500 people: Weeks 24–25

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge. It was great to read ‘”The assignment made me gulp”: Could talking to strangers change my life?’ by Jamie Waters from the Observer (here), an excellent article that includes the proposition ‘that many of our gravest ills, both on an individual and societal scale, can only be cured by engaging with people we don’t know.’

Warm encounters with strangers have continued to be hard to come by as the New South wales lockdown continues. But there have been some, including some that were barely perceptible to the naked eye.

1. Tuesday 27 July, I arrived at Royal North Shore Hospital late in the afternoon to collect the Emerging Artist, who had been there for day surgery since 11 in the morning, and hadn’t eaten since Monday night. I couldn’t go further than the front door, of course, but the woman in charge of vetting people went off to find out when the EA might emerge. While I was waiting for her to return I got into conversation with her offsider, a much younger man. He had been coopted to this role from ‘next door’, probably because he looked as if he could hack it, he said. He had been abused 35 times on his first day by people who thought it was totally unreasonable that they shouldn’t be allowed to visit sick relatives.

2. Wednesday morning early, I dropped the EA off at the same door for a follow-up meeting with the surgeon. Aware I was being slightly absurd, I gave her a masked kiss on the forehead as we said goodbye. Then, as I was heading back to the car, a woman who had evidently noticed the kiss said, ‘It’s hard leaving them like that, isn’t it?’ It turned out she had just dropped her husband off for a test that would be followed in the next couple of days by bypass surgery. I explained that my dropped-off one had had cataract surgery the previous day. She said, ‘I guarantee she’ll never look back,’ and waxed lyrical about the effect of her own cataract surgery. I was able to ply her with questions about the period when only one eye had been done, all the way to the parking station.

3. Wednesday later, on my permitted outing to buy food, the man behind the delicatessen counter handed me a container of ricotta, and said, ‘Are you going to make something nice with this … or Mum?’ ‘No,’ I said, swallowing my disdain for this kind of language, ‘we have it with jam on toast at breakfast.’ I think this exchange belongs here: one of the forces mitigating against conversations with strangers is exactly the disdain for political incorrectness that I resisted in myself – ‘Don’t call me love,’ ‘Don’t assume there’s a woman to do the cooking,’ etc. This was someone trying to include a bit of human connection in a transaction during lockdown when human connection is at a premium, and a degree of clumsiness comes with the territory. And I was glad of it.

4. Friday morning, on our routine walk beside the Cook’s River, maskless on the northern side and wearing the mandated mask on the south, we passed a woman enjoying a solo dance exercise moment down at the edge of the river – performing a parody mixture of robot and bump-and-grind for her own entertainment, facing away from the path. Pretty much at the moment I spotted her, I noticed a man on a bike on our path watching her with a big grin. As he sailed past, he said to me, ‘Go and join her.’

5. Sunday 1 August, entering a main road while returning mid afternoon from an exercise outing, I gave way to a number of cars, a bus and four bikes. One of the bike riders acknowledged the courtesy with a smile and a wave. It made me think my life would be improved if I always noticed when a person was making space for me rather than simply following the rules. Then, a little later, I stopped at a pedestrian crossing where four bikes were waiting to cross. One of the four waved an acknowledgement, and then laughed as we recognised each other from a minute or so earlier.

6. Tuesday morning, as I went out to buy bread I passed a masked man cleaning first-floor windows elsewhere in our complex. We were advised weeks ago to make sure all our windows are shut today so this can be done, but the lockdown had made us wonder if it would happen. I said to the masked man, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this,’ meaning I was glad we were getting clean windows. ‘So am I,’ he said, meaning he was glad to have some pay coming in. We chatted fo a bit about how he couldn’t do balcony windows because of lockdown. When I came back with my bread, he asked me for the whereabouts of the nearest open coffee shop, given that the one across the road has shut for the duration, and I gave him directions.

Running total is 205. I’m still aiming for 500, but not with a time limit.

11 responses to “500 people: Weeks 24–25

  1. I so relish your reports J. Over the past few years I have noticed how limited many people’s contact circles seem to be: immediate family, a limited circle of old friends (from childhood or work contexts) and neighbours and regular shopping/barista places – plus sporting and/or cultural groups. Over and over I note the circles of others involve more-or-less the same names over the years. I’m not saying they don’t engage in momentary conversations with others as I have myself interacted on the edges of these groupings courtesy of contacts or friends – but you are highlighting the riches out of these glancingly brief interactions – confirming our own humanity as well as seeing it in others. We are in some apolitical mantra way – truly – all in this together! Thanks for these reports.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. kathyprokhovnik

    Loving these reports, even of the ‘barely perceptible’ exchanges. I hope you didn’t direct the window cleaner to Alchemy, which is no more (in its Addison Rd spot). Sob.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh ! – OK, I get it now. Talking to strangers, eh ?
    One of my favourite pastimes, in better days. :}

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love that you are stoically pushing on with thins and still finding opportunities, Jonathan. Now my comments:

    1. “He had been abused 35 times on his first day by people who thought it was totally unreasonable that they shouldn’t be allowed to visit sick relatives.” I hate it when people abuse the “messenger”. I know some think that if the poor messenger is abused enough they will pass it on, but that’s not always the case or possible, and all you are doing is taking out your frustration on another human being who usually has no choice in the job they’ve been given. Who wants to be doing a job like that that makes life miserable for people?

    3. “his was someone trying to include a bit of human connection in a transaction during lockdown when human connection is at a premium, and a degree of clumsiness comes with the territory. And I was glad of it.” I’m glad you were Jonathan. Also, I think we do have to accept that people from different parts of society, from different cultures, speak like this and that it isn’t our job to correct them or, that we are not going to change them. It grates I know, but …

    4. Did you reply “I will if you will.”

    And now, I had some lovely interactions last night. We went to a symphony concert, and because we’d only booked a week ago, the best seats we could get were one behind another, so I had strangers on either side of me. I had a lovely conversation with the woman on my left before the concert, during the interval, and after the concert about the music, the orchestra, and the impact of COVID on our lives (including travel around Australia). With the woman on my right – a self-described but muttered to herself “I’m a strange woman” – I had little conversation with, but I did smile and engage in a little joke with her. She seemed a kind woman, but, an original!

    I may have had more over the last couple of weeks but these stand out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Sue.
      1. The young man was, interestingly, pretty matter of fact about it; he almost seemed to take it as a badge of honour.
      2. Yes, this is part of the point of the exercise, I think.
      3. If I didn’t, I wish I had.
      I love your story. Who describes themselves as ‘a strange woman’?

      Liked by 1 person

      • A strange woman, that’s who! Seriously, she was a little odd, and clearly knew it, though what she did after muttering this self-description was kind and thoughtful. It was this – before the concert started. She tapped the woman sitting in front of us, and asked her to tap the woman in front of her. I couldn’t hear what this was about but it became clear, because soon after a mobile phone was handed back from that woman two rows in front and the “strange woman” took some photos of the woman and her partner, with the orchestra in the background. Turns out, she’d seen the woman and her partner taking selfies, and thought they might like a pic with the orchestra in the background!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Strange but brilliantly kind!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Lovely to have these little moments reported Jonathan. More please.

    Liked by 3 people

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