Slow waves slap against the sandy shore. The sun is hours-gone from the star-lit sky, and soft winds blow and tickle-up little goose bumps. Palm leaves gently sway atop a slightly inclined, smooth-barked tree. A man with his back to us stands in silhouette with his left arm straight out against the palm’s trunk, his right hand resting lightly over his heart. His ankles are casually crossed; his body, tall and lean, sucks in the night air while his shirt-tails flap lightly in the breeze.
And then, his retching begins.
He’s not alone. A friend stands by discreetly, smoking his cigarette, kind of keeping an eye on this buddy in need, but not interfering, not standing too close.
As my husband and I stand outside the gyro shop—the only place open this late to serve food—waiting for flatbread to be filled with lamb and cheese, the young people along the Glenelg jetty traipse loudly in and out of the nearby pubs, alive and bouncy with the electric thumping and reverberations of (to my ears) repetitive, wordless music. They seem like they are having fun—girls-barely-women dressed in short clingy skirts or floaty-hemmed dresses, sometimes sporting birthday tiaras or sashes announcing “bride-to-be.” The men wear khakis or black slacks or expensive jeans—no shorts; their dress shirts are unbuttoned and opened over tees. Shoes vary from sandals to curled-up-at-the-toes leather boots or, for the women, impossibly high stiletto heels. And every now and then, someone exits a pub too intoxicated to play anymore and crawls into a cab, or, sometimes, leans on the nearest tree.
The legal drinking age in New Zealand and Australia is eighteen. On numerous occasions, we’ve seen the results of not-quite-mature teens and young adults who exceed their capacities for alcohol. St. Patrick’s Day in Dunedin, 2008, was a night of the zombies. Almost comatose, young women sat on street curbs, staring vacantly, cigarettes dangling from drooping fingertips. We sat in a pub watching mobs go by; sometimes a group would stop, crowd up close to the window with their hands like binoculars pressed to the glass to see if this bar was a stopping place for them. As we drove out, university students lined the streets or congregated in doorways, on stoops, or on ragged sofas they planted on the little lawns in front of their flats. In one bizarre episode, a drunken lad lunged at our slow-moving car with a five-foot-long blow-up penis.
The street in early morning was a mess: beer bottles and cans, shredded cardboard and busted balloons, green scraps and Silly String. Twice through our open hotel window, I heard a lone walker on the sidewalk—headed home, I suppose. As the sun rose, the silence and the mood of the early morning were swept away by motorized street cleaners.
On our most recent trip Down Under we landed in South Australia during its Labor Day celebration—apparently a favorite three-day weekend for the shop-girls and college debs. The young lined up in front of the clubs, hungry for excitement, or paced the sidewalks in anticipation of a party, somewhere. The darker the night, the bigger the crowd, and the faster the heels clicked on the concrete.
When the sun came up, we knew the street cleaners would come out.