their leader wore a pork pie hat, he sexualised the knife even in conversation as he dragged the blade along my throat line:
“Do you like my sweet baby, she’s beautiful isn’t she? Give me your wallet”.
The knife had leather tassels on the handle, woven sections with small coloured beads that were bound into the knots. I looked at him, then thought I could probably land a crushing kick to his groin. But if I got it wrong, I would most likely die. I managed a brave smirk and looked away, ignoring his demand for my wallet. Something must have clicked because he put the knife away and walked off. His ‘baby’ was not for me. He left with the three younger mates following. No one came to my assistance, perhaps they were worried the gang would return, and so that they too would be in danger. Fellow would-be passengers at the tram bus stop offered no eye contact, no conversation or sympathy, as if I was some sort of leper. In a normal world, they would have asked, “Are you alright? Would you like us to call the police?”
No one did anything of the sort. I was completely alone and shaking, a nervous wreck. Eventually, in Melbourne on this summer Sunday, I went to the nearby public telephone — this was before mobiles — and called Triple-O as I watched anxiously to see if the gang was returning. A woman’s voice came on the phone.
“Police, ambulance or fire brigade” the operator says.
A second woman’s voice clicks in: “What are you reporting, sir?”
“I have just been assaulted at knifepoint by a gang of youths outside Spencer Street Station. I am terrified they might return to finish me off. Can you send a patrol please?”
The voice replies: “They are on their way sir, but you’ll have to stay at that ‘phone booth, can you give me the booth number?”
“Yes, sure, but I am terrified they might return and see me calling”.
“Sir, you must stay there, otherwise we will charge you with nuisance.”
I wondered how they would locate and prosecute me with nuisance if I ran; after all, they didn’t know what I looked like. But with a great deal of fear I waited and soon there was an unmarked car beside the ‘phone booth.
“A car should be alongside any moment now,” the operator says.
“Yes, I can see it now, it has arrived. Thank you very much, that is a relief.”
I hang up and move to the open window of the car. Three large uniformed police officers filled the front bench seat. The officer on the kerbside window says:
“You just called in an assault? Please get in the back seat, move all the rubbish out of the way”.
I open the car rear door and there on the seat, on the floor, all over the rear shelf behind the seat were plastic surgical gloves, and their packaging. I quickly surveyed the gloves, I could see no discolouration to indicate they had been used, so I moved them with my hand and climbed in, working my feet through the cardboard boxes to the floor mats below.
While preliminary identification of me, the caller, was being made I noticed more police vehicles arriving. I sure had brought them out. The officer on the near-side window turned to face me as well as he could.
“Asian gang were they mate?”
“No, let me get this straight from the outset; they were Caucasian like you and I”.
They talked me over what had happened in the assault, to ascertain details, identify my assailants, and then they radioed through these details to the circling patrol cars, wagons and motor cycles. Soon there was feedback: they couldn’tspot anyone answering that description. Again the window-side officer turned and said: “They can’t find anyone who matches that description, it is beginning to look like you made a nuisance call, and you will be charged accordingly”.
I began to sense that my ordeal was about to become much worse.
“Tell them to get off their arses,” I replied. “Get out of the vehicles and walk into Spencer Street suburban rail section. Clearly the gang was heading home after a night on the town. They should look for four of them, led by an older guy with a pork pie hat.”
The policeman sitting in the middle radioed this message through to the vehicles, leaving out the ‘arses’ but including pork pie hat. I wondered if they knew what a pork pie hat was. Soon a message comes back over the radio.
“We got them, caught them red-handed. They were assaulting a man accompanied by a woman, holding him against the wall. The bloke with the pork pie hat was squeezing the victim’s neck as the knife was held at his throat. They were demanding money.”
In reports radioed through it emerged there had been a string of assaults, each increasing in violence and, in each case, the man assaulted was well dressed, young and with a woman. A group of witnesses had loosely assembled and followed the gang as each assault occurred. They were also telephoning police. Soon, we were all taken to Spencer Street Police Station; the witnesses in cars, the gang in divvie vans and no doubt handcuffed. The police took statements or, more accurately, I was verballed by a duty sergeant who wrote “my” statement and read it back too me, saying to sign it if accurate. I wondered what would happen if I responded with: “this is not accurate”. The duty sergeant was sympathetic, saying all of us victims had corroborated each other’s stories as we sat in small rooms next to each other, and he acknowledged that it would have been traumatic:
“I understand what you have been through, and you might be called to give evidence later in court. Meanwhile, our boys will drive you home. Where were you heading?”
“St Kilda,” I reply.
“The shift is about to change and so the next shift will drive you”.
Indeed the shift did change. A whole new and fresh team turned up, they opened some folding doors, which exposed us witnesses in the small interview rooms to be able to view each other, something that was not supposed to occur as it might risk compromising the trial. So there we were; awkwardly staring at each other, all of these men were well dressed and I was the only well-dressed man without a woman friend. We awkwardly disperse; I waited for my lift, then I went to the new the duty sergeant’s desk and ask about the former’s promise of a lift to St Kilda.
“We don’t do that sort of thing mate,” he replied. “We’re not a taxi service”.
“The duty sergeant from the former shift said that would happen”.
“No, you have to catch a tram. They run to Saint Kilda.”
“I have just been assaulted at knifepoint at a tram stop. I don’t feel like going to another”.
“That’s not my problem, mate”.
Outside, I flag a cab and, finally, I’m on my way to St Kilda.