I still call Australia, I still call Australia, I still call Austraaaaaaalia hooooooooooome
The final notes of the country’s unofficial national anthem are still running through my head as I walk through the airport. 24 hours of cramped airplane tired fall off of me as I make my way through customs in wonder. I smile as the inspector rifles through my bags looking for any one of the thousands of things banned from entry into the country. I’m transfixed by every little thing I come across in my first half hour in-country, even though I haven’t even gotten through the airport to the cab stand yet. Details that are probably common to every other airport in the world delight me with their “Australianness”. Palm trees, giant pane-glass windows, round rubbish bins… Everything seems uniquely Australian in some form or other. I’m tempted to get out my camera.
“Are you Eric Pierce?”
A tall, smiling man holding a placard with my name on it and the name of my tour company steps in to the imaginary frame of my picture of a palm tree bending away from the wall towards the street.
“Uh, yeah, hi,” I stammer.
“G’day, mate,” he grins. “I’m yer ride, welcome to Oz.”
I’m unabashedly delighted by his accent, by the stereotypical language he uses, by his mustache, by his bushy eyebrows. I’ll be embarrassed by this blatant touristy behavior later, but right now I’m just too excited to be here to care.
We climb into the car. I’m thrown by the missing steering wheel in front of me, but only for a moment. I’ve been to England and Ireland. I’ve ridden on the left before. What is it about Australia that makes this way of doing things, usually so mundane and normal, seem so exotic again? It distracts me as we drive through the streets of Sydney’s suburbia.
I don’t blink for blocks as I try to see everything on the way to the hotel. The driver is talking about the weather, some politics, himself.
“I’ve been to the U.S.A.,” he says proudly.
“Yeah,” I ask distractedly. There’s a garbage truck in front of us that fascinates me because it doesn’t look anything like the garbage trucks at home… well, besides the huge bucket in the back, the large tires, the lights, the smell…
“Yep, I’ve got a mate who flies airplanes out in Arizona,” he explains. “The missus and I go and visit him now and then. When we’re there I do a lot of shopping. All of my clothes come from the ‘States, yah know.”
“Really?” I chuckle.
“Thas’ right,” he says proudly. “Every stitch ‘o clothing I got, ‘cause it’s cheaper. I just load up on jeans and shirts when I’m there.”
I laugh with him at the absurdity of traveling thousands of miles across the world’s largest ocean, merely to shop.
Silence falls over the car as I’m distracted by a roundabout. The fifth we’ve gone through in as many minutes. Haven’t these people heard of the four-way intersection?
“Where’d they put you up again?” my driver asks suddenly.
“Umm,” I dig into my pack for the slip of paper with the name of the hotel. “The Noah’s Ark.” I tell him the address and he does a double take and asks me to repeat it.
“Are you joking?” His face is suddenly not so bright and cheerful. “What’d they go and do that for?”
I’m confused by the sudden change of mood.
“What’s the matter?” I ask. “The brochure said it’s a three-star establishment.”
I obviously wasn’t expecting luxurious accommodations, not on rates I’ve paid. But the man is obviously concerned.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the hotel and all,” he says. “It’s the neighborhood I’m worried about.”
“Why, what’s so bad about the neighborhood?” I ask.
“A lot ‘o unsavory type characters in the area,” he says gravely. “The place is absolutely crawling with Abos.”
I dig deep into my memory banks and find the meaning of the word through its context. Aboriginals. The native people of Australia. From what I’ve learned of Australia from any number of nameless sources, the race relations are less than sunny. This must be my first taste of Australian cultural tensions. But “Abos”? Is that like… like… “nigger”? The N-word. In the ‘States, you call a black person that to their face, you’re in for a violent retort… and a lawsuit.
It’s coming back to me. A precursory history of Australia. The convicts, the aborigines, the slaughters, disease, injustice. Very similar to my own country’s history of oppression and racism involving blacks and Native Americans. I’m already forming my own opinions, my sociology classes kicking into gear…
“Them darkies built the place, but they’ve gone and let it go all to ruin,” he’s saying, little white flecks of spit on his lower lip. His hands are white on the wheel, twisting and grinding the plastic. “All they do is drink, do drugs and steal. Why, just last week there was a lady mugged right on the street your hotel is. You should tell that company that they shouldn’t be puttin’ people up in this neighborhood. Too dangerous…”
Almost automatically I’m formulating a rebuttal to his claims. It’s like I’m watching a movie about the Civil Rights movement back home. I feel like I’ve gone back in time.
Suddenly, out the window, I’m not seeing the different-looking fire hydrants and road signs. Now I’m seeing the graffiti, the run-down houses. I see a black man with a bottle in a paper bag, leaning against a light pole. I see a bent over figure walking down a side street. I see the automatic locks engage when we come to a red light.
My driver is looking around and muttering to himself. His eyes flick between the red light and the rearview mirror as if we’re surrounded. The tires yelp when the light turns green.
“Mate ‘o mine, drives a taxi, once picked up a fare here,” he begins. “An Abo. Says he knew he shouldn’t’ve, but did anyway. Business was slow and he was desperate. So he picks up this small, thin darkie woman, a gin. Well, he goes 100 meters and she thumps him on the back ‘o the head with a stubbie. She’s jabberin’ at ‘im an’ he don’t understand a word she’s sayin’. Somethin’ about her baby and the father or somethin’, I dunno. He yanks the wheel over and she falls over on the seat. Before she sits up he slams on the brakes and stops the car. She crashes into the back o’ the seat. He gets out and yanks her onto the pavement. Me mate says she was cryin’ and her nose’s bleedin’. Bloody bitch deserved it. Turns out she’d told him to wait for her family to come out so they could go to hospital or somethin’.”
He’s chuckling faintly.
I’m floored. He’s got more stories, each worse than the last. I’ve been thrust into a movie about Birmingham, Alabama in the 60s. I’ve got visions of black protesters being flayed by policemen with high powered fire hoses that peel the skin right off of you. I’m seeing students being attacked by police dogs while their trainers stand there laughing, yelling at the dog, “Get ‘im!”
“Just don’t go out at night alone, mind you,” he’s saying. “Them Abos can’t be trusted. They’ll stab you in the back with their needles and you’ll get AIDS or somethin’.” He’s looking at me earnestly. “This is a bad neighborhood they’ve put you in, bloody idiots. They’re dangerous they are, and good for nothing. After all we’ve done for them…”
I’m seeing red. I want to shout at him. I want to knock some sense into him. I want to show him how ignorant he is. I want to call him a racist and a bigot and asshole.
“Fuck you!” I’m thinking. “You fucking bastard. How fucking stupid are you?! They’re like this ‘cause fuckers like you took everything away from them! Pieces of shit like you keep them down, kick them and spit on them and steal from them and rape them and…”
I can feel myself shaking as all of the should’ve-saids are running through my mind. I keep my mouth shut. I’ve only been in the country for an hour. It’s not my place to be going toe-to-toe on a hot issue like this with someone who’s lived here all of his life.
I keep my mouth shut. I keep it shut and it’s a struggle. Everything he says infuriates me now. All I see is the oppression, the hatred, the racism, the ignorance. All I see are the crumbling walls, the pitiful figures leaning against newspaper boxes, the rubbish on the sidewalk.
Finally we pull up to the hotel. It’s an unassuming building on the corner of two busy roads. I get out and see a small, nervous-looking Asian woman sitting behind a thick door that won’t open until you’ve been buzzed in.
My driver helps me pull my duffel out of the trunk while looking over his shoulder every few seconds.
“Good luck, mate,” he says, though he doesn’t sound at all cheerful or confident anymore. “Remember what I told yah, stay outta the alleys and in at night.” He pats my shoulder and gives me a knowing look, before jumping back in the Mercedes. I hadn’t noticed it was such a nice car. And a taxi? I realize it looks extremely out of place in this neighborhood.
And suddenly, I feel extremely out of place on the sidewalk, all of my belongings sitting next to me. I feel vulnerable. I’ve never felt this way before, and I’ve been in a lot of bad neighborhoods.
Guiltily, I wave to the woman behind the counter and she buzzes me through, quickly closing and locking the door behind me.
Ten days later, I drag my bags out of the hotel elevator into the lobby. I slept late, hope the cabbie isn’t honking the horn.
“Ah, there he is.” I see a familiar face beaming at me, face a plump tomato above the black suit. I hear myself mumble a greeting.
“Ready to go then?” He strides over and shoulders my duffel. “All right then, we’re off.” I follow him to the security door. I nearly bump into him when he freezes, his finger shaking over the open button. I look over his shoulder and see a drooping figure in a dirty grey overcoat disappear into a doorway across the street.
The driver waits an extra beat before pressing the button and hustles quickly out to the car. He fumbles with the keys as he opens the trunk. My door is locked and I have to wait for him to let me in.
“Never can be too careful,” he mumbles under his breath. I don’t recall the door being locked when he picked me up from the airport. How long had he been waiting at customs for me, his car outside on the curb?
The atmosphere in the car is tense with his white-knuckle steering and darting eyes. A bead of sweat forms on his temple.
A deep breath as we go through an intersection. The scenery outside is suddenly devoid of graffiti. I see children-- white children on a playground.
He turns to me for the first time since we got in the car.
“So, how was your stay? How do you like my country?” His crooked-toothed grin annoys me. His jovial accent grates my teeth.
“It was great, I loved it.” The words slip through my clenched jaw.
He leans over towards me conspiratorially. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble… y’know, with them.” He winks at me.
“Nope, none at all,” I fail trying to make my voice sound sharp.
“Good on yah, I didn’t think you would. Got a good head on yer shoulders. Common sense’ll keep you safe,” he says knowingly.
I’m chuckling. He looks at me curiously before laughing lightly with me.
“Actually,” I begin slowly, “my common sense was of little help this week.”
“Eh? How’s that,” he asks with a chuckle. Another “dumb tourist” story.
“Well, see, I did a lot of exploring and-,”
“’Course yah did. Lots to see, got get to all the sights, eh?”
“Um, yeah,” his interruption noted, “the sights, I saw them, but you know,” I chuckle for effect, “you haven’t seen a place until you’ve gotten lost in it.” More chuckling.
He’s looking at me out of the corner of his eye, a look of new concern rippling his brow.
“Yeah see, I was out real late one night, down in the city, so the buses had stopped, but I didn’t wanna pay for a cab, so I decided to walk back to the hotel.” He sucks a breath in through his teeth.
“How late was it?”
“Ah, must’ve been after 2 in the morning. It was a good night,” I grin at him. His face is stone.
“You got lost?”
I laugh, self depreciating humor is definitely my specialty. “Yeah,” I shake my head, “can you believe it? Man it was dark.” I’m laughing by myself again. He’s frowning at me more than the road. “Yeah, I was a bit nervous, I mean, what you said before and all-.”
“Well you should have been-,” he huffs.
“So then this dark figure walks out of an alley ahead of me-.”
“So I slow down and look around me, waiting for him to cross the street or something, but he sees me and-.”
“D’you get mugged? Bloody idiot, out late like that. I told you-.”
“He smiles at me! Huge grin on his face!” I laugh. The driver’s staring at me in horror. I’m thankful we’re at a red light.
“He comes up to me an’ he says, ‘Hey boss, you gotta smoke?’ Now I’m nearly frozen up until this point, but his question slaps me out of it, you know? I’m checkin’ my pockets- I don’t even smoke, mind you, but I’m checkin’ ‘em anyway. Finally I say, ‘Nah man, I don’t. Sorry.’ Well, you should’ve seen his face! I thought his smile was big before. Well, now he’s practically laughing out loud! ‘Hey, you American!’ he says. ‘You from the ‘States! ‘Ey boys, come out’ere! We gotta American ‘ere!’ So a whole pile of people come out of this alley. I hadn’t even seen them, they just suddenly appeared.” I’m laughing openly, but the driver looks like he’s seen a ghost. He pulls the car over and parks.
“What happened,” he asks gruffly.
“Absolutely nothing,” I say to him. “They were great! All they wanted to do was meet a foreigner! They were more polite than they needed to be. I think I shook everyone’s hand at least twice. They were all laughing. But they got real somber at one point and said they were sorry about what happened in New York. I thanked them, then you know what they said?”
“What’d they say?” He’s hanging on my every word.
“Well, the first one, I think he said his name was Duke or something like that, he says, ‘Well, we gotta get back to it, it’s good meetin’ you. Enjoy our land, heh heh, but lemme tell you,’ and he leans real close, ‘you be sure to watch out for ‘dem whities.’ And he starts laughing! They all do! And I was laughing with them! I don’t even know why, but the whole thing was just hilarious!”
I’m slapping my knee, tears on my cheeks from laughter. The driver’s face is straight. He puts the car back into gear and cuts off a BMW.
“Yer lucky mate. Reeeeal lucky, lemme tell you-.”
“No, I don’t think I was,” I say flatly. “See, I walked home late like that almost every night, and you know what, I was never bothered. Even in the middle of the night almost everyone I encountered smiled and said hello to me.”
“That’s ‘cause they knew you’re American!” His face is going from red to purple. He licks his lips.
“Right, that’s it. It’s because they could read my mind,” I say sarcastically.
“Mate, you don’t know about it,” he snaps.
The car is quiet. We’re both fuming. The only satisfaction I have is that I’ve wiped that smile off of his face. I get my own bag out of the trunk.
A smiling black woman is behind the check-in counter.
I’m going to miss this country.