If he’d have come up in New Jersey, Queens or Brooklyn, they’d have called him a corner boy. Instead, he grew up in the shadows of fire belching blast furnaces, and a massive open hearth that spit clouds of orange from its row of rusting stacks. Explosions, like incoming mortar rounds, routinely rocked his world, as molten slag was dumped into the cold waters of Sydney Harbour. Slag, the byproduct of steel making. Red hot garbage. He knew all about it. His father worked the furnaces and created many of those explosions. Robbie was a Pier Boy, so was I. He taught me plenty, although he was only slightly older.
In a way we were slag too, Pier Boys. The wrong side of the tracks byproduct of an industrial town. When we were younger we didn’t know that. By the late seventies, when it was finally our turn to don the mantle and stand the ground, we learned we were something less. We were told we could never amount to more, every time we crossed those tracks and ventured into the city.
We ran red hot too. When pretty girls flirted. They’d smile and tease just a little, and then wonder at the change in our mood as they laughed aloud at the trouble they’d be in if their fathers caught them talking to Pier Boys. Many of them did more than talk. You’d be hard pressed to find a Pier Boy who didn’t get caught, at least once, in that honey trap, only to find himself surrounded by pretty boys as he walked alone late at night. Mostly, they cursed and threatened and warned and demanded he go exactly where he was headed. Back to the Pier where he belonged. Occasionally, there was violence as five or six taught that lesson to one.
It never happened to Robbie, but he’d been there to see more than one bloodied member of our group return to our corner on his own walk of shame. For a Pier Boy, to lose a fight over town was the biggest shame of all. When it happened, we jammed into cars and raced back to settle the score. To attack one of us, was to attack all. On those nights anger and adrenalin mixed with excitement to convert a group of friends into a travelling pack, filled with a blood lust.
I’d like to say I didn’t get caught up in the frenzy then, but my body still bares scars that prove otherwise. Robbie was never eager to get in one of those cars, and when space was limited he deferred and stayed behind.
In all our years roaming those streets I never saw him throw a punch. He was more than slow to anger, he was always a calming voice of reason well beyond his years. The more adrenaline filled, the more angered, the more crazed our group, the calmer his tone. I’m not suggesting he was Gandhi, nor was he a coward, just a Pier Boy who stood out in our time.
Not that you couldn’t get a rise out of Robbie. We disagreed passionately on matters of musicianship. Arguments he’d end by shoving a couple of George Harrison albums in my hand with a calm order to go listen.
We argued music again this summer as we drove those same streets one last time. Neither of us knew who owned the corner anymore. Or if anyone even cared. We talked about a different kind of fight, one he faced alone. No one in the old gang could take his side, although he knew we had his back. He also knew he didn’t need us.
Only someone with Robbie’s innate sense of calm, could be still and quiet enough to watch an angel land on his shoulder, and not frighten her away. Together they built a bond and a family, a source of Herculean strength. He called on that strength for this final fight and used it as only Robbie would. Not to fuel anger, or ignite rage. Not to raise a fist at God. He looked cancer in the eye and showed it a wry smile. It was grace not fear. He stood tall and calm as he always had. He devoured every second and laughed at the folly that excited the rest of us.
Perhaps Edith Piaf said it most famously, “Je ne regrette rien” but when Robbie said it to me on our final day together it rang so true it scorched my very soul. I have no regrets he said as we gazed on the wasteland left by the steel plant that defined our youth. I have no regrets.
We lost Robbie today but I can’t help but think he beat cancer. He met it on his own terms and forced it to kneel and watch his joy filled final days. Robbie Jessome, the toughest Pier Boy I’ve ever known.