Monthly Archives: February 2012

Miss Sydney

For a long time, Sydney was my enemy instead of just a city. She was coy and sly and she seduced my lifelong friend away. She used a number of guises. Sometimes she was coquettish and pretty with her idyllic harbours and quiet seaside walking paths. At other times, she was all sophistication and charm, all sleek restaurants and elegant wine bars. Sydney could change costumes more often than a showgirl. At her heart, the wide and expansive Martin Plaza seethed with life, opulent but accessible at the same time. Flower stalls sat well behaved in front of excessively expensive stores. The Pitt Street Mall was crowded with well dressed shoppers striding towards some appointment or other – lunch, a deal, probably both.

The Rocks was different again, crammed with historical plaques and buildings and indications that Sydney had a shady and dubious past. I begrudgingly acknowledged that she had managed to pick up her skirts and carry on regardless. Then again, Sydney didn’t even try to hide her dirty laundry. She revelled in it. She never asked you to forgive her or apologised for her own existence. She stood with two great feet planted on either side of the harbour and her hands on her hips saying, ‘Come on. I dare you’.

For one long afternoon I walked kilometers of her streets. From the centre of the city, starting in Hyde Park, all the way down Oxford Street, through Darlinghurst and Paddington. I bumped into countless beautiful men, preened and glamorous at 10am, charismatic homeless, the stiff suited, glaring tourists and careful shoppers. Every path seemed littered with people. It was muggy, the ground still damp and slightly slimy. Someone had left a small posy of purple flowers enigmatically on a concrete wall and I wondered why and how.

There was a grittiness to Sydney’s streets, an arrogant, crisp sound that said she was experienced – not old and comfortable, experienced. But perhaps she was no longer leering at me, not so sinister or manipulative. She started, instead, to look familiar, a little flawed and a little more vulnerable. Perfection is never endearing, but at the same time you have to be willing to see the faults.

So Sydney and I stopped circling each other warily and she showed me how beautiful she could be. Crossing the Harbour Bridge, we were driving home after another evening out with the hussy Sydney – the one that was game for anything.  It was cool. The air hummed the way cold air does – a sort of hissing. Sydney seemed to be whispering in my ear. I strained my neck around to look out the back window of the car, to look at the underside of the bridge. It was like a giant spider squatting protectively over the water. I felt like I was inside something secret, going through a passage or tunnel. Lights winked and sang their silent song. Other cars whistled past and eventually we had crossed the bridge and were back to ordinary.

Except on this night, the road seemed different to me. Traffic was thin and suddenly the wide expanse of tarmac was more like a runway and indeed I felt as if I could take off anywhere. There was an eerie glow ahead. The industrious North Shore was cushioned with fog and a fine mist of rain but luminous neon signs lit the way. Sydney seemed to have softened. She seemed ambiguous and a little insecure. That appealed to me. It didn’t play games with me. Instead it showed me its insides: ‘see what makes me tick’, she said.

I forgave her.

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Adelaide on a Tuesday morning at 10am

So, as part of my Arts degree, I took a summer writing course called Writing the City. It gave me the chance to be a tourist in my own town, Adelaide. A whole luxurious week off full-time work, wandering around town, writing, reading and writing some more. Of course it included obligatory lattes, self-indulgent monologues about capturing a stranger’s character, and some definite surprises.

Tuesday morning we were sent forth with a decree to find something new. Look, really look, for something we’d never seen before. Well, this is a city I know well. A city I’ve spent time in almost every day of my working adult life. And yet I was astonished at what I found.

What did I find then?

It was 10am when a classmate, Brad, and I sauntered into the Crown and Anchor for a midmorning break from intense observation. One of Adelaide’s oldest pubs, the Crown and Anchor appeared a little bit grimy, a little bit dusty and a little bit dirty without necessarily being so. The bar top wasn’t sticky but it looked as though it should be. There were all sorts of old signs for ‘Shell’, ‘Flummins for Flus’ and an old ‘Union Street’ sign. There was an unmistakable smack of stale beer and cleaning products that pervades most hospitality establishments.

Just inside the narrow door, a loud and brash voice shouted ‘Come in!’. It was Jack and Brian. Who were Jack and Brian?

Brian had quite a sweet face, all things considered. Lined but gentle with a crinkly eye smile permanently pasted on his face. He laughed loud and long, trailing off in a series of sighs and nonsensical mumblings. He was small and wiry with skinny but fierce looking arms. His black and gray hair hung down his neck in limp welts. His goatee was the same – wiry, clumpy and uncomfortable looking.

Brian said, ‘Hey. Have a tequila with us. We’re celebrating’.

No thanks’- me.

‘Sure, why not’ – Brad.

It’s not that I was against drinking so early in the morning, it’s just that they wanted me to drink a tequila shot – the equivalent, in my humble alcoholic opinion, of pouring lighter fluid down my throat then following it up with a bit more self harm by sucking a lemon wedge.

The bar tender lined up the shots. We drank. I almost passed out. Recovered. And asked the obvious question: ‘What are we celebrating?’.

Brian’s grin was broad and toothy. He didn’t seem as drunk as he must have been. He sat fairly steadily on his stool, not even leaning on the bar.

He was celebrating his release from jail and somehow his small tale of armed robbery gone wrong was endearing. The policeman scared him, came up behind him suddenly, in the middle of the robbery and that’s the only reason he shot and wounded him. Jack hung his head, eyes closed for a minute with a big sorry sigh, ‘Lucky I didn’t kill him eh?’. I believed him.

Their camaraderie was charming. They laughed at private jokes, clutching each other in hysterics and then paused moodily to reflect on days gone by. ‘How long have you been friends?’ I asked. ‘We met last night’ they answered in chorus. ‘Jack saved my life’, said Brian. But he never explained how. Evidently the previous evening had been a dramatic and incident packed one.

Brian said he’d had a croissant for breakfast – with a scotch and coke. He kept laughing happily and slapping Jack on the back. Jack kept shaking his head, perhaps shaking out the last of the dark prison shadows, perhaps in disbelief of his freedom. Perhaps it was the cloudy tequila haze.

I said goodbye to Jack and wished him well. He smiled, shook my hand and thanked me. ‘Thank you’ he said, for no reason at all.


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