Same, But Different

“I’m sorry, I have absolutely no idea who you are…” is the kind of phrase you never really want to hear. especially when it’s delivered by someone you’ve known for over twenty years.

I was wandering home on Friday night, having spent the evening with a friend at the newly re-opened Newtown Hotel. And just metres from home I saw a very attractive tall blonde woman standing outside a Surry Hills restaurant and speaking on the phone. It was a woman I first met twenty years ago, and who I last heard from via email a few months ago, and who I last saw at a wedding a year ago. She’s a lovely woman, and it’s always great to see her. And so I waited for her to finish her call, standing a few metres away.

And that’s when she delivered that killer line. Normally it’s the kind of thing that would cause your heart to jump, and for you to wonder how you got it all so terribly wrong. But there was no need to worry. In just a half-beat, I laughed realising it was my friend’s identical twin sister. D’oh!

For many years, my friend’s twin had lived in the United States and so we had never actually met before. “We look a lot a like these days”, she told me, as I noted they now boasted identical hair styles as well. “Say hi from James from Wagga”, I told her, as I made my way home. I’m sure it happens all the time, and it must get a little tiresome for them both, but for me it was an amusing experience and anecdote, and one which was strangely, analogous, for the evening spent at the Newtown Hotel.

Newtown Hotel Tombstone
Newtown Hotel Tombstone upon closure in 2007

For years, the Newtown Hotel was one of the landmark gay hotels in Sydney, with an everyday crowd, drag shows, unisex stripper contests and so on. It was the place you would go to in the evening, until it closed about midnight, and then you would make your way to The Imperial to see one of their iconic drag shows. But the Newtown closed rather dramatically in 2007.

Although it re-opened a couple of years ago with a mini-makeover, the gay and lesbian communities of Sydney have been waiting with anticipation the re-opening of a large, successful gay pub. In the last couple of years, the Sydney gay scene has undergone a transformation. Thanks largely to the internet, a lot of the reasons people used to go to gay bars – to make friends, to have friend, to pick-up – have gone on-line, and many bars no longer hold much attraction. As a result, the remaining pubs have been forced to cut costs, and thus, have become even less attractive places to go.

I’d hazard a guess there’s been a major investment in the “New Newtown”. I haven’t seen the figures, but it would have been millions and millions of dollars. The pub has had a major architectural re-design, with more levels, more spaces, and even outdoor verandah areas. “The view’s pretty good up here”, my friend and I agreed as we sat on the second floor and enjoyed the view down King Street. “You couldn’t have gotten better weather”, my friend added.

In the old days, the number of people who attended the re-opening would never have fitted into the bar. Or maybe they would, as the place was often very full. I remember on one occasion the place was so packed that it was easier to cross the road and get a beer at nearby bar than struggle through the crowd to the bar. On Friday, the bar was full, but not so much that you felt uncomfortable. You could make it to the toilets and back fairly easily.

The downstairs bar is your normal priced beer bar. Upstairs, the beer prices go up, and there’s more variety. There’s also a restaurant. On top of that, there’s a room which could easily book for a birthday party or a board meeting, and there’s even plans for a small cinema.

“But will it be gay”? was the question my friend asked as we caught the bus from Railway Square. “It’ll depend on the bar staff”, I told him. Although not entirely sure of the sexual proclivities of those serving us beer, my guess they’re part of the generation and crowd where it doesn’t matter so much. “They’re certainly not hipsters”, I told him. Gay or not, people felt comfortable with the bar staff, I think.

We recognised quite a few faces on Friday night, and ran into some friends. My friend recognised a former Sydney drag queen who he hadn’t seen and who had lived in Sweden (of all places) for eight years. We spoke Swedish. “I never thought I’d be speaking Swedish in The Newtown Hotel”, he laughed. I also ran into one of the students I’ve recently been chatting to. The world is too small.

Although now physically very different, there was something warmly familiar about the newly re-opened Newtown Hotel. Same, but different.

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