Booze and bad behaviour

By Frances Morton

Peter Washer of the White Lady has seen plenty of celebrities acting up over the years, usually after drinking too much. Photo / Richard Robinson
Peter Washer of the White Lady has seen plenty of celebrities acting up over the years, usually after drinking too much. Photo / Richard Robinson

The White Lady is a late-night beacon on a boozy evening out in Central Auckland. It materialises at 6pm on Commerce St, near the corner of Fort St, and stands sentinel over a shifting tableau of revellers and riff-raff until dawn.

Peter Washer inherited the pie cart from his father, Brian "Pop" Washer, in 1976. He has been running it with his wife Anna ever since.

In his 35 years behind the counter, Washer has noticed some changes in Auckland's nightlife.

The punters are turning up later. The evening starts off slowly at the White Lady, serving backpackers staying in the area and peckish workers on their way home from the office.

About 11pm the burger business picks up, as partygoers drum up an appetite and keep the grill and fryer cooking flat-out until 4am on a weeknight, 6am on weekends.

Washer sees the nasty side of the city's nightlife but says trouble comes in waves - it isn't any worse than it was during the 70s and 80s.

He can go weeks without seeing a fight and then witness three dust-ups in one night. Usually when there's a full moon, adds Anna.

The moon was new last Saturday when, just around the corner from the White Lady, Keisha Castle-Hughes was handcuffed by police after an altercation at Pony Club between her boyfriend Michael Graves and another clubber, who allegedly slung offensive gibes about Castle-Hughes' acting.

The same weekend, rugby league player Benji Marshall got into a fight outside a McDonald's in downtown Sydney at 3.20am. The Wests Tigers captain and face of the NRL was charged with assault. Marshall is defending the charges. His manager has said the incident was provoked by racist comments.

New Zealand's Next Top Model judge, Colin Mathura-Jeffree, says celebrities never go looking for fights and usually get a good reception when they are in public.

On the rare occasions he does attract unwanted attention, Mathura-Jeffree has developed methods to deflect it - usually with a joke. "If someone wanted to take me on they won't get the bash, but the pash," he says. "Be very afraid of my hotness."

Mathura-Jeffree says he does not feel compelled to defend himself against someone who is not worthy of attention.

"People can call me anything under the sun, it really doesn't matter. I define myself by my own rules," he says. "It's like water off a duck's back. However if someone did something to someone I cared for, God help them. It's a whole other fury." Mathura-Jeffree follows some sound advice. "My father used to always say, 'To argue with an idiot is to become one'. I always remember that."

Washer has seen celebs acting up over the years from his perch at the pie cart. Joe "Smokin Joe" Stanley, All Black centre in the 1980s, was arrested for urinating in a public place when he relieved himself on the small tractor that tows the White Lady. Washer remembers many incidents of rugby players getting into trouble. "When I was a kid I hated footy season," he says. "They would hold the city to ransom."

Since the sport has become professional he has noticed a culture change in the All Blacks. "All of a sudden they went corporate. They certainly changed their act."

Unlike Joe Stanley, Jonah Lomu would turn up to the White Lady and shout burgers for his entourage.

Auckland City police area commander Andrew Coster describes 3am on a Friday or Saturday night as the tipping point. After 3am, he says, there is very little good going on in the central city. The main contributing factor to the degenerating behaviour is alcohol. "There comes a point at which the harm being done from alcohol consumption outweighs the benefit," says Coster.

Two recent scientific studies illustrate how getting boozed may lead to bad behaviour on the streets. In a study by the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, men and women were given alcohol then shown a series of photographs and asked to say what emotion was being expressed.

Men tended to misinterpret disgust as anger. The alcohol affected their ability to read emotion.

Professor Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre, says the study gives scientific backing to familiar what-are-you-looking-at clashes.

"It's virtually psychotic," says Sellman. "Whatever they are perceiving in you is igniting something in them and it's totally unintentional."

As well as misreading emotions, intoxicated men are more likely to behave sadistically.

Men given alcohol for a study by psychologists at the University of Georgia in 2002 received small electric shocks from the scientists running the experiment which they were told were coming from a competitor next door. The men were told they could shock back as hard as they liked.

Men under the influence of alcohol gave higher and more frequent shocks, demonstrating booze can turn blokes nasty.

Alcohol undoubtedly plays a big role in criminal behaviour. There are 70,000 physical and sexual assaults a year in which the perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol.

While the harms of alcohol are clear, there is a growing trend in many city centres around the world to promote drinking as a central part of the pleasure of going out, according to Alan France, professor of sociology at University of Auckland.

"People are encouraged to consume large amounts of alcohol which, in turn, increases the profits for the large-scale corporate organisations," says France.

"Drinking and being drunk or out of control is seen as cool among many young people. It is given legitimacy by our society."

While people are being drawn into the city to party, revellers who have had too much are perceived by many as a public nuisance.

A survey last year by the former Auckland City Council found nearly half of residents (47 per cent) felt unsafe in the central city after dark. The main reason given for feeling this way was too many drunken people wandering around, who they said could be intimidating.

"The reality is that you are safer in Queen St than you are in your suburban home," says Tania Loveridge, centre manager at Heart of the City. "But we have a grittier evening environment that needs to be managed in a way that balances safety with the need to have a city that is having some fun."

Police are partnering with other agencies to improve safety and behaviour in Auckland's entertainment zones.

"The level of disorder associated with liquor is far too high and something we're continuing to grapple with," says Coster.

"Many would not be any trouble when they're sober."

The police are focusing on being more visible at night, with more beat patrols at peak times.

Taking a cue from the UK's "yellow mellow" initiative, authority figures, including police, bouncers and council officials, have started wearing high visibility vests after dark.

The fluoro glow looks strangely odd on the hefty doormen dotted along K Rd but it's an effective measure to identify them against the heaving bodies pushing along the footpath on a busy night out.

Sue Stevens, owner of the Rock N Bull, has an amiable approach.

Standing guard over her establishment in a high-vis vest with a cowboy hat atop her blonde hair and a big smile, people stop to say hello and give her a kiss on the cheek as they pass by.

Stevens has worked on K Rd for 15 years and says it hasn't changed much in that time.

She reckons she has the knack for dispersing a fight faster than anyone else.

While she admits alcohol can lead to trouble, it's jealousy that will make someone lash out.

"That's going to overrule the alcohol," says Stevens.

Coster says the best way to avoid trouble on a night out is to monitor your drinking to minimise your chances of becoming a victim or getting into a confrontation.

"When you're sober you are usually able to identify a situation and avoid it. It would make a massive difference if everybody drank to be social and not to get intoxicated."

- Herald on Sunday

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