We had been kicked out of our Airbnb. A tiny guest house behind a real house about a half mile from Bondi Beach. After Australia’s lockdowns were lifted, rentals were tight in the city. Another more desirable tenant had replaced us.
Lately I had also begun to wonder if, instead of being here on the other side of the world, we should be in Brooklyn visiting my daughter in university, but the immediate concern at that moment was the day’s move to our new place of shelter.
Two large suitcases stood next to us as we waited on the main street of Bondi for a taxi. June being winter, there were not many tourists and not many taxis.
The street was busy with a morning crowd; women in yoga pants, fashionable people walking their dogs, real estate agents, office workers picking up coffee. No one walking past noticed us standing next to our mismatched suitcases in our hastily chosen clothes . When you are doing something expected you become invisible. It's good not to be judged.
Finally, we spotted a taxi headed in the other direction. He saw us waiting with our suitcases, waved, then pointed an index finger upward and mimed twirling a dinner plate, the universal gesture for “I'm turning around and will come back to get you.”
Ten minutes later he still hadn't reappeared.
We had time. It was three hours to check-in and I calculated it was a 45-minute drive. The only Airbnb we could find was in the far Northern Suburbs. The crowd-sourced neighborhood info website, ‘HoodsMap’ showed it in an empty zone between two other areas labelled “Cashed up bogans” and “Murder your whole family”. Neither sounded promising, so we were not in a hurry.
After another ten minutes, the taxi finally showed up and was heading our way. “I can see it now!” I said to my wife. But when the car approached, I saw it was a different guy - a white haired older man. By this point, it felt miraculous to be spotted by any driver and to be wanted as a customer.
He stopped, jumped out smiling and flung our 50 pound suitcases into the trunk before I noticed his advanced age.
The driver began speaking as soon as we got in the car, “My parents came to Australia in 1938. They were Jewish and escaped from Germany” was his conversation opener.
An interesting personal story followed but as we drove faster and faster I thought more and more of requesting we stop so we could get out and perhaps read about the holocaust in the library. But with two heavy suitcases, the uncertainty of finding the next taxi and the weight of politeness, I decided to roll the dice and stay with this one.
Five minutes later, the driver, who I now saw to be nearing the age of 80, was driving extremely fast down a main artery in Eastern Sydney in heavy traffic when he turned fully around and looked toward the back seat.
“Sorry I can’t talk now, I need to concentrate on the driving”
I agreed that not talking was an acceptable idea. He grabbed the stick shift and downshifted. The engine growled. We overtook the car next to us and passed across two lanes in front of the other car to make the next turn. I had been in fear of my life for much of the ride so far.
To reduce my anxiety I practiced the grounding technique I’d learned recently. Look at 3 objects, listen to 3 sounds, feel 3 things. Don’t rush. Be fully mindful. Repeat.
It didn't work so I asked my wife Trish how she was doing. Fine, she said, she was enjoying our driver's storytelling. She hadn’t noticed the dangerous driving at all, she’s more trusting of people.
The car lurched and we took another sudden left turn.
My fear of traffic accidents started with a motorcycle spill in my 20s. After falling off I slid helplessly along the pavement and watched the car behind me close in, believing it was my last moment on earth. Luckily the driver was alert and he stopped his car just in time. Since then, I have had a paranoia about things suddenly going wrong with vehicles.
To switch to lighter topics, I asked the driver “Your accent sounds… British?”
He paused, this could be a touchy topic between Australians and Brits. America and UK might be distant cousins, but Australia and the UK are competitive siblings.
“I'm Australian but yes I spent time in the UK.”
As we neared the Harbour Bridge our car entered the Cahill tunnel, we were now past the point of no return. There were no stopping places from here on.
The driver collected his thoughts for a moment and continued, “You see I spent time in the UK because I found God, and now I follow his path.”
I was being driven at high speed by a zealous missionary. I hoped the path he spoke of was straight down the center of the highway.
But I’ve learned everyone has their own version of a higher power and maybe I need to keep an open mind. People in religions and those not religious are perhaps just using different words for the same thing.
To be agreeable I replied “That’s great, we are all on different paths.”
The conversation then took a completely unexpected turn.
“You see, I was there because my son followed his path and became a professional footballer in the UK”
“Wow!” I said, “Is he still there?”
“Yes, he’s still in the UK, he’s 34 now. He follows God’s path.”
I wasn't much for religious talk but suddenly now we were in the car of sports celebrity. Possibly someone like Beckham? This was good.
The driver said, “My son was good at sports. When he was 13, he said ‘Dad, I want to be a professional footballer’”
This was getting interesting, but he needed to concentrate on driving again.
I pondered how to ask him his son’s name so I could then do some Googling and collect celebrity gossip to tell in the future at parties.
Because we had a long way to go to our destination, I decided to play the long game. “Do you have any other children?” I asked.
“A daughter she was a swimmer, when she was 5 years old she said 'dad take me to the pool..'” He drifted off, and didn’t seem to want to talk more about her. “But my son, he was the one really into sport, he never stopped moving. He could never sit still, he caused a lot of trouble before he found his love for football.”
He told a story about his son:
“One day, I looked in my wallet and money was missing. What can you do as a parent?”
“I asked him, ‘Son, did you take my money?’”
“‘I counted it, I know you took it.’”
“‘My question, is why did you take a 100? If you took a 10, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed.’”
“‘A 100 is more.’”
"What can a parent do?” The driver shrugged.
“So I asked the priest what I can do about my son.”
“The priest said, ‘Think about yourself and your own actions’”.
“And yes, when I was young, I took money. My father would hide his wallet above the cabinet behind the vase. And I would climb up and take 10 dollars.”
His story over he drove silently for a while. I felt I was left waiting for the punchline to an intriguing Challenge of Parenting story.
“So, what did you do? How did you punish your son?” I asked.
“I told my son to pray to god for forgiveness.”
"Nice!" I replied and thought about how that must have gone. That did seem like an infinitely better ending than an episode of parental violence or abandonment. I decided to remember the parable for future reference.
“And now he is following the path god set for him,” he had said that quite a few times already.
“Is he still playing football?” I asked.
“Well, you see, he was working a lot with young people in football and they liked him. He followed his path and has become a minister and is now leading a youth ministry”
I had all sort of questions about his son’s football career, was he famous? Did he leave because he had an injury?
Trish tapped my arm. She leaned over and whispered very quietly, “he didn't mention his wife, she must have passed away”. She is often perceptive to things that I am not. Our driver's talkativeness suddenly made more sense.
We arrived in Ryde, the North Sydney suburb where our next Airbnb was located. Our driver jumped out the door and went back and flung the heavy suitcase out of the trunk.
“At my age, I’m happy to be working.”
I offered a generous tip. He refused to accept it, gave us a big smile and drove off.