SYDNEY, NSW, Australia
33.87° S, 151.21° E
Before I left for Australia, my uncle, Captain Dick, explained to me the burden of being a representative of the USA on the far side of the world (and there are few far sides of the world to have not felt the wake of the captain). The contemporary American, my uncle said, is both loved and loathed overseas, feared and jeered. A girl finds out you’re from the US of A and within the hour she’ll file an international paternity suit with the Hague. Which is why, Captain Dick told me, always claim to be Canadian. Eh? My uncle then took a tangent, asking if I realized the aboriginal culture of Australia is 40,000 years old. I shrugged, compared to what? The Neverman culture of the Florida mangroves which is only 2 generations old? What I am saying, Captain Dick explained from beside the hotdog rollers of his neighborhood 7-11, is you should get Outback and into “the bush”, as they say. Captain Dick winked and nudged me with his elbow. He then ordered a box of cigarettes from the cashier, before turning towards me, hey, you got this? I forgot my wallet in the IROC-Z, he told me. Fine, I said. Did you have to get the Super Big-Gulp if you knew you didn’t have your wallet? Wouldn’t a mediocre Big-Gulp suffice? As I paid, Captain Dick finished his thought, if you get yourself into the Australian bush, you are not just making love to a stranger in a strange land, but you are experiencing what sex was like 40,000 years ago. It’s like discovering a fucking fossil. Literally, he said with a laugh, winking at the 7-11 cashier, name-tagged “Debbie”, who was unimpressed. She did squirt sanitizer on her hands after returning to me my credit card. Captain Dick finished his thought, it is like time-traveling, but with your Johnson. Dude, I said to my uncle as I held the door open for our exit, my primary objective in Australia is to not make an ass out of myself. Secondarily is survival. If I return stateside, alive without regrets, I would consider it a successful journey.
Within my first week in Australia, I have failed at my first two objectives.
Tonight is my last night in Sydney. At least, for a while. I dig out a very civilized collared shirt from my backpack and spend a buck and a half de-wrinkling it in the hostel’s drying machine. I floss my teeth twice, shave my stubble against the grain, brush my teeth, lightly slather on the aftershave Captain Dick gifted me, take a shower to relieve the aftershave burn, dry-off, dress-up and stroll into the streets of the city, following my previously tread path to the backpacker bar, SCUBAR.
Much has been written about dive bars, but what of scuba dive bars? SCUBAR’s entrance is street level, but its contents are below sea level. Any place which sells jugs of beer for seven Australian dollars, along with all-you-can-eat-pizza for the same price, has fiddler crab races on Monday nights, is without windows to the world above and only serves liquor in plastic shot glasses all qualify it as a dive. Put a diver-down flag on the wall and its a scuba dive bar.
It’s pre-dusk as I arrive. There’s a bouncer checking IDs guarding the street entrance to the stairwell leading down to SCUBAR. I fish out my passport, but the curly-haired rugby baller waves it away, I feckin’ know you, Vic, this massive loaf of man says and smacks me hard enough on the shoulder to misalign my spine. Glad to see you’re alive, mate. Yeah, uh, you too, dude, I say, walking past at an angle. I stop before descending the stairs to turn and say to him, hey man, I apologize if I was a jackass a couple nights ago. Ah, no dramas, mate, the bouncer winks and smacks me hard on the other shoulder, realigning my spine. All in good fun, Vic.
I am not sure if I am relieved or more terrified of what “good fun” might entail. The truth is, I recall the foreground of the prior evening quite well, all leading up to being served a shot by the barmaid, Caroline. And then the vanishing point, beyond which is darkness interrupted by charged sparks of memory. I vaguely recall Caroline displeased. I remember leaving with my mates, British backpackers, who carried me up the stairs like pallbearers. I remember a cab ride across town, sitting in the backseat, unaware the steering wheel was on the right side of the car. As the taxi navigated complicated traffic, I mistook Harry Taylor, sitting in the front left, as the driver of the cab. I was squeezed in the backseat with Seamus McNally, Edwin Fairfield and Harry Singer while Harry Taylor yapped at us from the front passenger seat. I accepted death as this raving lunatic was surely going to drive us off the Sydney Harbor Bridge. There is no way this ends well, I thought, not realizing the cab driver was competent and upfront right, not the lippy-dipshit to the left I was screaming at.
Life did not end, it only faded back to black. When the darkness lifted, many hours later, I found myself at a strip-club in a rough patch of Kings Cross drinking Budweiser. The Harrys, Seamus and Edwin were not present. I was drinking a Bud next to an Aussie firefighter weeping as he explained why his wife kicked him out of the house. What the fuck? I don’t fucking drink Budweiser; this is the vice of my father! I immediately realized an Anheuser-Busch drinking demon, if not the ghost of Old Man Neverman, himself, had possessed my body for the last hour plus, opting for dancing girls in pasties and American domestic beer. Dude, I told the firefighter, just do right by your kids. I walked out of the strip-club into the Kings Cross streets, which I fortunately recognized, even at this witching hour, and I cut across Hyde Park towards the hostel, extremely sober and surprisingly coherent for being 3 am. Along the journey, all I could think about was Caroline and what drunken indecencies I must have committed to incur her wrath.
Tonight is damage control. I descend the steps into SCUBAR and make my way towards the bar. On the wall is the “Wheel of Death”, similar to the wheel from Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, but instead of options like Hard Labor, Gulag, Aunty’s Choice, Spin Again, Amputation there are even more cryptic names which represent boozy shots: Nun’s Nasty, Pig’s Arse, The Turps, Big Mobs and Bull Dust. I find a barstool. Caroline is not here, but there is a South African blonde bombshell behind the bar. She is devastating to look at directly. I stare at my hands and soak her in with my peripherals. She recognizes me, look who’s livin’, she says cutely. I assume the greeting, similar to the one given by the bouncer, is common protocol Down Under where snakes and spiders and dingos and skin cancer and sharks and crocs and driving on the wrong side of the road all offer plenty of opportunities for death any minute now. Hey, I respond to the South African barmaid, like you, I stupidly say, I likewise like you being alive. Heh, she halfheartedly laughs.
I order Victoria’s Bitter.
A third objective of my trip, as I expressed to Captain Dick, was to adventure in the way my father had in his youth. Old Man Neverman grew-up along the untouched, underdeveloped Florida beaches, which no longer exist. To the north of Sydney, however, are beaches just as wild and untamed as those which made my father. Dad’s gone. Let’s go find the son of a bitch. But I have no intention of drinking Budweiser.
I’m on my second Victoria’s Bitter at SCUBAR when Caroline arrives for her shift behind bar. She’s not the pin-up centerfold girl her South African friend is, but there’s something more complicated in Caroline’s beauty. Her hair is impossibly crimson, a pixie-cut, her eyes reflect green in this light, her smile is perfect with imperfect teeth.
You’re pretty damn… pretty, I had told Caroline nights ago, borderline drunk after too much time with the Harrys, Seamus and Edwin. She laughed, and you’re a pretty damn Yank. That’s fair, I shrugged. Drinkin’ with the flies, are ya, she asked with a joker’s grin. I wish they were flies, I told her, they’d be better company, but instead they’re subjects of the Queen; they’re Brits. Caroline laughed and left to serve others. I brought the jug of beer to the British jackals and quickly returned to my place at the bar to be served again. Caroline poured another jug, asking, ya goin’ off or here on bizzo? Yes, I told her, whatever you need me be. She smiled, her eyes vibrant, curious… Of course, this was before I spun the wheel of death.
Tonight, Caroline’s eyes are not vibrant. Oi, she murmurs at me, it lives. It? Am I “it”? Hey, I say. I take a short breath; my lungs are too clenched to allow for anything deeper. To begin with my apology, I speak her name, Caroline, which she cringes at. I apologize for my behavior the other night, I say. No dramas, she says as she wipes glasses clean. I cannot help but ask, was I that much of a jackass? She looks up, her eyes are dark and beady. Caroline says to me very severely, I will let you be the judge of that. Fair enough, I shrug. Fuck. She becomes sparse and my VB is empty. I leave more cash than necessary and head up the stairs to the streets of Sydney. If memory serves, this is the first time I have left the bar under my own volition.
I need an early night anyway.
The alarm introduces morning. I climb quietly out of my bunk without disturbing my hostel mates anymore than necessary. I catch a cab for the airport: domestic departures. I am going through security en route to my flight to Darwin, Northern Territory, when I encounter both Harrys. Sons of bitches, I say. Vic, they exclaim. Good god, man, Harry Singer says, glad to see you, mate. Hey guys, I say, the last thing I recall at SCUBAR was spinning the Wheel of Death and the wheel stopping on Dead Dingo’s Donger. I remember Caroline mixing me the shot, which, being foolishly up to the challenge, I accepted. I think Caroline slipped me a mickey. It was light’s out, after that. I went back to SCUBAR last night and Caroline thinks I am an asshole. How much of a jackass was I?
Ah, mate, Harry Singer says, you were brilliant. Indeed, mate, Harry Taylor says, when you was on the floor I about pissed me-self. On the floor, I ask. Why was I on the floor? You were fuckin’ besotted, man, Harry Taylor tells me, with the red-headed bird. When she started ignoring you, you faked your own death! The Harrys laugh. Vic, one Harry or the other says, you pretended to be choking and then had this elaborate death on the fuckin’ floor, mate. Fuckin’ Shakespeare, mate. You must have been anguishing for five minutes before committing to your death. We had to carry you out of the bar, you fuckin’ cunt. You never broke character until you was in the cab and started howling about which side of the road to drive on.
Well, shit. Sorry guys. It all sounds vaguely familiar.
The Harrys laugh, your death was our best night in Sydney. We’re just chuffed you’re alive, mate.
What to Drink: VB or Toohey’s New; XXXX if all else fails. If you order Fosters, you risk ridicule.
When to Go: SCUBAR is famous for drawing-in international backpackers, which flow through any night of the week. Mondays are hermit crab racing, which is less amusing as it sounds, but the crowds are heavy.
How: On foot is fine. Sydney is very pedestrian and easy to cover if you’re not in a rush.
What not to Do: Fake your own death. As much as Caroline might love you, it is a conditional love. Don’t be an asshole.
Other Neverman Dive Bar Adventures in Australia:
Airlie Beach – Diver’s Paradise
Gagaju – Bushcamp of the Damned
Nimbin – Smugglers Blues in Australia’s Cannabis Capital