A Short History of Me Part Six: “Down at the End of Lonely Street”

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In a cruel twist of symmetry, exactly ten years after the breakdown of my marriage at the close of 1986, I was now facing the end of the relationship that had endured for most of that previous decade. But this time, rather than the ‘dumper’, I was the ‘dumpee’. And as anyone who has ever been in that position can attest, it’s a very shitty place to be. Especially when you don’t see it coming and are under the delusion that your future is bright with the prospect of marriage and babies, not darkened by the impending shadow of bachelorhood.

There’s never a great time to kill off a long term relationship. But for Trish and I, the end of 1996 posed an especially tricky scenario. We were booked to fly to Perth for Christmas and then attend my brother’s wedding. Trish said that the ultimate decision was mine but, especially as she was fond of my family, she was keen to go west with me and then move to Melbourne once she got back. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part that there might still be some chance she’d change her mind during the time we’d be away, so I agreed. In hindsight – it was a mistake. Not wanting to distract from my brother’s big moment, we kept up the façade that all was well and that our own big moment was pending (though, in unexpected circumstances, I did tell my brother the truth the night before his wedding). It was a struggle to hide my hurt so I was doing a fair bit of herbal self-medicating. Unfortunately, I got sprung self-medicating in a car with the other best man during the reception– a minor scandal for which I copped a deserved rebuke from my unimpressed little bro. After the wedding, Trish and I took off on a trip up north, where it was hot, dusty and miserable. And on New Year’s Eve, we crawled into our tent about 9 o’clock and went straight to sleep. Happy Bloody New Year.

Returning to Sydney, I felt like the walking dead. I was physically and emotionally exhausted but nevertheless had to pack up most of our harbourside home on my own. Trish had left Perth before me, got back to Sydney, packed what she could take with her and headed to Melbourne for her next film gig. Moving sucks at the best of times but especially when it also marks the end of a relationship. Luckily, I managed to find a ‘bachelor flat’ (appropriately enough) in Birchgrove, near Balmain. It was a small one room studio apartment that was one of about six sitting on top of a large parking garage. Quite unusual but with the advantage of being close to the harbour. True, I was no longer right on the most glamourous part of Sydney’s foreshore but it was nice to still be near the water. And in an effort to make the place very much my own, I got hold of a bunch of material, dyed it purple, and covered the walls and ceiling – creating a sort of purple womb. This was, after all, my ‘purple period’, as I had been driving a lavender coloured Valiant station wagon for a couple of years. For some reason, purple was a comfort.

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vipassana-meditation 2.jpg Desperately searching for some sort of positive spin after having had my life turned upside down, I decided that this was an opportunity to turn a devastating situation into a wake up call. I had obviously been in some sort of state of self-delusion not to have seen this coming. So the time had come to delve deep within and I concluded that the best way to do so was to do a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Blue Mountains. I had even thought that it would be a rather relaxing experience. Ha – relaxing – right!

The idea was to take a vow of silence and only speak if approached by one of the staff. The first daily meditation session began about at about 5:00 am, then breakfast and then several more sessions throughout the day, with no solid food after lunch. The silence wasn’t an issue for me – I really didn’t feel like talking anyway. But sitting on the floor in one position for an hour or two at a time – that was torturous. My body was screaming with pain – which you are meant to just observe until it passes. And my mind – well, that was performing all sorts of acrobatics – jumping, twisting and spinning around all over the shop. But – after about a week – calm began to sweep through. The pain came and went. And, for the first time since the breakup – probably much longer – I was aware of my inner strength.

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After returning to my new purple pad, I kept up the austere Vipassana lifestyle for several months – meditating for two hours every day and not smoking or drinking (my body must have been pleasantly surprised by this strange new behaviour). I also continued to learn the saxophone on my father’s beautiful 1950’s sax, something I had started the previous year. Funnily enough – there was a professional Italian sax player who lived two flats over. This meant that the poor guy in between us was surrounded by sax sounds (though on one side those sounds were far more musical). Although not originally my teacher, the Italian gave me a few lessons. But I grew increasingly self-conscious about the noise that was torturing my neighbour so I eventually gave it up.

I was also fairly busy with work. The ABC gig had grown to include promoting ABC videos as well as music, the ABC Shops and, occasionally, cooler stuff like youth radio network Triple J’s merchandise. As well as all this, I was getting fairly steady work producing corporate and government videos for ‘Beloved Pictures’, which was a small design and production company run by my very dear friends Simon and Pil. These two amazingly talented sci-fi loving foodies were so supportive of me during this tough time and I’ll always be grateful.

All of this contributed towards a fairly nurturing environment and I felt that I was healing (although when the building was hit by lightning one afternoon and set the fuse box on fire – that got the adrenaline pumping). As the months past, I began to feel that I needed a goal – an achievable one that would boost my confidence. And that’s how I decided that the next year, I would travel to Europe.

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I had always been somewhat of a Francophile but despite learning French for twelve years, I had retained nothing. So I decided that, since France would be a major focus of my holiday, I would take lessons at Alliance Francais. This was actually great fun and proved to be very helpful (though, surprisingly, not so much in France as in another country).

I also needed to gather as much money as possible so decided to supplement my income. I hadn’t driven cabs for several years and wasn’t keen to do so again. But I did have a contact for a guy who hired out 1950’s Cadillacs for weddings and corporate gigs. So I slicked back my hair and drove bridal parties around on weekends. Most of it was pretty boring, waiting outside during the ceremony, then taking them to their photo shoots, more waiting and finally onto the reception. But it certainly beat driving a cab and was a bit of a buzz to be controlling such a big beautiful beast of a machine.

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Towards the end of 1997 I was feeling much better about myself and my future. And it was during this time that I reconnected with Nikki, just over ten years after our relationship sort of ‘dissolved’. She had since had a bright and beautiful daughter who by then was about seven or eight. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, especially over the Christmas period. But as my departure date for Europe approached in 1998, I became more focused on that and started to disconnect from Nikki. Once again I failed to give her the attention that she deserved.

After a bit of last minute scrambling to secure a bank loan, I departed for Europe via Thailand on April 1st 1998. It appealed to me to leave on April Fool’s Day – an appropriate start to a fool’s adventure. I was determined to keep a journal for the trip. Here is the first entry: “I am over 11,000 feet in the air flying over the Blue Mountains, 105 miles out of Sydney with only 4500 until Thailand. I am sitting above the right wing, window seat (gives me a great view of the wing!) on Thai Air Fl992. I am surprisingly calm. The adventure begins!” And a little later I added: “Wing is still attached – good to see.”

I had decided to break up the long journey to London by stopping for a few days in Bangkok to visit my uncle who was living there. I had just missed my Dad’s visit by a couple of weeks – a trip that had so much of an impact on him that he too later moved to Thailand. Still, it was great to spend time with my uncle whom I had only ever seen fleetingly. He had lived a fairly adventurous life and had some great stories.

IMG_5731.jpgFrom Bangkok it was onto London. In order to do the entire trip any justice, I will have to leave details for a separate post. But here’s a quick whirlwind glance at some highlights: a mad hatter’s ‘tea’ party with some wonderful weirdos in London; a gathering of more weirdos in the Scottish highlands; getting the ‘gore tour’ of Belfast from a news cameraman a couple of weeks after the historic Good Friday Agreement; discovering that it really is a long way to Tipperary; visiting the Eiffel Tower; exploring Toulouse and the Cote D’Azur in the south of France; getting a sore neck in Barcelona from looking up at all the mind-blowing Gaudi buildings; getting a sore head in Barcelona from over indulging in all its brain blowing nightlife; falling in love in and with Italy; feeling like I landed on another planet whilst lost in Venice; discovering that Brussels is Europe’s best kept secret and watching the Netherlands beat Yugoslavia in the 1998 World Cup in a small pub in Amsterdam. Then, exhausted and in debt (not only to the bank but now also to Simon and Pil who had sent me over some money), I returned to Thailand but this time to Phuket where my uncle had since moved into a very palatial house on a hill (which later proved to be a handy location when the tsunami hit in 2004). It was the perfect place to recover – especially my little trip to Phi Phi island, where I narrowly missed hitting a shark when diving out of my kayak.

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As mentioned, I fell in love in Italy –in Genoa – with a woman originally from Naples called Livia. She was a good friend of the family I was staying with and, having just split up with her boyfriend, was staying with them as well. It was quite remarkable that we got together given that she didn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Italian. But we both did “parlez un peu de francais”. And this proved enough to maintain a long distance relationship for about a year – sending each other parcels with letters, photos and music and having the occasional phone conversation. It was the ultimate romantic delusion – made especially so by the fact that we were conversing in ‘the language of love’. But it was never likely to last and it didn’t.

Although my travels were over, I remained a gypsy for several months, house-sitting and staying with friends. Almost a year after I had left for Europe, I finally had my own place again – another bachelor flat but this time virtually on Bondi Beach. I had always had a bit of a prejudice against Bondi, especially all the tourists, but having recently been one myself, I finally understood why so many of them flocked to this remarkable beach. And it was fantastic to just walk across the street and then be on the sand, especially in winter when it was less crowded.

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I struggled financially for a while, slowly paying off my trip and supplementing my tv work with driving taxis on the weekends. I still had a bit of ABC work but was now sharing it with my friend AM, who had taken over the reins when I went away and wasn’t too keen on handing them back when I returned. This didn’t bother me greatly as I felt it was time to move on anyway and began getting more freelance tv promo gigs (making ads for the shows). Also AM was literally a close friend now, living just up the road in Bondi. She supported me during some of my darker moments and I returned the favour, especially after her numerous splits with her boyfriend at the time – they shared the most dramatic ‘on again – off again’ relationship I’d ever seen.

As the millennium drew to a close, I was blessed to have my sister come and stay with me for Christmas. She had just returned from her own European tour, very much following in my footsteps and staying with a number of the same people. We had ourselves a Bondi Beach Chrissie – with a blow up plastic tree! A week later we went up the hill to Dover Heights to watch the spectacular NYE fireworks over Sydney Harbour. For both of us – it was a night to remember.

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The arrival of the year 2000 was a big deal everywhere (who remembers the anti-climax of the ‘millennium bug’?) but especially so in Sydney. For much of the previous decade, ‘Sydney 2000’ was an inescapable mantra – the Olympics were coming! From the beginning I was excited by the prospect – I had even stayed up till the early hours of the morning when the announcement was first made, hearing the city cheer from across the harbour in our Kirribilli flat (Trish did not stay up and was bummed to hear the news the next morning – she was not a fan of the idea). But as the years dragged on and the preparations lurched from one crisis to the next, my enthusiasm waned. And when they proposed building a stadium in my backyard of Bondi Beach – I was almost moved to protest. How dare they build such a monstrosity for the laughable ‘sport’ of beach volleyball. But they did. And about a week before the official opening, they hoisted the flags of the various volleyball countries around the parameter of the stadium. And that’s all it took to swing me back the other way – it was so exciting – the Olympics were coming!

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The night of the 2000 Olympic opening ceremony, I went to a party. Weirdly, it was actually in the building next door to where I had lived with Trish. So we had a great view of that night’s harbour side fireworks. The vibe was fantastic and everyone was in a jubilant mood. There was one woman who seemed especially jubilant – a beautiful buxom brunette named Tia (anyone picking up a pattern here?). We ended up staggering out into the night together and eventually ended up at her place in Potts Point. I found her very attractive and absolutely hilarious – like she should be hosting her own tv show. And from that point we began what turned out to be about a nine month relationship. As much as I hate to admit it, I think our downfall may have been the fact that, for the first time, I was not the bossy one in a couple. I tried to be the submissive one, as Tia was very much a force to be reckoned with. But in the end, submissiveness wasn’t really my thing.

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On the first day of the Olympics, still recovering from the night before, I happened upon someone who had an extra ticket to the men’s beach volleyball (the women’s volleyball, not surprisingly, was one of the first events to sell out). So despite my earlier distaste for the concept, I ended up inside the stadium I had once hated, cheering on the Canadian team as they upset the higher ranked Americans. I later saw a couple more events with my sister who came up from Melbourne. During that whole two weeks Sydney came alive with a great party atmosphere. And then afterwards, the good vibe continued with the Paralympics. I was doing some volunteer work for a brain injury charity and helped to take some of our group out for a day of events. It was great fun and really inspiring – until we lost one of our guys. Then it was panic stations. But we eventually found him and headed back to Bondi, exhausted.

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After my split with Tia in 2001, I went through a bit of a downer period, convinced that I would forever be destined to being a sad sack single guy, living in a building full of other lonely losers with the stale smell of grilled chops wafting through the hallways. I recall going for long walks along the beach, looking at dads playing with their kids and thinking that that ship had well and truly sailed.

One night, just after watching an especially gripping episode of the West Wing, there was a news break. A passenger plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I sat and watched, horrified, as the next one was hit, and later as both collapsed. And I knew that I had just seen something that would change the world forever.

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Not long afterwards, I got a lucky break and was given a freelance promo producing gig at SBS, Australia’s multi-cultural network. I had been a fan of both their programming and especially their promos for years and had made it a goal to try to work there. The atmosphere was fantastic and promo producers were given a lot of creative freedom – the only rule being that we were never to use the voice over line: “It’s a show that will change your life forever”. And given the events that had just taken place, it proved to be a very interesting time to be at a broadcaster that represented a broad cross-section of Australia’s ethnic cultures.

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Towards the end of 2001, I was invited to a ‘Trailer Trash Christmas Party’ organised by a friend of mine from my NSWIT and ‘Off Air’ days, Susan. I got dressed up (or, more accurately, dressed down) in a plaid flannelette shirt and my old army pants that I still had from my Canadian Concentration Schooldays. I remember looking at the mirror and thinking “Well, I won’t be picking up anyone tonight!” Little did I know that it was about to be my last night as a sad single guy.

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