Ghetto. Ski School. God. Country.
The Ghetto was a lightless basement apartment buried in the Kilamanjaro condominium complex, a weekly vacation rental at Falls Creek, a ski resort in Victoria, Australia. It had low ceilings, no windows, particleboard walls, a few bare light bulbs, a galley kitchen, two bedrooms with bunks, and a bathroom with hot water that disappeared after the first month. Jamie was a DJ and soul aficionado from the north of England, Sam a foul-mouthed Scottish pup straight from high school, and Ryo was the son of a Kyoto salaryman. None of us had ever been to Australia before, and we knew no one. It was the Australian winter of 2000, and I was about to turn 21. (Oh yeah, and there was Nigel, an Aussie wannabe playboy intermittently crashing every few weeks.)
The four of us, all ski instructors, moved there at the start of the season when we were denied staff housing, which apparently went to the more senior instructors, who, it should be said, were Austrians, a pure mountain race that dominates ski schools worldwide. Cast off down the mountain (literally, the place was a couple hundred feet downhill from the other instructors), we were placed in the hands of Marni, Kilimanjaro’s eccentric owner. A sixty something year old, surgically preserved nymphomaniac who never let her cleavage go unexposed, Marni lived in a master suite four stories above us, along with her thirty-something-year-old boyfriend JJ (an apartheid-era South African soldier), and her ex-husband John, who had been a fighter pilot in Vietnam, a professional ski racer in Aspen, and was now betting on horses via some complicated video link, looking like a pickled version of George Hamilton.
Marni’s deal was straightforward: we could live in the Ghetto, rent free, as long as we cleaned the condominiums each Sunday. Within a week, we bonded as men who live in confined spaces often do, quickly becoming an adopted family, like the scrappy crew of an army tank rolling its way across the plains of Europe, leaving a trail of pungent ski socks, Victoria Bitter beer cans, and inside jokes in our wake. We ate every meal together, skied together, worked together, drank together, pulled Sam out of drunken fights together, drank more together, and cleaned Kilimanjaro hung over together. Each morning, we’d awake to Bill Withers’ Lovely Day , howling Bill’s last “dayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as we stepped out the door into the snow, or, more often, freezing rain.
Around the mountain, we became known as The Ghetto Crew, and soon acquired a sort of Dangerfield-esque reputation as the scruffy outcasts in the polished ski school. We had our supporters: Jade – Sam’s girlfriend, turned caring den mother; Tony, the elder hippie ski school supervisor; Elise, the welcoming bartender. We even had an oath of descending allegiances–Ghetto, Ski School, God, Country– patterned after the Marines’ (Unit, Corps, God, Country) which we’d picked up from A Few Good Men.
The Saturday before I went back to Canada, we made a big dinner at Marni’s place (Ryo had cooked in Japan) and afterward threw a big party in the Ghetto, filling it with Jaggermeister, smoke, and ski bums. The four of us dressed the same – in surf shorts and flip flops – and had died our hair orange with peroxide for the occasion. I have a clear memory of Jamie, falling in the slush in his shorts, screaming “Ghetto, Ski School, God, Country!” over and over, until we had to carry him home.
The next morning, we got to scrubbing shower tiles and making dozens of beds in a haze of liquor fumes and exhaustion. Our bodies spent from the work and hangovers, with fingers raw from powdered bleach, we trudged back down into the dank of the Ghetto for our last night as comrades. We each selected an item of clothing to trade with each other. I got Ryo’s green t-shirt, Sam’s Scottish indoor dry skiing shirt, and Jamie’s Austrian Addidas top (which he regrets to this day).
The next winter, Sam was working in Whistler, British Columbia, and we met up when I was on spring break. It was the first time I’d seen any of the Ghetto crew, and after a few exchanges of gossip and news, we kind of realized it was also one of the first times either of us had been together without Ryo and Jamie. “I’ve got something for you,” Sam said, pulling a long sleeve t-shirt out of his bag. “Marnie made these after you left, and gave them to all of us. Sorry about the tear and blood on the arm, I wore it one night and a dog bit me.”
The white, hooded, long sleeve jersey had been designed by Jamie, with the Kilimanjaro logo, our names, and the slogan “Ghetto Crew…we cleaned ‘em up”. I didn’t really know what to say, and Sam kinda felt that too. The Ghetto was thousands of miles away, as were all of us, scattered once again to our respective corners of the earth. Aside from some fading photos and minidiscs mixes Jamie made, the shirt was all that was left of the Ghetto Crew.
David Sax is a journalist and writer in Toronto, Canada, who still wears the Ghetto t-shirt during ski trips.