My Last Night in Sydney

So… back in 1989 I went to Australia. Although it was only 25 years ago, foreign travel was way more exotic then than it is now, especially to somewhere like Australia. Hell, at the time just getting a passport was a big deal. There wasn’t an Internet you could easily download the necessary forms from, there were no digital cameras so you had to go to a photographer or a camera store to get the passport photos made, and there were only like, two places in all of Atlanta where you could process a passport: the federal courthouse downtown and the Decatur post office.

So yeah, it was a big deal. And the best part of my trip was that it was free. My father was a wholesale grocer, and every year one of his vendors offered free trips if you moved enough of their product. And the trips were tiered, too. I don’t know the exact numbers, but let’s say that if you sold 100 cases of their products in a calendar year you got a free 5-day Caribbean cruise. If you sold 300 cases you got a free 7-day trip to Paris. But if you sold 600 cases, you got the top-tier prize, which was something big… like 14 days in Australia. The funny thing was, the year before my dad actually sold enough so that four people could go on the trip… which would have been perfect for my four-member nuclear family. But for some reason I was worried about school and didn’t want to take two weeks off. Hard to believe, I know!

Dad didn’t sell as much product in 1988, so that year, when the vendor offered a similar trip to Australia, only two people could go. And this time I really wanted to go. And since I was a senior in high school who only had two classes that really mattered, missing class wouldn’t be too much of a problem this time around. So it was decided that my mom and I would go.

I won’t go into detail about most of the trip. After all, the name of this article is “My Last Night in Sydney”, right? It suffices to say that I had a lot of fun: snorkeling and taking a glass bottom boat on the Great Barrier Reef, enjoying a rowdy dinner at a hotel deep in the “bush”, visiting a koala preserve, another dinner at a sheep shearing ranch, looking for pretty girls with hot accents… you know, all the usual stuff a 17 year-old kid would get into. But here’s the thing: it was a group trip. We were traveling with 70 or so other wholesalers who’d also sold enough merchandise to make the trip. I’m not normally a fan of escorted trips, but this one was pretty awesome: we stayed at some of the fanciest hotels I’ve ever been in, hardly touched our suitcases the entire trip, and had most everything lined up for us. Want to go to a koala preserve? No problem – just be in the hotel lobby at 11:00 am!

The trip started in Cairns in the north, came south to Brisbane, then ended in Sydney, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. And on the last night, the vendor arranged for a dinner cruise of Sydney Harbor. So we all dressed up a bit and got on the busses at the appointed time for the short drive to the docks. But here’s the “funny thing”: Mom and I were in the first bus, and as we pulled up to the dock we saw a bunch of police cars. The bus driver said “oh no”, put the bus in park and jumped out the door. I looked over at what the police were doing… and saw them pull a bloated blue body out of the water. A jumper! And it was no more than like, 50 feet away from me, so I could see his face and everything. Nice!

Come to find out, the bus driver knew it was a jumper as soon as he turned the corner and saw the police cars. He’d jumped out of the bus so fast because he wanted to find out where the boat was going to meet us now, since the current slip was a crime scene. The parking lot was kind of small, so there wasn’t a lot of room for him to pull away from the scene, so jumping and running to the dock master was his way of sparing us as much as he could.

So anyway, we went on the next dock and got on the boat. Dinner was had, and delicious though it was, I was SICK of lamb by this point. Then the ship’s staff directed us to the front of the boat, where there was a large area for dancing. Records were played, open bars were opened and people danced. Mom and I had a few dances, and I danced with a few of the older ladies I’d met on the trip. And while I’m on the subject, what’s with older ladies dancing with younger men? I had absolutely no desire to do anything other than dance with Gladys, the wife of a grocery wholesaler from Sheboygan, Wisconsin… but boy I sure could have if I’d wanted to! Take a 17 year-old kid, put him in a suit, and have him ask an older woman if she’d care to dance… and panties become wet in an instant.

Anyway, the dancing lasted a couple of hours. And then it was all over. It was all over too soon, in fact. I was kind of sad. Of course, my sadness was intensified by the open bar. It seems hard to believe now, but when I was 17, I really didn’t have a lot of experience with social drinking. Sure, I’d been drunk plenty of times. That’s what teen parties were for. And I had even done the “drink a few beers while watching the game because the folks are out of town” thing, too. But I’d never really drank that much in public, much less with a bunch of adults. So I was a wee bit tipsy at that point.

One of the guys on the tour – Phil, I think his name was – said that it was the last night of the trip, and he was damned if he was gonna go back to his hotel room at 11:00. He asked mom if we wanted to join him and a couple of other guys from the tour for drinks. She looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders, but with a smile (I was only 17, so I didn’t want to look too eager to drink).

So off we went into the heart of the Australian night. And Phil… Phil was, I believe, a World War II vet from Chicago. He ran a head shop in the 60s, and just generally had seen damn near everything. He was a really nice guy, but he was like that gravel-voiced grandpa who thought the world had been going to hell ever since John Wayne died, and kids these days were pansies with their beer and wine coolers, ‘cos he’d grown up drinking bootleg whiskey during Prohibition. Phil was the kind of guy who would pull out his own teeth with rusty pliers because “dentists are for pussies” and sew up his own cuts because “doctors cost money, and I’ve got a needle and thread right here”. He probably knew real, actual Chicago gangsters and probably had one of those “pin-up girl riding an anchor” tattoos that sailors got back in the day. Despite the fact that he was in his mid 60s by this point, Phil was exactly the guy you wanted next to you in a bar fight. He was mellow, loved to tell stories of doubtful veracity about his past, and probably turned in to a big pile of mush around his granddaughter. But make no mistake – until his dying day, this guy could kick your ass.

And here was Phil, handing me what seemed like drink after drink after drink. And I, afraid to seem less than manly around him, I kept knocking them back. From bar to bar to bar we went, over my lips, past my gums… In reality, I probably only had 5 or 6 drinks at 2 or 3 bars, but in my memory it’s like one of those scenes in a movie where people drink shot after shot after shot and you wonder how they’re still standing. In the end, when I think about that night, it seems an awful lot like this in my memory:

But all good times must come to an end, and this one did, too. The bars closed down and kicked us out, and it was then that all of us realized that we had no idea where we were. Even the one guy who’d been slowly sipping beer the whole time was lost. We asked a couple of passersby where we could catch a taxi, and the general answer was “not around here, mate”.

We eventually found a guy who told us that there was a cab stand over on [street name] and he kindly gave us directions. We thanked him and, of course, completely forgot his directions thirty seconds later. We walked down the street in the general direction he’d pointed, but when we came to the first intersection the group quickly broke down into factions. One group said that we needed to make a left. Another group said we needed to make a right. Yet another insisted that we need to keep going straight ahead. Another group demanded we find our way to Chinatown, because there had to be an all-hours bar somewhere there.

So we walked. And walked. And walked. Again, it seems like we walked for hours, but I’m sure it probably wasn’t more than 30 minutes or so. And I remember this one beautiful moment.

It seemed like we were walking in circles – or, more appropriate for our state, ovals. Except for the odd straggler or two, the streets were empty. There was little sound, not much more than our footsteps and the breeze. It was warm out – January is summer in Australia, after all – but there was a tiny bit of chill in the wind, because it was coming off the water. The air smelled of salt water, and the coolness was refreshing when you took a breath. I remember tall glass buildings to my left – with lots of blue neon, for some reason – and there was water to my right. Mom and I were in the middle of our pack, walking towards nowhere, when I stopped and looked at the Harbor:

Sydney Focus

I had this odd moment of clarity, when it seemed like the alcohol took temporary leave of me. Mom asked if I was OK, and I said I was fine, and took a couple of steps towards the water. And I remember thinking:

“Holy shit! It’s 4 am and I’m in some strange city, with absolutely no idea where I am, drunker than Cooter Brown, hanging out with my own mother, at age 17… on the other side of the fucking world!”

Maybe you think it’s silly. But have you ever had one of those moments? Like, maybe you’re driving somewhere and you glance at your GPS – just as you’ve done a thousand times before – but for some reason this time you suddenly realize that the only reason it knows where you are is because some really smart people built satellites and shot them into space, and this $100 gadget on your dashboard is reading those signals… from outer space? Or maybe a friend called you while he was sitting on a beach in Thailand, and while you are completely familiar with the concept of international telephony, for some reason this one time you were like… “wow, he’s on the other side of the world!”

Well, that’s exactly what I was feeling at that moment: knowing I was on a giant blue ball, zipping through outer space, with everything I know, love and care about 9,285 air miles away. I looked at the night sky, realizing for the first time that this sky – the same sky I could look at any old day in Atlanta – truly wasn’t the same one I looked at back home. I tried to find the Southern Constellation, but gave up after five seconds when it seemed like too much work. I looked around at the city, knowing that this was one moment, never to be repeated again. All the lights in all the apartment buildings and hotels, all the people in their beds would go on living their Australian lives, but I would soon leave, never likely to return. And this particular configuration of people, lights, waves and stars – and me! – would never again be repeated.

Sadly, mom broke my spell by tapping my shoulder and telling me we needed to get a move on. We walked a little more, and shortly thereafter found a taxi… luckily enough, one with room for all six of us.

I’ve thought about that moment of clarity from time to time ever since. It never makes me nostalgic, at least not in the “sad” way you might think. I almost think of it scientifically, as if maybe, just maybe there’s another Earth somewhere or a parallel universe where I turned to my mom and said “fuck it, mom… I’m staying” and went on to live a little Australian life. Sometimes, when it’s late at night and I’m alone and go outside (for a smoke, say) I look up at the sky and think about that moment and mentally rewind the universe. I pick some random light from a random house or apartment from that moment and wonder what those folks are doing today, and if they even know a guy on the other side of the world – who never met them and doesn’t even know their names – nevertheless still wonders how they’re doing.

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