Partly because of Covid isolation, I’ve decided to take up a challenge someone proposed recently: to meet 500 new people in the remainder of this year. I’m defining ‘meet’ to include minimal encounters, but there has to be some reciprocity and at least a remote possibility of more to come. I can count people serving in shops, but they have to be new to me and the encounter has to be more than purely transactional. Electronic encounters don’t count. I plan to do a weekly blog post, listing 10 or so encounters each week. This will mostly to be a chronicle of moments that would usually pass unremarked. I don’t expect it to be hard to reach 500. Here goes with Week One.
- Sunday 14 February, morning. The Emerging Artist and I were on a morning walk in Newtown. As we cut through the Matt Hogan Reserve, a tiny patch of green between Camden and Alice Streets, we passed a man walking two small dogs. The EA and the man nodded good morning to each other. I greeted him separately, and he replied, with a noticeably broader smile, acknowledging that I was a second separate greeting, not a mere extension of the first. I’d guess that he was Polynesian.
- Monday morning. I bought a soy and linseed loaf at our local artisanal bakery. The woman behind the counter, new to me, was extra cheerful. We had a little bit of banter when the card reader took two attempts to register my payment. ‘It happens to me too,’ she said. In retrospect she may have been reassuring the old guy, but it just felt friendly at the time.
- Monday afternoon. There were men in the sauna, ignoring each other comprehensively, barely even a nod exchanged as each one came in (I tried). Then a fourth, a young man, joined us. After a beat, I rose to the occasion, pointed to the Covid-safety notice on the door, and broke the silence: ‘There’s a limit of three people in the sauna.’ He looked me in the eye and said, quite politely, ‘Oh, is there?’ and gave no sign of intending to move. Of all the possible responses, many of which would have been civil, I moved straight to: ‘Well someone has to leave, and since you’re not going to, I will. And,’ pointing an angry-old-man finger at him, ‘you’re a fucker.’ Everyone else remained impassive as I picked up my towel and left. No one said these encounters had to be pleasant, or that they had to make me look like a decent person.
- Tuesday afternoon. The EA and I had a meeting about financial matters with two people, one of whom we’ve known for years (decades?). The other we were meeting for the first time. When we emerged, we agreed that we both felt the new person was warm and approachable, as well as inspiring trust in her professional competence. That is to say, above and beyond the business of the meeting we liked each other.
- Wednesday, lunch: There were six of us at lunch, including was one man I’d not met before. This man revealed that he has taken the advice of his daughters and stopped climbing ladders so as not to tempt fate. I was a little surprised, and asked his age. 78, four years older than me. And not only has he stopped climbing ladders, but he receives an age-care home-help package. His wife needs help with showering and mobility, but he himself hasn’t got any discernible disability. Another chap, just my age, said he had been inspired by to get a package himself, and there seemed to be consensus that I should be applying for one as well. Start lining up help now, was the message; don’t wait until the need is urgent. We had a lot of other pleasant and interesting conversation, but this is the place where he made his mark on my psyche, and I’m guessing that my response of shocked denial made a similar mark on his.
- Wednesday, also at lunch was a man I hadn’t seen since 1964, so I’m counting him as new. Conversation ranged far and wide, but the most interesting exchange (to me) was about the false fingernails on his right hand. They were strikingly shiny and long in a way I’ve never seen on a man’s hand before. The closest I’ve come is one very long fingernail on a Balinese customs officer. In that case I assumed the fingernail was there for purposes of playing a musical instrument, and it turned out that was the case here too. He had learned to play the guitar finger-picking and couldn’t bring himself to use a plectrum. He could have made a decent stand-up routine out of his first visit to a nail parlour.
- Wednesday evening, at the movies. During the ads, a young man arrived and sat a couple of seats away from us. I leaned across and said, ‘If you’re uncomfortable about us not having masks on, we can put them on no worries.’ ‘Thanks, mate,’ he said, ‘we’re not worried.’
- Thursday afternoon. We were at the pool with our three-year-old granddaughter. One of several fleeting encounters was with a woman who was here with her 10-month-old daughter. After a bit of parallel play, we actually spoke to each other. We swapped children’s names, but not ours. Then the rest of her mother’s group arrived and we went back to our separate lives.
- Thursday afternoon, still at the pool, we were joined by a friend with her 10-month-old son. I’ve met him briefly twice before, but it’s not much of a stretch to say he was new to me and so can be included in this chronicle. I was bowled over by the quality of his attention. Several times, he held my gaze with solemn concentration for a good ten seconds – it was like being checked out for some unnamed quality and, mercifully, fund satisfactory. Later, in our living room, he cheerfully crawled to me and I felt that I was now one of his crew.
- Saturday morning, we were at the pool again, without little ones. It was busy at 8 o’clock, one whole section taken up by a noisy aquarobics class, some lanes reserved for ‘squad’, and other with barriers up at the halfway mark. Just as we were about to enter the slow half-lane, a young man removed the sign and replaced it with one saying ‘Swimming Class’. I asked him if there was anywhere we could swim lengths. From the way he looked around I could tell he was a swimming teacher and not a pool employee, but he made a mental effort on my behalf, and pointed me to the couple of free half-lanes at the other end. I thanked him, warmly I hope.
I’m surprised at how few of these encounters I’ve had in a week, but interested to notice how many opportunities I’ve missed. The outstanding missed opportunity was midweek. I noticed the brilliant multicoloured shoes being worn by a woman sitting opposite the Emerging Artist and me on the bus, and then realised that her whole outfit was bright, daring and brilliant: a pink dress with shiny bits, etc. I toyed with saying something to her, but decided against it – but then as I was getting off at our stop, I realised that the EA had stopped to compliment her. She told me as we walked home that it would have been inappropriate for me to say anything – only women are allowed.
Is this too boring to blog about? The comments are open.