Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 15 – Avalon / Central Coast

Day 15 – Avalon / Central Coast

My first thought of the day when I woke up was that I hope I’m not getting killed in my fantasy football matchup. Although today is Monday in New South Wales, my team is in the middle of a critical postseason matchup back in the US against a first-year player who lucked his way into the playoffs. I’ll be damned if my season ends at the hands of a rookie!

Although we didn’t have a broadband connection in the Avalon condo, Uncle Gerry’s laptop was set up for dial-up via the phone line. I hadn’t heard the screech of a dial-up modem connecting to the internet in years, but that morning, that nostalgic sound was music to my ears! As the webpage loaded, I was especially nervous since the computer projected me to lose my matchup. However, when I finally was able to see my score, I was in the proverbial driver’s seat with a semi-comfortable lead. Furthermore, the controversial lineup change I had made paid off, as my starting quarterback, Matt Schaub (whom I picked up out of the free agent pool the week before), had thrown for over 400 yards! My joy of checking stats lasted all of five minutes, because Mum was breaking my balls to pack up my gear. We were about to leave for the Central Coast, where we would visit Uncle Len and his girlfriend Margaret.

We drove up the coast for an hour and a half, and arrived at Len’s around 11:30am. Len recently moved to a retirement community in the Central Coast similar to Aunt Marg in Melbourne. Upon our arrival at the gated village, I noticed the exquisite landscaping. No expense was spared with regards to the lush, green lawns and the plethora of exotic flowers planted in each individual garden. Although the houses looked similar in their architecture, the unique plant life gave each home an individual sense of character.

We finally found Len’s house after five-minutes of circumnavigating the village. We knocked on his door, he answered, and invited us in. I had heard from the some members of my Aussie family that Len’s health had started to deteriorate after a life of hard living. I was prepared for a withered old man who could barely stand up. This vision I had wasn’t an extreme departure from the truth.

The last time I had seen Uncle Len was when we met for brunch at an RSL in Sydney during my last visit down under back in 1996. By the time Mum and I had shown up, Margaret, his longtime girlfriend who still lives with him, was quite drunk. I remember looking at my watch to make sure it wasn’t, in fact, 5:30pm. Even when I was 19, I could sense that Len wasn’t entirely comfortable during that time we spent together. I vowed to myself and Mum that this time, I wouldn’t pass judgment, even if they were “hammad” (a popular Aussie expression for shit-faced).

Len still had most of his natural hair color, but his face was pock-marked, and he spoke and moved at the pace of a man far beyond his years. Len is only three years older than Uncle Gerry, but seems at least fifteen years older based on his mannerisms and speech patterns.

The house had the distinct smell of stale cigarette smoke from the front entrance to the backyard. In spite of this olfactory onslaught, Len opened a window in the kitchen, lit up, and blew his smoke outside as he chatted with us, as if the house would smell less foul. Needless to say, Mum and I were good sports even though we couldn’t wait to leave this stench behind. Since we were only together with Len for a couple hours, we didn’t want to spend time bitching about his lifestyle or how badly his house smells.

Len gave me the tour of his modest but comfortably sized three-bedroom house while Margaret chatted with Mum. He showed me one of his hobbies – finding radio stations around the world on the internet. He particularly liked an Arizona station that played country/honky tonk music. I showed Len some of my favorite stations in Los Angeles, like 89.9 KCRW, the public radio station I have on most of the day in my car. I then looked for a tango radio station and called Mum over. Mum then told Len and Margaret about her dancing. Len seemed intrigued, but Margaret intimated that dancing wasn’t her cup of tea. This was when I began to take notice of Margaret’s behavior.

Margaret is a strange bird who is a bit socially awkward, but is an overall nice lady. Aside from a church group she gets together with every week, she doesn’t have many friends. In fact, both Len and Margaret are similar in that they choose not to put themselves out in the social community, instead ascribing to the “good fences make good neighbours” philosophy. While many Australian couples traditionally marry young (Uncle Gerry and Aunt Carol got married when they were 20), Len and Margaret never officially exchanged vows, but have been together over 30 years! I wonder how often the subject of marriage came up in conversation over the course of their relationship.

Len asked me if I wanted something to drink – a soda, juice…or a beer. I could tell he was hesitant to introduce alcohol into the equation for fear of sending the expected impression, but I wanted to help him feel at ease, so I asked for a beer. After we finished our drinks, we all took a tour of the village. It had a giant community center, a computer room, a lawn bowling green, and a library. Unfortunately, most of these place were deserted, and it made me wonder why people would pay so much for the homeowners' dues when all the facilites go unused.. We then left the village to walk to a nearby RSL only ten minutes away for lunch. It was during this walk that I really noticed how poorly Len had aged.

Every 15-20 paces during our walk, Len stopped to cough a few times. He doesn’t walk so much as shuffle., but he spouted off one opinion after another on just about everything. His unique perspective on a variety of topics from politics to personal freedom is certainly entertaining, if not inspiring.

We arrived at the RSL, and signed in. The place was predictably filled with mostly older folks who were being visited by their younger friends/relatives. This RSL was much larger than the one in Avalon, and the food was a bit better as well. Len and Margaret insisted we order whatever we want, because when Uncle Vince and Aunt Helen from Canada visited them earlier in the year, Len and Margaret intimated that they were offended by virtue of the fact that Vince & Helen only ordered meat loaf. Margaret recommended I order the Thai salmon, and this turned out to be an excellent choice! I also helped Len carry some drinks from the bar. He only ordered water, but I helped him with Margaret’s chardonnay along with my Tooley’s beer back to the table.

I found conversation with Len flowed fairly well. We had a lot of catching up to do, and shared similar interests with regards to searching for music online as well as sports wagering. He mentioned that he enjoyed betting on the Beijing Olympics, and won some money as a result. We also discussed men’s sports versus women’s sports, and how women are more interesting to watch in sports like tennis, ice skating and billiards (because ladies wear short skirts), while men are more exciting to watch in pretty much every other sport. This political incorrectness is what I love about Len, but is also what makes him seem a bit behind the times. Len then excused himself to the men’s room while Mum and I spent the next ten minutes painfully trying to chitchat with Margaret. It was apparent that Margaret was far less comfortable being around us without Len around.

After lunch, we walked back to Len’s house. It was about 1:30pm, and I was dying to find out how my fantasy football team fared. To Mum’s chagrin, I asked if I could hop on Len’s computer to check stats for five minutes. Thankfully, my sizable lead was still intact, although I would have to worry about my opponent’s lone remaining player coming from behind to beat me on Monday Night Football.

It was time to leave for Sydney, and Mum and I were grateful to Len and Margaret for their hospitality. Based on Len’s declining health coupled with the uncertainty of when I’ll return to Australia, I wonder when, or if, I will ever see those two again.

Mum and I set our GPS navigator southbound towards Gladesville. As we got closer to Sydney, it had started to rain with some of the loudest, scariest thunder I had ever heard right above us, which slowed the drive and made us feel uneasy. To make matters worse, the GPS had started to get screwy, and we were becoming antsy that we had lost our way!

We finally arrived in Gladesville, where it was pouring. We were the only ones home at the time, because we had to open the locked door to Gerry and Carol’s house with that goddamned skeleton key. I became frustrated as I fiddled with turning the key just right while I was being inundated by the torrential downpour. I decided to try the lock around the back of the house, where I was sheltered from the rain. Since it took me longer than 30 seconds to walk to the panel and enter the code, the alarm went off, and soon thereafter, the security company called. I gave them the password that Gerry told me in case they call. Drenched and shivering, I couldn’t wait to hop in the shower!

After a hot shower, I got dressed, and it was time for Mum and I to go have dinner at Sally and Mike’s house in nearby Melrose Park. As we got closer, the GPS went haywire again and we got lost. I suppose Mum and I had reached critical mass with regards to the amount of time we spent together in the car, because we got into an argument over how she can’t operate this supposedly user-friendly contraption. She smacked me a couple times out of frustration, and I had to leave the car for a couple minutes to blow off some steam. Mum then called Gerry, gave him our location, and asked him to come find us. Luke, who was already at Sally and Mike’s, showed up five minutes later, saw I was distressed from having it out with Mum, took a page out of fictitious uberagent Ari Gold’s playbook, and instructed me to “hug one out.” Mum and I then made peace, and we all caravanned to Sally and Mike’s house.

Melrose Park can be described as a working-class neighborhood, but Sally and Mike’s house stood out as a veritable compound amid the brick, single-story homes. I would later learn that Uncle Gerry footed the bill to have the original structure renovated into a two-story, five bedroom house to raise the first Manderson grandchildren in.

When we three entered the house, Aunt Carol and Gerry were already there with Sally, Mike, Ethan and Cooper. Carol asked if I would like a beer or glass of wine. In light of my recent drama with Mum, I half-jokingly asked her if she had anything stronger. I settled for a Carlton Draught, which I promptly pounded. Mike was tending to the “bahbie” outside, grilling steaks (for the record, I haven’t heard anyone in Australia call the barbecue a “bahbie” outside of the movie Dumb and Dumber). Mike seemed a lot more upbeat than the first time I saw him in Avalon a couple days before. We made plans to have a couple drinks at a pub before I returned to Los Angeles.

Dinner was absolutely delicious. We had scrumptious prawns as our first course, and BBQ steaks as the second course of the meal! Afterwards, Sally and Carol brought out a cake which would commence my birthday celebration. Although my birthday wasn’t for another week and a half, I would be in Los Angeles by the time December 19 came around. They sang me “Happy Birthday”, and I made the mistake of blowing out the candles before Ethan and Cooper had the chance. I re-lit the candles and let them have a go.

After dinner, we watched “Ice Road Truckers” while Ethan and Cooper played on the computer. I was impressed with how comfortable these autistic boys seemed working a mouse and playing a video game!

It was almost 10pm, and since Mike had to wake up early the next morning for work, we said our goodbyes and followed Carol and Gerry back to Gladesville. I was pretty exhausted after spending so much time in a car that day, so I went to bed shortly after I got back to Uncle Gerry’s and checked my fantasy football team’s official score. Still winning - so far, so good…

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