See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge. I’m realising that the point of taking note of these mainly probably ephemeral encounters is to pay attention to moments of making connection. Since starting these weekly reports, I’ve remembered my first encounters with people who have been important in my life – which is another story, but not unrelated.
- Sunday 23 May, we made an unplanned visit to the Corner Gallery in Stanmore, where there is an exhibition centred around beautiful photographs of Central Australian sites by Philip Bell. The artist was present, and we had an interesting chat about the work: he took the photos some time ago, and has reconsidered them in the light of Mark McKenna’s book Return to Uluru and the story of Bertha Strehlow.
- Tuesday morning, as I was heading out to the street when a tiny white dog with a pink collar yapped a furious challenge. I bent down and offered her the back of my hand, which was enough to change her challenge to a warm, bouncy greeting. So of course I got to talk to the human who, it turned out, has just taken on looking after the puppy two days a week. She, the human, lives in a part of our complex that means she rarely has reason to come to the lovingly tended flower gardens, and she was enjoying noticing them. We chatted about dogs and working from home, and then …
- Tuesday, immediately after that encounter, I was hailed by a recent acquaintance (Number 4 of Week 14), who introduced me to her partner, who was cleaning the brick wall outside their back door with a high-pressure hose. He apologised for the noise and, as expected, I said it was no bother. Truth be told, I’d barely noticed it.
- Tuesday, later in the day, I was in the sauna with an old acquaintance (Number 9 of Week 13) when a third person came in and pretty much ignored my greeting. After we’d been sitting in silence for a while, my old acquaintance started doing stretch exercises, and the newcomer asked, ‘Do you have flat feet too?’ We three then had a wide-ranging conversation, starting with flat feet and achilles tendons, taking in the Indian army’s policy of rejecting applicants with flat feet or no space between their thighs, to the difficulty of making friends in a new city and the possible role that ethnicity (polite word for racism) might play in that. Both my companions were the sons of servicemen. The newcomer had to ask us to repeat some things, so I realised that his initial lack of response may have been because I had mumbled incomprehensibly to a non-native English speaker. Possibly the mumble’s friendly tone helped him to take his later initiative.
- Thursday, as usual, was grandfathering day, and being in the company of a three-year-old person makes encounters happen. This Thursday, we had hot drinks at a cafe near the Newtown police station, a table away from a couple of men in suits who were discussing the prices of different sized USB sticks. when one of them went inside the cafe, someone at my table burped loudly. The USB man couldn’t resist. ‘Was that the young lady who did that?’ he asked. The young lady in question hung her head in pure shyness. I said, ‘No, she wouldn’t do a thing like that.’ He said, ‘Not yet.’ Given that everyone involved knew that I was the burper, this was a complex exchange, mostly benign exchange.
- Thursday, a little later, we were on a train. A young family – man, woman, baby nearing 12 months – sat opposite us. Out of the blue, the woman produced a shiny white camera and having asked permission took a photo of us. She then handed us the undeveloped polaroid snap, and all six of us watched the image emerge. It turned out they were o their way to the airport, going home to Melbourne. The Emerging Artist and I expressed our sympathy – they were heading back to a week’s lockdown, and there we all were, chatting maskless on public transport.
- Thursday, on the train on the way home, a woman sitting opposite us started chatting to Ruby. She responded with bowed-head shyness. The Emerging Artist asked if the woman and her companion were on their way home from work, and that led to a substantial conversation about their decades of employment for the same company, their prospects for retirement, and eventually the woman who had started it said she was sixty-five years old. The EA expressed surprise. Though I had also thought she was in her mid 40s, I thought this was a bit of an ageist gaffe, so I pointed at the EA and said, ‘She’s 35.’ (The EA is brilliant at making connections with new people – she does it by asking a lot of questions. I guess my most comfortable way is to make a joke.)
- Saturday morning, we’re spending part of the weekend with friends at Patonga, secluded beach town north of Sydney. On an early walk, the EA and I were behind a family where each adult in turn had something to say about how the teenage girl should dress for the unexpected cold weather. One of the women noticed us drawing even with them and said, ‘Sorry,’ in that Australian way of acknowledging proximity. I said, ‘Nah,’ or something equally articulate, then pointed to the EA and said to the teenager, ‘She’s been trying to figure out what I should be wearing too.’
- Saturday, later in the morning, we went to buy hot drinks at Cafe du Blueza – a marquee pitched in its owner’s front yard that serves snacks and drinks. I noticed some Girrakool Blues Fest merchandise and asked about his connection with it. It turns out he was the director of the Festival, but had to make a Covid pivot when it was cancelled – and is now doing quite well as a weekend front-yard barista.
Running total is now 144.