AFL Round 12: Adelaide v North Melbourne: Of Simmo and a Sunday night in Fitzroy

By Andrew Starkie

The only distinctive features on the front exterior of an otherwise unremarkable Fitzroy terrace house are the image of the Virgin Mary and the handwritten sign advertising meal times.  This is the Missionaries of Charity Men’s Refuge and Soup Kitchen.  It’s off Gertrude Street. Most pass by without noticing it on their way home or while going out to have coffee in Brunswick Street.  Those seeking shelter or food enter via the gate in the back lane.

I’ve been volunteering here on Sunday nights for nearly ten years.  When I started, I was working in a soulless city office where the only fulfilling task I completed all week was my footy tips.  When someone left that office it was like a trapdoor had opened and their desk and chair had dropped through.  It was as if they’d never been there. It was that type of office.

At the expense of an hour or two of my weekend, I’m able to contribute to society and feel better about my place in it.

Sunday nights mean vegie soup, roast chicken, and fruit for dessert.  All food is donated.  Tonight, as always, the kitchen is smoky and humid.  The industrial oven blasts out steam and the sinks are filling with dishes.  Sister Jovier offers polite instructions in her looping Indian accent. It’s a quiet night, with many regulars yet to drift back to the city after the charity footy game at Elsternwick.

I’m in my usual position at the end of the chain of nuns and volunteers, handing food to the men.

There’s not much talk in the queues.  Some give quick thanks or nod and move on to devour their meal privately or to chat with mates.  Others look at the ground with empty, grey eyes.  They’re lonely, their pride hurting, but this is their lot.

Occasionally, you get trouble from a drunk or addict.  Sister Jovier, all five foot of her, quickly pulls them into line.  Drugs are taking a greater hold, she tells me.  The younger guys have been giving the older men grief.  Neighbours have complained to the local police over the noise.  Sister worries for the future of the soup kitchen.

I have my radio tucked into my shirt pocket and an earpiece in. Simmo’s playing his 300th away against Adelaide.

I should hate the Crows for what they did to us in ’98.  My family and I were behind the city goals.  Carey knifed his first shot out on the full and we watched in horror during the second quarter as shot after shot missed.  We should’ve had the grand final sewn up. The Crows started getting their hands on the ball before half-time.  Smart, McLeod and Ricciuto tore through us in the second half.  Caven ran off Carey.  It was a nightmare I wanted to wake up from, but couldn’t.

I spent that night wandering East Melbourne streets.  Some kid wiped a Crows flag across my face.

I should hate the Crows but I don’t.  I admire them in the way you admire an opponent that is just too bloody good.

‘Who’s winning, mate?’ asks Andy, a regular, as he reaches me in the queue.  He’s an educated and tormented man.  The sisters tell me he comes from money, but lost it gambling.  Spurned by his family, he lives in his car.

‘Crows by two goals, quarter-time,’ I reply.

‘Oh, God bless, mate.’

James, a tall, slender African with ashen skin, is helping with the dishes.  He has tribal markings on his forehead and holds himself like a warrior; or a prince.  James supports the Hawks and used to like Vandenberg because he was a strong leader.

‘I believe you will struggle tonight, Andrew,’ he whispers.

He’s right.  The Kangaroos are committing bodies in the wet conditions, however, we are turning the ball over.  Hale is out tonight and we lack forwards.  Jones kicks our only goal for the first half.

The Crows are using the wet ball better.  They’re seizing our turnovers and are more dangerous going forward.  They goal just before half-time and hold a comfortable lead.

We fight on in the second half.  McIntosh, Petrie and Thompson are courageous.  Our skills continue to let us down.  Thomas and Edwards miss set shots. The Crows punish us.  In the last quarter, we wilt and the margin grows.  We kick three goals for the match.  Ziebell has broken his leg.

As the lounge empties and we wipe tables, Maurice is telling me how grateful he is the sisters took him in.  Previously sleeping rough in St. Kilda, he’s been staying upstairs for two weeks and hasn’t had a beer in that time.  He has a broken arm as a result of an argument over money.  Honour is important.  Maurice is helping out with the daily running of the place and likes the purpose this has brought to his life.  Handsome and dignified, Maurice looks like a digger from a black and white World War 2 photo.

After the match in Adelaide, Simmo is presented with a medal to commemorate his 300th.  He implores his club to stay strong and have faith during this challenging journey.  In Fitzroy, homeless men drift away down the cobbled lane, disappearing into another cold night.

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