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 top-soil, then grow grass, 12 sports complexes and an Olympic Village that will be the largest solar-powered suburb in the world. Nosiree.