The Ugly American

Back in 1989, my mother and I went to Australia. Due to the difference in time zones, we were usually out and about in the morning when we wanted to call home. So we needed a payphone.

At the time, Sydney had three types of pay phones: orange payphones, which were all over the place, but could only call within the metro Sydney area; green payphones, which were somewhat rarer, and were able to call anywhere in Australia; and silver payphones, which were located at only a few post offices and banks, and were able to call internationally.

So one morning we were out and about and decided to call home. We asked around for a “silver payphone” but no one seemed to have any idea what we were talking about. Seriously. The first dozen people we asked seemed puzzled by the very question: “You want to… dial another country… from a payphone?”, as if we’d asked how to make toast using an inkjet printer. We finally found someone who directed us towards a nearby post office… only we get there and the phone is out of order. So we ask at the post office, and once again the people there are like: “You want to call the United States… from a payphone? I don’t know if it’s even possible to call another country from a payphone!”

So we start asking around again, and still we’re getting blank stares and puzzled looks. A few people happily give us directions to nearby green payphones, because people in Sydney apparently think that Queensland is a foreign country. Anyway, we eventually find someone who directs us to a shopping arcade around 20 blocks away. And we can’t find a taxi, so we have to walk the whole way (have I mentioned that by this point it’s 95F, that we’d walked past 4,732 orange payphones, or that we’d spent 90 minutes on this seemingly simple task?).

We get to the shopping arcade, only we can’t find the phone. By this point, I’m just fed the fuck up with the Aussie payphone situation. My mom walked in to this gift store and asked the kindly looking old lady there – imagine an Australian version of Paula Deen – about the payphone, and the poor woman had no idea… Well, I just blew up her. I yelled. I screamed. Spit came flying out of my mouth. I used words I’d never used in front of my mother before. I made up several new swear words on the spot, and told this woman what I thought about her backwards-ass country and their piece of shit phone system. My mom was mortified. There was a brief pause while the woman looked me square in the eye… then she let loose her own torrent of profanity towards me. Imagine Paula Deen, with an Aussie accent, reading from Joe Pesci’s role in Goodfellas and you have an idea.

We quickly left, and eventually found the phone on our own. And I felt really bad about being such a dick that that woman. Heck, I still do, 20 years later. Whenever I hear an “Ugly American” story, I can’t help but think about that poor woman and the day some crazed, 18 year-old American came in to her store, ranting about how you could “call fucking Timbuktu from any fucking payphone anywhere in the United fucking States”, but doing the same thing “in this nation full of fucking inbred British-reject convicts” required “more fucking engineers than the fucking Apollo program”.

You might, by this point, wonder how we even found out about the different types of payphones in the first place. That’s because we managed to get an operator on a line who told us that. But, like all things Australian, even getting that information was difficult. To dial an operator in the US, you just pick up the phone and press the “0” button. Apparently, in Australia at the time, to do the same thing in New South Wales, you picked up a phone and dialed 112, unless it was a Tuesday, in which case you dialed 555. Of course, the whole thing was flip-flopped in Queensland, where it was 555 except for Thursdays, when it was 112 (except in Cairns, where it was 010 on odd numbered days and 998 on even numbered days from May-September, but 11199911201 on weekdays and 331 on weekends from October-April, except, of course, for federal holidays when it was just 5).

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