Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

dee why

Moving to a new country, indeed to the other side of the world, is sort of like being born. You arrive suddenly in a new place, and don’t know much about it. You might have limited choice, or none at all, about your circumstances. From that point in space and time your experience and reality start forming and expanding outward. The universe takes shape.

I’m from America. I now live in Australia — in Lindfield, a suburb on the North Shore of Sydney, in an apartment arranged for me and my wife in advance. I began occupying this place just a couple of hours after I landed here in Oz. I migrated in the morning, and was doing dishes in the afternoon, ten thousand miles from where I was before.

My life started there. I had only intellectual knowledge of where I was. No real feel for this country, this neighborhood, the people, their ways. The local geography and climate were obscure.

The first step was to wander out and find milk, bread, stamps, and cheap Thai food. Everything that came later and went further was a new thing, like it would be for a child, or someone from outer space. Driving on the left side. Learning how to order beer. Realizing it’s not personal commentary when someone says “Yer all right mate.” Finding out milkshakes are quite thin and pickled beetroot is standard in a burger. Every day brought new things to my experience. Delight and terror went hand in hand.

When I tell people I live in Lindfield, the response is often, “Aw, you’re lucky!” or “Aw yeah? Where the rich people live?” But I know little about rich neighborhoods. I didn’t really choose Lindfield, or anything — except Sydney itself. I just live where I do and go from there. One thing I do know is I’m not rich.

For three months I’ve been travelling in Sydney on a simple personalized grid, a network of streets and train lines connecting the places I know. This network grows but slowly. My sense of direction is abstract and nonlinear in the first place; I love to explore, and have no fear of being lost, but with specific routes or directions I’m sometimes easily turned around.

However Sydney’s byzantine conglomeration of suburbs and intertwining streets are something else entirely, just maddening for a newcomer. Though the “suburbs” (more like what an American would call “neighborhoods”) are packed close together, each one is treated as a distinct entity, like a small town. Streets change names from one suburb to the next with obnoxious regularity; if the names don’t change, address sequences do. You can drive fifteen minutes and one or both might change four times. Within each suburb there’s often no reference point to anywhere else in the city.

I’ve gotten lost a lot, okay? I think did better in Abu Dhabi with no addresses and few street names.

Beyond that I’ve been working at night and resting in the day and haven’t had much energy to explore. I drive to Homebush and back for work; I walk around Lindfield running errands. I take the train to Chatswood to shop. I’m often at Circular Quay to meet people. There are a few other places, with other great names, I’ve visited for this reason or that. Five Dock, where I bought our car, and Mosman, where we watched the fireworks at New Years. Gordon, where we filmed bats. Rose Bay, Paddington, Crows Nest, Manly Vale. It’s a big city with many more places to discover.

Dee Why, a surburb on the northern beaches, is one of the brightest points in my constellation. It’s rapidly becoming my favorite place to be — and not only because of its terrific name. (At first I assumed the name was Aboriginal, but it turns out to be of deliciously mysterious origin; it might even have started with the initials DY on an old map). I go there with my wife sometimes; but more often I go alone, to relax after my brutal early-morning shifts at work. And to live the life I imagined for many years in cold, dark New York.

It’s the beach most convenient to our area; we can get there in 20 minutes if traffic cooperates. But it’s possible I’ve been going back simply because it was the first beach I visited here, and I know where it is. There might be better beaches, but Dee Why feels like my local beach, like it belongs to me. The way a kid might feel about the places in his limited world.

A good beach is really important to me. Having the ocean as a regular part of my life is the reason I migrated. I won’t wax eloquent about everything the ocean means to me, how it always relaxes me and changes my state of mind, how it’s my favorite way to commune with nature. Simply put the beach makes me happy. Wait, doesn’t it make everyone happy?

Dee Why has everything working: it’s convenient to the city, or is in fact part of the city; but it also seems like a little beach town. One of those classic beach towns with unpretentious, brightly-colored buildings, silly nautical decor, and a profusion of ice cream and candy shops. But being part of Sydney it’s not merely quaint: there are nice cafés and restaurants, posh homes, great parks and sports facilities, and a strong interplay of cultures. Lots of Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern people live and trade there — and enjoy the beach.

The effect Dee Why has on me starts with the drive down to the shore. Warringah Road runs most of the way from our neighborhood to the coast over lowland waterways and up into a range of steep hills. At a certain point you come up over the crest of a hill, the horizon opens up completely, and there a couple of miles off in the distance is the Pacific: blue water and the entire blue sky. My mood elevates as I roll down the hill to Pittwater Road and the water disappears again for a few minutes.

Along the main part of Dee Why Beach runs a pedestrian-friendly drive with bustling shops. Large, pleasant lawns and a seawall divide the street from the beach. Hundred-year old Norfolk Island pines tower overhead, looking improbable and sculpted, a splendidly dark and vertical and bristly contrast to the soft pastels and marine motifs of their surroundings.

The beach itself is spectacular, the kind of place I used to dream about. It runs a couple of miles in a long, graceful crescent between two huge sandstone headlands. At the foot of the southern headland is a wide beach made of sandstone, skirted by broken rocks. Being on this stone beach is like being on another world. But the sandstone is soft and warm, inviting to walk on barefoot, comfortable even for sitting or lying down. The vast Pacific swell breaks in multifarious and often fierce ways off this headland, off the rocks, onto the concave sandy beach close by. In fact these breaks are famous, and surfers flock to Dee Why by the hundreds.

One of the best things about this place is standing on these rocks and taking in the view to the north. On the distant northern headland, the sweet green hues of grass reflected in the sun climb gently up to the fantastic brown sandstone of the cliffs. (Turns out it’s a golf course over there.) You think you could be looking at the coast of Ireland. Look to the left, and you see the bleached walls and red rooftops of seaside dwellings, tumbling in delightful disarray: this outlook seems somehow Mediterranean, especially if a nice southerly is blowing. Yet look down, closer to where you are, and there is the great blue sea surging against the wide beach, hundreds of people out in the potent sun and powerful surf, and there’s no mistake you are on the Pacific and this is Australia.

Yes, if you want to find out what Australians are all about, go to the beach. It may not be news, but it’s true. This nation is an archipelago of coastlines, thousands and thousands of miles of shore, more beach than they know what to do with. But they sure try. Watching Aussies disport themselves in the surf is a pure joy. It’s somehow dead serious and exuberantly silly at the same time — they take to the water with an incomparable lust for life. It’s so uncool it’s cool; and it seems to stand in defiance of anything in the world that’s dark, depressing, sinister, lonely, destructive, self-obsessed. Yeah, people seek those things out. Maybe even me at times. But it’s hard to remember why at the beach.

Want a recipe for happiness? Spend any amount of time watching parents play with their kids in the ocean. Especially Aussie parents teaching their kids how to surf, a common sight at Dee Why.

I’m amazed by the sheer number of ways Aussies attack the surf. At Dee Why alone I’ve seen: surfboards (long and short), bodyboards, skimboards, surfskis, sea-kayaks, paddleboards (these things are astonishing — they make their riders look like Polynesian kings), windsurfers, kitesurfers (yep, surfing with a parachute, a delightfully crazy sight), and the hilarious little boards they strap to their wrists for better bodysurfing. I’m probably forgetting some. And of course many rely on their own bodies for bodysurfing (at which Aussies universally excel), or taking laps in the ocean, or just playing in the breakers. On some windy evenings on the long beach here you can observe almost all of these at the same time (with good old-fashioned sailboats in the offing to complete the picture). It’s a splendid thing, a big ongoing tribal celebration. Each of these devices or craft, some of which I never saw or thought of until I moved here, has an expert, someone who spends long hours and long sunny days perfecting a technique. All for the love of being in the ocean and moving with the water and wind. In most cases there’s no competition going on. It goes beyond sport to a kind of expression.

I’m completely fascinated by surfing. It has a unique hold over me (a direct corollary of how I feel about the ocean). I’d like to pick it up one of these days, and I’ve been doing some bodyboarding recently. But surfriding as a total lifestyle is something I may never achieve. I’m not the strongest swimmer, I’m intimidated by strong currents — and I’m definitely not fearless enough. Watching the guys (and plenty of girls too, of course) walk nonchalantly with their boards out onto the rocks on Dee Why’s point break and dive right into the treacherous currents just astounds me. I’m not sure I’d ever have what it takes to do that.

Me? I bodyboard like a little kid. I get as far out as I can where the waves are breaking, but making sure I can still stand if the current feels strong. I judge the set as it comes in; if the set wave is too big or far out for me, I wait for the second, or third, or even the fourth or fifth wave — anything I feel comfortable trying to catch. I tend to tumble about on my board getting in position. When I finally do manage to latch on to a wave, I ride straight in — the wave is usually too small and crumbly for me to think of cutting in on it — doing my best to dodge old people and toddlers in the shallows. The extent of tricks I can do is perhaps spinning around a bit as I wash right up onto the sand. It’s ridiculous. And man is it a lot of fun.

I often see middle-aged ladies out there bodyboarding too, with about the same awkward skill set. God bless them for going out and having fun with a board and not caring what anyone thinks of them. They’re my inspiration.

But most Aussies are very accepting about people enjoying the surf no matter how. No one’s ever made fun of me or the middle-aged ladies; no one’s ever told me to get off their wave or their beach. There’s a jolly camaraderie, and it exists out of the water too. When the owner of a surf shop saw me holding my board and asked how the surf was that day, I admitted I wouldn’t be the one to ask, since I don’t know what I’m doing. He replied loudly, eyebrows raised, with typical Aussie sternness, “Hey. The most important thing about surfing is: have fun.”

I do. Thinking of weekday afternoons I’ve made a fool of myself in the surf, then sat in the sun drying off and watching the experts swoop down the waves, and soar over them, and spill into them. Then walked up to the shops and had a veggie burger (complete with delicious pickled beetroot) and potato wedges from the greasy lunch counter. Then ordered a disappointingly thin milkshake from the hipster café next door and sat in the park, watching surfers walk down to the beach barefoot with their boards, and old people out enjoying the sun, and kids laughing and throwing things at birds. Right now I can’t think of anything better.

Note: working on this post was a frustratingly meta experience — writing about the beach when I’d rather just be there.

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luna

This is a tale of disappointment and fatigue.

Phoenix was in Sydney recently and I rather impulsively got a ticket to see them at Luna Park. No one else was able to go on short notice. Amo loves Phoenix but had some work to do that evening. I prefer not to go to shows alone, but I will if need be, if the fascination for a band or performer is strong enough.

I thought Luna Park sounded promising as a venue. It’s a classic amusement park built in 1935 right on the harbour, at the foot of the bridge. Its childlike colors and shapes and midway lights are a wonderful element of the waterfront. The huge, creepy clown’s face that forms the facade of the park’s entrance is somewhat an icon of Sydney.

In fact I hate amusement parks, and have since I was a kid. The rides and other distractions have for some reason never appealed to me. But I thought it would be a great setting for a show. I had visions of the band playing outside, with an amazing harbour vista framing them and a brightly-lit Ferris wheel looming overhead.

Beyond that, I was keen to see Phoenix. I’d been a fan for years without getting a chance to check them out them live. I figured their clever garage-dance-pop would really come across in person. True, they’ve gotten big recently. The ticket was pricey and I was risking bad sound, bad beer, and a big crowd of newbie fans. What’s more, I had to be at work at two the next morning. Yes, two in the morning. Damned if it wasn’t going to be the best show I’d ever seen.

If you’re wondering why I would bother going alone to see what is essentially a pop act made up of hipsters from Paris, on a night when I had to work — at my age, with all the other priorities in my life —

I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve been this way my whole adult life — sometimes manifesting the musical taste of a reasonably sophisticated seventeen-year-old girl. Freaking out over exquisite pop sounds made by young men from England, and other places romantic to the naïve. There are a few friends of mine who can relate. The rest of you may continue to wonder because I won’t be able to convince you. (At least Sofia Coppola would understand.)

Pop or no, Phoenix have stayed consistently edgy to balance the shimmering perfectionism of their sound. Their new album — the one that’s blowing up — is very sharp. They’ve beaten the third album syndrome on the way to ruling the world for a while. It does what the truly great pop albums do: whatever it wants. It gets weird, subverts the formula, breaks off into long instrumentals, tries to rock like Stereolab or Wire or Television — and still sells heaps of records, sounding like something you could play at a house party with your kids and grandma dancing along. I can’t get used to hearing it at the mall or the grocery store — it’s so smart and elegant compared to everything else out there. This is good: there must be a generation of kids who will regard this band the way we do New Order.

The day of the gig saw the kind of summer evening in Sydney that’s like a silly dream. Cool breeze, pink clouds in a pale sapphire sky. White cockatoos squawking obnoxiously while flying in pairs to their obscure nighttime havens; big bats all over the sky in dark silent contrast. I kissed my wife goodbye — she was worried about me of course; worried I’d be exhausted, that I’d drink too much.

Luna Park is just a few train stops from our place — a comforting thought, with how little time I’d have for sleep that night. On the train, I listened to Prince & the Revolution’s Parade, an album that was changing my life before I ever heard of the Cure or REM. I’d been obsessed with it all over again for a couple of days and it seemed a great choice for the occasion. Parade is “set” in Paris, being the soundtrack for the famously bad Under the Cherry Moon. And on that pastel-colored evening there seemed to be a spiritual relationship between Phoenix’ pure power pop and the Revolution’s glorious heyday of romantic synth-rock & soul.

As I got off the train at Milsons Point, the album had reached the weirdly majestic “Mountains,” one of my favorite records of all time, an impossible blend of soaring electro-disco, gritty psychedelic gospel, and jazzy breakdowns. The effect was dreamlike as I drifted down charming side streets, down the slope to the balmy waterfront, down the big, absurdly green lawn under the massive stone anchorage. The bridge towered against the violet dusk, leading away in vast steel curves to the cityscape on the southern shore. There across the water, like an illuminated toy on a shelf right in front of me, was the Opera House. Love will conquer if you just believe. One of those moments when music seems one and the same with all my senses. I should have known, but this would be the night’s atmospheric highlight.

I noticed the lawn was full of kids, probably ticketholders, drinking and hanging out. My judgment was split two ways. I’m pretty leery of all the drinking in public here. But having a drink on a grassy spot on the harbour would obviously be a fine way to spend time on such a night. And it gave the place a festival feel.

Through the gaping maw of the clown, on into Luna Park. I didn’t get much sense of the the park itself since it was closed, and I was moving in a herd with other showgoers. And my dreams of a romantic outdoor venue on the midway were quickly dashed. Not only was the concert hall indoors, it couldn’t even manage to be distinctive. Instead of being 30s art deco, it was 70s institutional blah. Grey concrete and grey carpeting, with splashes of bland color, like a cafeteria, were the primary themes.

The general-admission auditorium was crowded; the opening act (I don’t even recall who they were) was already done. I saw getting a beer would not be so bad, but moving around would be complicated. So I got two beers. Then was not sure what to do with myself at all. There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to be comfortable. Obviously no one to hang out with. I realized I was tired. I’m always tired lately.

About the vibe, what can I say? Being alone at a concert with a couple of thousand mostly younger people sucks. Do adults not go out to big shows in Sydney? Or was it the amusement park factor making it seem that way?

Most of the crowd seemed stuck in an Aussie suburban sameness which was depressing. Their lack of style was matched by shyness about dancing. If any rock band makes dance music, it’s Phoenix. To be fair, there was no lack of vocal enthusiasm, but for movement most could only manage the stand-and-nod thing that is the downfall of indie. It sapped my energy.

And there was an immaturity that somehow surprised me. Maybe I’m used to the kids in New York, who are always trying to be cool and act beyond their age. Or maybe I’ve just gotten older.

One thing I’m sure about is kids in Australia drink more. The drinking age is 18, and public drunkenness among youth is epidemic. In bars, in the street, on trains, kids just pound it. The level of stupid wastedness, especially on weekends, is hard to take even for a New Yorker. You see them in the train stations on Friday and Saturday evenings, all looking the same, the girls roaming in packs in silly cocktail dresses and limping in heels, guys in their cheesy gear and cheap cologne, headed out for the night. Then later, yelling as if possessed and fighting and vomiting, rolling in the gutter barefoot, clutching their heels. On the major streets it feels like a drunken riot taking place, around every corner, all night, every weekend. It frightens my wife, and sickens me. Not morally so much as aesthetically: when I was a kid I prided myself on looking different and being nerdy and sober, and doing my own thing.

Nothing so squalid at this show, but it was not much fun either. I had to strain to hear and see the band with all the kids talking and bullshitting, poking and shoving each other, drinking and hanging out as if cutting class.

I only came close to getting into one fight. A kid was plowing his way though the crowd, two-fisting beers and yelling, “Sorry, doing it! Sorry! But doing it!” as he shoved people aside. I wouldn’t get out of his way, and he crashed right into me and stepped on my foot. I yelled out, and we traded stares, before he turned away with his beers.

I guess this kind of thing happens all the time, and there’s little point in getting upset and reacting the way I do. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me.

Anyway. The band certainly lived up to their part of the bargain. Phoenix can be accused of being perfectionistic; a little too cute with getting all the details of their sound just so. And as they came on, sure enough, the versions sounded just like they do on record. But there was a very pleasing intensity to their playing; it had a lot of kick, helped by good sound in the hall. As the set progressed, it got better; the versions became a little looser, the set list got deeper into the catalog, and it was clear they didn’t mean to do anything halfway. More than once they fearlessly played extended moody instrumentals, thus risking boring all the kids. But the main part of the crowd was patient and tuned in to whatever they did. It gave the show a a lot of depth.

The highlight was “Napoleon Says.” The first track from their best album, It’s Never Been Like That, shows how Phoenix craft thumping dance music out of your basic rock & roll four-piece. The fierce tribal/garage drumming, the brittle, monotonous tension of the rhythm guitar, the way the lead guitar and bass create thrust by looping between long pauses and crashing fills. The weird, sexy, but vaguely threatening lyrical come-on. Live, it had all the haunting spareness of the album version with a lot of extra power. For one song I was up and dancing, singing along and not caring what anyone else did. But I noticed many in the crowd were carried away by it too. A good sign — there’s nothing commercial at all about that tune.

I might as well say the show was fantastic, everything I had hoped — I just couldn’t enjoy it much filtered through the peripheral annoyances. Eventually I got tired of trying to find a good space, being crowded aside, or being told by security I had to move. I just didn’t have any energy to fight it, and two o’clock was looming closer. I started drifting to the exit as the band began its encore.

By the time they were finishing with “1901,” I was outside. I could still hear the music very well, resonating through the candy-colored fire exit doors. As I stood there, looking around at the depressing shut amusement park, I regretted ever coming. No consolation prizes.

Then I realized I was missing the best part of the show. The band had added a coda to “1901” and it had become a long, intense, melodic jam. Pretty refreshing for a supposedly commercial band to rework its recent biggest hit for an encore. I was sorry for missing it. But glad to be gone. Glad to be getting in bed for a little while.

The next day, after a long morning at work, I almost fell asleep while driving home, in broad daylight, in city traffic. A first for me. Must be getting old.

my flat nose

At sundown on a Saturday night, I jumped ship in the Rocks. I literally had to jump off the Southern Swan, the 1920s barquentine on which I serve as a volunteer. I was done with three cruises stretching from morning to evening but her remaining crew was hurriedly prepping the ship for a nighttime charter. I barely had time to grab my bag and make my way over the brow to the dock.

Exhausted and a bit frazzled from the last cruise — I’d been stuck working in the galley — I still felt lighthearted as I made my way up Circular Quay, past the tourists who strolled around, taking pictures of the Opera House or checking out the buskers. A young Eastern European lady with a keyboard and an Asian man with some stringed instrument collaborated on horrible pop tunes. In the background cacophany I heard the rumble and clang of Aboriginal guys playing digeridoos over cheap techno beats.

It had been a good day on the Harbour overall. The first two cruises saw some fine weather breaking through the morning overcast and rain, sun and clouds alternating and plenty of breeze. And Sydney Harbour is as great a place to be as I could wish. It’s funny sometimes to be working, involved in some detail on the ship, and to look up to behold the Opera House like an alabaster jewel in the sun; or the graceful sweep of Rose Bay; or the distant might of the outer Harbour’s sandstone cliffs softened by the light at sunset. I used to dream of these moments. Now I live them, coiling lines and cleaning up dirty dishes on a boat.

I had a long evening ahead of me. Though I’d been sailing all day, I planned to go out that night to Mad Racket, a monthly dance party. I’d been keen on checking out the scene here in Sydney. January’s event would take place at an outdoor location in Hyde Park and promised to be something special. I had a tentative plan to meet a friend at the party, but that was hours away, and for the moment I was on my own.

On my own: and tired, and dirty with galley grease, tar, and god knows what else. I made my way up to the public toilets at the ferry landing to wash up, like a vagrant. But I was indeed rather vagrant for the moment. I’d been gone since morning and I would not be home for a long time. But it felt good. Some of the best times are when I’m alone on foot in the heart of a city.

After washing up and changing, I repacked my bag, realizing with dismay I would be carrying around the heavy Timberland boots I had worn while sailing for the rest of the night. It only added to the vagrant mystique. I stuffed them deep into my messenger bag, and tested the weight on my shoulder. Not so bad.

Feeling refreshed, I stepped out to the Quay again and glanced at the Harbour and the city all around. Another spectacular Sydney sunset was just finishing. The long magnet-shaped Quay stretched away in front of me; the city loomed behind. Cheerful life and activity in every direction; the air had that Saturday-night buzz. In the distance, three masts gently bobbed on the water: the Southern Swan headed out on her charter. She was framed, or rather dwarfed, by the mighty curve of the bridge behind her. Quite a tableau. But for the moment I took it for granted. What I really wanted was something to drink and eat, in that order.

I walked along the eastern side of the Quay towards the Opera House, down the steps to the partially-covered mezzanine area at the water’s level that is the Opera Bar. The place was slammed. I also noticed almost all of the clientele were dressed up. Sydney is often very casual (even I feel like an overdressed New Yorker here at times), but the Opera Bar is a bit swanky. With my cargo pants and t-shirt, messenger bag stuffed with my vagrant sailor’s gear, and my messy hair, I stood out.

Each bartender at the long bar had a queue. I got in what looked like the shortest one, and tried to be patient. Then a younger guy to my left snaked in front of me. I don’t think he meant to do it; the bar area was very crowded and chaotic. Or, maybe he meant to do it. Here’s where I have to admit I lost my temper. I gave the guy a hard stare, and tried to shoulder my way into my former on-deck position, but he didn’t seem to notice. There was such a crush of people all around that my subtle maneuvers were lost. I realized I was becoming that guy. Really the best policy is to let stuff like this go. But at that moment I convinced myself the direct, honest approach was more honorable. “Mate, I was actually next,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder. I tried to be even-keel, but probably sounded annoyed. He furrowed his brow, but nodded and stepped aside mildly as I ordered a schooner of organic ale. I stood there waiting for my drink, feeling him standing next to me, feeling my blood running a little. Being that guy, and not liking it.

Moment like this are trickier when you’re a foreigner. Did my American accent make me sound more aggressive? What’s the right tone for such an encounter? Or maybe it’s a lose-lose situation.

Schooner in hand I slipped over to the water’s edge and found a seat on one of the stone slabs that serve as benches. The place was far too crowded, but for the moment being in this spot on the Harbour next to the Opera House was perfect.

Sitting down for the first time in hours I realized how tired I was. Still a long way to go. I texted my friend to see if she would make it to Mad Racket. I took in the views of the Harbour behind me, and the Botanic Gardens off to the right. Big bats from the Gardens were all over the darkening sky. I followed their movements with fascination for a while: a wonderfully lurid vision. I couldn’t help but think of old horror flicks, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

Then I looked to my left, where the Opera House rose up right over me, and my jaw dropped with amazement. There was the full moon, just showing over the roofs of the House, beaming off its tiles and making the plaza in front into a milky lake of light. Every few moments a bat would flash its wings right in front of the moon as if by design.

Gulping down my schooner, I jumped up the stairs to the level of the Opera House steps to take some pictures with my iPhone.

I stayed in the plaza for some time getting shots from different angles, or at times simply staring. It was hard to resist the pull of those moonbeams as they kept changing the higher the moon rose. Such a great space, such a building in front of me, so much mystic light. But I was getting very hungry and the night was getting on; I had to get moving.

I walked back up the Quay and into the city, away from the Harbour. I passed many restaurants at first, searching for some hearty, cheap fast food. This is just the sort of time when the ubiquitous pizzerias of New York come in handy.

Soon I realized I would not be seeing any more places to eat, nor much of anything at all. As with any downtown business center, the nighttime terrain consisted of block after block of office buildings with shut glass barricades, and endless deserted marble and concrete plazas. No food, no signs of life anywhere.

I kept walking, kept crossing empty streets. It started drizzling for the first time since morning. I put on my windbreaker. The humidity made the jacket uncomfortable even as it provided scanty protection from the rain. Now I was well and truly hungry, but kept going. At this point going back to the Quay for expensive food would add forty minutes to my hike.

I felt like I kept hearing voices off in the distance. Different corners and angles in all the marble and glass provided strange, ghostly echoes of human activity. But I was alone in the void. I kept fantasizing I would stumble upon a quaint little street filled with shops where I would find the most satisfying Turkish pizza. But as I passed each block nothing materialized.

Rounding a corner I realized the sounds I’d been hearing were the Australian Open women’s final being broadcast on a huge video screen in a large plaza. At the plaza’s other end a giant digitized Justine Henin served to a giant Serena Williams. The pixillating light reflecting off the raindrops, the piercing primary colors of the court and the stars’ uniforms, and the bouncing ball were briefly hypnotic. But only a few souls sat and watched on the plaza’s benches. A few others were standing, merely pausing for a moment to check out a game or two. I couldn’t tell if it was the rain, the late hour, or the inevitablity of Serena’s victory to blame for the lack of excitement. The broadcast sound of the distant crowd’s cheering bounced harshly off the structures of the empty plaza. It was a strange, lonely scene.

Another block, and there was a Pizza Hut: the first sustenance of any kind I’d seen at all. It would have to do. I realized I also needed a toilet. It was the beer I’d had at the Opera Bar of course. And the Pizza Hut had no amenities at all; its small interior was only a counter with an ugly, flourescent-lit waiting area.

I stood there for a moment, my bag heavier on my shoulder, feeling a bit down. This vagrant thing had really gone too far. My reality had temporarily been reduced to a quest in the rain for cheap food and a toilet.

Then I saw a pub right across the street. I could use the toilet there, and even have another round before my bad pizza. I had no idea about the pub’s atmosphere, but I didn’t have many other options.

I stepped in, glancing around as nonchalantly as possible. There’s something about being in a strange pub all by yourself. I didn’t want to look uncomfortable, or take too long to order. But the place was relatively quiet, with only a few patrons; the bartender, a young guy, was friendly enough.

But I tend to stand out. There I was, tall in my bright green windbreaker, with my messenger bag and glasses and messy hair. And, as I ordered my ale, there was my American accent.

I had barely taken a sip when I felt an abrupt stirring in the party next to me at the bar: someone had taken notice of my accent. The next thing I knew, I was confronted by a short, drunk man, perhaps forty, with a red, sunlined face, and straight, unkempt brown hair. He interrupted conversation with his mates and leaned over to loudly interrogate me.

ANDY: Hey mate. Hey mate! Are you Irish?

Recently I had been told American accents sound Irish. I still find it hard to believe.

ME: Uh, no, I’m American.

ANDY: Ah, American! That’s it, American! Welcome, then!

The man’s friends were surprised as I was, I think, but went along. An intense-looking redhead with blue eyes, and a short Asian man, both younger than him, were looking me over.

ANDY: Where are you from in America if I may ask?

ME: New York, most recently. But, I’m actually from all over; I’m originally from the west coast…

This was a bit too complicated. He interrupted me, tipping his glass to New York and making a face.

ANDY: New York! Well then, that’s fantastic. New York, hey? My name’s Andy, what’s your name, mate?

ME: Andy — I’m Jim.

He grabbed my hand to shake it. His proximity made me sure, if I wasn’t before, that he was truly hammered. His eyes were glazed like candy, and his speech, though naturally articulate, was constantly slurring.

ANDY: Jim, I’d like you to join us. It’s great to have an American with us here. I’d like to ask you all about what you’re doing here and about America. Come, join us here. Fellas, this is Jim —

For a split second I pondered this dodgy invitation. And some part of me that is willing to talk to anyone, and not afraid of anything, took over. I had the entire evening to myself after all. I glanced at the bartender. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, as if embarrassed.

BARTENDER: Don’t pay any attention to him, mate.

ME: It’s all right.

ANDY: [indicating the redhead] This is Kevin [and the Asian] and that’s Mike. And there’s Liam and Cathy.

The couple, minding their own business away from the immediate circle, gave me the most fleeting acknowledgement. I was still gauging how interested Andy’s friends were in this game. There were no external clues as to affiliation, nothing shady to be observed. No tattoos or biker insignia. They were clean-cut and dressed in the usual jeans and polo shirts, looking like any other group of guys.

ANDY: So what brings you to Australia if I may ask, Jim?

ME: Well, actually I’m not visiting; I live here.

ANDY: You live here?

ME: Yes, I migrated a couple of months ago — with my wife, who’s from here…

ANDY: So you live here then. That’s fantastic! You’ve migrated, hey? Good on ya mate! What made you want to leave America?

ME: Well, I love it here in Oz. My wife brought me here five years ago and I fell in love with the place…

My sincerity seemed to amuse him, yet I had complimented his home.

ANDY: Good on ya Jim! That’s fantastic! You love it here! So you left New York for Sydney did you! And you wanted to live here! Hey?

Each statement was accompanied by theatrical looks and gestures. And he was very loud of course. Conversing in bars is always a strain; but I found myself talking even louder to match his tone.

ME: Yeah man! I love it here, Sydney’s the best.

ANDY: What do you love so much?

ME: Well… the friendly people for one thing… and it’s just…

ANDY: Yes, friendly people, ha ha! That’s great, Jim! And what brought you to this place, this establishment, all by yourself?

ME: Well, I’m on my way to a party, and I thought I would stop in and, you know…

ANDY: On your way to a party! Good on ya! A party!

As the dynamic of this encounter took shape, I looked at him again. Behind his wastedness lay a gleam of intelligence and charisma. But there was something threatening about him too. The whole conversation had a sardonic tone. I was aware I was alone in a downtown bar outnumbered by drunk men of unknown character. The alcohol-related violence in Sydney has been all over the news lately; and Amo has always been concerned about how I’ll deal with the “yobbo” element here. I’ve never been able to comfort her on this score. I’ve lived in some of the roughest neighborhoods in America; I’ve been homeless; survived riots and terrorist attacks — and my wife worries I’ll be glassed in an Australian pub.

ANDY: So Jim, as an American I’m sure you’re very concerned today about the news.

ME: The news?

ANDY: Yes, the news of the president’s… declaration. The declaration, the proclamation, the united state of…

ME: State of the union address?

ANDY: That’s right! The state of the union address. You must have been very interested…

ME: Well, yes. I mean I was aware of it. I didn’t get to watch it. But that’s… that’s my man.

ANDY: You mean, Barack Obama?

ME: Yeah, Obama’s my man.

Normally I wouldn’t be quite so simplistic. But at that moment, probably because I wasn’t sure about the situation, I felt an urge to just be an American and support my president.

ANDY: Well he is a very good man it seems. He’s a… a very good speaker.

ME: Yes, he is. Some say he talks too much!

ANDY: It’s good, it’s a good thing. It’s been interesting to see how Americans react to having a black fella for president. Hey?

ME: Uh, yeah. Yes it has.

I was disappointed when that part of the conversation soon imploded. I don’t like politics, but I’ve discovered I don’t mind talking about it with Australians. Most are pretty open-minded and tolerant, and have authentically balanced worldviews — so refreshing to an American weary of our belligerent social turmoil — and to be fair Andy showed some of those traits. But the threat of a real discussion was too much for the drunken state of things. He was constantly getting distracted, turning back and forth, talking on the side to the others, before thinking of other questions for me.

ANDY: So what do you do for a living here if you don’t mind my asking, Jim?

ME: I sell produce.

ANDY: Produce?

ME: Fruit and vegetables.

ANDY: Produce! Fruit and veg! Good on ya, Jim. I think it’s great you’ve moved all this way to live here and… sell produce. And you’ve only been here for a couple of months have you? That’s fantastic. We welcome people here. You see, both Mike and Kevin here are from abroad too.

I looked at the redhead, who had been mildly observing his friend’s performance. I was keen to switch tracks.

ME: Oh, really? Where are you from?

KEVIN: I’m Irish.

Which brought us full circle to the start of the conversation. I found that amusing, but the point was seemingly lost to the others.

ANDY: Yeah, Kevin here’s an Irish lad. He’s an immigrant too, like yourself Jim! And Mike here too, but he’s been here for thirty years, haven’t you Mike?

Mike smiled sheepishly but did not speak. He was shy, or just drunk. Andy’s comic tone made it seem he was ribbing his mate: I wondered if he was saying Mike was born thirty years ago but being Asian, was an “immigrant” anyway.

ME: And what about you? Where are you from?

ANDY: Where am I from? Where am I from! I’m from my mother!

With this riposte, surprising in its sudden vehemence, he turned away in a flourish, to bother the bartender about something. Mike and Kevin chuckled and groaned. It was a clear sign of this whole interlude’s hollowness. But it made me feel somehow more dogged about pursuing it. Having been pulled in I was determined to make it mean something. I turned to Kevin again.

ME: So did you migrate from Ireland recently?

KEVIN: No, not at all. I’ll tell you how it went: I moved to Melbourne with my father from Northern Ireland when I was fourteen, then moved to Canada after that for a few years. But I’ve been back here in Australia for twelve years.

ME: Oh. Oh, you’ve been here for a while then. Sorry if I…

KEVIN: You’re all right, Jim. So where do you work then…?

As we made more hesitant small talk, about work and Canada and other things, Kevin chose his words thoughtfully. I sensed he found this a bit of a cringe, but was naturally polite, unassuming, and curious. And perhaps he was also determined as I was to defy Andy’s grand joke. With me, a stranger, he was friendly in a real way. The contrast with his mate’s pastiche of civility was striking. But his careful speech was due also to the fact that he was drunk. Alcohol seemed to pour down on this experience like rain. The two schooners I had drunk felt like a lot more.

Then Andy was back in my face with his manic energy.

ANDY: Jim! Jim — I’m sorry about before. I’m really sorry, mate. I just couldn’t help but say that about being from my mother. It’s just how I am.

ME: That’s all right… No problem.

But almost immediately he was raising his voice and becoming worked up again.

ANDY: You asked me where I’m from. Well I’ve been here my whole life, mate! And then some! I go all the way back! I’ve got convict blood! [Slapping his arm.] I’ve been here two hundred years!

I wasn’t sure what to say. He paused, taking a breath and grinning at himself, then put both hands to his face, stretching it into a mask.

ANDY: And my flat nose has been here forty thousand years!

Livid, he whirled away again back towards the bar, as if in a mosh pit. After a pause Kevin was forthcoming.

KEVIN: I’m really sorry about this, Jim… He’s just…

ME: Don’t worry about it. It’s okay, really.

I was as fascinated as I was astonished. It was impossible for me to tell if Andy really had indigenous blood or not. I know there are a lot of pretty light-skinned “black fellas,” lots of people with mixed heritage. I can relate since I have Cherokee blood on both sides of my family, and you wouldn’t be able to easily tell by looking at me. I don’t think that much about it; don’t define myself that way. But it’s a more sensitive topic in Australia. If he was part Aboriginal, I might have somehow touched a nerve. But if he was not, I suppose his outburst remains a twisted but poignant commentary on what it is to be Australian.

But these thoughts weren’t formed yet. Mostly, I was getting tired of this scene. I recalled the whole reason I was here in the first place, and excused myself to go to the toilet. Kevin pointed the way downstairs as if I were a guest in his home.

Once downstairs, to get to the toilet I had to pass through the pub’s designated area for slot machines. There were a couple of dozen of them with different games and different crazy designs. I know little of this world, and so was hardly interested or tempted. But I was surprised to see two attendants on duty, as if it were really a casino, though the downstairs area was completely empty of patrons: no one playing the machines, no one lingering at all. To me it seemed we were far from the pub upstairs, somewhere else entirely, and I was the first and last person they would see this night. Both of them were Asian: a young woman behind a counter, presumably to deal tokens; and a young man leaning on one of the machines, just standing by. Perhaps he was some kind of low-rent security. Both wore uniforms — white button-up shirts with black tie and vest. Both looked bored out of their minds, sullen at their fate; and they barely acknowledged me as I passed through their domain. The machines squawked and bleeped, and their lights flashed and strobed violently off the tacky red carpet, vainly beckoning me to destruction. In this lonely place I felt far away from my music and my friends and everything I was looking for in this city.

Back upstairs, and I momentarily hung back from Andy and his party. Certainly I was ready to leave, but felt some weird obligation to say goodbye. I stood by the entrance, watching a silent soccer match on the flatscreen above, finishing my beer as quickly as possible. In the distance I heard Andy yelling and bothering Liam and Cathy and the bartender and everyone else.

I looked up and Kevin was approaching me.

KEVIN: Jim, there you are. Look, I just want to say one more time that I’m sorry about Andy. And I want to say it’s a pleasure to meet you and talk to you a bit. Even though you were just minding your own business, and it was a bit random that we started talking. Still, I’m glad to meet you and I wish you well here in Sydney and all.

Again, he was speaking with caution, closing his eyes to concentrate, slurring. It was a very awkward moment with this stranger, with no agenda actually holding us together. I couldn’t wait to leave. But his genuine nature was touching.

ME: Hey, man, thanks a lot. That’s all right. I really appreciate it. And I feel the same — I’ve told everyone how friendly and welcoming people are here. But anyway I’ve got to get going now. Tell Andy I said what’s up.

KEVIN: What’s up? Oh, right. Yeah, mate, great to meet you. Take care, and good luck with everything.

We shook hands. I hurried out, feeling irrationally shabby for leaving.

Back outside, in the rain, on my own. The pub and all of it behind me, as if it were a dream.

Into the Pizza Hut. The girl behind the counter was another Asian, a young and very slight girl, shy and awkward as she took my order. After I paid, she sat down several feet behind the counter, staring into space, hiding behind her oversized red and blue cap. I looked around. There were four or five others in the waiting area. A couple of them were street people — real vagrants. The others just looked very drunk. They all seemed as if they weren’t going anywhere, just occupying this dingy space, guarded only by this girl. Did she feel threatened or not? It was hard to tell. There was a kind of stasis. No one was being loud or vulgar. She just sat there; and they sat on the other side, looking like refugees, quietly talking to each other, or watching TV.

I looked up. The small room was dominated by a big flat screen blaring an episode of Friends. There was a lot of distortion — flickering pixels and static — as the friends bickered and heckled each other hatefully and the studio audience emitted regular bursts of noise. By some evil fate Jeff Goldblum was a guest on the show. At this uncomfortable close range, his face looked painted orange; he was talking too loud, overdoing it, smiling at himself, breaking into orange pixels and reforming in a comic frenzy. It seemed like a cartoon, something fake, a brutal mockery of TV from a sci-fi dystopia.

When my pasta came I took it to go, to eat it in the rain, leaving the young counter girl to her fate.

I ended up having a great time at the party. It was a long night.