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The Vacuum Issue 5 spacer Issue 5
Hidden City - Interview with Bert, A Janitor Of Some City Centre Shared Housing Complexes
by John Mathews (an ex Janitor) 21/3/03
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John Mathews: Could you tell me a little bit about the drug scene within some of the buildings you work in?
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Bert: See anywhere, well not anywhere but the two main prosperities that we manage. They have always attracted drug dealers because of the students, who want to buy the drugs; it's a ready made market for them. You'll always get them and it's always been like that.
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J.M: Is there much violence associated with that and how does it operate?
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Bert: No violence, either they get into a flat illegally through someone else's name or they actually do get in themselves through the proper channels and go by the book and rent a flat and once they do that they have their customers on their doorstep, waiting for them. Do you know what I mean and that's the way it works.
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J.M: Is their much sectarianism involved within many of the buildings?
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Bert: I don't think there is a lot of that going on. I'm not saying it doesn't happen. You do get a lot of young kids, 18 or 19 whatever it is, they haven't a clue, first time they left home and come into somewhere like here. There's some idiot who if ye hit him a slap on the face he'd run away but he's cheeky enough and you find everybody in the place is afraid of him. But if they really knew, there wouldn't be any reason for them to be afraid. See down here, I've seen guys, I know you're not a violent person, but you wouldn't be afraid of them. It's just they're cheeky and they boss the young ones around and they're shit scared of them. It isn't paramilitaries but guys acting the lad till someone hits them a smack in the gob and that's all it is. There is other ones and they are dangerous, people putting knives to people's throats and that does happen.
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J.M: Yeh! I remember there was usually a lot of police call outs at the weekend.
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Bert: Down here for a while there was, but it's not as bad now, it's not the ones living here but the ones they bring in and then if you have people dealing in drugs, there are people calling round at all sorts of hours. They're already out of there fucking heads or nearly there, it's a recipe for disaster. You get them setting off fire alarms and anything else they can get there hands on. On a Monday morning you'd find somebody sleeping on the back stairway. We found a guy asleep at half nine on a Monday morning and we tried to waken him up but he was out of it either on drugs or drink but he wouldn't budge, all he was doing every time we tried to move him was make a growling noise. My colleague was starting to panic and I says to get a cup of water and I threw it over yer man's face and he woke up. He didn't like it, it was uncomfortable, but he would have just lay there, that's not unusual, it happens quite often.
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J.M: I have heard stories before of prostitution operating within some of the buildings, could you tell us a little bit about that?
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Bert: Allegedly there was, I don't know the ins and outs of it but it caused a lot of trouble. I'll tell you one thing that happened in one of the smaller premises, there was this thing going on in one of the flats, where there was just the one prostitute and she was bringing businessmen back. Apparently in conjunction with her boyfriend or whatever was using a flat belonging to someone else and they would get these businessmen apparently and bring them back there and photograph or film them when they didn't know in a compromising position. Chained to a radiator, licking a bowl or something like that and then they would bribe them, you know. Apparently that was going on there, I don't know what happened over it but we just arrived one day on another job and the door had been kicked in but it was the police who had taken finger prints and all that shit. There was this wee racket going on, these people were probably married with a few quid and these other people were trying to get some doe out of them.
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J.M: I understand there is a large gay community within some of the buildings?
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Bert: Yes, the taxi drivers used to call this building Fairyland, I knew a few of the drivers and they would say 'Pick up at Fairyland'. I remember one Christmas on the ground floor here and on my way round to the second floor there's a corridor where two corridors meet and as I was walking round the corner, this guy ran into me and he was wearing a tutu and tights and a wee ballet top. He was twittering and laughing as if this was dead funny and must have been with someone down the corridor and had just come out of a flat and ran right into me. Maybe he was going to a fancy dress party but I nearly shat myself and this was 4 o'clock in the afternoon. It was Christmas time and everybody was getting off early doing all that sort of stuff. So he must have been getting ready to do swan lake or something.
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J.M: There has been an influx of asylum seekers into Northern Ireland over the last while, have you noticed this within the makeup of the buildings you work in?
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Bert: The housing executive keep certain flats specifically for asylum seekers. We have quite a few of them here. We also have them outside Belfast in a couple of different properties, families and everything. In here its mainly young males.
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J.M: I remember before you would have crisis calls from the Housing Executive to prepare a whole series of flats at very short notice for emergency asylum seekers who needed somewhere to stay. What reason would that have been put in place?
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Bert: For one reason or other they have come over from England, Dublin or whatever and they have just arrived and they have nothing, do you know what I mean. They are there and they haven't got anything and were providing them, although it's the Housing Executive, with everything: blankets, kitchen equipment, the lot. This was before they had the provision of flats on standby and they pay a certain amount to keep those flats empty. That crisis case thing doesn't happen anymore but it used to and we would have to go get the rooms prepared.
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Death:
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...We are not allowed to go into flats without people's permission, they are self contained flats and you just don't go in. You have to have a particular reason to go in, I forget what the reason we had, but we opened the door and this particular guy was face down on the living room floor. He hadn't been dead that long, I think he took a heart attack or something but it was just the drink. Its not nice finding somebody like that. I could tell you a worse thing that happened but it wasn't to us but a fella we worked with in Portrush. He's the caretaker down there and he was going into this particular flat for a routine reason, he had to leave something in for this guy. The front door of his flat was at the bottom of the stairs and he couldn't get it open for some reason, he knew there was something behind it. So what he done was he went round in through the fire escape and behind the front door this guy was hanging from a bit of rope. He'd hung himself and the janitor freaked out and wouldn't go near the place. The relatives came down and got the body and all his things and were there. We were called down to go in and get the place ready cause he wouldn't go in, he said he couldn't handle it. He just walked through the door to find your man hanging there. It's not nice, I wouldn't have liked it. I've never seen anybody hanging by the neck. I hope I don't ever. Scary.
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I was just thinking of a flat with all these devil worshipers in it and all, In this particular flat they have single wardrobes an there bedrooms and what they were doing was putting their wardrobes on the ground and putting some bedclothes in them and sleeping in them like a coffin. We had to go into a room one time to find all these wardrobes on the ground and lifted the lid to find bedding in them. We were sitting here the other day going through it and you've got the lot here, devil worshipers, transvestites, drugies, you've got the lot here, you've got them all.
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J.M: Would the devil worshipers ever perform black masses?
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Bert: They had those things painted on the walls, those pentagons, is it you call them, all sorts of stuff, all the trappings of it. That particular flat had to be repainted again because they had everything painted like a crimson red on the walls and all these candles, decorations and stuff, fucking everything, the devil rides out and strikes again.
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J.M: You mentioned the transvestite scene within some of the buildings, could you tell us something about that.
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Bert: We've actually had a few people who have had sex changes. I had to help move some stuff from one place to another for one particular tenant. Normally we don't move stuff for tenants unless there is a good reason. I can't remember what the reason was but these were two people who had sex changes, from Liam to Lillian, something like that, there were man and now they are woman, you know. I knew this before but had never met them and this was the first time I'd come across anything like that. When I got there I didn't know what to say 'alright mate' or 'okay love'. The thing was they had all this leather gear on, you know that way. But they were okay and we went up the Ormeau Road with them and we were getting the stuff out and they were giving us a hand in with it. I think it was a Friday and the traffic was right and heavy and a fire engine just pulled up through the line of traffic, right were the van was. We were carrying the stuff out and I could see on e of the firemen coming out, just staring, and they all started whistling at them, I just jumped in the van and hid, so I did.
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J.M: It must be quite strange having this eclectic mix of people all living under the same roof, does everyone get on?
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Bert: Oh aye, but down here you've had a few Iranians and Iraqis who don't get on but I don't think there has been any real trouble between them. I think they keep there nose clean, that way, over here. I'm not saying they wouldn't because I know they hate each other, them two, but it doesn't seem to manifest itself down here. I don't think that's happened at all.
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This article runs in conjuntion with the 'Golden Mile' exhibition called 'Tonight, lets get lost' by John Mathews at Queen Street Studios from the 1st to the 30th May 2003.
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Hidden City - Interview with Bert, A Janitor Of Some City Centre Shared Housing Complexes
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