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.
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.