The Uncle Sams Dude

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It’s 1992, you’re in Darwin and it’s after four o’clock on Sunday morning.  You’re still going after a night on the piss in town and there’s a few friends with you.  There’s two possible places you could be.  One is in Squire’s Tavern on Edmunds St right in the city centre.  It’s a classic dodgy pub; home to Darwin city’s lowest clientele and too many university students.  It’s been there forever and is open 23 hours a day.  Well, they have to clean it sometime.  The other place is where I am right now and that’s Uncle Sam’s.  It’s a 24hr food stop, placed carefully at the corner you have to pass to leave the city going down the highway.  Taxis hang around here, because very late on a Friday and Saturday night it’s a standard gathering ground to find something greasy to eat before making the long journey home.  Well…it’s Darwin, the longest journey is going to be under twenty minutes in a Taxi, but it never feels that way when you’re there.  There’s one last thing you will find here at this time, in fact at most times, and that’s the Uncle Sam’s dude.

Nobody can remember having Uncle Sam’s without him.  He’s a fixture you look for and feel somehow reassured when you see his heavily tanned, wrinkled, aged body hunched against the wall, sitting on the ground outside.  He’s not begging.  He’s not busking.  He doesn’t want anything from you at all.  He’s just there.  Over time we’ve chatted to the staff at ‘Scams, as Uncle Sam’s is affectionately known, and discovered he’s an old homeless guy who has a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock.  One night we discover he speaks German and his name is Rudi.  This came after another session of listening to him talking randomly at the world.  He sits quite calmly talking to nobody with varying levels of volume and passion about…about….well….we never really understand.  His voice is deep and carries the accent strongly, but a rational train of thought never becomes clear – unless he’s ordering a coffee from inside or you ask him the time.

In fact, asking him the time becomes a kind of ritual for a small group of us.  You ask, and then he spends about a minute withdrawing a broken, bandless wristwatch from the small, black bag he carries with him everywhere.  His deep, sonorous voice is like an announcement from the highest authority just for your benefit. 
“It’s a quarter to two”, said in his voice, becomes a catchphrase in the group to refer to those moments when you’re drunk and heading for ‘Scams – or as a standard answer when someone asks you the time.  Occasionally the staff let us know he’s run out of money and was asking for a coffee – and they’ve already given him a couple.  We always find him one.  He’s crazy, homeless, harmless and a part of our lives now.  Of course we’ll help him out.

Everyone who lived in Darwin at the time knows the Uncle Sam’s dude.  And everyone was equally horrified when a group of dumb bogans took it upon themselves to beat him up and put him in hospital.  I’m guessing after watching one too many American TV shows, they decided this was somehow appropriate.  There were dozens of big guys who wanted to find the ones responsible and put them in hospital next.  Rudi must have been in his fifties or sixties, was definitely out of his head, but utterly harmless.  Beating him up was an act of sheer cowardice that assaults any Australian’s sense of fairness.  It made the local paper.  We got the full story from the ‘Scams staff; who had tried to break it up, called the police and helped make some arrests.  They also started a collection to help him pay for his treatment and they even visited him a couple of times to make sure he was being looked after. 

I don’t remember when I stopped seeing the Uncle Sam’s dude around town.  He did return after he recovered, but I don’t know what happened to him later.  Given his age, he’s probably passed on now to go hang around the great ‘Scams in the sky.  Rest in Peace Rudi.  We remember you.

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