There are buses up my bum. So I crawl further up the road, hoping my Uber rider is close enough to see me. Just in time a tall olive skinned young man opens the door, a plastic bag of bottles clinking in his hand. “Sorry mate, couldn’t pick you up from where you were – bus lane.” He beams with bravado. “No worries bro – thanks for slowing down.” And we’re off – the Uber app (which I find increasingly dodgy) directing me towards Kensington. As many passengers do, this one soon has his head over his phone. Not a problem. Will probably be one of those quiet trips. Except for my music. I become aware that country swing king Lyle Lovett is singing a warped gospel song about a hungry congregation wanting their babbling preacher to shut up so they can all get fed: “Now to the Lord, praises be, it’s time for dinner now let’s go eat. Got some beans and some good corn bread, listen now to what the preacher said.” Suddenly, I feel a bit self conscious. Given that this young dude is probably a rap fan and wouldn’t have a clue as to the quirks of Julia Robert’s ex-husband (how weird was that?), I worry that he’ll think I’m some sort of God Botherer intent on saving his soul. Or not. He puts his device away and actually starts tapping along to the beat. I take this as a good sign and ask him about his day. Turns out he’s moving out of the city to Parramatta. This doesn’t really explain why he’s in an Uber to Kensington. I ask where he works. The city. “Right. So you’ll have a bit of commuting ahead of you.” Yes – he will. But how he’ll do it depends upon the outcome of this trip. “I have my appeal against my drink driving licence suspension tomorrow. I’m on my way to church to get a blessing that the decision will go my way.” I smile. So much for him worrying that I’m a God Botherer. I soon drop him off at a Coptic Church and wish him luck with his appeal. Perhaps he’ll have God on his side. Later that same night I pick up another young man. He tumbles into the car, reeking of alcohol. I look at the app and see that we have a long trip ahead of us. My passenger put his head back and closes his eyes. Probably not much of a conversationalist. As we make our way down a little street in Surry Hills I actually lived on decades ago, his head rises. “Stop the car.” I do. He opens the door and lets loose. I’m thankful he managed to get the door open. Once done, he thanks me. I find a tissue and hand it too him. “Better out than in. You right now?” He assures me he is and we continue on our way. Out of no where, he asks, “How much of the Bible do you believe in?” Whoa – didn’t see that coming! I give it some thought, thinking that he may in fact be a God Botherer and I should be diplomatic. “Well, I guess there’s a few things – but probably not a lot of it.” He nods. ‘From the music you’re playing, I figured you believed in most of it.” Again – whoa! Had this been the guy I drove earlier – then that would be a fair comment. But from the couple of mellow jazzy sort of tracks that have been playing since Mr. Spewy got in, I have no idea how he connected them to me being a Bible basher. I figure that he must be. So I ask, “How much of the Bible do you believe in?” He scoffs. “My job is to defend pedophile priests. They’re scum.” Okaaay then – I take that to mean he’s not such a fan of the Good Book. He then opens up (fortunately not the contents of his stomach – though we do pull over for one more puke stop). He tells me he’s a twenty three year old barrister – pushed to such an early high achievement by his parents. But he’s not very happy about it – seeing his life mapped out in front of him. I feel sorry for him and suggest he travels – especially somewhere where he might experience a bit of culture shock. He shrugs, not optimistic he’ll ever get to do so. I drop him off at a brand new gated community. He looks up at his building. “I’ll now go up to my penthouse apartment where my wife will tell me I’m an arsehole.” Bloody hell – this is not a happy chappy. I wish him luck and drive off, contemplating the wonderful (though extremely unlikely) possibility of this down in the dumps atheist lawyer representing the freshly blessed drink driving Coptic Christian.
I am at Bronte beach staring at an angry ocean. It’s the world’s biggest washing machine, white water churning. Out of the corner of my eye I see a hand hovering near my backpack. “Hey!” The hand belongs to a young woman who grabs a floating plastic bag. “Sorry – this is mine.” She hurries off. And so does my memory – racing back nearly twenty years. I am at the look out below Sacre Coeur, taking in Paris’s magnificence. I’m sitting on the raised railing, my black bag next to me. Despite being in the city for a couple of days, it is the first time I’ve escaped my hosts and am at last able to indulge my guilty pleasure of just being a tourist. Now I’m surrounded by hundreds of them. I take a deep breath and do my best to register the white and terracotta mosaic maze spread beneath me. I feel self conscious about my bag taking up valuable viewing space so place it on the ground behind me. I drift off, looking at a view that’s changed little over centuries. Without reason I suddenly turn to my left. I see someone walking quickly with a bag that looks like mine. I look at the ground. Gone. I leap off the railing and sprint, trying desperately to remember the French word for thief. Just as I’m closing in, my back pack is dropped. A terrified North African woman turns towards me, change spilling from her purse. Without thinking, I pick up my bag, then bend down to fetch the money for her. It’s a surreal scene – and it gets even more bizarre. I’m about to offer the thief her money when two tourists grab her and start dragging her away. It’s only when they cuff her that I realise that they’re probably not tourists. One cop is short with blonde hair and a moustache. The other is taller and better looking. The moustached shorty looks me over. He decides I’m not a local and demands in English: “Papers.” Of course this is the first day during six weeks of traveling that I’m not wearing my ‘life line’ pouch around my neck. “Sorry – I don’t have my passport on me.” Not good enough. “Papers, Monsieur.” I dig out my wallet. The first thing I find is the fake international student ID I got in Thailand in order to get discounts. He sees this and grabs it, just as I find some legitimate ID – my driver’s licence. “No – here – take this one.” He shakes his head. “Non. This will do.” Panic pulses through me. Oh no! What if he does a check and discovers it’s a fake? I imagine sharing a cell with the thief, wondering if fraud attracts a harsher punishment in France than bag snatching. I’m thrust back into reality by the impoverished woman’s big sad eyes. “Sorry.” I’m not sure how to respond so I just shrug. The cop, however, is having none of it. “Sorry? Too late for sorry.” We are taken to a mobile police van set up as a little office. It’s quite the show for the tourists and I hear cameras clicking. I feel awful, like I’m suffocating under a huge weight. I look up at Sacre Coeur cathedral and see white avenging angels bearing down on me. Inside the van is a police woman who speaks English. I ask if I could just not press charges and am flatly told “No.” Fair enough. After all, this is a country where you are guilty until proven innocent. I notice a dark skinned man being questioned, beads of sweat rolling down his face. I’m told he is a ‘bad man’ – the woman’s lookout who actually gets most of what she steals. But he’s playing the innocent. “Je suis pas un voleur!” Oh yeah – that’s the word for thief. Mr. Mo explains to me that I’ll be taken to the real police station to give a statement but not to worry because it’ll be “very expensive.” Say what? The police woman interjects – “Non – c’est pas expensive. Fast – quick.” Mo shakes his head. “Non non – expensive!” I take some money out of my wallet, trying to illustrate the concept of expensive. Realising I risk this gesture being interpreted as a bribe, I quickly put my money away as he grudgingly accepts that maybe his English isn’t as good as he thinks. I am put into a police car and whisked away to the station. While Mo explains the situation to a bored looking cop, I ask his handsome partner if he speaks English. “Oui – a little.” I then tell him that, with his Rip Curl shirt and surfboard pendant, he looks more Aussie than me. He beams and holds up his pendant. “Oui – I’m a surfer!” Finally, the bored detective gestures for me to sit opposite him. His English is about as limited as my French but between the two of us, my version of the story is ever so slowly tapped into a computer two fingers at a time (proving that cops the world over have very limited typing skills). At one stage we hear a woman (surely my bag snatcher) lose the plot – yelling, screaming and throwing things. I feel nauseous. But finally, I’m done. I tell Mo that I need to get back where I was for a “rendez-vous”. He tries to oblige by organizing a patrol car but fails. He then volunteers to take me back via the Metro. Feeling the ordeal is nearly behind me and that I won’t be busted for Student ID fraud, I relax a little. As we board a train, Mo explains that he’s actually a Metro cop and shows me his gun. As if to prove the point, he starts hassling a guy he claims is a serial pick pocket. The guy swears he’s clean and Mo lets him go. As we zip beneath Paris, I confess that I feel stupid for being so careless about my bag. “Non non – you are in Paris enjoying the beautiful view of beautiful Paris and you relax. Not your fault.” We leave the train and he escorts me back into familiar territory. I thank him for his help. “No problem. Enjoy your stay in beautiful Paris.” He then disappears, on the hunt for bag snatchers and pick pockets. I need a drink.
When my freelance work flowed freely enough for me to stop driving cabs on weekends, I always felt that it was a temporary reprieve. Sooner or later, I knew I would be forced back into driving the people of Sydney around their busy city. Even as the years flew past, a family was started and work remained consistent, the driver’s wheel beckoned. And so, nearly twenty years after my last taxi shift, that time has finally arrived. But a revolution has since occurred: Uber. Knowing that my freelance work was finally reaching the stage of not being steady enough, I took comfort from the fact that Uber would be the preferable option to cabs. And after my first five shifts, I can confirm this. But before I rave about the many positive differences, here are a few similarities. One thing I always enjoyed about cab driving was conversing with a random range of strangers. This is also very much the case with Ubering – probably even more so as the situation seems more relaxed. Of course, passengers don’t always want to chat, no matter who’s driving them – and that’s cool. In fact, when they talk among themselves or on their phone, I enjoy being a fly on the wheel – getting a glimpse into foreign lives. Then there’s the late nights – having to drive drunks as well as dodge drunks walking on the road. But possibly the biggest similarity is that driving requires concentration and doing so for hours at a time is exhausting. Right – the differences. No uniform (though I decided I would wear a collared shirt – at least on weekdays). No having to fumble with cash at the end of each fare (though one of the few advantages of taxi driving is that you can get tips and you immediately have cash in your pocket – Uber pays weekly). No expensive cab rental (I am currently renting a Commodore but for a mere $25 a day). No fixed shifts (this is a BIG one – Uber allows the flexibility of driving whenever you want). GPS guidance (this now exists in cabs as well but is a HUGE improvement from the days when I would be fumbling with a street directory trying to find a pick up address). Listening to my music (from my phone – with the exception of when three drunk Indian dudes had Bollywood Dance music blaring from the speakers at one in the morning). You can’t pick up passengers hailing you from the street (this takes some getting used to, as my instinct is still to slow down when I see someone waiting by the side of the road). But here’s maybe the most significant difference: when I last drove cabs, I’d come home to my empty bachelor pad. Now, no matter how late, I’m greeted by an enthusiastic Cavoodle while my wife and son sleep soundly in their beds.
The tide is low. This allows me and Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle to walk along the exposed rocks at Bondi Beach’s north end without getting swept out to sea. It also lets us do a loop up to the road and back down through the park. The park has a pair of swings. And though I can hear voices as we enter the area, they seem far enough away that, thanks to the night’s sheltering darkness, I feel comfortable in indulging one of my favourite sensations. I have a swing. Of course, I’m a swinger from way back. Like most kids, I was initially pushed by a parent or just someone bigger than me. But oh what a feeling to eventually master self propulsion. Then I could swing for as long as I liked. As it turned out – that was a long time. See, I was also a rocker from way back – silently rocking back and forth in my tiny little rocking chair. So swinging was really just rocking on a much grander scale. Gliding through the air as high as the chain allows. Then letting gravity take over to send my body flying back and up. Then using my arms and legs to continue the wonderful sensation ad-nauseam (and on occasion, nausea would be the end result of repeated swinging) . Obviously, as I grew older, the opportunity to swing waned, though I do recall still doing it as a teenager. So it was one of the fringe benefits of becoming a parent that I once again got swinging. Of course I was also on pushing duty but would eventually get bored with that and jump on the swing next to my son. He wasn’t always pleased with this but, on the upside, it forced him into self propulsion sooner than if I kept pushing. And so, at the rickety old age of fifty-five, here I am having a swing under the cover of darkness. But my bored dog beckons. My feet brush the ground enough for me to stop. I rise from the rubber seat. Until next time.
Myself, my son, two brother in-laws, four cousins and a Spoodle named Chicks wander down to the local footy field for a friendly game of Christmas cricket. It’s been years since my social cricket days but I soon enjoy having a bowl of the soft rubber ball – especially to my son. While he’s not really a cricketer (it’s the one sport he’s banned from participating in – I’m happy to drive and watch him play footy and basketball but I’ll be buggered if I’m wasting an entire day sitting around in the summer heat while he does very little on a cricket field), he of course has some natural ability and has proven impossible to get out. So I start to mix up some slow balls with some spin and the results look promising. Anything he does manage to hit is quickly chased down by our most enthusiastic fielder, who has the advantage of four legs and plenty of experience chasing and returning balls. I’m starting to get the spin happening so I flick one down to my son. He hits it high and about ten metres to my right. Focused on the floating piece of rubber, I sprint towards it, arms outstretched. Just as it’s about to drop into my hands, my feet hit something soft that yelps. I crash to the ground. “Fuck Chicks!” My left hand is sore, around where I broke a finger decades ago. But I suddenly realise that my brother in-laws might not be too impressed with my recent expletive, so I mumble ‘Sorry’ as I pick myself up. It turns out both brother in-laws and all the kids have their attention focused elsewhere – on a whimpering dog. It looks like Chicks came out of the collision worse than I did, which, given the laws of physics, makes sense. Her concerned owner takes her away from the playing area and, after ten minutes or so, I’m relieved to see our star fielder return. We had a little bond earlier in the day so I go over to give her a pat and an apology. She starts to shake and eyes me suspiciously. “Sorry Chicks. All forgiven?” She nips my hand. No, apparently all is not forgiven. Oh well. I’m sure that she’d be pleased to know that, ultimately, I pulled up worse than either of us that day. It turns out I badly strained a chest muscle, no doubt angry that it had been suddenly required to start bowling balls after years of rest. So I guess playing with balls really is for dogs.
It’s New Year’s Eve when I hear the news – a sea plane has crashed into the Hawkesbury River, killing all on board. A chill runs down my spine. That could have been me – twice. My first excursion to the Hawkesbury was a complete surprise. In fact, that was the point. As an end of year thank you for being one of their two most consistent clients, the husband and wife owners of Control Secret Agents Editing had something special in mind – a secret mission. I was given an envelope that told me to meet another ‘agent’ in Darling Harbour. I had to say some stupid code word to this total stranger – their other most consistent client. We both felt pretty stupid, sitting on a bench, waiting for who knew what. Then a white limousine rocks up. The back door opens and there’s Mark and Jane, the Chiefs of Control. They invite us in and immediately give us each a glass of champagne. We drive through the city and stop at Catalina’s restaurant at Rose Bay. Wow – a nice lunch by the harbour – sounds great. We get out of the limo and frozen Margaritas are ordered. Already feeling light headed from the champers, I attempt to take it slow – until I’m told to scull it. Not understanding why, I do so and immediately suffer a brain freeze. We all then race out of the restaurant and are led along the dock – to a sea plane! We are still having a waterside lunch but not here. Instead, the four of us cram into the small cabin, fly over the northern beaches and land on the Hawkesbury at Cottage Point. The little restaurant there serves us an amazing sea food lunch and wine – so much wine. It’s a top spot and a great afternoon. But by the time we cram back into the plane, I’m not feeling the best. We take off and my stomach does a lurch. Oh no – not now. Whatever you do – don’t throw up inside a tiny plane! So I do my best to keep my stomach contents contained. It’s decided that we’ll take a detour over the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. No! But too embarrassed to admit that I’m about to lose my lunch, I keep my mouth shut – also my strategy for not puking in the plane. Finally, we land back at Rose Bay. I scramble out of the cabin, crawl to the edge of the dock and feed the fishes a seafood lunch marinated in plenty of wine, with a dash of frozen Margarita and champers. But the experience doesn’t stop me from deciding, years later, that this is how I want to celebrate my fortieth birthday – fly to Cottage Point and meet friends and family for lunch. I take it considerably easier and am able to enjoy the scenic detour on the way back. I take some pride in walking along Rose Bay dock without feeding the fishes. But my girlfriend (and eventual wife to be) decides that we need to continue to walk all the way back to our place at Bondi – in the scorching summer heat. I’m not keen, complaining all the way. So, as wonderful as they were, both my Sydney sea plane experiences did have their downsides. But at least I survived.
It’s after nine on a Sunday night. There’s a knock at the door. Must be another resident from our building or they would’ve used the intercom. I open the door and am surprised to see the young woman from unit six. She has a drink in her hand and a dog at her feet. He’s a French Bulldog and his name is Frankie. Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle is not a fan of Frankie’s, barking at him ever since Frankie had the audacity to invade his block of units. Frankie doesn’t seem not give a toss what Nitro thinks, occasionally snorting in his general direction. But little does Nitro know, his worst nightmare is about to unfold. “Sorry to bother you,” slurs the girl. “I went to take Frankie out for a wee but left my keys in the flat. I’m locked out.” Bloody hell. This is not what I want to deal with on a Sunday night. “Ok. No worries. Come in.” So in she comes, Frankie strutting behind her. Nitro can’t believe it. His first reaction is stunned silence. A few years after invading his building, Frankie has finally made his move and is going to take over his home. The girl attempts to contact her convicted drug dealing boyfriend. No luck. She then calls a locksmith. Meantime, Frankie notices that there’s a bowl of dried dog food in the kitchen. This is what we call Nitro’s ‘rubbish’ – the least appetising bits of his dinner that are left until after his nightly walk – if they are eaten at all. Frankie, unaware of the routine, is happy to eat rubbish anytime of the day or night and soon the bowl is empty. This crosses the line. Nitro makes his displeasure known and finds himself shut out of the lounge room. Frankie then discovers Nitro’s discarded pig’s ear. He decides this is the best thing ever and chews it with gusto. Soon it’s reduced to half its size. He makes grunty snorty noises. We all find this amusing. Except for Nitro, who’s unsure of exactly what is going on but doesn’t like it. I take him into my son’s room and shut the door. I come back out and notice a pile of puke on our nice rug. Bummer. I grab a paper towel and when I return there are two more piles. I wipe up the warm gunk as the drunk girl attempts to negotiate with a locksmith, oblivious to the deposits her dog is creating. My wife joins in, trying to clean up puke piles. But Frankie is on a roll and is regurgitating faster than we can get rid of them. The girl finally becomes aware of what’s happening and attempts to help, getting in the way more than anything. We open the door and shoo Frankie into our hallway. Realising another rug is at risk, I quickly roll it up. Nitro starts yapping, incredulous at what he can hear and smell from the other side of the bedroom door. But Frankie’s not finished, the contents of his stomach determined to escape. His owner suggests putting him out into the common hallway but I stop her, not wanting to have to clean that carpet as well. At last, Frankie has nothing left to throw up. He is taken into the kitchen. My bleary eyed son comes in and begs us to let Nitro out of his room so he can get back to sleep. So I take the distressed Cavoodle into our room, shut the door and climb onto our bed with him. This settles him slightly. But he remains alert and doesn’t completely relax until he finally hears the door shut behind Frankie, the Regurgitating Invader.