NINGENAH - SAM HOOKEY
27 March 2002
Ningenah, grew up on The Block in the 1980s. His grandmother used to live in 98 Eveleigh St. He talked about growing up with the community spirit on The Block. Sadly, at just 41, Ningenah passed away in April 2011, after illness.
My grandma moved out of Cowra, she didn’t want to be married to one of her own people. She moved from the country and she was like a gypsy. She first stayed in Taree, then Erskineville. When I came she always lived in 98 Eveleigh Street. People from all different country towns live here. There’s Hookeys, Smith, Sessmans, old Jay Moneysett, Slaters. My Aunty Kay, she and my other Aunty Pat who passed away, they both lived in Redfern. We ended up moving just up to Lawson Street, we had a house next to Mrs McCarthy, Bob McCarthy’s mum. My Uncle Dicko and Freddy Bryan lived in the church next to Father Ted’s.
It was nice and peaceful round about the 1980s. There wasn’t much drugs, nobody ever brought out drugs like they do today. 1992, 1993 that started opening up. Everybody would go out and party on, go to the pub, have a nice night out, shake hands, sit down and and be sociable. No police. It wasn’t like it is today, police harassing us. Then we could walk from here to Town Hall and the older people used to go for walks around The Block.
The kids we’ve got to protect them because they have never seen the good side of Redfern. Everyone says Redfern’s bad but it is not bad. We had all our houses up, we had dentists, coffee shops, fruit stands, we had a pizza shop, we had hock shops. I had heaps of friends from church and Black Theatre and living here.
The Black Theatre was a place made up of black sheep. No matter what state you came from or what country town you came from, there was one black sheep from that town. I used to dance up when I was going to school. We used to have dance classes upstairs while they were drinking downstairs and singing along. They didn’t bother us, they were all just our family and they were harmless. We would rather sit down there and listen to them rather than go up and dance because it was more relaxing and comfortable. I used to think of them as my big family.
You are very good with young children and you are also very respectful of the elders, you look after them. Where do you get that from?
I got that from my grandparents. They always taught me always to look up to your elders, respect them and look after the younger ones because they are the next generation and they will be looking after you. You respect them and a couple of years along the track, they will be looking after me.
The most enjoyable thing I like is when everyone just got their guitars out, all the old people, just sat down and just sang songs and enjoyed themselves. Even people older than me they were sitting down, they had grown, and just listen to the music and singing along. If they didn’t know the song, they’d just tap their feet and just enjoy themselves. It was just harmony.
We had heaps of fires in the winter, sitting around. When other people came from different towns they said they couldn’t believe we had a fire right in the middle, wouldn’t we get in trouble. I said, ‘Hey look, this is our mission. It is like your mission. You build a fire on your mission, we’ll build a fire on our mission. A lot of people did spin out and say they had never ever seen this in the city, a fire right near the city.
What do you think about when you sit down and look at the fire?
It brings back memories of all the people I grew up and was reared with. People have passed away over the years. Big Uncle Fred, Uncle Tommy, Uncle Stan, Daphne, it just keeps going on and on. Wayne. I was only young and they all treated me as their son. I was the youngest out of the lot of them then. Sharon Chiller, do you know Joe Bonham, his girl friend. The Black Theatre and the church people. She was about twenty-three and I was about nineteen, twenty. She was the youngest girl and I was the youngest boy and we got treated like their own. We had great-aunties, great-uncles, nannies, poppies, mums and dads. We loved them and respected them and they showed us that they loved us and respected us too. I might have my ups and downs and I talk and I cry to the brothers. If I’m down and out and I go and ask for advice because they are older than me and they’ve always said if I ever need advice, just come and ask.
The younger generation is asking me for advice now because, like they say, they all look up to me as a big leader and respect me. I am thankful I’ve got a gift like that and I can talk to them. It doesn’t matter if they are on drugs or drunk, but at least I’ve got the time to sit down and just have a talk. I thought that is more comfy than just saying I don’t want to have anything to do with it and just walking away from it. We can just sit down here. With teenagers, it is better to calm them down rather than they just walk round the corner. The main thing is you have five or ten minutes. It makes me feel happy and makes them feel a whole lot prouder of themselves. They say, “If Uncle can do it, why can’t we do it?”
All they need is a bit of TLC [tender loving care] like we got. We had a lot of that, because there were only two of us young people, me and Sharon, compared to the kids today, there’s about sixty-seven of them, who don’t even get a quarter of what we got. It is very sad. That is probably why I am so energetic because the kids keep me going and I think that is a really strong part of my life anyway. Without them I think I would already have been dead by now.
There are a lot of elderly women coming into the top of The Block in the last few weeks.
They are getting a bit lonely and they want to be back with their family. We all grew up together and have lived in one big whole mob. You can’t take it away from all of us because we all are just one family, even though we lost a lot on the way. We still have a lot who have got standing, that is why we all get together when they come down.
They have all got houses but I don’t think they are comfortable, they miss the freedom. They see us squat around and I think it makes them feel, ‘That’s what I used to do. I used to be like them young fellows. I used to squat here.’ In a way it is good for them because they feel more comfortable, more relaxed. If they didn’t, they’d be home in their houses. Plus we look after them too. We rug them up and we do everything, clean up, help them out. We all grew up as one. That is the best part about it we’ve never broken that bond and I don’t think we will ever break it.
You are very close, I can see that. You are very, very close. It is like one big family, isn’t it up there? It is very precious. Nobody can break that. You are very lucky because in a white world there are really more people who are much more lonely than the elders here. They are much more lonely because they don’t have that sense of family.
We have always grown up with them. Not only all of us. We have white friends, we have all different races in our families. The Black Theatre was all about inviting people in to our circle because we were all black sheep, it doesn’t matter if you are white, black, Chinese, you are the odd one out of the family. Like a mystery to some. Always up to mischief. We have had white people, Chinese people and Islanders and all that. We are all the same.
So you sat down and you decided that you would welcome anyone. Did you have to make rules?
No. Open arms. Someone would ring someone and say, ‘Look my friend has got nowhere to stay’, and that’s it, he is a part of the family. He leaves whenever he wants to leave, but most of them don’t leave because we are too close. We get too close and it is just hard to leave each other.
Were there any leaders? Was there a leader there among you?
Uncle Max, Aunty Judy, Aunty Eunice, Uncle Merv. All the elders. What they said went because they were all older than us and we all just followed because we all had respect for each other. Like certain places. Very organised. God bless them all because they are all marvellous. They always look after us. No matter where we sleep, no matter what we do, they will always be our family.
Interviewer: Sr Pat Ormesher