Letters from America

During 13 months from 2004 – 2005 Chris wrote this weekly column for the Saturday edition of the Sunshine Coast Daily in Queensland, Australia, while living in Bradley Beach, New Jersey. The stories were based on his then 8 years of experience living in the US, five of them in Harlem just north of Central Park in Manhattan.  He lived another 9 years in the US before returning to the Sunshine Coast in March 2015 – the last eight of them in Beverly, Massachusetts, on Boston’s North Shore.


American Football Razzmatazz

by Chris Gilbert – February 26, 2005

Want to crack the code of U.S. culture? Then, watch a telecast of its National Football League Superbowl. This Grand Final of a season of American football showcases the real U.S. But first, a journalistic disclosure: I’m a lifetime Rugby player and follower.

Here’s my theory: American Football is an extravaganza of martial capitalism, a game played by coaches, with players as chessmen. With decades of head-start in marketing their sport, the astronomic stakes of N.F.L. can only be entrusted to grey-heads, not youth.

How quintessentially American! With apparently limitless resources, head coach prowls the sideline with an army of specialist coaches behind him. I watch him deploy two battalions – offence and defence – 30 players accountable directly to his specialists. He is General Patton reincarnate. And his title, Coach, follows him to the grave as arguably the greatest American honorific.

DSC01190 (1)80,000 fans from the city of Tallahassee await the beginning of Seminoles vs Miami U.

The dominant camera shot of the Superbowl is HIM, in various attitudes. So I see grim-faced determination, pique, elation, profanity and attention to plays. Communicating through massive headset and mike, the coach is the playmaker, barking orders to invisible lieutenants as he stamps his authority all over the game. I’m amazed as he questions the referee who is then bound to consult the video replay. Coach alone has a face unhelmeted for cameras to read.

The player to whom most orders are relayed is the quarterback, who hoists the ball with iconic torpedo-passes down field. I’m told his helmet is wired for sound because he cannot determine to whom and where he will throw. No, that’s sent from a specialist, toting a booklet of cunning “plays” devised to defeat the opposition. The specialist calls the play, guarding his lips from zooming cameras, ’though often overruled by Coach in more desperate moments. The quarterback organises big fat guys to perform the approved trick, which takes all of 10 to 15 seconds. And play stops for commercials of course, while the next move is signalled and the big guys rest.

So, it’s not really a game for spectators either, ’though Americans do love their football. Which explains the extraordinary mixture of one hour football and two hour rock concert razzmatazz.

Is this the future for Australian codes? Will demigod coaches rule sport? Can we say anymore, “It’s only a game?” In the U.S., it’s ritualised war where, because of the money staked by individual owners, winning is everything.



Path into the Pit

by Chris Gilbert – February 19, 2005

There’s a subway system, the Path, from Newark, New Jersey beneath the Hudson River to the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. I first used it in January this year, while training to use new software.

What was I imagining that caused the terminus to haunt me for weeks? Like when I found my old high school abandoned in its Melbourne suburb.  Yet the subway ride to Church Street in Manhattan would be a far more confusing experience.

At Newark, a flood of people pushes through Path turnstiles and fills the cars at rush hour. More riders stand than sit, and we’re a motley commuter community. Indian and Pakistani, Korean, and Chinese, African American and Caucasian, our appearance is just the surface of the diversity.

I stared away from the interior crush enjoying the sight of wind-textured snow and ice that makes even industrial landscapes pristine. The train then rushed into blackness and under the wide Hudson River.

Creeping out of the river tunnel we emerged to daylight on the floor of a pit, the size of eight city blocks. Sheer concrete walls rising 40 metres encircled us, dwarfing our subway cars skirting the perimeter. This chasm is what remains of World Trade Centers 1 & 2, scarred all 40 metres to street level by the stubs of girders, tunnels, and other structural appendages.

Two realities collided here for me. These buildings dominated the landscape for 20 kilometres. So many times I rode those rapid elevators to Windows on the World Bar with visiting friends, watching planes on their landing approaches below us, the cars on the Brooklyn Bridge, the massive suspended sweep of the Verazzano Bridge across the entrance to New York Harbor, and this? This is all that remains? A raw hole in the ground eight storeys deep and we’re in it?

Like a migratory herd we made the ascent from the station platform at the bottom of the pit by four flights of massive stairways and only one provided with escalators.
The terminal architecture seemed to shout, “Only temporary!” Yet it services the entrance and exit of hundreds of thousands of city workers every day. Whether a function of our aging, or the proximity to catastrophe, temporary is now a word with powerful meaning.



New Jersey? I’m sorry!

by Chris Gilbert – February 5, 2005

New Jersey, the Garden State, gets a bad rap from New Yorkers. One joke has in mind the tunnels beneath the Hudson River (the state border) which link New York City to the industrial wastelands of New Jersey: A definition for disillusionment – Finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel only to realise it’s New Jersey.

When people indicate they are leaving some part of the U.S. to live in New Jersey, friends frequently respond, “I’m sorry.” Seriously. My wife, a writer, felt the slur both ways after we moved from Harlem. It is one thing to be an author from New York, but Joisey?
Do New Jerseyans feel this keenly? You bet! Jersey Girl, the movie, makes it a badge of honour to be nonentity neighbours to New York. Nonentity?

Dsc00086Truer image of New Jersey – the Garden State.

When arriving in any metropolitan region, airports and railways occupy the cheapest land. Typically we see sprawling clutter of busy freight depots, working factories, littered and vacant asphalt, razor-wired fencing flagged with plastic shopping bags, and stacks of sea containers. Oil refinery smoke stacks and electricity generators complete the rail/freeway entry from NJ into the Big Apple.

I see the best and worst riding New Jersey Transit railway from the Jersey Shore (a coastal region) to New York City. From Newark Airport to Manhattan are marshlands back of harbour docks. Beautiful tracery of a steel bridge spans four kilometres of reeds and waterways alternating its arches up over the traffic at large waterways, and down under it in series like a skipping stone across the swamps. An elevated New Jersey Turnpike with interchanges and a hundred square kilometres of industry, by contrast, render the scene plain ugly.

But, “Is that all there is…?” I mean, for New Jersey?

It is, as they say with the original accent, a bum rap. Apart from travellers, this small corner creates a lasting impression for a New York centric population, as large as Australia’s.
Beyond the industrial doorway it is a Garden State, where most of the 8.6 million Jerseyans live. The coastal strip on which we live runs over 100 miles south from Staten Island to Cape May, like Caloundra to Double Island Point in many ways, but in the reverse direction. We’ve benefited from New York’s derision. We weren’t priced out of the market to buy a home just three blocks from the beach. Being unknown and poorly appreciated has its advantages.



Surviving the Health System

by Chris Gilbert – January 28, 2005

I’ve been one of the lucky ones. More than 49 million residents of the US can’t afford healthcare. Not that I’ve needed much. In seven years my insurer has spent a fraction of my premiums on my medical needs. One zealous annual check-up from my Primary Care Physician (local GP) cost $2000 for an echo-cardiograph on my 50-year-old heart. The doctor seemed to feel it was my rite of passage into the silver years, but the insurer wasn’t impressed. It was a six-month battle to get payment.

In early November last year, a friend underwent back surgery. As she lay in the recovery room, same day, an insurance officer walked into the room to tell her the insurer would not pay for the $32,000 operation. Mercy indeed. Yet she and her husband had been well insured for years through the New York Board of Education. So when it came time for my wife to have a necessary hip replacement early this past December, we both wondered what we would be in for.

Total joint replacement experts in New York are among the very best. My wife eventually found a surgeon who didn’t consider her need of a ceramic hip as if she was a car in for service. She had approached this moment with deep dread: First, the decision in January. Then, she chose the surgeon, did tests and scheduled surgery for November. But in August, developers bought the bankrupt Beth Israel Hospital in New York for condominiums. The surgeon apologised and relocated to Arizona. No matter, friends directed us to another man, reputed to have replaced a hip for the Pope. It was timely friendship.

She is now well into recovery at home, no infections, little pain and soon walking unaided. A modern miracle, the prognosis is 30 years plus of normal, pain free mobility.

But nothing could have prepared me for the response I got from our insurer. The case manager said my wife’s hip replacement was certified “necessary”, and there would be nothing to pay. Nothing!

I can’t explain this disparity in treatment. Was our doctor just a better paper shuffler? It seems rather like the lottery, where millions lose but winners get the press. We’re grateful for our win, but I consider a society poorly designed despite its wealth when it denies over twice the population of Australia medical coverage for even a trip to a GP.



A Stowaway’s Tale

By Chris Gilbert – January 21, 2005

Don’t come to New York as a stowaway. Young Liberian, Dominic N. knows this now – he spent two years in the Wackenhut Detention Centre in Queens, after escaping by ship from war torn Monrovia, the city where his family was murdered by the Charles Taylor regime.

This 25-year old came to live with my wife and me and other friends after much lobbying from people who heard his story. There was a Bishop, a journalist who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his series on such cases, and our church in New York City. Ultimately, there was compassion in Commissioner Doris Meisner in Washington DC, who ordered his release against the rogue behaviour of her New York office. But Dominic’s resourcefulness gained him lasting enmity at Wackenhut.

A year after his release into our care came a “bag and baggage” order from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS). Dominic was to report to Wackenhut to show cause why he shouldn’t be deported. This contradicted blanket Presidential amnesties then given to Liberians. Our household scrambled for a lawyer to assist and we happened on a former INS lead attorney from Washington DC, now working on behalf of immigrants needing amnesty. But she underestimated the malice at Wackenhut. Dominic was held in detention and there seemed nothing we could do but pray. For five days Liberians and members of our church picketed the INS at Federal Plaza in Manhattan. It was great camaraderie but seemed a token.

Deportation seemed certain. Checking African embassies I was assured no papers had been issued. Then on the eighth night a phone call, from a mobile phone of an INS guard on the tarmac at JFK airport. Dominic was about to climb the stairs to a Ghanian airliner and was allowed to say goodbye. It seemed hopeless. But we knew someone who knew the INS Commissioner personally and it was 11pm. I woke him and he assisted with her phone number. I made the call to Doris Meisner in her bedroom and it lasted five minutes as she listened then sprang into action. Dominic was sitting handcuffed on the plane. Her deputy then called us, unhappy, reluctant, but he was under orders. We sat waiting for an hour. Then a call from Dominic, he was back in Wackenhut. “It was God! It was God!” he said over and over.

Two days later, Good Friday 2000, the humiliated staff of Wackenhut released him permanently. We still feel the joy of it. Another year later, and we lost close contact with Dominic but he remains in New York City working in Internet technology.


New York City Subway Tales
By Chris Gilbert – January 14, 2005

New York City’s subways vex me and inspire me on a daily basis. Commuting from 116th Street in Harlem to Times Square on a “2” or “3” Train, is about a 15 minute ride, sometimes 25. In that time its passengers cross race lines, economic divides, mingling endlessly with a changing cast of characters among Manhattan’s eight million daytime living stories. It’s never a dull ride.

Street musicians and artists abound in the subways but the term “busker” is never heard here. And, their variety and persistence is from the sublime to the ridiculous. The sublime? Three burly black men burst into my subway car, in military camouflage fatigues and sunglasses. They have our total attention. Poised like cats after prey, they remove their glasses, then, fingers snapping, commence a doo-wup number unaccompanied. It won from me, and many others, a dollar into an outstretched hat. Perhaps from relief!

The ridiculous? At 42nd Street station one act that always draws a crowd is a man dancing with a life-size flexible doll in a short skirt, her feet fastened at the toes to his, whirling and gyrating to Latin music. Entertainment on the subway system even includes a didgeridoo player. Perhaps my favourite is a young man on the cross town shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central Station. He plays funky acoustic guitar while foot stomping a percussion accompaniment with the saucepan of his takings of coin and notes. For sheer grit and love of the art he takes some beating.

But the most difficult daily encounters are panhandling crack addicts. One woman announced her presence with a proclamation of her need and a rendition of The Camptown Ladies. Over a year her proclamation became a more discreet whine and her song shrank from a full verse sung loudly off key to mere recitation of the first lines. She became as wasted as a scarecrow. And as the thermometer falls to freezing during November, I have seen homeless men seeking the warmth of a subway car clear a carriage from the power of their stink.

I’ve endured amateur preaching, people pretending blindness or deafness, heartfelt eloquence for many charitable causes, but never heard a stand up comic, though I expect it will soon happen. Such daily reflections of the creativity and tenacity of the human spirit, are haunting theology from a city not famed for its awareness of the Divine.


Overpowering Harlem

By Chris Gilbert – January 7, 2005

The posters said a million youth would march on Harlem on September 6th of 1998. The mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, banned it. But the organiser, one Khallid Muhammed, fought it to the State Supreme Court and the mayor was overruled. Television relayed the head butting as it played out in the preceding weeks. But a march there would be.

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More NYC police than marchers line Harlem’s Malcolm X Boulevarde, September 6, 1998.

Muhammad, from Washington DC, perceived a leadership vacuum for black youth. Yet why Harlem? Who would come? These questions were never answered for puzzled Harlem residents before the big day, when my 119th Street corner with Malcolm X. Boulevard, became the event’s focal point.
That Saturday dawned with bluest of skies as I headed out with my camera. Police barricades lined a mile of kerb making the boulevard off limits. A stage occupied the intersection of 118th Street. Officially 5000 police were on duty here, mainly men, Colt 35 pistols bulging from the hip. Commanders, in white shirts, answered radios and directed members of the press into a sheep pen by the stage. As I mingled with sidewalk spectators we wondered to each other, was this really necessary?

Looking up, it was worse. Police snipers patrolled apartment rooftops. On a rumour that police reserves were marshalled in Central Park I went to see. They were; perhaps a hundred Harley Davidsons angle-parked, riders in uniform awaiting the call. Returning I glanced along 115th St and saw scores of mounted police astride shuffling horses.

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On roof tops, police, a sniper above, and helicopter surveillance for 3000 marchers!

At midday I estimated 3000 people, not so young, marched to the stage. Tepid speechmaking filled the afternoon until I watched riot police file by the press pen. Muhammad took the stage with 10 minutes left on his permit. He hurled amplified insults at Giuliani, some people cheered, many smelled trouble, like me, and exited the scene.

From my top floor window just back from the corner I watched two low flying helicopters charge down the boulevard overwhelming the “wannabe” leader of black Islam with their roar. Then riot police mounted the stage and pulled the plug on the sound equipment. Police on Harleys, and horses surrounded the scene. A scuffle ensued, chairs got thrown about, a few arrests were made, Muhammad with his minders melted into the crowd and disappeared.

It was an astonishing show of force by the city, and strangely repeated the following year. These urban episodes have faded into history now, but former mayor Giuliani has designs on the US presidency. I wonder just how much force it would take for him to feel secure?



When Faraway Disaster Strikes

by Chris Gilbert – December 31, 2004

I first learned of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster driving in the middle of a snowstorm. My hosts asked the question, “Had I heard…?” en route to a small community centre in Southampton, NY, a beach-side community on Long Island. I hadn’t. The information was sketchy, but 20,000 or more dead from massive tidal waves, they said. It whirled in my brain as we ran from the car through deepening snow up stairs into the hall.

I put shock and concern on hold until later that evening, I’m embarrassed to admit. It was Sunday night and I had work to do, conducting a worship service for a small Presbyterian Church. We might have prayed for the families of the victims. We didn’t. Prayers for the People, was cancelled impromptu because the person responsible was snow bound. My mind wouldn’t deal with second hand news of massive disaster so removed from reality in my time zone and its geography.

The storm forced me to stay over, 230 kms from home, but next morning in the car, skirting the Atlantic Ocean along ploughed and salted freeways, my first opportunity to listen to news reports. The enjoyment of snow at Christmas had ended with the first report the night before. Now came incredulity, joining in the global grief and mourning, and questioning “Why? How?” and then as one amongst a beach side community, “Why there and not here?”

I once withstood a blizzard on the end of our local pier and watched six-metre surf, and I have seen waves at five metres in September. But I can’t imagine the shock and terror of being surprised by a tsunami.

It has been helpful to read good journalism as the stories emerge – stories of tragic death, loss and remarkable survival, and the victim/survivor responses strangely encourage me to face up to it with them. The web, even TV news is a gift to us when used in this way, I think. Tears finally came tonight as an L.A. Times reporter in India relayed a number of victims’ stories.

This new year, we know that news of disasters, manmade and natural, will bombard us for the foreseeable future. We’re so linked now to every part of the globe. The question is how to get beyond our pre-occupied lives, and feel the pain of people far removed so as to care. It’s worth wrestling with.


Snow on Beach, Peace on Earth
Christmas Eve 24/12/2004
by Chris Gilbert

Snow on the beach; that’s the ideal Christmas for holidaymakers in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. This town of 4,500 is a particle on a map of the U.S. north-east, population 130 million. When I first visited in 1999, I gaped at its old homes with profound admiration. Like colour plates from a Hans Anderson fairytale, a crowded grid of three and four story weatherboard cottages form a gated community, in a square kilometre, on an ocean beach, and between a pair of lakes. Just six years ago it was nearly invisible to New York City, an hour to the north, and retained working/middle class attitudes and property values. No more.

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Methodists created this town, replicated in Australia’s Ocean Grove, south and east of Geelong. However, the real estate of the New Jersey prototype still belongs to their Camp Meeting Association. Early in the 1800’s it was a summertime tent city, where Methodists vacationed for Christian preaching and to get their lives “right”. Eventually wooden homes replaced tents as family leaseholds were consolidated. People settled permanently.

Summer, starting in June, reveals an active Methodist population still. Young families meet for Sunday worship in a boardwalk shelter shed, and elderly folk maintain the tradition in a towering wooden cathedral known as the “The Great Auditorium”. Here also, the American version of Macca from Australia all Over, Garrison Keilor, conducted his radio show Prairie Home Companion these past two summers. Residents are still constrained by Methodist temperance rules, and until 1976 cars were removed from town between the midnights marking a Sunday. The rules have relaxed but not for swimming Sunday mornings – that’s still policed! Yet in one of life’s ironies, rainbow flags denote a 21st century reality. Gay couples have bought in here too.

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My wife and I rented in Ocean Grove a block from the beach for a year while I completed a seminary degree. We so decompressed from five years of New York City life that to stay on seemed a plan. Here like a kid let loose I experienced my first blizzards, digging our car out of snow drifts, and watching incredulous as board riders ran through two feet of snow to surf. But the eccentricities of the town are better appreciated from outside we think. We’re celebrating Christmas next door to Ocean Grove, from our home in Bradley Beach.

Still, when an Aussie walks on a beach covered in snow, it’s easier to imagine peace on earth.



White Christmas in Manhattan

By Chris Gilbert – December 10, 2004

When New York City gets snow at Christmas, it seems to find rare humility in remembrance of the original event. My first enjoyment of this was December 24th 1998.  Although a lesson of its urban history is: “be careful of giving offence in matters of religious festivals”, yet the Christmas holiday spirit is palpable here, and gives excuse for all New Yorkers to come out and play. Especially when it snows.

Night falls by 5:00pm in late October, and so weeks before the shortest day, the walk from office to subway is a festival of store lighting and displays. At the other end, brightly lit streets and neighbourhood nativity scenes seem to shout “goodwill to all!” as feet crunch through freshly fallen snow. From Midtown Manhattan to the outer boroughs glows a cheery warmth. The Rockefeller Centre’s “Biggest Christmas Tree in the World”, craned into place early in the month, is the centre point of celebration. On an open rink sunk a level below the tree, skaters swirl clockwise, a kaleidoscope of old and young bundled (rugged-up) against the cold, and scarves flying. By day and night.

A block away is Radio City Music Hall, and its “Christmas Spectacular” draws visitors from all corners of North America as it did my mother-in-law, from Denver, Colorado in 2000. To me it seemed a corny thing to do. Star billing is the Rockettes, a precisely choreographed, leg kicking dance troupe of resplendent young women. Perhaps I was thinking I might like that too much. But my blinkered attitudes are frequently challenged in New York.

As if the multifaceted Rockettes, the automated stage which delivered umpteen scene changes, musicians and actors at whim from its bowels weren’t enough; live sheep, goats, donkeys and camels paraded onto the stage in re-enactment of the birth of Christ as the traditional finale. Our after-show chatter was for how haunting this was. So glad I was that we did this. It was our last Christmas with my wife’s mom. A precious memory, since we lost her to cancer in 2002.

It has snowed at Christmas a number of times since and there is something about finding Central Park white-blanketed on Christmas morning that promotes the deepest reflection and remembrances. A powerful rhythm of life imposes its beautiful silence on otherwise ceaseless noise. A Christmas day spent meandering that frosted park with friends is one of my happier memories. And I wonder, without such tangible grace and peace, what else reminds this city of the beauty of goodwill to all?



Harlem Revisited

By Chris Gilbert – December 3, 2004

I felt a certain familiarity while living in Harlem, with neighbours named Peewee, Jay Jay, Rooster and Butch. Older men of interesting stories, they guarded the street during a five-year tenancy for my wife and me. Meandering the sidewalk, leaning in a doorway, or sitting on the “stoop” (steps), they observed to the smallest detail our street life. For the neighbourhood they were watchmen, fix-it men, weathermen, public relations agents, even knocking on the door to remind white folks like us to move the car on the days the street sweeper was due so we avoided the fine of $55.00.

A Harlem “neighbourhood” is a one block canyon of four storey “Brownstones”, terrace houses built just before the 20th century by wealthy Dutch merchants. Their grandeur is grimed now by more than a century of city air and half a century of neglect. Built of local brown sandstone, they were single-family dwellings then, with servants on the ground floor. Now each floor can house three to five people but a third of the buildings in most streets are condemned and shuttered.

Peewee was the block “mayor” of 118th St. just north of Central Park. On autumn mornings it was not unusual to find him and his buddies conducting a “council” meeting in a large old Lincoln Continental, (Peewee’s pride), motor idling for the sake of heating. They spoke of a visiting Jazz band, or reminisced about a fishing trip back in Virginia, or in Rooster’s case the progress of his union on his worker’s compensation claim for his blinded eye from a construction accident three years earlier. It would help him retire to his hometown in the U.S. Virgin Isles.

But fifty-year residents like Peewee, are losing their homes in black-history-proud Harlem. Battered old Lincolns, and Cadillacs, compete against the latest Volvo’s and BMW’s for parking spaces. Derelict buildings become busy construction zones. A powerful triumvirate of city government, banks and real estate agents targeted Harlem for serious development during the 1990’s. The outcome: gentrification. Brownstone values rose 100% in just five years. Rents went up 75%.

A month ago I revisited 118th Street after a two-year absence. Rooster’s gone, but I was bear-hugged by Butch, and Peewee gladly updated me on local happenings. It was a happy reunion because while they remain, the neighbourhood retains a history and integrity that still fills me with admiration.



New York “Moments”
By Chris Gilbert – November 26, 2004

It’s raining and I’m lugging three bags of video equipment at rush hour on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan and no cabs will stop. But a new Lincoln stretch limo pulls up. The driver says, “Where’ya going bud? I’ll take you there.” Defensive I reply, “How much do you want?” He says, “Whatever you want to pay me.” Then I know I am living another New York moment.

Such moments are astonishing windows into a lifestyle that captivates its hardcore residents. Here, where third world meets global culture makers, eight million people speaking more than 120 languages stride by one another with their different agendas and yet the thing is functional – the city regulates as best it can how they eat and live, and work and moves them by subway, bus, car and cab, two major train terminals, and through three major airports backwards and forward from where they came. Through various tragedies it’s a good question: where does the goodwill come from to keep it all happening?

This is not the New York City I grew up learning about from Hollywood movies and Time magazine. And Harlem just north of Central Park has perhaps suffered most from that I now realize. Especially after making it my home for five years.

There on 116th Street in front of a Mosque that guards the corner with Malcolm X. Boulevarde my wife and I met friends for lunch in a diner called Ahirah’s Palace. An Aussie visitor once ate with me there gaping and exclaiming continually, it was like being in a movie.

But this day an Australian, a white suburban woman, a second generation Croatian American, and his wife from Ecuador sat down to lunch in a black Islamic community. As we chatted and caught up some years apart, I noticed a woman apparently absorbed in our conversation. Eventually she left, and then it came time to pay our bill. The table waiter announced that it was already paid for us. The benefactor? It was the mysterious lady. Her name we found was Desiree and she worked as a postal clerk nearby. She said it was for sheer enjoyment of our reunion and conversation!

In such a city, moments of extraordinary grace leave us speechless and hopefully grateful, which seems to be their remarkable design.



Expat Adventuring

By Chris Gilbert – Nov. 19, 2004

American friends returning from Australia always interrogate me, “Why are you living on the East Coast of the US?” They find it hard to imagine why anyone born into eternal warmth, wide open spaces, and the apparent prosperity of Australia’s democracy would consider living in New York City, in a Harlem neighbourhood. “What’s up with that?” Translation: “How’d that happen?”

Pushing the limits of irony, I respond, “I came to New York to recover from chronic fatigue.” Then they’re sure I’m crazy. But I did, inside a year.

How can I say I left for the U.S. to get a life? It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t a long held dream – well not so specifically. But I sensed the need for a change of tack. Things aren’t always what they seem. The cost of achievement is sometimes more than we should pay. Fortunately it wasn’t a heart attack or a stroke that made me take stock. But bed rest forced it on me. And sometimes circumstances just bring the opportunities to you. Some of you know I have a theological bent and call this “providence. “ I’m forever glad I recognised the moment.

In this column I’ll write about the seven-year journey throughout 23 states of the U.S. so far, and other places. Some of you read the dispatches I sent the Daily. I wrote from Coventry, England, the day after Diana was killed. That’s where I met my American wife. We were promoting one of her books in a Denver radio station when the Columbine shootings occurred in that nearby suburb. And we found each other in midtown Manhattan in the moments of the World Trade Centre attack. We’re glad we’ve not been in Baghdad or Beslan lately. But we attended a remarkable family reunion in the Czech Republic in May this year and a great surprise 80th birthday party in Noosa Heads in September.

Five years on, we moved from Harlem to Bradley Beach, New Jersey, 70 kms south of New York City. A beach in the Sunshine Coast sense, the surf is audible as I write. Here up-over, I determined I wouldn’t be cowed by long and bitter winters. So between teaching journalism, videography, and writing these letters home, I suit up and hit the waves in an ocean kayak and … it’s a bit like home! In choosing between paths, there’s much to be said for the one marked “adventure.”