Frankly, I don't understand you. I'm offering you a plum. I'm handing you an opportunity in the heart of the city where the whole world's heading: journalists, corporate leeches, Japanese tourists, Greco-Roman wrestlers. It's on a boat bobbing on the earth's loveliest harbor. It's selling something everybody wants—why, they're out there right now, signaling from their skiffs, yoo-hooing from their yachts, braying from the beaches. Many of them are naked, or nearly so. Half of them are female. No, I don't understand you at all.
Look, I'll be blunt: Boat Boy needs you. He's handsome. He's friendly. He's 28. He's hurting. His partner, Michelle, the smart looker with the blonde hair halfway to her heels, just walked off his boat and out of his life. The busiest 17 days of his life are about to begin. And you just sit there, slack-jawed, staring at some magazine when you might really be experiencing the Olympic city. When you might be first mate on Matthew Rose's ice-cream boat.
Awww, good on ya, mate, just a trial run, hop aboard! Matthew'll do the maneuvering and marketing, you man the money and menu: buck and a half Aussie for a Paddle Pop, $2.50 for a Mud Puddle, a Gaytime or a Cornetto, $3 for a chocolate-covered Magnum. You still look doubtful. Never heard of an ice-cream boat? This is Sydney, mate. Paris you do by foot, San Fran by trolley, London by double-decker. Sydney by dinghy or doggie paddle.
Because this harbor is it, see. A place where God sank all 10 fingers into the land and scooped out coves, cliffs, bluffs, beaches, hills, headlands and inlets, so that every boatie would have a sweet place out of the wind to drop his anchor and his cares, so every beachie would have a crescent of white sand on which to lay her sweet bikinied bottom, so every poor bloke on foot or in car who couldn't quite make it down onto the stage itself would have another bend in the road, another rise, another perch from which to gaze down at the pageant of light, color and waterborne craft and hear his heart sing. Twenty-five liquid square miles of Main Street, mall, swimming hole, fishing hole, fairground and playground, all poured into one.
September 10, 2000
Here, if you're a Sydneysider, is where you'll come for all your big firsts: first kiss, first grope, first wedding. Here—if the number of sniffling customers cradling urns full of ashes that Matthew takes out in his second job, as Harbour Taxi pilot, is any indication—is where you'll come for your lasts, too. Your in-betweens? You'll spend those kissing arse and nosing grindstone just to stay nearby. If you can't mortgage $3 million to live on Sydney Harbour, you'll borrow 300 thou to sail it, grub 10 grand to putter it, drop $150 for a restaurant table overlooking it, fork over a five to ferry it or pinch a buck-twenty to bus to it with a ratty towel and a cooler full of greasy chicken and cold beer. But mogul or mooch, what you'll always lack, what you'll always need—what's a mall, what's a Main Street, what's a fairground without one?—is an ice cream.
Now that we're a hundred feet offshore, it's only proper to inform you: You're in a war zone. A half-dozen enemy ice-cream boats, not to mention the latest combatant—the cappuccino boat—are lurking out there. Strange but true: On a harbor so serene, amid a people so easygoing, death threats, sabotage, assaults and high-speed chases have all occurred during the Harbour Ice Cream Wars over the last 15 years, with few locals even aware of them.
But no worries, mate. Your skipper's been crisscrossing this harbor so skillfully for so long—in pleasure boats, sailboats, water taxis, ice-cream boats or his newest toy, his 10-seat rubber inflatable Harbour Duck—that Michelle's girlfriends called him Boat Boy. Besides, can't imagine anything dodgy happening on a beaut of a day like this. So clang-clang that big brass bell Matthew rigged on that thick wooden handle, in case Sydney dozes off and doesn't notice an aluminum 17-footer flapping with 10 pink-yellow-and-red Streets ice-cream pennants. Swivel your head and drink in the drama of Port Jackson, Sydney Harbour's rarely used proper name, on a regatta-rippling, sun-kissed Saturday. A natural amphitheater where a million people, if they so chose, could throng to view Olympic sailing races, as they gather on New Year's Eves and for any other excuse Sydney dreams up to spiderweb the sky and water with color and torch its annual $4 million fireworks budget. It's a state of mind as much as a body of water; a possibility, waiting there, glistening even when it isn't in sight. One of the first white people to set eyes on it, British naval surgeon John White, nailed it cold in his 1788 journal: "Port Jackson, I believe to be, without exception, the finest and most extensive harbour in the Universe."
Thank god Matthew's a master, because look what we'll be weaving through! Skiffs, sculls, subs, seaplanes, sailboards, freighters, frigates, ferries, fishing charters, wedding charters, canoes, container vessels, catamarans, tugboats, taxis, tall ships, kayaks, hydrofoils, ocean liners, Jet Skis, amphibious buses, racing yachts, rowboats, dinghies, destroyers, dinner cruises, disco cruises, coffee cruises, opera cruises, stripper cruises, booze cruises, barges, paddle wheelers and sailboats, oh, so many sailboats, all endlessly plowing this field of blue-green for its one sure harvest, the only one Sydney seems to need: the beauty of each vanishing moment.
Three hundred an hour! That's how many vessels hum past the harbor's center on a typical weekend day. If only half of them want Paddle Pops, you and Matthew are gonna be rich!
We'll start at the mouth, where the Tasman Sea surges through the mile-wide jaws of those two magnificent heads. Those cliffs on South Head, over at an area known as the Gap, are a sheer 100-yard Geronimoooooo. . . . It's a ripper view on a clear day: A bloke can corkscrew his head 270 degrees and sweep the Tasman, the froth on the rocks far below, the jutting heads, the heart-stopping harbor, the beaches, the mighty bridge and Sydney looming up like the Emerald City.
Or he can jump.
So many Sydneysiders have chosen Plan B—alas, there's just not enough waterfront property to go around—that phone numbers for two suicide crisis centers are posted at the Gap. Try as they might, Anthony and Eva Bettke, who lived across the road and became known as the Guardians of the Gap in the 1960s after dragging 27 people back from the edge in one week alone, couldn't stand guard forever.
No, Matthew's never gone close to the edge, but he knows the feeling. Something like it has started whirling inside him every time he has tried to work a normal job, under a boss, on dry land. That's why he paced so many kilometers around the house that he and Michelle used to share, his mouth and hands flying as he hatched his latest brainstorm for a harbor venture—the Coffee Boat, the Booze Boat, the Floating Beer Garden, the Ultimate Sydney Sunset Experience, the Ultimate Sydney Seafood Experience, each to have its own Web site and brochures—and then carved himself to bits when his dream collapsed or was slow to pan out.
He's at a crossroads, closing on 30. On the skin, just a typical strawberry blond, beer-drinkin', slang-slingin' Sydneysider, lathered up with 30-plus sunblock in deference to the gash in the ozone atop Australia. Which is to say he's one of the earth's easiest strains for a stranger to approach on the street: frank, flexible, self-deprecating, breezy and genial, the inheritor of a code forged by a nation of convicts left to their military jailers' mercy on a land mass that might as well have been on the moon; inmates who made mateship their highest virtue, so that two centuries later every man, whether speaking to his son, a lifelong friend or the foreigner arriving for the Olympics, would address that man as mate.
Mates who, better still, would chop every multisyllabic uppity word down to Everyman's size and then tack on an endearingly juvenile ie or y or o, turning their politicians into pollies, journalists to journos, costumes to cozzies and afternoons to arvos. Sydneysidahs are congenitally incapable of pronouncing the letter r if it falls after a vowel, so that every other week last year, as word of a new fiasco wrought by their Olympic ministers rumbled through the city, they turned to one another and said, "Did ya heah the latest muck-up, mate? A real shockah!"
But that's about as far as outrage goes. They're moderate men, their DNA's rough edges burned off by decades of subtropical sun, men lacking the passion, 99 years after independence, to bother weaning themselves off their ceremonial figurehead, the British queen, or quartering their arrogant Olympic lords. "No worries, mate." That's their mantra. "No dramas. It'll be right, mate." Men of few demons, few burning issues. . . until they slide behind the wheels of their cars and some ratbag in front of them slows to look for a parking space, or they climb onto their surfboards and some yobbo drops in on their wave. Then, and only then, some hidden primal beast in them comes honking out.
But peer closer at Matthew. Can you see those fingernails gnawed to the knuckle? Can you sense the anxiety fanning through his belly, the fear that every new day of peddling Mud Puddles and taxiing customers across the harbor is another day's slippage behind mates who are earning more, embarked on careers, starting the buy-and-sell hopscotch that will inch them closer and closer to a balcony view. . .that he'll end up a water rat, renting inland, for life?
He'll get over Michelle, dammit. He'll stop seeing her everywhere he looks: over there at Doyle's, the restaurant on Watson's Bay where they'd eat fish-and-chips and then sip brews in the beer garden next door, watching the sun melt into the harbor as the city, like some space-age metropolis in a fantasy film, began casting its twinkle and glow. And over there, in all those coves where they would sip wine, nibble prawns, pull off their clothes and jump into water clear enough to rinse away yesterday's argument and tomorrow's too.
That's the joy of Sydney, what separates it from the world's other wondrous cities: this cross-stitch of nature and metropolis, this astonishing multitude of secret pockets and hidden beaches that could abracadabra four million people away, nooks that a tourist might never locate unless a local led him down a vine-choked path and a narrow stone stairway to the bottom of another sandstone escarpment. Or invited him aboard a backyard Inclinator, an angled open-air elevator that the rich install to convey them and their Chardonnay to the coves and yachts waiting below.
Why, you're wondering, aren't we selling ice cream? We're waiting for Sydney's midafternoon sweet tooth to strike as we creep along the rocks so that enemy ice creamers won't spy us. Boat Boy is dressed tastefully in his yellow shirt, the one with the topless island babes straddling palm trees and being ogled by top-hatted foxes with their tongues hanging out. Hell, he had to come up with some kind of gimmick. Two of his rivals are muscle men zipping around in pocket-rocket Speedos. Another bloke stimulates business by wearing only a G-string!
"Just look at those houses!" cries Matthew. He's pointing out all the palaces terraced into the hills overlooking the harbor, objects of a lust that fills Sydney newspapers with photographs and price tags. Obscene, you mutter when you hear the numbers, but wait. Stay here long enough, mate, and the day'll come when you'll round a curve, find yourself alone with a harbor sunset and face the truth: Given half a chance, you'd merrily commit that obscenity as well.
"What do you think the people living in those houses do for a living?" asks Matthew. "Stockbrokers? Lawyers? You've got to be some kind of crook like that to afford those houses." Fair enough. But all those green acres along the harbor's rim that the developers haven't sunk their fangs and pylons into? Salute the military, mate. So much of the foreshore was fenced off ages ago for naval bases and gun emplacements—then gradually converted to public land as Aussies realized that your average foreign Fascist, Communist or hegemonist wasn't up for the commute—that today Sydney Harbour National Park covers 959 acres of prime waterfront real estate broken into seven chunks along the harbor banks and three small islands, coiled with some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful walking trails on earth, bristling with she-oaks, red gums, flame trees, wattles, palms, limes, chestnuts, jacarandas, blackboys, mangroves, Norfolk pines and Moreton Bay fig trees, not to mention rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, currawongs, magpies, galahs and ibis, surely the squawkiest, most colorful crew of city birds on earth.
"Just look! Magnificent!" Excuse Matt. Even amid his mooning over Michelle, those words jump out of his throat now and then; he simply can't help it. Or. . .is he referring to those naked bodies sprawled across the sand and boulders at Lady Bay Beach toward whom we're hurtling at 50 mph? Hard to say, because now BoatBoy's got that fixed look in his eye and that funny feeling in the pit of his stomach, the kind that bull sharks get when a school of whitebait happens by.
He scans the horizon for rivals and grins—coast's clear!—then throttles back and glides onto the sand. "Any of them been here yet?" he calls out anxiously. Good ol' reliable Charlie shakes his head no, bolts off his towel in his birthday suit and holds Matthew's boat steady in the surf, as he always does.
Relax, mate. No need to avert your eyes here. This is an island culture. This is a city that shrugs over the sailors' tongues of its eight-year-olds, a place where organized religion isn't something brandished or bashed. . .no, just sort of beside the point. A town that parades flesh in G-strings for 700,000 spectators at every Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, that juts it in taut tank tops on every sunny Saturday shopping stroll down Oxford Street, that airs it out topless on the city's 67 other beaches for people too bloody squeamish for the three nude beaches. A city that blazed the word ETERNITY on the Harbour Bridge at midnight on New Millennium's Eve but keeps its gaze fixed on the easy pleasure of right here, right now.
The Puritans, you see, didn't make the traveling squad when the Brits started cramming convicts onto boats and shipping out Australia's first Caucasian gene pool 212 years ago. Matter of fact, on that summer night when female convicts, 188 of them, first laid foot in Australia—on Jan. 26, 1788—the skies let loose a torrential storm, the sailors and jailers dipped deep into the rum and joined the 548 male convicts running amok, and a new nation was born amid lightning bolts, thunder booms, mud puddles, fiendishly slippery boulders, shrieks of protest and screams of rapture in the waterfront section of Sydney that came to be fondly known as the Rocks. Ah, such a pity that the Games fall a few months before the Sydney summer really starts to sizzle and that all the days of the XXVII Olympic Summer Games may not quite measure up to that earthshaking night.
Hard to believe, surveying all this bronzed anatomy on Lady Bay Beach, that it was illegal for their great-granddaddies even to swim at Sydney beaches. But local gentility was so desperate to distance itself from the ever-swelling number of convicts, who bathed in the harbor and ocean to get clean, that in 1838 it had swimming banned between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. At Manly, across the harbor, a bloke with a huge dinner bell would come around at sunrise to gong the vermin off the sand. Until Oct. 2, 1902, that is, when William Henry Gocher, editor of the Manly and North Sydney News, strode into the surf at midday wearing a frock coat, striped trousers and a hard hat and carrying an umbrella under his left arm, according to a copper on duty. The authorities didn't prosecute, the public rallied around Gocher, the ban was broken, and Sydney's beach culture exploded. The harborside beaches were preferred by those in search of a quieter aesthetic. The oceanside beaches such as Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly, Coogee, Maroubra, Cronulla, Manly, Dee Why, Shelley and Queenscliff—how could one city possibly have so many stunning choices?—awaited those in search of ripper waves. Mateship felt so much truer when everybody was stripped to his shorts.
"So how ya going?" Matthew sings out to the nudists, mostly males on Lady Bay, as they queue up with fistfuls of coins. My oath, those Gaytimes sell like mad here. Bingo-bango-bongo: $30 in the till.
Matthew purrs off, pausing to sell to $500,000 yachts and $2,000 runabouts as children on board wave and squeal at him; Boat Boy's now the most popular fella on the harbor. "Awww, mate, what a job you have!" the adults crow as they dab the remains of lavish lunches off their lips. Matthew grins and agrees. Who wants to hear the Ice Cream Man moan about the dark underbelly of Mud Puddle mongering? Why disturb this snapshot of Sydney life, this ease with which his townsfolk drop work on Friday arvo and lovingly lay out the spread on Saturdays and Sundays? Just look around you, mate. It's an art form in Sydney, "the city of picnics," as Rudyard Kipling called it. As if from a hat, on boats or park grounds everywhere, out come the portable barbies, the foldout chairs, the tables and tablecloths, the fancy wicker baskets bloated with cheeses and pates and salads. Out come the cricket sets for young and old to have a whack while the prawns and snags—shrimp and sausages in your tongue—sizzle on the grill. Out come the stemmed wineglasses, the coolers tinkling with beer bottles, the ice buckets with champagne and killer Aussie white wines, and Sydney gets ever so pleasantly pissed.
Uh-oh. . . . You don't see it, but Matthew does. The faintest rooster tail of white spray on the horizon, that's all he needs to identify an enemy boat. It's one of the blokes with the pecs and the Speedos, heading exactly where Matthew's heading: across the harbor to Quarantine Beach. Hang on to your hat, mate! Whooosh. That big cheerful green thing we just blew past? That was a Sydney icon, the 1,100-seat Manly ferry. I'd highly recommend it on another occasion. Whooosh. Those big old block buildings we just blurred by? That was Quarantine Station, Australia's Ellis Island, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving by ship between 1828 and 1972 were fumigated and warehoused for their first few months to protect Sydney from disease. Whooosh. That footlong fin? That was a shark—more of 'em than ever have chomped at high schoolers' sculls and swimmers' calves this year, a sure sign that the harbor cleanup program is paying off. "Damn," murmurs Matthew. If only he had his other boat, the Harbour Duck, he'd blow that Pec Boy away.
Slow down? Have you lost the plot, mate? Winner serves all the yachties and beachies at Quarantine, Store and Collins. Loser either slinks away, settles for sloppy seconds or. . .stalks, sucker punches and possibly firebombs winner's boat, depending on what's appropriate. No, this city's quick-cash lust is not confined to the hearts of its developers, real estate agents, bankers, lawyers and stockbrokers. Sydney: largest metropolis in a nation that contains less than 1% of the world's population. . .and 21% of the world's poker machines, blinking and begging for your attention at nearly every corner pub. Sydney: city whose top-selling nonfiction book last May was Rich Dad's Guide to Investing, while nipping at its heels, in the No. 3 spot, was Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Tell Their Children about Money—That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not! Sydney: city where only 18% of those surveyed, when recently asked to weigh the statement that "poor people have the same opportunities as others," checked the "strongly disagree" box, compared with 40% of those marshmallow Melbournians.
So maybe Matthew should've known what he was entering two years ago, a battlefield where ice-creamers have tracked one another's whereabouts with binoculars and walkie-talkies, have rammed, torched and sunk each other's boats, and have brawled on Obelisk Beach as horrified nudists scuttled for safety. But Matthew's a dreamer. No matter how many gut-churning, sleepless nights he passed when he realized what he'd gotten into, no matter how close he came to quitting when one foe surrounded him with three ice-cream boats and shadowed him at frightening speeds, he found he couldn't face himself unless he stayed and fought this out.
He juggled his schedule to keep his rivals guessing, he lurked behind Captain Cook tourist cruisers to throw enemies off his trail. He changed his mailing address to a P.O. box in case an opponent went wacko. He endured the humiliation of being shoved and called a "f---ing c---!" two years ago by Mr. Whippy, the old man who sells soft ice cream from a ring-a-ling truck on the northern shore near Mosman, and the shame when the Mosman Council sided with Mr. Whippy and dragged Matthew into court for hawking Cornettos to schoolchildren without a permit, only to drop the charges. He shrugged off the two sheilas in bikinis whom one competitor hired to push Paddle Pops. No, Matthew would never dream of having Michelle remove her bikini top to sell ice creams at Obelisk Beach.
Well, O.K., but only once. "And we only sold one ice cream!" Michelle had wailed. "An insult!"
Buggah! We lose the race to Quarantine, and now another foe's shown up to scavenge for scraps. O.K., let the bloody mugs have these beaches up near North Head and Manly. We'll backdoor 'em, work our way down the harbor toward center city, zigzagging from north shore to south.
Boat Boy finally stops seething. He uses a regatta as a screen, zips into Athol Bay unnoticed and sells heaps. He stops at one sandy pearl after another along the harbor's necklace of bays—Obelisk, Chowder, Taylors, Vaucluse, Hermit, Rose, Double, Rushcutter's, Elizabeth—and sells to boaties drowsing in the afternoon sun.
But he can't relax—another rival's coming hard from the northeast! Matthew fakes toward a beach he's already sold to, stampeding his unaware foe in that direction. . .then bolts toward a beach he hasn't mined yet. Wacko the diddle-o, Boat Boy's having himself a day.
Between ice cream sales, between paranoia attacks, between pickups when he's piloting the water taxi, Matthew loves to imagine that he's back in time. Back before England's prisons overspilled and began disgorging their forgers, misfits, rebels, slackers, highwaymen and petty thieves upon this distant continent for almost three quarters of a century. Back before the cries of the flogged filled this outdoor gulag's scruffy dirt streets; a convict could have his back shredded by a cat-o'-nine-tails for even looking at a passing ship. Back before Capt. Arthur Phillips's 11 First Fleet ships appeared, bringing cholera and influenza germs that laid waste to Aborigines whose ancestors had roamed the continent for at least 40,000 years. "It would've been like nothing else," Matthew gushes, picturing waterfalls and tributaries feeding a shoreline without high-rises or wharves. Picturing a time when all those koalas, wombats, platypuses, dingoes and echidnas in Taronga Zoo—up on your right as we round Bradleys Head—were at large rather than in pens. Then again, for vistas that spectacular, who's to say those animals didn't turn themselves in?
Because from here, as you see, the city unfurls its heart, a half-dozen dazzling national treasures at Sydney Cove for just a swivel of the neck. Small wonder that back in 1992 Paul Keating, Australia's prime minister at the time, reportedly led a group of International Olympic Committee delegates—who were hedging between Sydney and Beijing as host of the 2000 Olympics—into a harborside room at the Park Hyatt Hotel on your right, flung open the blinds and cried, "Take a look at that, gentlemen! That ain't no Beijing city!" The IOC delegates looked. They gulped. Gawwwd. . .it was almost better than a bribe.
Let's start with those massive vaulted shells spreading like sails and shimmering with a million white Swedish tiles. Sure, you've seen pictures of the Opera House, and you'll see so many more coming in and out of commercial breaks that by October you'll want to dynamite it and NBC both. But to see it bloom here, against the water's glittering blue and the lush green velvet of the Botanical Gardens' 7,000 species of plants and trees, makes you grateful that there exists a man with the imagination of Danish architect Joern Utzon and a city willing to commission a foreigner to unleash such brazen white madness on its most sacred soil.
Who cares now, more than four decades after its planning began, that the Opera House cost $102 million instead of the $7 million projected and took 16 years to build instead of four, or that Utzon left in a huff long before it was finished and hasn't returned? Who'll lose sleep over the marginal possibility that a white pointer shark might join the swimming leg of the Olympic triathlon, compared to the delight that a billion viewers worldwide will experience with this as a backdrop for the event? "Look at it!" cries Matthew. "Think of all the crap jobs I could be doing, and instead I have the chance every day to witness that!"
His eyes alight on Circular Quay. Here's where Boat Boy spends hours on his Harbour Taxi shifts, trolling for pickups, watching the buzz and tangle of mass transport and human flesh. Here's where 28 ferries chug in and chug out on their 268 daily runs to the harbor's 36 wharves—don't even suggest that there's a finer commute on earth. Here's where office workers surge off the ferries toward files of waiting buses and taxis, or bounce up stairways to the trains rumbling into the station above, while cars whistle overhead, another level up, across Cahill Expressway. Here's where mimes, clowns, acrobats and musicians lay out hats and seduce tourists blinking up at destination boards, where a painted Aborigine blows on a didgeridoo as an Asian with a one-string Chinese violin reproduces the sound of a strangled cat and an old chap strums a child's plastic guitar while board-toting surfers glide past robed Hindus who are whisking by bikinied college girls and a fat pensioned fella feeding on a dripping meat pie. Love it.
To our right rises the Rocks, the oldest section of town. Hooly dooly, did Sydneysidahs ever celebrate here on Sept. 23, 1993, when Juan Antonio Samaranch blinked into the camera at 3 a.m. and said, "Sidinee!" Every time Matthew strolls the Rocks' pub-lined streets, his hankering for history and cold beer comes burbling out. He'll point out what was lost when rats scuttling off incoming ships spread the bubonic plague at the end of the 19th century and much of the Rocks was razed to contain the horror. He'll lead you into the pub with Australia's oldest liquor license, the Observer Hotel, the one he used to end up in on Saturday arvos crooning old Aussie classics, back when the late, great Lani the transvestite ruled the roost and any man caught drinking from a glass in his right hand faced the music: empty his glass in one swallow, or sit on Lani's lap and give 'er a smooch. "Oh, I emptied my glass," Matthew is swift to declare. "Those are the places I like in Sydney, where everyone's pissed and happy."
Bloody oath! That garish, gargantuan clown face looking over your shoulder, directly across the harbor? That's Luna Park, with its waterside roller coaster, something every adult Sydneysidah was obligated to ride a half-dozen times before exiting adolescence. Behind Luna Park, trying to pretend that big clown mug's not really there, transnational corporate headquarters rise toward the clouds. That's North Sydney, trying valiantly to catch up to Sydney in the skyscraper standings.
Let's be honest. Scarcely one of these high-rises on either shore is anything to write I.M. Pei about. It's the whole muscular shebang taken together, thrusting up from this setting, that stops you cold. But don't stop cold. Keep turning your head. That lovely green headland is Kirribilli, and that white mansion overlooking the harbor is the official home of Prime Minister John Howard. He's the bloke who refuses to say "I'm sorry" to Aborigines, whose way of life was poleaxed by the whites. His stubbornness pulled 200,000 Aussies out of their beds on a chilly Sunday morning a few months ago to hoof over that black leviathan above you.
Oh, that. Yes. The Harbour Bridge. Wide as a football field, long as five of them, 58,185 tons of British steel clenched by six million rivets: the world's largest steel-arch bridge, whose construction in the early 1930s lightened Sydney's Depression. But those are only facts, and that's not how you feel this bridge in your belly. Something about it—the way it erupts from earth, water and cityscape with such massive, elegant simplicity, the way it binds the bluffs and skyscrapers of the south and north shores like a tense dark sinew. . .let's just suck on Paddle Pops for a while and stare at it. Those gray ants crawling on top of it? You, too, can don a gray jumpsuit and scale the bridge for $108 Aussie, $66 U.S.
Don't panic. It's not nearly as risky as what locals do under the Harbour Bridge. Every few months or so, Matthew gets a call on his water taxi to go pick up some sap with a fistful of roses and a bottle of champagne. Then, following the bloke's stammering instructions, he'll pick up an unsuspecting female, take her under the bridge and cut the engines, at which point Matthew will pretend not to notice, or to gag, as the fella pulls out a tiny box, drops to one knee and asks her to marry him. "It's pathetic," says Boat Boy. He lapses into silence, half wishing he'd done something equally pathetic with Michelle.
Well, it's up to you. We can stay here all day while you and Matthew sit there, gobsmacked by the harbor and the girl. Or we can ride this tinny all the way west to Homebush Bay, where all those spanking new stadiums and arenas await the world.
It's not Boat Boy's normal route; ice creams don't sell so hot this side of the bridge or this late in the day. But he travels this way plenty in his water taxi, and besides, this is the route the Olympic torch will take on its way to open the Games.
What—that? That's Darling Harbour, site of Olympic boxing, fencing, judo, volleyball, weightlifting and wrestling; the Panasonic Imax Theater; Sega World; the aquarium; Star City Casino; Fox Studio Productions; seven hotels; two museums; a shopping center; a convention, exhibition and entertainment center; and heaps of flashy restaurants and bars. All in favor of Disneylandification of the planet, go forth, gawk and buy. Most tourists slavishly do. Sure, I could tell you about the decaying wharves, rail yards, warehouses, wool sheds and workingmen's houses that once teemed here, but you wouldn't believe it, so I won't.
Matthew, at long last, relaxes—no enemy vessels would show up here. The harbor narrows and flattens into the Paramatta River, and let's be honest: Western Sydney ain't eastern Sydney, mate, not by a million kilometers. Hundreds of square miles of middle-class suburbia sprawling for all it's worth, trying desperately to absorb the quarter-million newies who have poured in over the last five years to partake of the city's boom economy and beaches and who have swelled greater Sydney to twice the size, in built-up area, of Beijing and six times that of Rome.
Shut your eyes. Imagine it's Sept. 15, when everything stops in this city, and everyone—real estate agent, rubbish collector, picnicker, pub lizard—swallows his thick, green gob of cynicism and becomes transfixed by that flame floating through darkness toward 110,000 people waiting in Stadium Australia, the largest Olympic temple ever built.
Oh, yes, mate, they're all jaded here now—their last gasps of innocence sucked out of them by Olympic pharaohs who at first played a blatant game of bait-and-switch with Games tickets, furtively putting aside vast quantities of the best seats to sell to fat cats at higher prices. . .then announced that remaining tickets could be purchased only with a Visa (Olympic sponsor) card. . .then proclaimed that no food or drinks except exorbitantly priced Olympic concessions could be consumed by spectators. . .then bequeathed the coveted honor of first Australian recipient of the Olympic torch on the daughter of Australia's highest-ranking IOC official—leaving the national matey myth of a fair go for every bloke in a bloody mangled heap.
But just wait. Once the Olympic torch hits town, they'll melt. Sydneysidahs have never been able to resist the hot ticket, the big show, the loud buzz. These aren't loyal, long-suffering Joan of Arc fans; this sun, sand and water don't grow good martyrs. But a championship team or a world-class event sends them stampeding through the turnstiles, to the TV sets, to the downtown streets to greet their conquering heroes. . .and crikey, they've had heaps of them of late to greet. In the past year their athletes have won world titles in cricket, rugby union, rugby league, women's field hockey, the triathlon, surfing, netball and the Davis Cup, and they'll tell you all about it in a newspaper story entitled JUST WHY ARE WE SO BLOODY GOOD? That's not even mentioning their swimmers, poised to go nose-to-nose with the U.S. for gold medal supremacy and covered breathlessly on the front news page nearly every time they pull on goggles. The one thing in life a Sydneysidah is permitted to take seriously, even fanatically—not politics, not religion and, god no, not himself—is sports. The one place, other than an asylum, where he'd dare join others to chorus "Oi, oi, oi!" is a stadium. As Sydney scribe Henry Lawson noted in the early 1900s:
In the land where sport is sacred,
where the labourer is god,
You must pander to the people,
make a hero of a clod.
Four billion bucks. Is that pandering enough for you? That's how much has been spent, in U.S. dollars, on construction and renovation for these Games, most of it swallowed by the 1,900-acre site over there at Homebush, a little ways over that rise to your left. Ain't cheap to bulldoze an eyesore, bury what was a toxic-waste and munitions dump, an abattoir, a brickyard and a marsh under a yard of topsoil, then grow grass, 12 sports complexes and an Olympic Village that will be the largest solar-powered suburb in the world. Nosiree.
O.K., O.K., it's all a bit sterile, a bit top-heavy on the clean-functional-metallic school of architecture—the train station's actually the finest piece of work here. A bit too far from downtown and those lip-smacking harbor views, and a damn pity that they'll be herding everyone here by train and bus and no one, except VIPs and Olympic staffers, by ferry. But no worries. It'll be fine when it's chockablock with people. It'll be right, mate. Send in the clods.
Dusk. Hold tight again, mate. Time to get this tinny back to Boat Boy's driveway. Time to trade in the yellow shirt with topless babes for the white one with blue epaulets that Matthew wears at the wheel of the water taxi. Time for lights to twinkle on across that bridge, in all those skyscrapers, on all those cruise boats and ferries, and for the harbor to take on a different, but equally breathtaking, glow.
Time for everyone to dress in black for a Saturday night—it's been the cool thing here for way too long—and hit the streets with mobile phones in hand; eight million users in a gadget-lovin' land of 19 million. They're fanning out tonight to eat food that people once ate only in Thailand or Vietnam, in Lebanon, Indonesia or Nepal. Fanning out to sate Sydney's lust for lattes and cappuccinos, curries and goat cheeses, laksas and satays, for wood-fired Turkish breads topped with stir-fried woi-chin pumpkin drizzled with balsamic chili vinaigrette or some such sensational cross-pollinated cuisine. If you'd visited Sydney a few decades back and hadn't returned until now, you'd walk around wondering, How did this happen so fast? How did these streets get flooded with so many tastes, skin colors and languages in a city that 40 years ago still dined on meat pies and lamb stews, closed its pubs at 6 p.m., suffered from a cultural inferiority complex and hunkered down under a whites-only immigration policy? A town that refused to station the blacks among U.S. GIs sent to protect the city from the Japanese threat during World War II, in a country whose minister of immigration, Arthur Calwell, reportedly declared in 1947, "Two Wongs do not make a white"?
Well, well. Matthew has provisioned a number of Wongs with Magnums today, and he'll carry heaps of Hamids, Amirs and Vladimirs to harborfront restaurants in his water taxi tonight, for one third of all Sydneysidahs were born outside Australia, and one fourth speak a foreign tongue at home. And you can't help feeling, as we hurtle through the darkness, back toward the glow, that all this was absolutely inevitable. A mouth as magnificent as Sydney Harbour's had to open its lips to sing, and the breath of the world had to come whistling in.
They're cocky here. They've read the travelers' surveys that rate their city the best destination in the world. They know the world's cameras are about to fall hopelessly in love. They've got this gut feeling that they're on a roll, hot to trot, they've come of age—that Sydney's beauty, lifestyle, restaurants and nightlife are world-class. But they live so far from all the other news hubs and economic centers that they hunger to have the world come here and say it, to their faces, maybe even to stop spelling their city's name with an i instead of a y. They yearn to show Melbourne where the 1956 Olympics were meant to have been held. This is Sydney's moment, "a once and for all opportunity," as the Games are being promoted, "to define our national identity." Oi, oi, oi!
Matthew? He'll be ready and waiting at email@example.com to do his part. Ready to tote tourists and camera crews to every cove and cranny in the water taxi or in his Harbour Duck. Ready to jump into his ice-cream boat and spread joy across Sydney Harbour during the 2000 Summer Games.
And you, mate? Can he count on you? Are you ready to commit to the world's finest harbor, to compete for 17 straight days in the Olympics' fiercest event? Or are you just going to keep sitting there in that wide-eyed stupah?
Awww, good on ya! Now, in terms of size and color, exactly how do you prefer your G-string?