See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
Here’s another week’s worth of apparently almost meaningless encounters. I say apparently because I can feel my general attitude changing when I’m out in public. Where I used to be content inside my bubble, either alone or with my companions, perhaps enjoying people-watching, I’m now tending to notice possibilities for connection – and notice how generally people welcome a friendly word out of the blue. It may not be the beginning of 500 beautiful friendships, but it changes the feel of public places.
- Sunday 16 May, early afternoon, walking with the Emerging Artist in Sydney Park on another beautiful late autumn day, I passed a man and a woman who, like us, were in their couple bubble. The man’s T-shirt caught my copy-editor’s eye. In a beautiful cursive, it read, Theiyr’re. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, and by their startled reaction I may have said it in a tone of great urgency, ‘where did you get that fabulous T-shirt?’ They both laughed, and he said, ‘Google it.’ It turns out, of course, that the joke is everywhere, but none of the T-shirts I found on line did it as beautifully as that one. The pic above came closest.
- Sunday, on the same walk, near the skate park, I was similarly awe-stricken by a birthday cake sitting on a low wall. It was shaped as a blue skateboard, with wheels made of chocolate-topped cupcakes and candles shaped as the numeral 10. Such art cried out for an appreciative audience. After a moment of polite, silent appreciation, I caught someone’s attention and asked, ‘Who did that?’ ‘The mother,’ someone said, and the mother came back from a short distance away. ‘That’s fantastic,’ I gushed – sincerely. ‘It was a rush job,’ she said, in the classic ploy to avoid the evil eye. And she laughed.
- Monday morning, I bought a soy and linseed sourdough loaf at our local artisanal bakery. The masked man behind the counter, whom I hadn’t met before, said, ‘There must be a Spanish joke in that.’ Replying to my raised eyebrow, he went on, ‘Soy is I am, so Soy latte means I am milk.’ Being a smarty-pants, I said, ‘It would have to be Soy leche.’ Then as I was leaving, I said, ‘It needs work but you may have the makings of something there.’ (Arguably this exchange doesn’t qualify for inclusion here, because I did nothing to provoke it, but on the other hand I’ve had nice casual friendships with other people in that bakery, and who knows about this one?)
- Tuesday morning, setting out to visit the physiotherapist, I passed a woman wiping down the wrought iron fencing in front of part of our complex. I stopped to chat, we told each other which units we lived in – hers, obviously, was the one whose fence she was cleaning (‘Spring cleaning,’ she said, even though it’s late autumn). She asked if I was an owner or a renter, and when I said, ‘Owner’, she told me her name. I reciprocated.
- Tuesday, on the way home, in the back streets of Newtown, near the back of Camdenville Public School, a woman called to me from her car. ‘Can you tell me the way to Newtown Public School?’ Embarrassingly, I couldn’t. ‘I can tell you where Newtown High School is,’ I said, and offered to look up the primary school on my phone. ‘It’s OK,’ she said, indicating her own phone, and drove off. I’m still not sure where Newtown Public School is, but about five minutes later I passed her on foot in King Street looking as if she’d found what she was looking for. I don’t think she recognised me.
- Tuesday, at the vegie shop later in the afternoon, the woman ahead of me at the cashier was leaving with a wide open zip on the bag slung over her shoulder. I called out to warn her. She said, ‘Yes, I usually leave it open because I’m always in and out of it.’ When I’d finished checking out, she was still outside the shop with her two or three young companions (sons?). I kind of apologised. She said she usually has the bag at the front. I confessed that I’m regularly told that my backpack zip is wide open, and I was just passing on the favour. (Actually I have a new backpack whose zip isn’t broken, so those encounters are generally in the past.)
- Wednesday afternoon in the sauna, clearly a good place for talking to people, I had an actual conversation when there were just two of us there. I can’t remember how it started, but I know it was my doing. I learned a lot about how saunas are done in Finland: in particular I now have a mental image of my sauna companion gasping for breath in the ice-cold pond he plunged into after his first Finnish sauna, barely able to gasp out the word English so the nice man who was trying to help him could switch from Finnish to impeccable English to advise him to slow his breathing right down. We talked about life as a paramedic; I recommended Benjamin Gilmour’s movie Paramedico, though sadly couldn’t remember Benjamin’s name; my companion had read the book of the movie; he had suggestions for where there might be a sauna better suited to the Emerging Artist’s needs and preferences.
- Friday early afternoon at the School Strike for Climate, I was impressed by the row of policemen who marched beside the demonstration about two metres apart, keeping us to our side of the street (alas, not shown in the photo below). Remembering a moment fifty years ago at my first demonstration – a moratorium march against the war in Vietnam – when I said something to a policeman and received a punch in the head, I decided to see what happened this time. I don’t remember what I said in 1970, but in 2021 I said, ‘Thanks for doing this.’ The young policeman smiled and said, ‘You’re welcome.’ Emboldened, I said, ‘This must be a change of pace for you guys.’ ‘No,’ he said, we do this most Fridays and Saturdays. There’s usually a demonstration about something, not always climate change.’ I went back to chanting, ‘Stand up, fight back!’
- to 11. Friday, a little later, we were about to be organised to spell out a message – ‘Invest in the future, not gas’ – for a drone shot and a commercial TV helicopter. A woman standing next to me asked nobody in particular what letter we were standing next to. I was able to tell her that we were standing on the edge of the E. Someone joined the conversation and said we were at the end of the future, and a small group of three or four people bonded over the dark joke.
12. Friday about 5 o’clock, in the thick of King Street, a young man with a scruffy beard (not an unusual sight in Newtown) was shucking a big and evidently heavy backpack. A long white arm stretched from the top of the backpack. Instead of just noting this as a colourful detail of the street, I stopped and asked him about it. ‘It’s my travelling companion,’ he said, with what may have been a British accent. ‘When I’m asking for a lift, I hold it out.’
13. Saturday lunchtime, we were in a small Lebanese cafe where the owner said the kafta burgers were made using her mother’s recipe. I asked if she’d seen the recent episode of The Drum on ABC TV where they talked about vegetarianism. ‘I never get to watch TV,’ she said in the familiar sorrowful tone of the small cafe owner. I told her: ‘They were saying that a lot of men won’t give up meat because it would somehow affect their masculinity, and a man on the panel said, “I’m Lebanese, and if I stopped eating meat my mother would kill me.”‘ Our host laughed and told a story of what happened in her family when she tried to go vegetarian temporarily. ‘Oh yes,’ her father said, ‘have some of this delicious lamb.’
Running total is now 135. There are 32 weeks to go and I’m 365 short of the 500 goal. So about 12 encounters a week should get me to the goal. I reserve the right to shift the goalposts