16 August, 2011

Fill in the blank: All for one and one for ___

So here's the thing.

As I commented in an earlier post, I was recently in Australia, pursuing a higher educational opportunity. And I had a great time - the course was great, challenging, enjoyable. And the other participants on the course were great, even if they were all Australian.

So one night, there was a dinner scheduled for all the participants. The food was great, the company even better, and as we left the dinner venue at 9.30pm, it seemed too soon for the night to end. But it was Monday night, and the town was dead. Nowhere was open, except for this one Irish bar just down the street a little bit. The place was more or less empty - you could count the number of patrons on your fingers - but they served drinks, they had a table that could accommodate all of us, and they had a messy-haired red-headed guy in denim overalls playing "Proud Mary" and "Mrs Robinson" on the guitar. The nine of us pulled a couple of tables together, and started enjoying the evening. Drinks were drunk, songs were sung along with, we all even got up at one point and danced. And it was fun; it seemed like nothing could harm the joyful mood of that night. We were so young, so innocent, so naive. So wrong.

By this point, the night was getting on. The music had finished, the place had even fewer people around than before. And then this guy walks up to the table and starts talking to me in an American accent. "I'd like to buy you a drink because it's the 4th of July." I look at the middle-aged guy, who is wearing what looks like a naval military uniform. And he's unbelievably sweaty; you almost felt sick looking at the guy. "No thanks," I said. I was happy with my orange juice, and was certainly not interested in any drinks bought by this strange man. He then addresses the entire table. "I'd like to buy you all a drink to celebrate the 4th of July, my country's Independence Day, and it's also my independence day because after 25 years I am retiring from the navy." People looked at him, said "No thanks," and hoped he'd leave, because he seemed weird. But he didn't leave; instead, he stayed, repeated the offer, at one point even commenting "I don't know what's so difficult to understand about this. I want to buy you all a round of drinks." Eventually a few people agreed, mostly I suspect because the guy clearly wasn't going to accept any kind of "No" answer. We did send someone down to help him with the drinks/make-sure-he-doesn't-do-anything-to-them, just to be safe. So the guy comes back with a round of tequila shots for us all. I tried to insist, "No thank you, I said I'm happy with my orange juice, I said I didn't want you to buy me a drink, so I think I'll..."

And as I was speaking, I happened to glance at the guy and realised something with a shock. The guy had a sword. A real, solid, metal sword. Was it sharp? Who knows. I certainly wasn't inspecting the blade terribly closely to determine. All I knew was that this strange man had decided to come to a bar carrying a sword. This is unusual behaviour, and who knows what else a person who does that might do. It was at this point that I also developed a new rule: Never decline a tequila shot from a guy with a sword. I took it, downed it with everyone - ohmyGOSHitwasawful - thanked the guy very much, and hoped he would leave.

But he did not. He stayed around, talking to us for a few more minutes, asked us about the course that we were on, and demonstrated that he was surprisingly knowledgeable on the core subject matter. Whatever the guy's story was, he was certainly well-informed to a degree that few people would be. And he talked about his career in the navy - although we're not sure how true any of it was, because at one point he claimed to be an admiral, while another point he said he was a former spy (because if there's one thing spies are known for, it's revealing that they're spies).

But eventually he decided to leave. He saluted us, one of us saluted him back, and he left. According to one of the bar staff, he was heard to say, as he left, "I'm sick of having to entertain these communist fuckwits." Which seemed like an unusual response - I don't think anyone said anything indicating any communist tendencies (if anything he was the one taking his wealth and redistributing it to the masses, if only in the form of tequila shots), and I certainly would regard myself as being some distance from the communist end of the political sphere. So frankly, that comment offended me. Plus there was the whole calling-us-fuckwits thing, which probably wasn't a positive comment either. Still, he was gone now, and we could get back to enjoying our evening. After all, it's not like he's going to come back or anything.

Fifteen minutes pass, and all of a sudden he's by our table again. And he still has his sword. Now, can I just point out, this means the bouncers let a guy carrying sword into a bar, not once, but TWICE. That does not seem like an appropriate approach to security in a place where there is a reasonable risk that the patrons may become intoxicated. In any case, he's standing by me, still sweaty and creepy, addressing the whole group, proposing that we play a game of Twenty Questions. A couple of people agreed (I'm not sure why - curious where this was going, perhaps?), and the game started. It quickly became clear that this was not the game of Twenty Questions as you know it. This was, in fact, merely some bizarre pub quiz, where the guy would just throw out question after question. "What are the colours on the Torres Strait Island flag?" "What year was the American constitution signed?" "What is the full name of the ANZUS pact? (And a supplementary question: would America really come to Australia's aid if it were attacked? Of course they would! Why do you think I'm here?)" There were some people in the group (mostly the people on the other side of the table) that were playing along with the game. There were some people (mostly those down the far end of the table) that decided to just ignore this and carry on their own conversations. And then there was me, sitting right by the guy with the sword, desperately wanting him to please just go away. I took to having my recently-refilled glass of orange juice up to my lips the whole time but sipping it very slowly, just so that my arm would be raised to protect my throat should he swing the sword at me. Then the guy turns to me, asks me a question about Australian history. "I don't know," I say defensively. "I'm from New Zealand." "Oh," he says. "Then I've got a question for you." He then fires a question about the Treaty of Waitangi at me. I cannot remember what the question was now, but at the time my mind managed to dredge up an answer that satisfied the guy, because he announced to everyone "This guy is good, he knows his stuff, and you should all have him as a role-model." I was just relieved, since hopefully his approval meant that he wouldn't be tempted to swing his sword at me. Still, there's no way I'm lowering my drink.

But as the game carried, the guy started to get more and more aggravated. There were the people who were playing the game, but who challenged his questions. They felt the questions were unclear or imprecise, capable of several answers, but when they'd try to clarify a point, the guy would tense up. "The question was perfectly clear; it doesn't need clarification; what's your answer?" he would bark. Whenever someone challenged him, you could see how tense he was getting, if only because he started banging the sword into the ground - which was horrible, because the sword was uncomfortably close to my foot. Of even more concern to the guy was the group of people at the other end of the table - the people who were ignoring him and trying to carry on their own conversations. "I'm really sorry, I'd love to hear your answers to the question, but I can't hear you because SOME people at the table are being RUDE and are TALKING loudly." This prompted one person to confront the guy. "Who do you think you are? We didn't ask you to come and talk to us, but here you are, making demands, controlling how we enjoy our evening." By the end of her speech she was standing up and yelling at the guy, and all the while I'm sitting thinking "Please, can we not antagonise the guy with the sword?"

But it seemed to work. He clearly decided he'd had enough and left us, wandering over to talk to the woman at the bar, who at this point was pretty much the only other person in the place. There was understandably some concern about her safety - someone even went up to her and checked she knew what she was doing; she said she was fine - but when we last saw the two of them, they were walking up the street together, and she had the sword. (And there were no stories in the news the next day about anyone being slashed to death with a sword, so I assume she was fine.)

Meanwhile it was midnight at this point, so I excused myself, and returned to my hotel room - it was late, I was tired, and I needed to send a few work emails before going to bed. Another guy left - he'd apparently met a girl who invited him to a party. The rest of the group didn't want the night to end, so they all walked off to the nearby casino. I am told, however, that they never made it inside the casino, because they discovered that one of the group had had her wallet stolen while at the bar. It wasn't until the next day's class that we met up with the guy who had left for the other party, and heard that (a) there was no party, and all the bars they went to were closed, (b) the girl was insane, and (c) she kept going on about identity theft for some reason. So now we were pretty certain she is the wallet thief - unfortunately, we had no idea who she was, so I don't think it was possible to follow that up.

Arriving at class the next day, I told the story to the lecturer, who initially asked if this was some kind of joke, and who I think only believed it actually happened when the third group of people came in talking about the guy with the sword. When he heard that this all happened at this particular bar, his response was simply "That sounds right. If I'd known you were going there, I'd have advised against it. It's a bad place."

We know.