"So where were you when it happened?" he asked me. Small, dark featured and well dressed, my companion stared expectantly at me through his stylish rectangular sunglasses that looked so new they may not have been released yet. I'd mentioned that I was staying in New York, that I used to live there, and the conversation had taken the usual next step. "I was in my office – I worked on Wall Street. I saw the plane hit the building from my window." His face dropped into a gasp, and I knew I was going to have to make him feel better by the end of the conversation.
I was talking to the personal manager of a Formula One driver; a man who earns a percentage of his client's multiple million dollar annual income for ensuring that the millions keep coming in. We were sitting at a table in the shade of a building behind the pit complex at the Indianapolis Speedway to get out of the midday sun, we were talking because he was waiting for his charge to finish his debrief and had time to kill, and because I was trying to avoid working. Formula One will work you to the bone if you let it, so it's always nice to take a break when you can.
We were talking about the subject because I'd already asked him about his background, and he politely returned the question, asking me how an Australian ends up in Formula One via America. He was listening because I told him something he didn't expect when I mentioned my version of the September 11 attack. It was an unusual paddock conversation.
"It was really nice to meet you," he noted when we were winding up our conversation. "It's good to talk to someone here about something real. There's not much reality in this place." He nodded his head towards the mass of people walking back and forth between the buildings, the stream of uniforms washing past us. I took his point, and I enjoyed the conversation, although I wondered how much reality a man who spends more in a year on clothes than I make is actually exposed to.
The reality of Formula One is that it exists – anything more than that and you might need to check your sources. For the Canadian and American races I had a reality I knew a lot about to compare it to – I was staying for the three weeks around the races in New York with Jennifer, my girlfriend.
We split up briefly at the start of the season because we didn't know what else to do, but it didn't take and we fell back together again. The situation was unchanged, but then so was the love, and we've existed on transatlantic communications and emailed photographs while waiting for another chance to hold each other for a while. It finally came, and we existed together again.
The reality of New York seems more concrete to me, but then I've had longer to get used to it than the shifting sands of Formula One. In New York I had a good job which paid me well, where I was well known and received in my industry and looked upon as the future, I had a beautiful and charming girlfriend who laughed at my jokes even when they weren't funny and who made me consider things I never would have otherwise thought about without me realising she was doing it, and I had a number of friends who were only a phone call and a cab ride away reminding me of this fact daily. In New York I feel as though I can always know what to expect, one day exempted.
In Formula One it's somewhat different, and the reality changes race to race. In Canada I was staying in a hotel with some friends with whom I have traveled to Montreal for the last few years. Sean was back and filling my room with his outrageously thick brogue and cigarette smoke, while Cathy and Celia were only a raucous laugh up the corridor and John was just past them. It was like a family reunion minus the strange uncle who smells funny.
In Indianapolis I shared a room near the track with Fritz, while Will scoffed at me from his luxury hotel downtown. Ultimately he may have had a point, but I think a part of his scoff was a hold over from not getting as drunk as he would have liked with him in Montreal. Which I refuse to accept the blame for – he is slightly scared of drinking with Sean, and not for no reason, and it's hard to get drunk with someone if they're not always there.
Montreal feels like my home circuit in a lot of respects, as I've been going to races there for a number of years now and meeting up with the gang every time. I did a number of the things that I always seem to do there – I made everyone troop up St Laurent to Schwartz's for a smoked meat sandwich, I went to a Grand Prix Tours event for drinks and to listen to a driver speak (or in this case not speak – Jarno Trulli still didn't have his voice back after his win in Monaco), I went to a couple of cool nightclubs with Michel and Jason, a couple of local friends – and it was as comfortable as putting on an old shirt fresh from the dryer on a cool winter morning.
Indy was the same as ever too, but without the charm of Montreal – the locals are always friendly and obliging, other than the cab driver who wanted $48 to drive me two miles to the track on race day, but without the circuit there is nothing to differentiate the town from any other medium sized mid western American town, with its endless miles of chain restaurants and malls – it looks like the kind of place that pulls the footpaths up at night to keep them clean. Perhaps it's just that I've always lived in big cities where you can walk around and see more than car parks.
Another part of why I'm keen on Montreal is that it reminds me of a dream I had for a long time. A few years ago I took a trip to Quebec City with my friend John, and it was the kind of town that has you thinking yeah, I feel just right here as soon as you put your bags down. We spent most of our time with a good friend of his who owns a bar near the centre of the town. Cousin Pete, lean, perpetually moving and consummately tattooed, took us under his wing and to a variety of bars where the owners all hugged him at the door and thrust drinks into our hands.
"So you're a writer, eh?" he asked one night among the blur of rooms that matched our moods. I wasn't, but I aspired. "Why don't you move here and write? You can work part time in my bar, take a small room down by the river and prove it." For the rest of the night he laid out my alternate future for me, down to the positioning of the tattoo he was going to buy me to celebrate. Life had other ideas, but Montreal always reminds me of this other life by proximity. When I saw a Nordiques hockey jersey in a small store, the team that should have brought glory to Quebec City but instead broke Pete's heart by renaming and selling itself to Denver, it seemed like a sign from God. All it cost me was money.
"That's a great jersey – I haven't seen one of those for years." Michel, small, edgy, perpetually wide eyed, was taking us to another bar in his role as tour guide while Jason moaned about the smoked meat I'd made him consume at the deli that he had originally introduced me to a few years ago. As tall as Michel isn't and with hands that never settle, he has the Quebecois habit of restlessness innate in his frame. With a word in the ear of the right man Michel waved us up a flight of stairs and in. Sean and Will followed John to the bar, where he continued his night's work of buying drinks while the rest of us went out on the balcony, me swinging an embarrassing plastic bag behind me self consciously.
"There are some great looking women here, eh?" Jason noted redundantly, his head trailing in her wake as another striking girl wandered past. "Of course, you must be used to that in your job." It was a misconception I'd heard a number of times, and one that I've never been able to refute to those saying it.
People tend to think of Formula One as some sort of heightened sexual utopia, as a throwback to the swinging sixties with drivers taking their pick of the hundreds of dolly birds and winking at smirking journalists as they disappear into their motorhomes. What no one seems to realise is that most of the drivers are actually extremely childlike in many ways, and don't think about much other than play time, or driving to you and I.
Back in Bahrain Ron Dennis was talking about Ayrton Senna, and he touched upon rumours put about years ago that the Brazilian was gay because he didn't have a girl hanging off his arm at every race. What he said explained a lot about a large number of the people in the pitlane. "In my own lifetime, not only did I get married very late, but girlfriends were of no interest to me for ages. My nose was up in exhaust pipes, and it was just unimportant.
"It goes back to something which you constantly see in drivers that had been dedicated to motorsport from day one: they go through karting, they go to Formula Ford, they become completely obsessive, and it's to the detriment of their development as a human being. It's to the exclusion of things."
It explains how someone like Juan Pablo Montoya, who Cathy and Celia insisted was gorgeous (and had our male bar staff agree), can sneak up behind Bira in a press conference, dig his fingers into her sides, and then run off giggling when she squeals – it's the equivalent of pulling a girl's ponytails in kindergarden, or declaring to your friends that you fancy the girl who sits in the front row in your class without really knowing what it means.
It's hard to imagine a more sexless place than a modern Formula One paddock, a place where Anthony Davidson holding hands with his girlfriend, a young press officer for another team, is noted with raised eyebrows and a smirk, where more conversation is spent on what information could potentially flow between the pair than anything else they might get up to out of sight of the chattering classes.
A large part of the supposed sex appeal of Formula One for the fans seems to be the girls who hold the signs in front of the cars on the grid before a race, on the basis that they get a lot of exposure on television and from the photographers. "Where are all the race babes?" a journalist drafted in for the first time by his news service asked me in the Japanese paddock last year, "I thought there would be loads of them here." When I explained that the closest he would ever get to them was to look out the window of the media centre and try and make them out in the swarm on the grid he seemed disappointed.
"I've worked out where we're going tonight," Will glowed as he walked into the media centre fresh from a Fosters lunch in Indy, "and it involves grid girls." "Count me in then," chirped Ian, a Yorkshire based journalist over in the colonies for a few races while others in his shop looked after the European football championships, "maybe it will cheer up this miserable lump."
I had been a bit moody – the back to back comparison between Montreal and Indy did the latter no favours, I was stuck in a hotel next to a freeway in the middle of nowhere and with dwindling funds, and maybe being reminded of what life with Jennifer was like again after so long away with the circus showed me what I had missed over the last few months. Whatever, I didn't think a night involving grid girls was the answer.
I may have been wrong. The night started inauspiciously – the event was to pick the American Fosters grid girl, the nightclub where the competition was held was a long way from anywhere, there were very few people there, and the ‘celebrity' guest judges were unknown even to the locals – but we were given free beers by a Fosters executive and told that the contests were great in Australia, so wait and see what happens.
What made the night worthwhile wasn't what you would expect – you can see photos of girls in skimpy clothing pretty much anywhere if you want to – but rather it was the interview section of the show. When the host asked ‘what is the most unusual thing you've done in the last twelve months?' ("I went to Europe all by myself!" – cue cheers) one girl replied: "I donated my eggs to an infertile couple so they could have a baby." The silence of dropping jaws around the room was eventually broken by Ian stating "I didn't fooking expect that answer, like."
Needless to say our new favourite didn't win – the cute one did – but at least we had someone new to talk to afterwards when the Fosters exec took us all out for more drinks.
Luckily Fosters bought most of the drinks that night. Luckily John bought most of the drinks at the nightclub in Canada. Unluckily I was staying in New York in between, in one of the more expensive cities in the world, in a town that I wanted to get to reacquaint myself with. On my budget that was hard.
Getting used to a lack of money is a lot harder than getting used to having it. I became used to having money when I lived in New York, and visiting only drove home what I gave up. I knew that I wasn't accepting this job for the financial benefits, but it was only in New York that I really understood what I was missing when I saw some old work colleagues, when I saw the life I used to be such a part of, when I had to explain that yes, I had escaped, but life is still life no matter what you do.
It reminded me of when I first left Australia and my friends thought that I was living the most glamourous lifestyle known to man, and they would usually tell me this during a phone call while I was washing my underwear. The grass is always greener.
I didn't have enough money to buy the beautiful suit I saw on sale when Jennifer and I went window shopping, so we went to Chinatown and bought silly t shirts and sunglasses instead. I found myself missing wearing suits, so she bought me a pair of trousers and told me they looked nicer. We couldn't afford to eat in the extravagant eateries in the Village, so we found fun dim sum or Vietnamese restaurants. We didn't have the funds for the snooty bars, so we laughed in a karaoke bar instead.
My realities seem to change constantly – in New York it was sleeping in late and making big breakfasts, in Indy it was having surreal conversations with millionaires and beauty queens, in Montreal it was sitting in a gay pub with two girls and a large tattooed Irishman and buying outdated sporting apparel – and I like it that way. As my former colleague told me, it beats working for a living.