It’s after midnight on what’s been a busy Saturday night. I get notified of a job in Bondi and wait outside the building for five minutes. Just as I decide to phone my Uber rider, a dark skinned woman comes running up to my Mazda. “Thanks for waiting. I’m hopping out of one bed and straight into another.” This throws me – being a statement I’ve never encountered. “Fair enough” is all I can come up with. But of course my curiosity is aroused. What’s her story? Is she a prostitute? I want to check her out in the rear view mirror but decide it’s too creepy. Oh well – whatever. As I drive I notice she has a strong, musky yet sweet scent. We sit in silence, except for my music mix which, thankfully, doesn’t play anything I feel compelled to skip. As we come down the hill into Coogee, a heavy mist hangs over the beach and surrounding streets. “Can I roll down my window?” I’m surprised by the request. “Sure. Here – I’ll roll down the others.” The windows slide open and suddenly our cool cocoon is breached, warm humid sea air rushing in. I drive out of the valley and up the other steep incline. Soon we arrive at a South Coogee cul-de-sac. “Thanks. Have a good night.” “No worries. You too.” It’s as she walks in front of my headlights that I get my first good look at what she’s wearing – a flimsy nightie, bare feet and only her phone in her hand. Wow – she really is hopping out of one bed and into another. I decide that she’s probably not a call girl but more likely a booty call girl. Is she returning to her own bed or will she be hopping back out and into another Uber later tonight? Either way, she won’t be hopping into my Mazda. Time to call it a night.
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.