"Peculiar trait,” thought Grant, “that you could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately become a mortal enemy.” --Australian Author, Kenneth Cook
A recent issue of The Utne Reader had an article called “Invading Our Own Privacy.” It was about how the government or telemarketers or insurance agencies don't have to snoop anymore. People just reveal themselves through blogs, MySpace and other cyber-whining. There have been legal persecutions, firings, school expulsions and more. Just because of what people reveal on the internet. The article laments that there has never been less privacy than there is now... and most people like it that way.
I'm not sure this is all bad. I like the right to be private, but in many ways I agree with Ghandi. He said, “If you live your life with no secrets, you never need to fear discovery.”
In that spirit, I confess that I'm a hypochondriac. I've said it. I'm out.
For me, every headache is a stroke. Every upper intestine gas bulge is a heart attack. Every lump is cancer. Stiff muscles? Arthritis! I start each day with a fistful of vitamins, amino acids and minerals. I travel with a pharmacopoeia of exotic organic preventatives. I bring every bruise to the AIDS Clinic...
The plane from Christchurch back to Melbourne takes about four hours. It's back to the book promotion tour for me.
Before I leave New Zealand, I go out for brunch with Vera. I'm a nervous airporter, so I want to actually get to the airport the 2 hours before departing time that no one seems to care about when you finally get there. I can't chat. I want to eat and run. I feel my blood pressure rising in anticipation of the trip. If it goes unchecked I'll have an aneurysm. Fortunately, Vera insists we at least sit in the grass and watch the ducks by the river. I'm glad she does. I need a little duck before I get to Melbourne.
At the bus station: an hour before the next bus. I pace. Look at the clock in my cellphone. Pace some more. Finally, the bus. Then to the airport for the usual security hell. The two hours at the airport gives me time to worry about entry into Australia. My initial encounter with Aussie customs was so horrible that just the thought of going through that again rumbles the lunch I had with Vera. I rehearse the story in my mind.
[Aside #1: by coincidence, I see Vera again in New York, on her way back from Germany. I know, it's a bit out of the way, but I'm worth it, no? We go see a German movie, Lives of Others. There is a scene where the communist interrogator explains to his class that the way you can tell if someone's lying is by their repetitious answers. If the person always repeats the same story in exactly the same way, he's lying. He has rehearsed his lines and cannot deviate from them. If a person is telling the truth, he will vary the words some. Use different phrases. Maybe even change the details a little from one interrogation to another. That's why interrogators keep repeating their questions. They want to see if the answers change or if their subject is lying. Of course, I don't know any of this while I'm busy at the airport, rehearsing my exact response to the customs officer. Line by line. Word by word.
“Promote books? What books? You see officer, I'm only here for a vacation while visiting my friend in New Zealand. I just came back and now am spending a few days in Melbourne before I go back to the US.... Yes officer, I'm only here for a vacation while visiting my friend in New Zealand.... Yes officer, I'm only...]
We land in Melbourne. I stand in line with my passport.
[Immigration advice #1: Customs is smoother if you go through the red door. Just pick something stupid to declare, a pack of cigarettes, a little bottle of booze, anything that will make the officer either laugh at your honesty or shake her head at your stupidity. They'll say, “Don't worry about that, just go ahead.” and let you walk out.]
In Cairns, there were no doors-- red or green. I was stuck.
Now, I'm in Melbourne. There are no doors here either, but there is a sign that says Please inform the customs agent if you have recently been on a farm or close to livestock.
Yes! That's my escape. I'm at that front of the line. Now, I hand my passport to the man behind the window.
[ Immigration advice #2: you should try to get in line in front of a window with a large hostile- looking agent behind the glass. Those guys have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, and probably believe that no guilty person would ever stand in front of them. NEVER go to an attractive female immigration officer. It's the kiss of death.]
“I've been in New Zealand,” I tell the gruff-looking guy on the other side of the glass. “I went to a penguin reserve and traveled in the back country. There were lots of sheep.”
“That's all right,” he says. “Just go to line B and explain it to a customs officer.”
I collect my bags and go to line B.
“I was in the countryside in New Zealand,” I tell him. “You know. Sheep.”
“Which shoes were you wearing?” he asks.
I point to the boots on my feet.
“Could you lift them up so I could see the soles?”
I raise one foot at a time.
“Ok,” he says. “Thanks, and welcome to Melbourne. You can leave that way.”
Works like a charm.
I walk out of the immigration zone and and into the terminal lobby. Inside the terminal, I'm supposed to meet this guy named Rich. That's all I know. I've never seen him before. My bags sit on an airport trolley. I now wheel them through the waiting area, looking for Rich.
A few people are seated looking at their watches. A few others stand, anxiously surveying the deplaning passengers. I'm hoping for a spontaneous connection.
My picture has been interneted around enough and I always dress like the cover of one of my books. Someone will recognize me.
When I was 16, it might have been possible to walk from strange man to strange man in an airport and ask, “Are you Rich?” Who knows who I might have wound up with? But 40+ years later, I feel really uncomfortable doing the same thing.
Instead, I stalk. I look for someone young, punkish and expectant. Here's someone. An attractive young man, vaguely oriental, with a wide studded belt, slung at an angle over his hips. I wheel my luggage trolley in his direction. Give him a good stare. He looks away. I come closer. He clicks his tongue, trudges to a bench and sits down hard.
Okay, here's someone else. Squat, slightly plump with a head that connects directly to his broad square shoulders. He's talking on a cellphone. I walk toward him. Head straight at 'im. His eyes widen as he sees me and my trolley on a collision path. Deftly, he steps to the side, like a toreador avoiding a charging bull. Nope, not him.
I go back to the kid with the studded belt. He's sits on a chair, still looking at his watch. I pull up next to him. Just stand there. Give him the sideways glance.
“Yo Rich!” I psychically transmit to him. “It's me your waiting for. Don't you know me? Yoo hoo? Ever been buttmeat for an American before? I'll treat you right.”
I don't actually say any of this, but I force the thought through my eyes so hard he glances up at me. Then he stands up, shakes his head, and heads for the safety of another part of the airport. Not Rich, I guess.
It's half an hour after I'm scheduled to land. I call Shawn in Sydney. He answers with He's on his way, Mykel.” I thank him, and hang up. Fifteen minutes later, I text message Shawn.
What does he look like? I ask.
The answer: Haven't the faintest.
Suddenly, the outside revolving door revolves. A large guy with a shock of dirty blond hair, a chipped front tooth, and a Goliath-stride rushes into the lobby.
He looks around, sees me, and walks up to me.
“Mykel?” he asks.
From the terminal, Rich walks me to his car. We pile my bags in and take off.
“It's lucky you have a car,” I tell him. “Lots of my friends, especially in New York, don't have cars.”
“It's my brother's car,” says Rich, “He's not too keen on me borrowing it.”
“That's not very brotherly,” I say. “Maybe you should get your own car.”
“I totaled my car,” he says. “Not drunk driving, I just had this epileptic seizure while I was driving. Pow! I was flying off the road over a field, somebody's lawn, woke up with the car wrapped around a pole. The cops had to bring this machine like a giant can opener and cut me out. Know what I mean?”
“How often do you get these seizures?” I ask him, tightening my seatbelt... then loosening it again.
“I never know,” he answers. “There's just no way of knowing.”
[Aside #2: Maybe the day before I die, I'll figure out how I've lived this long. I hope I'll have time to let you know.]
Inside Rich's apartment: the wall next to the door is filled with LPs. At right angles, on the hinge side, is the stereo, CD player and a 7” singles rack. There's a couch next to a large table. In the middle of the room is a stack of boxes looking very much like the boxes of ARTLESS CDs in the hall of my apartment. Who could've figured on the digital revolution? People would stop buying CD's and let their computers just move electrons.
I set down my bags, flinching slightly at a twitch in my shoulder. Maybe I have rheumatism.
“Looks like my place,” I tell Rich. “I can't sell my CDs either. I got boxes of 'em lying around, just like you.”
“Yeah,” he says, “only those aren't CDs. They're dialysis equipment. I'm on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. I only have one kidney and that doesn't work very well. I need to get flushed out every night. That's the flush.”
I don't remember what I say at this point. I don't think it's anything particularly brilliant.
“It works like this,” he continues, knowing I'm curious. He also knows I'm not exactly sure of the protocol of asking about artificial kidneys or urine/blood processing.
“Most dialysis machines work in a few hours. They hook up to a vein and your entire bloodstream passes through the machine. Those machines leave you beat, worn out, like you've just lost to Les Darcy. (Who?) This one works different. See, you know your body is just like this pit. It's kind of hollow inside, stuffed with guts and stuff. Know what I mean?”
He continues, “Between your guts and the inside of your belly is this bloody tissue called a peritoneum. It's just a white sheet of gop with millions of little blood vessels running through it. All those blood vessels are close to the surface and ready to be scrubbed. Know what I mean?”
He continues, “ so I have this valve built into my side here, like a plug in a blow up sex doll.”
“I know what you mean,” I tell him.
He continues, “It goes right into the peritoneum. I keep it covered during the day, but at night I just plug in a huge bag of salt water. It flushes around my insides, washing the blood through the walls of that bloody tissue. After a few hours of washing, that machine there...” he gestures to what looks like a metal night table with a meter, “will suck out the water that now has gunk in it. That's all the stuff that's usually filtered out by the kidneys. Then, it'll squirt in another bag of salt water and do it again. All this happens while I sleep. It takes about 10 hours, but afterwards I feel right as rain. Know what I mean?”
He lifts his shirt up to show me a square patch of gauze taped to his belly.
“Ummm... you got anything to drink?” I ask. “I gotta take my vitamins. I don't want to get sick while I'm away. I donno, I'm rarely sick, but I always feel like there's something wrong.”
“I'm the opposite,” he says going to the kitchen sink. “No kidneys, epilepsy, everything you can imagine wrong. I don't even think about it.”
Rich is the manager for FIBBERS aka Exile on Smith Street, one of the places I'll be “playing” in Melbourne. I'm scheduled to go on before punk trivia hosted by a noted celebrity musician and one of the few Egyptian-Negroes in Australia.
After we're settled, Rich takes me to my first Melbourne bar. He buys me a local beer, Melbourne Bitter, and a plate of roo stew. Both are satisfying if not spectacular. That's just the start, however, of a pretty spectacular night.
“I want to take you to the CBGBs of Melbourne,” says Rich. “It's called The Tote! This being Monday, there's probably not a lot going on... but you should see it.”
So we take a cab to this bar in a slightly seedy-but-hip part of town. Inside, the first thing that hits me is the cigarette smoke. It's wonderful. Although (except for 6 months in junior high school) I was never a smoker, the smell of cigarettes and the spirit of drinking go together in my mind as sure as the smell of twat and the spirit of eating.
The next thing that hits me is the music. Bruce fuckin' Springsteen. Not only from the jukebox, but on a widescreen projection TV. The music is competing Borns (To Run and In The USA). There's another TV, this one on top of a refrigerator, silently showing another Bruce Springsteen video.
“Didn't you say this was the Melbourne CBGBs?” I ask. “I don't remember a Bruce Springsteen night at CBGBs.”
At the bar are five or six girls. They're smiling, chatting, unaware of our presence. Rich taps one of them, a large blonde wearing a tight dress..
“Hey Rachel,” he says, “what's up with this Springsteen shit? This guy came all the way from New York. I brought him here to see Melbourne's CBGBs... and he sees Bruce fuckin' Springsteen?”
I can see pink rising from Rachel's neck into her face. The other girls turn to look at us with embarrassed-yet-amused looks on their faces. Rachel's look does not have the amused aspect.
“W...well... you see... it was just us in the bar. And it turns out we're all Bruce Springsteen fans... oh I know... It's not musically correct... but... anyway... nobody else was here, so we asked Jack...” she nods toward the skinny young bartender, “we asked him if he had any Bruce Springsteen stuff... it's not like that's all we listen to... it's just that...”
I can't help laughing. Rich too. We order a couple beers and then go around the corner where Bruce is at a less piercing volume. There are no seats in this part of the bar, so we stand around a large high table and drink.
If they make movies on how to identify junkies. On what to look for when you want to spot someone on the stuff. On how to spot someone so juiced they they wouldn't know it if you stuck a pitchfork into their kidneys. The lead actress in that movie walks up to me next.
When I say dirty blond hair, I'm not talking color, I'm talking hygiene. About 5' eight, both arms covered in tattoos that appear copied out of books on Buddhism and bird-watching. Her jaw seems reconstructed by a discount surgeon, who removed part of the bone to sell on the black market. High cheekbones, and a grey t-shirt over a white t-shirt complete the look. She sways back and forth as she speaks.
“Can I talk to you?” she asks me without caring what my answer is. “Hey, I don't like to say, but I gotta tell someone. Ya' know what I'm saying? I mean it's my birthday. I don't celebrate or tell anyone. Ya' know what I'm saying? I'm .....”
She introduces herself, but I don't catch the name. Maybe she mumbles it. Maybe I don't want to hear it. So I'll just refer to her as The Birthday Girl.
“I mean, I need someone to buy me a drink,” she says. “Ya know what I'm saying?”
“What are you saying?” I ask her, hoping the drugs in her veins will confuse her enough to know that not even Americans can be that stupid. I'm wrong.
“You saying you're not gonna buy a girl a beer for her birthday?” she asks. “Is that what you're saying?”
“Sorry,” I tell her putting on my thickest New Yawk accent. “I's just dat I got offa da plane an' I ain't got no Aussie greenbacks. Ya know what I'm tawkin' 'bout? I mean fuggeddabouddit.”
“And pool,” she continues. “I need someone to play pool with. You play pool? You a good player? I came with my friends. They just left me. Left me. Can you believe it? I'll play you for drinks. Let's play some pool. Ya know what I'm saying?”
I see her hands clench into a fist. I fear that tonight I will lose at least a tooth.
“I don' play no pool,” I tell her keeping up the New Yawk tawk. “I admire da game. I wish I kud play. Pool is cool, ya know? But sorry. I don' do no pool.”
“So,” she says, “you won't buy me a beer. You won't play pool with me... and it's my birthday.”
Now her entire arm is tense. The knuckles on her clenched fist are as white as The Klan. I can feel my own approaching death.
I run over and hide behind Rich who's amusedly watching the whole thing.
“I'll buy you a drink,” he says to The Birthday Girl. “And I'll play pool with you.”
Wow! Saved. He's my hero!
While Rich and The Birthday Girl play pool, I converse with a dark-haired goddess who I'll call, Kitten, and her nearly equally attractive boyfriend whose name I may still get. Rachel joins us. The beers keep coming and my first night in Melbourne is turning a bit riotous. Springsteen stops. The beer doesn't.
Here's a chronology of the evening at The Tote:
The crew gets together for a picture.
L-R Standing: Kitten, The Bartender, Me, Rachel, Rich
Kneeling: The Birthday Girl
After a few brews, it's a bit harder for the girls to stand. Looks like they're going for the lower
reaches. No such luck. Rich treats all around. The Birthday Girl is in love with him
Midnight: We're a row of dominoes waiting to fall.
The gloves come off. The inhibitions go to hell.
And I don't remember much else of what happens.
But wow! I can't remember a better first night in a new city. At least one that did not involve some action below the waist.
Somehow, we get back to Rich's place. I quickly fall asleep on the livingroom couch only vaguely aware of a whirring/sucking machine sound coming from Rich's bedroom. I feel a pain in my lower back. I wonder if I have kidney problems. Maybe I'll need a transplant. I'd better see a doctor.
(more on Melbourne in the next chapter)