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.

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