500 people: Weeks 21–23

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

In spite of what the papers say, the citizens of Sydney have been taking this lockdown seriously. We hardly go out. and when we do we stay clear of strangers. My project has wilted on its stem, so much that I have very little to report for the last three weeks, 4–24 July.

Today, when we were on a long walk that took us to Glebe Point Road by way of Victoria Park we noticed a large police presence and though something must be up. we passed a group of about five people in a loose procession behind a man carrying a sign that said something about Bill Gates and hoaxes and genes being fried: I almost spoke to him, but didn’t see how any conversation could be even remotely amicable. (Having seen a tweet that described the demonstrators as putting the concerns of straight white people above the safety of everyone else, I should mention that this group of people weren’t white.)

There have, however, been some moments of warm connection with strangers.

  1. Thursday 15 July, walking in an unfamiliar part of Sydney Park, where a number of alarmingly fit looking people were exercising on outdoor gym equipment, generally keeping a safe distance from one another, I watched one man holding parallel bars at waist height, then lift himself up off the ground until his legs were stretching vertically above him, then come back down to earth, slowly, with extraordinary control. He looked around, pleased with himself but not particularly expecting to have been noticed. Having just about drawn level on the footpath near him, I said, ‘I’m impressed.’ He gave a gratified smile. It occurred to me that this is a perk of age: I wouldn’t have dreamed of commenting like that even 20 years ago, but coming from a 70-something pushing a stroller, my remark was obviously straightforwardly friendly and admiring, no other agenda.
  2. Friday 16 July, as took our afternoon exercise by the Cooks River, my lockdown hair acted as a facilitator of human contact. A woman jogger with flaming red hair shouted to us as she drew near, ‘Your hair with the sun behind it makes you look like an angel!’ (See photo below.) This is not the first time my hair when grown longish has attracted comment but I was telling the truth when I shouted to her retreating back, ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my hair.’ She stopped for a moment and called, ‘Bye, angel!’ (For remote context: Roughly 30 years ago I was at a school basketball game when a young Aboriginal boy approached me out of the blue and asked, ‘Are you a mad professor?’ then ran away cackling.)
Me looking angelic?

3. Saturday morning, on our pre-breakfast constitutional (aka permitted exercise outing) we passed a man with a small girl wearing a pink tutu. The girl was engrossed in a book. It wasn’t a children’s book and she wasn’t reading it, but focusing intently on its cover. As we approached, the man said, appropriately enough, ‘Look up, don’t walk into people.’ She ignored him, and as we made our way around her, I said, ‘Never look up from a book if you can help it.’ He said, ‘It’s a good one, this one.’

4. Saturday, we had stopped off on that walk to buy bread. I was standing for a moment with the Bourke Street Bakery paper bag under my arm while the Emerging Artist retraced our steps to deposit a found bag of dog poo in a bin. Another couple out for a walk passed me. The woman called, ‘Ah, I see you’ve just bought some bread for breakfast.’ I confirmed that she saw right. (These moments feel inconsequential, but they increment to counter the innumerable moments when we might as well be blocks of stone, or worse, to each other as we pass).

5. Wednesday 21 July, mid-afternoon, the Emerging Artist and I were heading out for a walk before it got even colder. In the near-deserted park, we passed a woman with two dogs, a black and white collie and another, which i learned is a blue merle collie. I was struck by the dogs’ precisely timed, synchronised movements as they waited for her to throw the ball for them, and then by the way the blue merle leapt in the air with a double twist, apparently for no reason except to show off. I stopped, and expressed my admiration from a Covid-safe distance. ‘Are they trained for agility?’ I asked. ‘That one competes,’ she said, pointing to the black-and-white dog, ‘ but she,’ the other, ‘is too young just yet.’ She must have scores of people stopping to ask about her dogs, but she seemed perfectly happy to chat about them, without for a moment leaving them hanging out for the next instruction. When one of them looked as if it was going to come our way in search of affection, a sharp ‘Eh, eh, eh!’ had her turning on her heel and back to work. There was nothing insincere about my admiration for those two.

6. Wednesday, perhaps on that same exercise outing, we were passed by a woman with two small children on tricycles, maybe three and four. One of them said to her, as if offering a solution to a problem, ‘You could buy us something’. I caught her eye and she rolled hers.

7. Saturday, on our exercise outing, on our way home from the non-encounter in Glebe, I stepped off the footpath to allow a woman pushing a stroller to pass. We did the customary mutual acknowledgements, muffled by our masks. A little later, as she stopped to fix something on the stroller, we passed her, and then the sequence repeated itself. The next time she passed us, I said, ‘We keep doing this.’ She looked surprised to be spoken to, and asked, in a strong European accent, me to repeat what I’d said. I repeated myself. Probably still not understanding what I’d said, she gestured to a block of flats up ahead and said, ‘I live there, nearly home,’ and as she drew ahead of us, gave a cheery wave goodbye. I think this demonstrates that the content of what one says in a brief encounter matters a lot less than tone of voice.

8. Saturday, on the same outing, we passed a small former corner store in Angel Street Newtown with a photo exhibition in its windows. A woman was standing near the windows looking through some art books on top of a rubbish bin. I stopped and asked from a safe distance if she was the photographer. No, she said, but she loved the photos. And we chatted very briefly about the way this corner store often has interesting things on display.

Running total is 199. I’m still aiming for 500, but not with a time limit.

6 responses to “500 people: Weeks 21–23

  1. I’ve spent my adult (away from home) life talking to strangers. Once, when my eldest sister was staying with me in Pyrmont, we were walking across Pyrmont Bridge into the city and I stopped to tell a man how wonderful was his waistcoat, and we chatted happily for several minutes. When my sister and I walked away, she said in a kind of horrified stage whisper “But you didn’t know anything about him ! – he could have been a brute !”. I was gob-smacked, as I have NEVER found that talking to strangers as if I know them has led me into unpleasantness.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JS: I was walking across the length of Blowering Dam wall this afternoon. The messages re Covid Delta Variant now suitably ramped up – I wore my mask. Walking back to the carpark place as I walked towards the distant spillway (the dam at 98.1% capacity – just below the lip of the spillway – another heavy rainfall – might overflow) A bunch of men a couple of primary school-aged children. It’s interesting how sometimes the personal antennae pick up on things – anyway, two of the 50s age bracket of the five men – had stubbies in their hands (the ones containing a can of beer). Oh yes, I thought to myself – and they were not 10 metres behind when I heard some guffawing and one of the men’s voices: “He thinks he’s going to catch Covid!” [Not at all, I thought to myself. I stopped at a servo in Yass – I’ve checked into my motel in Tumut – I’ve entered the Tourist Information Centre – I’m protecting you lot!] Other conversations – parents with excited children or walking dogs – with the chap in the Thai restaurant wearing a Japanese style “chon-mage” top-knot hair style – me with my mask on – no silly comments – though now watching the evening news I find that thousands of mates of the dam-wall fellows were protesting for freedom in Sydney’s CBD!!!! Bizarre – and one woman even claiming to be intelligent because she and friends were lawyers and architects…Tsk! Tsk!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have been missing these posts. Your comment: “It occurred to me that this is a perk of age: I wouldn’t have dreamed of commenting like that even 20 years ago, but coming from a 70-something pushing a stroller, my remark was obviously straightforwardly friendly and admiring, no other agenda” made me feel so sad. There are so many circumstances now where we fear being misread and so withdraw from making contact, and men are probably in a worse position in this regard, as we’ve mentioned before.

    I liked your comment about the importance of “tone”. So very true.

    I’m struggling to remember contacts I’ve had in the last few weeks, even though I’m not in lockdown. I did have a nice chat with the receptionist at the NFSA where I do volunteering. She was giving me my parking voucher and wanted to know which number I wanted – 11 or 12? Come to think of it, she’s not a stranger, as she’s the one who asked me on my last visit what number visitor pass I wanted.

    Hmm … I’m sure there were others, but I’ve mostly been out in company and that tends to reduce the talking to strangers thing I’ve found (doesn’t it?)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. LOL My knees are still not up to a walk since my fall so the only chats I’ve had have been with medical professionals.
    But… a woman who lives in our street who became an acquaintance through lockdown walks with our dogs last year, has become a friend. We’re in lockdown too but she rang up to see if I needed anything and offered to walk the dog for me. I reckon that’s pretty special!

    Liked by 1 person

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