See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.
In the four weeks after lockdown eased, I didn’t manage to be any more gregarious with new people.
1 & 2. Wednesday 13 October. Masked and flashing my vaccination certificate, I stepped into a non-essential retail shop for the first time in many weeks. My mission was to buy new shoes to replace my much loved, double patched and disintegrating old pair. I’d tried to buy a pair online, but had to return them because they just didn’t work. The two people working in the shop were fabulous: they were helpful and informative, and we also got to chat about the state of things. They don’t expect retail in the city to be back to the old normal any time this year; they too have suffered from the lack of barbers/hairdressers – the man removed his mask briefly to reveal a splendid beard which is due for the chop and which, he said, he has to shampoo daily so as not to make his mask smell vile.
3. Monday 18 October. In another post-lockdown first, I went to a movie in an actual cinema. Just a few days after I’d told someone I wasn’t interested in Marvel movies, I went to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which actually doesn’t look like a Marvel movie, at least for the first two thirds. It was wonderful to be in a temporary community watching a film for the first time in months. There was a silent moment of mutual recognition when no one moved at the start of the credits – a sign that we all knew what to expect from a Marvel movie. Maybe a quarter of the audience left after a brief postscript that came on a couple of minutes into the credits, but most of us stayed to the bitter end. As the final logos rolled up the screen, I said to the woman nearest me (a Covid-safe distance away and masked), ‘They sure make you wait!’ Just as the final scene was firing up, she said, ‘Every time!’
4. Sunday 24 October. On our morning walk by the Cooks river, we passed a young man, possibly Aboriginal, fishing with a rod and line. I seized the moment: ‘Had any luck?’ Yes, he had caught five flathead, and two had got away. I asked if he ate them. ‘No,’ he said, ‘not from here. I just do catch-and-release, strictly for fun.’ I expressed a hope that the river would be clean enough one day for fish to be edible again. He agreed, but said that would mean the river would be fished out, like a couple of less polluted places nearby.
5. Saturday night, the Emerging Artist and I broke out, walked to town, had our first meal out in a very long time, and went to the theatre. Not only the theatre, but a musical in a big theatre – Come From Away at the Capitol in Sydney’s Haymarket, where I hadn’t been since I saw Hair there in the 1970s. It was wonderful to be with a big crowd, feeling things together. I attempted to start a conversation with the man I was sitting next to, and although he wasn’t having any of it, I’m counting this failed attempt as one of my 500 conversations.
6. Sunday 31 October. In another reopening adventure, I was drawn to a display of hats at the Addison Road markets. The object on my head was unpleasantly sweat-stained, ragged-rimmed and badly misshapen. As I entered the booth, the merchant said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t offer trade-ins.’ This got us off to a good start, and we had a pleasant chat about hats, specifically the kind I like to wear. I left with a new one.
7. Near our flat a little later on Sunday, we passed a man with a little boy, possibly 18 months old. The man was barefoot, so probably lives nearby. From a reasonable distance, we saw the man, almost certainly the boy’s father, rub his hand affectionately over the boy’s head as he spoke to him from his great height. As we got close, we realised that the little boy was tearful. The man picked him up, carried him pietà-style for a little, then put him back down on his feet. By this time we were within talking distance. I said something, or maybe I just smiled, and the man responded, ‘He’s unhappy today. Something is going on.’ There was a tiny bit more to the conversation, but I was struck once again by the changes that have happened in parenting in the last hallf century: that man spoke to a neighbour-stranger like an engaged parent as if fatherly engagement was completely normal. When I was a father of infants, I was asked more than once if I was babysitting – unthinkable that the father would be simply being a parent.
8 & 9. I wouldn’t include these encounters, but since there were two of them I’m telling you about them. Within days of each other, a passing man has commented on my T-shirt. The first time was on our usual walk at the Cooks river, and I was wearing a T-shirt with semi-abstract images of bright birds. The second time, I had just walked past a couple of Council vehicles. A man in yellow jacket came up behind me from one of them and as he passed, said, ‘I like your T-shirt.’ To save me the trouble of looking down, he added, ‘The periodic table.’ And so it was.
10. On Wednesday morning 3 November, a little after 9 o’clock, we passed a young man sitting under a tree near Enmore TAFE with a baby standing in his lap, gripping his fingers and pulling themselves upright. We made smiling contact with the man and locked eyes briefly with the baby. ‘Nearly standing up,’ I said inanely. ‘Getting dangerous,’ the man said.
11. Thursday morning, we passed a woman who was grooming her dog. By grooming, I mean she was rubbing her hand over the dog’s back and releasing astonishing cascades of fur. I stopped to comment, admiringly, that she was removing so much fur with her bare hand. She said he produced huge amounts. He was a cross beagle and cattle dog, with the double coat (I didn’t understand that term but didn’t pursue it). I chatted a little about cattle dogs from my childhood that were outside dogs, then we all commiserated about how much work these shedding creatures make. Luckily, our interlocutor’s floors are all polished wood.
12. Thursday, on the same walk, we passed a group of old men teeing off at the point where the riverside walk climbs to the teeing ground. One of them said to a man who was about to swing, ‘Patience is a virtue. Wait for these good people to pass.’ We thanked them, and once we were safely behind them, I said, ‘My mother used to say, “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, found seldom in a woman and never in a man.”‘ Surprisingly, the little verse wasn’t familiar to any of the men, nor to the Emerging Artist. Maybe those old men weren’t as old as me.
13. The Sydney Film Festival is on! On Thursday evening, I chatted in a celebratory kind of way with the woman sitting a Covid-safe two seats from me.
14. Saturday morning, before Quo Vadis, Aida, I struck up a conversation with man seated right next to me. We exchanged news and views abut the movies each of us had seen – there were no overlaps. It turns out that we lived a couple of blocks apart a couple of decades ago. he now lives near Wollongong and makes a pilgrimage with his wife each year for the Festival. In the movie, there’s a horrific moment when people are ordered to leave a place of refuge quietly, five at a time, and we’r pretty sure they’re going to their death. As the credits rolled we were asked to bear Covid restrictions in mind and to leave in a =n orderly manner. My new acquaintance and I said, in unison, ‘Five at a time.’
Running total is 242.
You have done remarkably well given this the year of lockdown in Sydney. In order to achieve your target of 500 you might stand at the front of a Film Festival crowd before the lights go down and explain your mission and ask if any in support of your conversations with strangers might like to indicate their approval by raising their hands if not their voices – and count the number of hands raised??? What think you??? Not quite in the spirit? Just a thought! Jim
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That could work, Jim. Or I could set up a little booth outside the State Theatre with a sign saying ‘Free Chat While You Wait’
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My favourite convo this week was at a nearby bistro for an early lunch, where I ordered the crusty bread and dips. (This is not something I ever get to eat at home, it’s just not in The Spouse’s repertoire). ‘I’m getting in a rut’ I said, and she laughed — because she remembered me, and how much I love these Moroccan dips, and how I order them every time even though I hadn’t been in the restaurant for months).
The food may be exactly the same if you order takeaway during lockdown, but you don’t get the banter with the waitstaff.
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So true, about the banter.
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Some great stories here: ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t offer trade-ins.’ So good,
Now, we’ve been out and about a bit I should have more stories, but most are with people I know. We have been to restaurants and discussed how we hate wearing masks, with one young server saying “I’m breaking out”. I reckon it’s tough on the skin, but at least we diners can take ours off when we sit down. I was also at my favourite (commercial) gallery, and bought an item, which the person, new to me, took a long time to wrap. It was fragile and an awkward shape, but we chatted about the weather, the masks, it being good to be out and about. No witty repartee here, I’m afraid.
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