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Making it big in Ozzywood


I lucked out finally while on a much-needed “smoko” at the Alice Springs Abattoirs, where I worked for only one day in the “Boning Room,” with its inevitable jokes among the disgruntled illegals about “animal husbandry” and “rooting cattle.”

Of course, the worst thing about the back-breaking labor, plopping sacrificial offal on a conveyer belt leading to eventual reincarnation as “mince-meat pies,” was studiously avoiding making eye-contact with the menacing master-meat-cutter Italian wog (Australian slang for “foreigner”) expertly brandishing a long sharp knife meaningfully around me. . . .

(All of the abattoir grunts cashed their paychecks at Alice’s segregated “Animal Bar”—black abbos in one half, white cobbers in the other.)

So now safely on break, I sucked on smoke, greedily turning the stick into ash in the vampiric sunlight (Australia has the highest skin cancer rate in the world), when bounding toward me out of nowhere trotted Trevor, a ginger-haired dolebludger costing the capital of Canberra a heap and living precariously in cheap hostels, who proudly alerted me that tomorrow he would be in a commercial for the upcoming Australian Bicentennial filmed at “Uluru” (Ayers Rock), which I conveniently hadn’t yet seen.

This sounded too good to be true; I wanted in.

Trevor mooched a Winfield Blue and scribbled the phone number on my suddenly empty cigarette pack—and I was off to the sexy manager’s office to cheat destiny!

“Hello, I hear you are hiring extras . . .”

Click!

* * *

But I showed up incognito early the next morning for the yellow bus anyway.

An old biddy with a clipboard and a bluish-gray Marge Simpson doo barred my path.

“Name?” she asked.

“Edwards!”

“Uh, let’s see, there is no Edwards on the list.”

The yobbos were getting restless and began pushing and shoving in line.

Marge dropped her clipboard. “Okay, okay, get in!”

I jumped into a seat in the back as the other tattooed road warriors, a sorry lot indeed, cracked open a bevy of beers for breakfast—Foster’s, Emu, Cooper’s, XXXX (pronounced “Fourex”).

Barrelling down the empty highway through the sere outback, relieved only by the occasional clump of spiny Spinifex grass resembling the balding pate of a leukemia victim, we finally arrived at our destination, with The Rock rising up from the desert and hovering in the atmosphere like the Hindenberg.

“Hey, Old Pussy, let us off the bus already!” yelled a dickhead I dubbed “Mad Max,” a muscle-bound Ironman whom I discovered later had a tattoo on his tongue which read (no joke), “(CENSORED) OFF!”

I had just polished off Richard Hugh’s The Fatal Shore, about Australia’s origins as a British penal colony—and judging by Mad Max and the other humanoid flotsam and jetsam crammed like canned albacore on the autobus, there still was no shortage of unemployable neo-criminals to employ.

In no time we were moved past the movie trailers and in position in front of The Rock (which really does change colors throughout the day), with Trevor pointing out some of the “stars”: no Gibson, no Kidman, no Newton-John, but plenty of familiar faces (to whom?) from the downunder soaps.

Incidentally, there was not a single “blackfella” (Aborigine) in attendance.

Interrupting my temporary “dreamtime,” Trevor crowed, “Hey, there’s John English!”

“Who?”

“John English, the crooner!” Mr. English, Australia’s answer to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, or Tom Jones, swaggered over to introduce himself, perhaps wondering if we were famous, too, but he became a little agro when I alluded to the fact that, yes, as an American, I had never really ever heard of him.

“No worries, good on ya, mate,” he slagged me off, with a cartoon bubble containing a bold exclamation point above his head, before hurrying off in a huff to mingle.

And so down to business!

After a few practice takes, we prepared our smiling faces to sing (no: lipsync) the banal but memorable ditty already canned and blasting out of loudspeakers.

“Action!”

Celebration of a nation!
–Come take my hand!
Celebration of a nation!
–Let’s take our stand!
Let’s make it great!
–In 88!
Come on and give us a hand!

“Cut, that’s a take!” the maverick director, in a lame Akubra hat, aped Hollywood.

* * *

After the shoot and before the cast party, I noticed a pear-shaped man waddling over to me through the red dust, eyes as bloodshot as a cute cuddly koala blotto on gum-tree leaves.

“Gidday!”

“Hello!”

“Hey, wait a sec, you sound sort of American???”

Australian intonation can turn any declarative sentence into a singsongy question.

“Ha-ha, yes, I’m from New York: I think I’m the only American in your celebration.”

“Better not get caught?!”

The “Fruit of the Looms”-like pear claimed to be a writer.

I said that I, too, was a writer (mostly letters).

“Oh-ho, really, what sort of things do you write then?!”

Stymied for an answer, I settled on, “Uh, I guess I write mostly in the ‘short’ form. . . .”

I realized vaguely from on high that I might have unintentionally insulted him.

“Oh, short stories: I just love short stories?!” he recovered quickly.

Now I couldn’t tell if the merry little fellow was making fun of me, with my obviously nonexistent literary pretensions and no publications yet. But when we ambled over together to the cast party, I ended up eating neither kangaroo stew nor wichety grubs, but humble pie (worse than the abattoir offerings, I imagined); my new acquaintance turned out to be one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers: Thomas Kenneally, author of, among other bestsellers, Schindler’s List!

Luckily, the party lasted into the night, when a deep purplish bruise spread across the sky like the product of a bushwackers punchout over the last jar of Vegemite, and so under the melodramatic Southern Cross (a constellation visible only in the southern hemisphere), all of the Outback Extras piled back into the schoolbus and began whooping it up:

“We all live in a yellow autobus, a yellow autobus, we all hate your guts!”

* * *

A year later, after returning to New York and somehow securing a job as an editor at Pocket Books (obviously not through sheer luck, but bold misrepresentation), I called up, on the company’s nickel, no less, some of my knuckleheaded Aussie buddies, who all said they had spotted me in the bicentennial commercial.

I had enjoyed my “Ozzywood” one-minute of fame: I indeed felt “lucky” (no: privileged) to have so cleverly coerced and conjoined chance and coincidence into my first big showbiz break—even if I had broken in on an auspicious ruse, by, of course, crashing the set.

But I hadn’t seen my own smiling face on celluloid yet, and I planned on remedying that much. So I penned a regal request to the Mojo Advertising Company for a “VHS” copy (remember: this was in the eighties before the advent of DVDs), but they neever wrote back.

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