See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge, and also my post on Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers for an ex-post-facto rationale.
1. Saturday 11 December. I’m not sure if this counts as a warm encounter. I was waiting on the platform at Town Hall Station when I saw a young man in the train about to leave the station throw a piece of rubbish on the floor of his carriage. I somehow caught his eye and gestured my dismay. Beneath my mask, I muttered, ‘Pick it up, you little [expletive],’ but he couldn’t hear or even read my lips. He gave me the finger, removed his mask, took a puff on his vape and blew it in my general direction. I made a number of gestures in his direction that could have meant anything. I got out my phone and took a photo, threatening (inaudibly) to post it on TikTok. He cocked his fingers like a pistol and shot me a few times. Then the train left. I choose to believe all this was in fun, that we were each entertaining himself with these little performances.
2. Sunday. I was in my favourite bookshop, Gleebooks, buying gifts for, it turned out, eight greatnieces/nephews. A silver-haired woman commented as she passed me, ‘You’re doing well!’ A niece had given her a list of books her children might like, but without authors’ names or other helpful details. We had a pleasant little chat as we attempted to sort out whether it was great-great-nieces we were buying for, or just one great, and swapped book anecdotes. (She got help from a staff member and was delighted to find what she was looking for. I did well too.)
3. Monday morning at the swimming pool, we were greeted at reception by a woman who I’ve seen around but never in that role. As I was leaving I decided to have an actual conversation with her: ‘I’ve seen you around,’ I said, ‘but not here. Have you been working here long?’ She has worked at the pool for a long time, she said, but in the office (vague upward gesture). Covid lockdown meant that everyone had to take a turn at reception. So of course I asked after the three sisters who worked there for years before Covid, and got some of the story of how they got trapped in Queensland.
4. Tuesday. The other person in the sauna was a young woman. I made a small opening gambit – something about the wall clock having stopped – and we chatted for close to half an hour, the kind of chat that Joe Keohane says increases the wellbeing of participants. She’s a musician. I asked if I should have heard of her. ‘Not yet,’ she said modestly. But she told me her professional name and I visited her website later. When she’s famous I’ll be able to say I knew her when.
5–7. Saturday, middle of the day. An in-person birthday party for a four-year-old. I didn’t keep track of how many new people I engaged with, but I estimate at least three. Most memorably were two young parents who left Australia a bit over three years ago for one of them to work in Dublin. They got caught there by Covid–19, and returned just a couple of weeks ago, now with two young Irish-born children. I initiated the contact by advocating for their three-year-old daughter who was too shy to assert herself in the rush for a slice of the teddy-bear cake (a splendid creation of the Emerging Artist).
8. Later on Saturday. I was in the local bottle-shop’s coolroom looking for my preferred non-alcoholic drink. Two young men sauntered in, one of them lifted two cartons from the top of a pile of beer cartons, and the other picked up the two cartons below them , and they both walked out, all done smoothly and wordlessly as if they shared a brain. As I left the coolroom after them, one said to me, ‘Pretty smooth, eh?’ I said, ‘You must have done it once or twice before.’ I added, ‘I have one criticism, though. You should have taken the [brand name of top two cartons redacted].’ He was momentarily shocked. The cartons they took were also [redacted], but a different colour logo: ‘It’s a good drop, eh?’ ‘I don’t drink,’ I said, ‘but my old next-door neighbour is the brewer.’ ‘You don’t drink! You’re in the wrong place then.’ I laughed and said, ‘I can still look, can’t I?’
Running total is now 270.
Jonathan, Jonathan, you were in my mind this week. Mr Gums and I drove to Sydney for two nights, to attend a special event, and en route we stopped at Josh’s in Berrima, a favourite of ours. We were asked if we’d like the courtyard, and we would, so there we were for about half the meal until another couple arrived and were sat at the table across from us. The lovely cheery (woman) waiter came out again soon after, and plonked a little Christmas tree on our table, saying we needed a Christmas decoration. She jokingly told the other table that they could look at ours, and have it after we left! After she went back in, we started talking to the other table – they were probably a decade younger than us and about to move to the Southern Highlands, as a retirement move. They didn’t have a tree this year they said, because of the moving. “Oh well”, we said, “you must have this tree, now” and we plonked it on their table. Soon after, the waiter came out to find us chatting away. She was rather chuffed that her tree had got us talking.
Then, I think this counts, we had a lovely conversation with the woman checking us into our accommodation, because the room, when she took us to it, wasn’t ready. There was extended communication as she arranged an upgrade (lucky us) to a room with a harbour view. She was such a good “receptionist” (or whatever she was). Natural, friendly, efficient, so we talked about COVID, the weather, our plans. We’ve decided to stay there again.
At the event, we talked to a rather smooth young-ish (to us) professional from Deloittes. A very different – though still friendly – conversation about the arts, boards, Indigenous culture, Canberra.
There were a couple of others, but I think these are the most meaningful ones, in that they lasted more than a minute or two!
We haven’t talked to so many strangers in such a short time for months!
That’s lovely, Sue. I laughed, I guess the word is heartily!
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Oh, so glad I made you laugh… It was just such a story for you!
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