'I Thought I Had Walked Into The End Of The World': Judith Baragwanath On Life After Dark
Model turned muse, socialite turned recluse, maitre d’ turned critic... the former “girl about town” reveals her most memorable nocturnal capers from Auckland to New York
I still get the shakes when I think about all the things I’ve done after dark. I’m a walker covering long distances and, casting my mind back, I recall a party in Herne Bay that started out with such promise and ended abruptly when some hipster pulled out a joint rendering everyone mute and I did, for the first time, what became known as Judith’s Amazing Disappearing Act.
One minute there and the next gone: out the door and down the road in the dead of night.
Back then, in the 70s, hailing a cab was verboten and so I’d start the long walk home: through Ponsonby, along Karangahape Road, over Grafton Bridge and on and on all done in sky-high platform heels. I thought nothing of it.
Ponsonby was a slum — hard to comprehend today with its flash multi-million dollar villas and posh cafes, but a slum it was — and considered dead dodgy to be wandering about alone. And as for K Road — our very own Street of Shame — danger lurked, it was said, on every corner and down every alley. I never had a problem. The hookers and trannies had their turf. Cars cruised and idled as deals were struck and the girls were spirited away in the company of total strangers to do whatever had to be done parked up in the myriad dark, unlit back streets.
The pubs were rough — no doubt about it — and I developed a sixth sense simply crossing the road when a fight spewed out onto the pavement, and they did; ugly and nasty with fists, boots and bottles but, oddly, K Road felt safe, unlike deserted and, to my mind, dangerous Queen Street (alive only with hoons in cars) because up on the ridge there were always people about — safety in numbers, if you like — and open shops to run into if, by chance, there was a hint of trouble coming my way. There never was.
In New York City the same nocturnal wandering kicked up a notch. I walked through the Bowery twice late at night and alone. This was back in the late 70s when punk was the thing and I found myself several times at CBGB. It was an internationally famous music destination where the doorman, a Neanderthal wearing a building construction hard hat, struck just the right tone to the squalor and mega-heavy nihilistic vibe inside.
The loos were located down a heavily graffitied concrete tunnel with a conga line of dealers selling every imaginable drug to get you through the long night in this hell-hole of the damned. The bands were diabolical, Debbie Harry was a glamourous, tiny doll and by about 2am it was time for me to hit the road.
The Bowery was the city’s skid row: a notorious no-go zone (even by day and locked in a car) where violent drunks, junkies, hustlers, hookers and other creatures of the night congregated and would not take kindly, I was told, to an outsider drifting through their patch. I had been warned but, hey, what the hell: you only live — or possibly die — once.
I thought I had walked into the end of the world: folks, down on their luck, either passed out under plastic sheeting in the snow or hunkered down in cardboard boxes and, those still standing, huddled over burning cans of trash to keep warm. They looked at me. I looked at them. A hand was raised in greeting and I moved through untouched and unmolested. How and why I will never know. Just dumb luck? Probably. It still keeps me awake at night.
Studio 54 was at the other end of the spectrum entirely. Up on West 54th Street, the long, frantic, snaking queue to, hopefully, make it through the red velvet rope barrier went on all night and was just, let’s be candid, a fantasy to your average New Yorker: not famous enough or beautiful enough or screamingly outrageous enough or a member of the press pack hungry for a tabloid headline. They didn’t stand a chance: the doorman’s standard of entry into Sodom’s very own playground was just too exacting.
For the chosen ones, however, it was the hottest ticket in town; Party Central to a cast of thousands either up on the balcony indulging, quite brazenly, in activities of a sexual nature or gyrating on the dancefloor below a huge neon image of the man-in-the-moon with one moveable part — a silver coke spoon. You get the picture.
Studio 54 was that kind of place and when it all got too tedious and I hadn’t been run-over by Rollerena, a towering drag queen on skates lit up like a Christmas tree, I’d make my way to Central Park, a vast, green, beautiful oasis during the day and an absolute no-no at night. A hunting ground for marauding gangs of thieves, rapists and killers; that wasn’t just popular thinking, it was a fact.
A lone, defenceless woman was just asking for it, right? Wouldn’t get out alive. DOA and all that. I navigated my way by moon, stars and streetlamp into the light of day, and lo, the sky didn’t fall in and no one died. Lucked out again? It’s a mystery. Nothing kept happening.
The Auckland Domain is not a patch on Central Park but it still has a certain allure at night. Down from the ‘big house’ on the hill and past a few harmless rough sleepers there is a tranquil little spot tucked away off the main drag called Watson’s Bequest. It became a favourite haunt for years. And this time with company not yet slavishly attached to their mobile phones.
In the moonlight, the trees are beautiful, the flower beds well tended and three Grecian statues representing Auckland’s strength, wisdom and fertility stand guard over an enticing reflecting pool: a liquid looking glass just begging for a raging, trainee Narcissus to gaze lovingly at himself and fall head over heels into the water. It had to happen. Oh, how we laughed. And, with midnight moments like this, I am again reminded of John Milton’s great line in Paradise Lost: “What hath night to do with sleep?” Exactly.