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.
My wife and I are at the opening of Reg Mombassa’s latest art exhibition. She’s already been proactive in purchasing a small painting prior to the event. It’s exciting seeing the little red dot next to it as an assortment of oddball art lovers and musos mill about the gallery. I spot Greedy Smith and Martin Plaza from ‘Mental as Anything’. They turn to pose for a photo, standing either side of what from behind looks like a little old lady. Photo taken, they start chatting to the old dear. But I soon realise it’s actually the artist himself, catching up with his former bandmates. They all look so much older. I remember discovering ‘The Mentals’ shortly after arriving in this country as a clueless teenager. ‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’ was the first of many catchy, cheeky hits that eventually established them as my favourite Aussie band. I became especially fascinated with their skinny rat-like guitarist. Reg defied any of the usual ‘Guitar God’ clichés. He seemed like an especially out-there character, which appealed to my own sense of self proclaimed weirdness. So when the opportunity came to produce three of their music clips in the late 8o’s, I couldn’t have been more excited. Although I found his witty bass playing brother Peter easier to relate to, it was a buzz just being around Reg. Holding an umbrella above his head in between takes, having some of his fried garlic cloves at lunch and watching him attack his guitar like a madman all remain magical memories. Shortly after shooting the clips, I was attempting to start my own media empire via a video magazine project called ‘Video Manic’. The main presenter was another celebrity weirdo, Maynard F# Crabbes and much of the focus was on the emerging dance party culture. But when the opportunity came up to record an interview with 60’s LSD legend Timothy Leary, I knew that this was a job for Reg Mombassa. He was both thrilled and a little nervous to meet one of his idols. He brought along a couple of his fluorescent Mambo T- shirts to give to the old acid head. Leary loved them, declaring them as very ‘cyber-delic’ – his new catch phrase for the mind expanding possibilities of the emerging digital age. After the interview Reg and I went to the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills for a beer. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m having a beer with one of my all time favourite people.” A few months later Reg’s wife invited me to his fortieth. I felt out of my depth, surrounded by some of Sydney’s most talented eccentrics. As the years flew past, I would see him from time to time, at an exhibition or a gig. Gradually my specific significance to his life faded to the point of being a vaguely familiar face no longer attached to a name. But I can live with that. For a brief window in my life, I had a few adventures with one of the most talented weirdos to have ever crossed the ditch.
I am enjoying an all too rare solo bushwalk. It’s a trail that’s becoming my favourite, not only for it’s natural beauty but also it’s convenience – a slice of heaven nestled in Sydney’s northern suburbs. During those moments where a plane’s not flying overhead or there are no echoes of an especially feisty picnic, I imagine that I’m all alone. Just me, the birds and unseen critters scurrying through the undergrowth. But, inevitably, I hear a plane or a picnic or pass other bushwalkers and the spell is broken. I reflect on my attraction towards solitariness and a memory drifts into focus. I am fifteen and working with my Dad in Canada’s vast North West Territories. Although we are there to dig and prod the earth in search of ancient artifacts, I am fascinated with the ruins of an old cabin, possibly less than a hundred years old. It is literally in the middle of nowhere – nothing but trees and water for miles and miles. We are there in summer and, apart from the never receding sunshine and mosquitoes the size of birds, it’s a stunning location. But in winter, when the sun has well and truly retired, the snow is piled high and the temperature’s never above minus twenty, it’d be one hell of a place to live. But, once upon a time, someone did. Probably a trapper. Just him and a magnificent but unyielding wilderness. I am envious. I imagine what it must be like to survive in such a place with no one but yourself to get you through. What happened to this recluse? Did he go mad in the end? Did he freeze? Starve? Who knows. The bits of broken plates and rusted pots don’t reveal much – even to my archeologist father (who’s not much interested in anything less than a thousand years old). And although I’ve always lived in cities, there still remains that urge to one day go bush and fend for myself. If anything, it’s growing stronger as the years slip away. But who knows if I’ll ever get the chance. In the meantime, going on solo bushwalks might be the only way to indulge my inner hermit.
I am tossing a Frisbee with my mate Jezza like we do most Saturdays. We are in a fairly enclosed area of Centennial Park. Although we aren’t in the main dog walking thorough-fair, dogs and their owners drift past. We suddenly notice four big black dogs having a bit of a romp. In fact, they’re having more than a romp – they look like they’re pretty keen on making more black dogs. We have a bit of a laugh at this, assuming they’re all part of the same pack. So it surprises us slightly when they eventually split off into two pairs. A little later, we see what we assume is one of the pairs coming back towards us. But it turns out to be a completely different pair. Ok – that’s a bit weird. We keep tossing and here comes another black dog, indistinguishable from the others except for having a different owner. “Looks like it’s Black Dog Day” I shout to the dog walker. “Yes, we’ve just past several.” It’s only when yet another pair of big black dogs gallop past that it starts to get freaky. “Bloody hell – that’s seven in a row now!” Finally, a German Shepherd and a brown Beagle break the spell. It’s a few weeks later and Jezza and I are tossing in an open area of Queen’s Park. This time I’ve brought Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle, who’s having a great time. After a while, Jezza points off into the distance. I look and see a pack of about five little white dogs. I laugh. He then tells me to turn around. I do and see a tall white dog next to a short one. But Jezza’s not done, pointing in the other direction. There’s another pack of about six white dogs, one of which is a poodle whose white afro matches that of its old lady’s. I decide to do a quick head count and of about twenty dogs I can see, Nitro is one of about four that isn’t white. Very bizarre. But given it was Black Dog Day a few weeks earlier, I guess the universe decided to square the balance with a White Dog Day. No doubt Brown Dog Day is just around the corner.
There’s a scene in the film Jasper Jones where the thirteen – year old main character (who happens to be named Charlie) is punished by his mother, magnificently portrayed by Toni Collette. Because he had snuck out the night before, his disappearance causing a big fuss, she has him dig a huge hole and then fill it back in. Although I had read the book, something about actually seeing young Charlie toil in the blazing WA heat triggers a memory from when I lived in Perth. I was older than Charlie, probably about seventeen. I too had snuck out at night and would have managed to have snuck back in unnoticed except for one thing: I can’t vomit quietly. The entire household would have been aware that I was spewing my guts out in the wee hours, thanks to an overindulgence in substances prohibited to seventeen-year olds. But no one got up to scold me, so I crawled into bed thinking I had dodged a bullet. Not so. The next morning, the sun already well on its way towards a scorcher, my old man walks into my room. “Get up and get outside. Now!” Disorientated, nauseous and my head pounding, I stagger out into the blinding light. My dad gestures towards our unkempt garden. “You pull every weed in the backyard. Then you do to the side and then to the front. When you reckon you’re done, have another look. Because if I see a single weed anywhere at all, your ass is grass.” Unable to utter a word of protest, I get on my hands and knees and start weeding. The sun climbs higher and my spirits sink lower. My head feels like its full of a million monkeys, each armed with a tiny hammer. My hands blister within minutes and sting for hours. My back aches, begging to be horizontal and asleep. But I persist, my skin sizzling as the temperature soars. Finally, I finish. I stagger back in and collapse onto my bed, hoping my ass won’t end up as grass. But looking back, I now rank that hellish morning as the most effective punishment my Dad ever dished out. Productive too – unlike digging a hole just to fill it back in.
My fourteen-year old son is offered his first ever babysitting gig – a significant milestone. I’m fondly reminded of my own babysitting career back in Canada and how I always saw it as easy money compared to shoveling snow, pulling weeds or painting fences. I would be told to make myself at home and would immediately do so by eating whatever took my fancy, listening to my Kiss records and watching old movies on TV. So I think the $50 offered to watch an eight-year old boy for four hours before the ‘real babysitter’ arrives is indeed easy money. All seems to be going well until I learn there’s an issue. The four hour time period has expired and the relief sitter hasn’t arrived. So, according to the call from my wife, our son has had enough and is about to leave the kid on his own and head home. I’m shocked. If there’s one fundamental rule to babysitting, it is, simply put, to sit with the baby. No pissing off home to jump on your Play Station. I tell my wife not rush over and to let me call him first. When I do, he slides into whinge mode. “I’m so bored. He’s just sitting in the other room on his own and my phone’s almost out of charge and I was only supposed to be here for four hours.” I explain, as calmly as I can, that he just needs to literally sit tight until the other sitter arrives. He decides to hang up on me. I call again, fuming but still determined not to lose my shit. I’m unsure if he’ll even answer. When he does, I coolly explain to him that if he hangs up again, I’m taking his Play Station and throwing it in the bin. This seems to get his attention. I go on to tell him that he is under no circumstances to leave until someone else gets there. He agrees, unhappily. I hang up and shake my head. My son is a boy with many talents. Babysitting, however, is not among of them.