Category Archives: Around Marrickville

500 people: Week 33–34

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

As we reached the end of lockdown and got out into the parks to picnic in groups of (mostly) the legal five or fewer, we seemed generally even less likely to talk to random strangers. However, I had some genuinely warm transitory encounters in those last two weeks.

1. Monday 27 September. The Emerging Artist and I were exploring Pyrmont, at the edge of our permitted 5 k radius. We were about to climb a short flight of stairs signposted ‘Cliff Walk’, when a woman who was busy with a trowel in a small vege garden beside the stairs called to us: ‘Going up to the windy place, are you?’ So we stopped to chat: it transpired that she is a little older than I am, has lived in the area for 10 years or so, and manages the hilliness with some difficulty; she cultivates this little garden as a community service as well as the windswept one in her own back yard; her husband, older than she is, is active in a community recycling project.

2. Thursday. We were back in Pyrmont with Ruby, where she frolicked among water spouts and we had leaf-boat races in a shallow waterway. Between activities, the EA asked Ruby if she’d like a snack. A young masked man sitting just within earshot spoke up: ‘Oh, what snacks are there?’ Not that he wanted to know – this was clearly an invitation to chat. But I told him what I knew of what was on offer at the little kiosk. The conversation expanded, so soon we knew he lives in Camperdown, and that we have places in common where we go with our young ones (his daughter was asleep in a stroller next to him). He gave us a number of tips about good places elsewhere in the Inner West. When he and his daughter headed off, it was with the possibility of meeting again.

3. Monday 4 October. On our morning walk by the Cooks river, we passed a man and a woman picking mulberries – or rather, he was reaching up into the branches looking for ripe mulberries while she was eating one he’d found earlier. I picked one from the opposite side of the tree, and gave it to the EA, saying, ‘I hope they haven’t been poisoned.’ The young man didn’t catch my exact meaning (I was masked and I’m guessing English wasn’t his first language). He said, ‘Oh no, they are mulberries.’ The young woman stepped in: ‘We ate some yesterday, and we’re still here!’ This is a different tree from the one in Week 32.

4. Monday, on the same walk, we passed the Earlwood Spoon Project. People are invited to decorate wooden or plastic spoons, make them into characters of some sort, and add them to this installation. There’s another, smaller installation along the Wolli Creek section of the Two Valley Trail. The recent heavy rain and wind had laid the spoons low, but someone had rendered them upright and orderly. Two youngish women were bending over the display, exclaiming: ‘Look at the bride!’ ‘There’s Wally!’ and so on. I inserted myself by telling them of the recent devastation, and then all four of us spent a little while pointing out clever creations: Homer Simpson, Chuck Norris (?). Someone apologised for swearing. A brief good time was had by all.

Photo by Penny Ryan

5. Tuesday evening, I was walking through our underground garage, maskless though we’re supposed to be masked in the common areas, and listening to a podcast – the Thoroughly Modern Mozart episode of Christopher Lydon’s Open Source. To prevent further ear damage I don’t use ear buds, and I was filling the garage airwaves with the sound of a classical piano. When a masked man with a shock of black hair appeared, I hastily turned the podcast off and fumbled for my mask. We nodded to each other – frostily on his part, I thought. Then he called back over his shoulder, ‘Whose is that piece?’ I could tell him it was Beethoven, but I was way out of my depth, so the conversation couldn’t go much further.

6. Sunday morning. We were helping some friends scope out an apartment they are considering putting an offer on – they’d done their inspection, this was just the environment. A woman emerged from a ground-level apartment and we bailed her up and plied her with questions: strata arrangements, rules about pets, use of the swimming pool, public transport, most convenient shops, development proposals for the nearby green space …

7. Sunday afternoon, it started to rain a few moments into our regular Cooks River walk. We persevered, and a couple of minutes later overtook a large woman who was walking with a stick. As we passed her with the usual nod and smile, one of us said, ‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ She managed a wry grin: ‘Sort of!’

Running total is 228. Let’s see if I manage to be any more sociable with strangers now that the Sydney lockdown is officially over.

500 people: Week 32

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

Lockdown continues. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world. Unlike the lockdown last year, there’s very little camaraderie amid the social distancing this time round: people seem to be much more stuck in their own worlds, as if wearing a mask makes you invisible. Nevertheless:

1. Sunday 19 September. The elderly woman ahead of me at the checkout (probably younger than me) chatted animatedly for a couple of minutes in an East Asian language. When it was my turn I asked the woman behind the till what language they had been speaking. ‘Vietnamese.’ Another employee, white, joined us and said what a hard language it was to learn. The three of us chatted for a bit about tonal languages, the pronunciation of phở, and where excellent phở can be found in Marrickville. sadly I didn’t make a note of the recommendation, but I’m happy with Great Aunty Three in Enmore, and miss their phở terribly during lockdown.

2. Still Sunday, the Emerging Artist and I passed a man and a woman who were packing up their gear beside an inflatable kayak. I paused in my walk to ask the woman how much the kayak cost, a question that had arisen with us a couple of days before, but really I asked for the sake of human contact. She looked at a loss and passed me on to her male companion. He told me how much, ‘but it was second hand.’ We chatted a little bit about the joys of kayaking on the Cooks River.

3. Wednesday morning, we were out of our Local Government Area and more than 5 kilometres from home, but it was legal because the EA had an eye specialist’s appointment, and dilating drops meant she couldn’t drive herself home. We arrived early and ordered a take-away coffee. While we were waiting in the otherwise deserted coffee shop, a woman came in with a dachshund on a lead. It sniffed the bottom of my trousers, and when it came back for a second sniff, I offered it the back of my hand, whereupon it barked ferociously. Now we understood that its owner hadn’t left it outside the shop because she knew it would bail up any passers-by. During all this, the dog owner and I managed to communicate quite a lot without benefit of words mouths or noses.

4. Thursday, we were walking on the bank of the Cooks River beside the Marrickville Golf Club when we had a classic old-style Australian exchange. A group of men in their 60s or so were teeing off. We must have looked as if we were interested as the one who was second in line said, ‘Don’t bother watching him’ – his friend who was about to swing his club – ‘you won’t learn anything.’ The EA knew the correct response: ‘We should wait to see how you do it.’ Of course we didn’t.

5. Saturday morning, on our morning walk past the Enmore Tafe College, we came upon a man on a step ladder reaching up into a mulberry tree that overhangs the footpath. Standing beside the ladder was a woman holding a dessert bowl. There was a lot of red fruit on the tree, and a couple of black ones in the bowl. ‘Ripe already!’ we said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we’re saving the footpath from being stained.’ Trying hard not to imply that he might not have been motivated only by civic mindedness, I thanked him for his service to the community.

6. Saturday afternoon, just an hour or so ago, we were in the socially-distanced queue for one of the few toilets in Sydney Park. (The park was busy; picnicking groups abounded, at appropriate distances from one another and mostly made up of the permitted five or fewer people.) The masked woman ahead of us said something about how thrilling it was to be out in the world and about to go to a public toilet. As the queue moved slowly we chatted, mainly about the fact that we were chatting in a toilet queue, and finding it weirdly liberating

Running total is 221.

500 people: Week 29-31

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

Lockdown continues. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world. Unlike the lockdown last year, there doesn’t seem to be any camaraderie amidst the social distancing this time round: people seem to be much more stuck in their own worlds, as if wearing a mask makes you invisible. Nevertheless:

1. Sunday 29 August. On our daily walk, we went into unfamiliar territory, still inside our 5 k radius. We came across a young man who seemed to be training his dog to run up very steep slopes to place and then retrieve its lead. The dog, a bull terrier, was an enthusiastic learner. We – the humans at least – exchanged greetings

2. Thursday, we were having lunch on the grass in Callan Park with the granddaughter. Just like a couple of weeks earlier, there were two people doing extraordinary things on a low rock overhang – a woman and a man this time. Again I approached them for a brief conversation. My opening gambit was to ask how long they’d been doing it. ‘About five years,’ the woman said. Just like the two young men the first time, they assumed I might want to have a go: ‘The best place to start is in a gym,’ the man offered. I said I was quite happy to watch, hoping I didn’t sound too much like Chance the gardener (as in this movie).

4. Wednesday or Friday that week. Near the Marrickville Metro there are sections of footpath that are paved rather than concrete. This is generally very attractive, but vulnerable to disruption by tree roots and other underground forces. Over the last couple of weeks some rough patches have been under repair. On this day, I passed a man who had pulled up 50 or so pavers that had bulged up in a line stretching from the base of a small fig tree. I stopped to chat, and he happily explained that he wasn’t doing anything to the root – no harm would come to the tree. He was covering the root with sand to create a level surface, then relaying the pavers on that. Next time walked that way, there was no sign of the former trip hazard.

3. Sunday 12 September. While almost all the encounters I’m recording in this series, this conversation was with a new person who I can reasonably expect to see more of. On a carefully orchestrated walk, where there were only ever two of us together at the same time, the Emerging Artist and I met up with one of our sons and a woman he has recently got close to. He had primed her well, and with social eptitude far outstripping mine she drew me into conversation about, among other things, this challenge. We talked about the way ubiquitous mobile phones have drastically reduced serendipitous encounters. She had read a book about dating that said the first rule for successful dating in the offline world (which, as she said, used to be called ordinary life) was to turn off your phone.

5. Thursday morning the car had a very flat tyre. I couldn’t budge the nuts on the wheel so called NRMA Roadside Assistance. The chap arrived in good time, jacked the car up, removed the tyre and replaced it with the spare in no time at all. He did all this without saying a word, remaining pretty much inscrutable behind his Covid mask. He wasn’t rude or hostile, just businesslike in the way he steadfastly ignored my feeble attempts at small talk (‘I haven’t jacked it up because I knew you’d have a pneumatic jack,’ etc.). Finally, though, as he was leaving, I said, ‘I hope all your calls today are as straightforward as this one,’ and he unbent enough to say, ‘Yeah.’

6. Saturday, on our morning exercise outing the EA and I went to the Sydney Fish Market, where a long section of footpath is currently closed because of the new, bigger, better market under construction. As we arrived back at the lights with our fish, there was some kind of kerfuffle. I happened to catch the eye of the the traffic control warden on duty Assuming I’d seen what just happened, he said, ‘There’s always one,’ and we had a pleasant chat about human folly and the need for safety regulations. (He had his mask around his neck.) I hoped he was getting time and a half. He said, ‘That’s the least of my worries. I’m pretty much retired and this gets me out of the house. I’ve only got so much I can talk to my wife about.’ (Pause.) ‘And vice versa.’

Running total is 215.

500 people: Week 26-28

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

Lockdown continues. I’ve restrained myself a number of times from yelling at chin-mask wearers, and I’ve been sharply reminded to put my own mask on twice. None of these count as warm communication with strangers. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world.

1. Saturday 21 August. There’s a circular patch of grass in the grounds of our complex of 43 units. Nothing much else can grow there because there’s just a shallow layer of soil on top of the cement roof of the garage. As I went out for my state-sanctioned daily walk to the shops, I passed two young women reclining on the grass, playing cards and chatting. Seizing the moment, but keeping my mask on, I stopped and said how good it was to see the space being used. ‘Yes,’ one of them said. ‘It seemed a pity not to take advantage of it.’ It would have felt rude to prolong the conversation, but this was warm and neighbourly.

2. Monday in Callan Park, which is just inside our 5 k radius, we passed two young men doing extraordinary feats on a low overhanging rock, probably what’s called bouldering. While one of them clung to the underside of the rock and found handholds and footholds to pull himself along, gecko-like, the other moved a couple of thick mats to catch hm if he fell. Then they swapped roles. The Emerging Artist and granddaughter weren’t diverted from their mission to find the little beach, but I was transfixed. In a break in the action I expressed my awe. One of the young men invited me to have a go. He may not have been joking, but there was no way. I again expressed my awe, and one of them said, ‘There are a lot who are better than us.’

3. Tuesday afternoon – I don’t know if I should count this – I had my first session with a cardiologist. (Nothing to be alarmed about, as far as I know.) We managed some non-transactional chat, partly because that’s clearly her approach as a medical specialist, but also because I was open to it. She commented on my bright striped socks. I said I mostly wore them to please my granddaughter. She, on the other hand, changes into woolly socks as soon as she gets home from work, partly because they’re comfortable and partly because they were a gift from one of her teenage children and she wants (needs?) to show her appreciation.

4. Thursday morning, as the Emerging Artist and I were walking in Newtown, we were hailed by a man emerging from a house across the narrow street. Because of mask-related hearing impairment, I wasn’t sure what he said, and thought perhaps he’d mistaken us for someone he knew. As I moved towards him questioningly, he said, ‘I said buon giorno, good morning,’ and was hunting around with German-sounding words when I said ‘Buon giorno’ back to him. Then I said, ‘Buona giornata,’ and he gestured to indicate that he was pleased I understood enough Italian to muster a reply.

Running total is 209.

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.

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.

500 people: Week Twenty

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

As predicted, opportunities for chats with new people this week have been few, if you don’t count knowing glances shared between people wearing masks in the street even though they’re only mandated indoors. To make matters worse, grandfatherly duty was cancelled because Ruby had been contact-traced and was in isolation. But there have been some chats.

  1. Sunday 27 June: we have new neighbours in one of the two other flats that opens onto our small landing. They’ve been here a week or so, but today for the first tine we both emerged onto the landing at the same time. We swapped names; I made a point of asking the name of the little boy who was enjoying the challenge of the stairs. They’ve only been in Australia for a couple of weeks. I expressed mild surprise that they had been allowed into the country but not, I hope, in a way that suggested disapproval. I said ‘Welcome’ more times than was cool, and practised a little Portuguese (‘Bom dia‘ to be precise).
  2. Monday, I had a bone density test at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The wonderful nurse who did the test said that as it didn’t count as essential my appointment would have been cancelled, but the latest lockdown announcement was made on the weekend, and I was first cab off the rank on Monday morning so turned up before they could tell me not to come. When she introduced herself it was by a first name that differed from the one on her name tag: the tag name indicated complex non-Anglo heritage; the other, as she explained, was given to her in Year 5 at school and she embraced it as straight-up Aussie. She told me bits of her family story, and generally filled the clinical visit with human interaction.
  3. Tuesday afternoon, visiting the new Harry Hartog bookshop in Marrickville Metro, I asked the shop assistant about her name tag, which gave her pronouns (yes, this is the 2020s), her unofficial pastime (I won’t tell you the actual pastime, but let’s say it could have been ‘House sharer’), and the kinds of books she’s interested in. This led to a wide ranging conversation about the bookshop, the amount of attention lavished on decor (it shows, and it works), the special islands of imported remainders. After quite a while, in which the Emerging Artist and I bought a number of books, I realised that I’d read and remembered everything from her name tag except her actual name. We swapped names before the EA and I went on our way.
  4. Tuesday, a couple of seconds later, I had a brief but similarly amiable conversation with the other shop assistant who, in spite of having a beautifully embroidered moustache on her mask, also nominated her pronouns as ‘she/her’. The EA says these young women probably saw me as a needy and garrulous old white man. I choose to believe otherwise.
  5. Wednesday evening, I was putting our recycling into the communal bins to the accompaniment of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens chatting on about laughter. As I was moving huge chunks of styrofoam from a recycling bin to a landfill bin, another inhabitant of our complex came into the room. I turned the podcast off, we introduced ourselves and had the kind of awkward yet almost-intimate conversation you can only have when both people have their hands full of garbage.
  6. Thursday, for at least the hundredth time, I walked past a black plastic fishpond in one of the tiny front yards on a busy street near my place. I often take a moment to enjoy the big healthy golden fish, who provide a splash of colour and elegance in the otherwise fairly dreary street. This day, a man was sitting in the afternoon sun and reading in a cane chair on the front veranda. I stopped to say g’day and say how much pleasure his fish gave me. I mentioned that we have a smaller pond on our balcony, with much smaller fish. ‘They’ll grow,’ he said.
  7. Saturday, on an exercise break in the alarmingly busy Sydney Park, where many people were masked and most were kind of keeping their distance, we passed a family group who were collectively training a puppy. ‘Sit … sit … sit,’ the woman said as she and the rest of the group moved away from the anxious but stationary puppy. I made an admiring exclamation as I passed, and the spell was broken: the puppy bolted to its human. Much merriment all round.

Running total is 191.

500 people: Week Nineteen

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

As I mentioned last week, I hadn’t been paying attention, so this week starts with an encounter that rightfully belongs in last Saturday’s post. It also includes a slantwise account of an event that could have been the subject of its own blog post.

  1. Wednesday 16 June, near the new section of Marrickville Metro shopping centre, we passed a young man standing on a windy corner holding up a sign advertising a major supermarket chain. As we waited for the light to change, I said hello, and then asked how long he was standing there. Emboldened by his readiness to answer that question, I asked how much he was paid. He told me an hourly rate that removed any remaining misgiving I have about what I charge for proofreading.
  2. Sunday 20 June, walking in Sydney Park in the morning, I was amused by the behaviour of a young dog, I asked one of its human companions what breed it was, venturing my guess that it was a border collie–blue cattle dog cross. She was an Australian shepherd and its owners were unashamedly besotted with her.
  3. Sunday afternoon, I attended a small gathering and walk to honour Martin Johnston, an Australian poet who died at this time of year 31 years ago (photos of the event below). The event was organised by Nadia Wheatley, Martin’s literary executor, and Vivienne Lathem, his step-daughter and copyright holder, at the Garden Lounge Creative Space in Newtown. It was a lovely occasion and I hope it becomes an annual tradition. Unusually for a poetry reading, I had warm encounters with a number of people who are new to me. First, the long term partner of an old friend: he is a retired English and History teacher, and we bonded over the joys of travel in retirement, among other things.
  4. Sunday, our host at the Creative Lounge provided hot drinks. A woman who arrived in company of a friend of mine said something about having a hot chocolate, and announced more or less to everyone that she had discovered the joys of chocolate with added chilli. My ears pricked up. We were introduced a little later, but our brief exchange about the joys of chilli and chocolate is what has stayed with me.
  5. Sunday, at the same event, I had the honour of reading one of Martin’s poems (‘Drinking Sappho Brand Ouzo’, the twelfth poem at this link). I asked a Greek-speaking audience member for help with the pronunciation of a Greek word. I did this because, though I did need the help, it made room for him to volunteer that the word – rododaktulos, evidently brododactulos in Lesbos – was from Homer, thereby saving me from providing that possibly redundant information to the audience. Later, I apologised for exploiting his presence in that way, but he didn’t seem to feel it was exploitative.
  6. Sunday, a little later, as we strolled through locations from Martin’s novel, Cicada Gambit, I chatted to a man in a baseball cap who had been staying quietly in the background. He knew Martin after I did, and I asked if perhaps he knew him at SBS, where he worked for many years. No, he said, Martin had ‘succeeded [him] in the affections of X—’. He had a number of colourful anecdotes, and we grieved lightly over Martin’s early death and the role alcohol played in it.
  7. Sunday, as most of the other people were settling down to snacks and drinks in the Bank Hotel and I was taking my leave, among the people I said hello-goodbye to was Julian Neylan, the Joycean enthusiast behind Bloomsday Sydney. He had read beautifully from Martin’s novel. We had a pleasant chat.
  8. Monday morning early I went to the local shop to buy milk for breakfast, and forgot to take a mask – they were made mandatory indoors in our local government area on Sunday evening. I apologised at the check-out. The young woman there said, ‘I don’t like masks anyway.’ I did my bit for the common good, saying, ‘Me neither, but we need to do it.’
  9. Tuesday, back to my regular sauna after a couple of weeks’ absence, and sure enough there were some sweet encounters. Well, two. A young man – I’d guess in his late 20s – came in and commented that reading a book was a good thing to do in the sauna. I said some people thought differently (see previous post, paragraph 2). Then…
  10. (Tuesday) … his friend joined us moaning performatively. It turned out he had a terrible hangover. I tuned out for the conversation about drinking and its aftermath that followed, but a little later they were talking about money. One of them said he was being paid $9.50 an hour. The other said, ‘How can they do that?’ I re-entered the conversation: ‘Because they can.’ Then I trotted out a boomer reminiscence: ‘My first full time job I was paid $60 a week. Then I joined a union and was paid an award wage of $120.’ (To be honest I don’t know if that second figure is accurate, but I do remember feeling guilty about taking the increased amount from my small-business employer.) ‘I spent that much on beer last night.’ ‘Yes, but I remember at that time being shocked when I was charged a dollar for a beer in a flash club, and’ – this is the one that really got their attention – ‘I could buy a packet of cigarettes for 42 cents.’
  11. Wednesday, walking back from buying bread in Marrickville, I met a man who was rubbing his back against a street sign. As anyone would, I smiled as I passed. He explained that his back was itching terribly after a session in the gym. I told him he reminded me of cows from my childhood, rubbing their backs on low branches.
  12. Friday in the sauna, or rather in the dressing room after my sauna, to avoid having my wet bathers drip allover the floor and bench while I was changing, I left them on a hook near the shower. Once back in street clothes, I was about to go get them when a chap emerged from the shower area and told me I’d left them there. I have no idea how he knew they were mine … I guess we all do a lot more observing of each other than we make obvious.
  13. Saturday morning, after a substantial shopping trip to the local behemoth supermarket, I went back for a quic visit to the ATM, and forgot my mask. This time, there was a young woman on the door blocking access to the maskless. I pleaded that I was going about 10 metres into the centre for less than two minutes. She relented and let me through, but warned me that the centre was full of police cracking down on the mask-noncompliant. I waved to her cheerily two minutes later as I left.
  14. Saturday at about 3.30, I went back to buy wine for the Emerging Artist. (I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m the fetch-and-carry person.) Our suburb was about to join the rest of greater Sydney in lockdown in a couple of hours, and not only were shelves of toilet paper bare, but the red wine shelves were looking pretty sparse, though there were plenty of bottles of the $4 merlot. On my way out with bottles of stuff I suspected the EA would turn her nose up at – not the aforementioned $4 merlot – I spent a little moment chatting to the masked woman who rang up my purchase. The alcohol shop, she said, had been very busy all day.

Running total is now 184. Now that we’re in lockdown, I expect there will be slim pickings next week.

500 people: Week Eighteen

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

Slim pickings this week. It’s not so much that I haven’t had casual contact with strangers as that I’ve been preoccupied with other things and not made mental notes. Here’s what I’ve got.

  1. Sunday 14 June, driving back to Sydney from Brisbane, we stopped at a motel in Port Macquarie. It turned out that when I’d made the booking online I’d left out the final digit of my phone number. Our host made a point of telling us this, because usually she sends a confirming text. She was clearly relieved that together we’d managed to get us booked into the last remaining room with no drama. So were we.
  2. Monday afternoon, having had a sore throat that was getting progressively worse, I drove to our local COVID–19 testing site, where, unusually, I had to wait – there were two cars ahead of me. A man in PPE came to my window, introduced himself as Doctor ––, and gave me a form and a pen. My impression was he came out just for the human contact.
  3. Monday, a little later, a woman in mask and PPE came and took the completed form from me. We made polite smalltalk and then she swabbed my inside cheek and my preferred nostril. [The text message advising me of the negative result arrived at half past 6 next morning, and my throat and other symptoms cleared up by the end of Wednesday.]
  4. Wednesday evening, in the flash new extension of the Marrickville Metro, I went looking in vain for our preferred brand of green curry paste. At the checkout of the Asian supermarket, I asked the woman on checkout how she liked the new shop. Unlike an old pal at checkout elsewhere in the new Behemoth, she didn’t moan about the changed conditions, but said simply, ‘It’s a lot bigger.’
  5. Thursday midday, the Emerging Artist, granddaughter and I visited Kelly Wallwerk, an artist-friend of the EA who is painting a mural on a water tank beside the oval in Petersham Park. The mural will show a woman in whites bowling, and we had a long chat about the process of creating it. (Photo in the slide show below.)
  6. Friday, filling prescriptions at the chemist’s, I couldn’t help but notice that the woman behind the counter looked weary. I ventured a comment: ‘You look tired.’ She didn’t hear and asked me to repeat it. When I did, instead of a smiling denial or similarly smiling agreement, she just looked even more weary, and said, ‘Yes.’ When the woman on the second cash register said she’d stay there for a while, my woman said, partly to me, ‘Thank God.’ I didn’t get the impression she was complaining. She was just bone-tired.
  7. Friday late afternoon, walking beside the water in Blackwattle Bay, we noticed some odd behaviour in a flock of seagulls near retaining wall. The birds would hover just above the water, perhaps even letting their feet go under, then dip their beaks just beneath the surface, all the time flapping vigorously so as not to move forward. Each bird would then fly away in a tight circle and repeat the process. A man was sitting on a bench nearby with a camera on his lap, looking off into the distance. I asked him, ‘Have you seen what the seagulls are doing?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. That’s why I stopped here. We then speculated together about what they might be up to. He thought they were feasting on a school of whitebait, and I couldn’t think of a better explanation.
  8. Saturday, at breakfast, in Leura where we went for the day, we asked for pepper for our eggs. The waiter brought us the grinder and left it on the table rather than doing the grinding herself and taking it away, which left me in a state of moderate to high alert in case the pepper was needed elsewhere. Sure enough, soon after omelette and poached eggs were delivered to the table nearest to us (a safe 1.5 metres away), the man on that table was trying to catch the waiter’s eye. I held up ‘our’ pepper and asked if it was what he wanted. It was. He was effusively grateful.
  9. Saturday afternoon, we’d been told there was to be music at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. We logged in at the Carrington’s courtyard. where there was a great mass of men, women and children in yellow, many of them sporting elaborate yellow floral headgear and other ornaments, many looking as if they meant business with drums, and all seeming remarkably cheerful in the face of the bitter wind that swept through the space. I stopped a young man, who had a delicate yellow chain attached to an earring, and asked him what was going on. He was only too happy to explain that Katoomba’s celebration of the solstice, which usually takes over the whole town for the weekend closest to the actual date, had been Covid-cancelled, but some community groups had decided to put on a show anyhow, and the Carrington had made the space available. What we were seeing was the group Hands Heart Feet, who were second on the program. [Not strictly part of this narrative, but they were fabulous, as were the belly dancers who opened the show.]

Running total is now 170.

500 people: Week Seventeen

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

I’ve been travelling this week, visiting family in Brisbane. Surprisingly, I’ve had fewer opportunities for new connections while away from home – so much time spent in the travel bubble with the EA, working out timetables and routes. Conversations with AirBnB hosts, though invariably pleasant, don’t count. But the following hit-and-run encounters do.

  1. Monday 7 June, having arrived in Brisbane, and found what we thought was a safe parking spot (it wasn’t, we copped a $100 fine) we passed Red Hill Cinemas, a building that was once a skating rink, on our way back to our flat, and decided to go to a movie. We asked the young man who sold us our tickets if there was somewhere we could eat. He directed us to the Colle Rosso (get it?) pizza place, but it and another that we found through Apple Maps were both closed. We went back to the cinema and asked the front-of-house man if we could get a refund on our tickets as we needed to eat and wouldn’t make it back in time. He went and asked his manager then, having failed to get through, told us that the cinema provided food. Gratefully we ordered toasties, and twenty minutes later, just as the movie was about to start, he brought our meals to Row F.
  2. Monday, on our search for Colle Rosso, we asked for directions at a bottle shop, which was the only sign of mercantile life nearby. The chap there was kind, pointed us in the right direction, and said he’d be surprised if it was open on a Monday night. Mildly distressed at the prospect of us going hungry, he said, ‘I’d make you a pizza myself, but I haven’t got an oven here.’
  3. Tuesday, at the Queensland Art Gallery’s wonderful William Yang retrospective, Seeing and Being Seen, there’s a series of photographs related to a North Queensland murder case in the early 1920s. The Emerging Artist asked if the magistrate who made an egregious verdict in that case was my grandfather. I had a close look at the photos and text, and said to a woman who happened to be looking at the same work, ‘That magistrate was my grandfather!’ She was suitably impressed, or perhaps horrified. (For the record, I was wrong – the case was heard four years before my grandfather got the job.)
  4. Wednesday, I was visiting an old friend who is living in a kind of home for aged Marist Brothers. He introduced me to a number of men in their 80s and in various states of frailty and apparent aphasia. The one I want to single out here was someone I had known reasonably well 55 years ago. He is the man who introduced me to the writing of John Henry Newman, Raissa Maritain and, you won’t be expecting this name, William Burroughs Jnr. When I introduced myself and offered some memory prompts, the only response I got was a blank watery gaze, and a limp handshake.
  5. Thursday morning, in the QUT campus at Gardens Point we were looking for the swimming pool. We approached a young man in a tracksuit that seemed to be made from African material with bold geometric design in dazzling orange and green. He knew where the pool was, and he was heading that way. A few seconds later he pointed to the pool, but said he had no idea how to get to it. The EA complimented him on his gorgeous outfit at the same moment as I, going for something less obvious, was saying how I liked his lavender hair. ‘Thank you,’ he said to both of us, in a tone that could have meant, ‘Why are these old people commenting on my appearance?’ (I don’t usually mention race in these encounters, but it’s significant that this man is white.)
  6. Friday morning, we called on the William Robinson Museum near the pool. The woman on security told us we could visit a website that gave a guided tour of the exhibition, relating it to Nick Earls’s book William Robinson: A New Perspective. ‘But it takes a lot longer if you do that,’ she said. I said we needed to be quick because we’d just been for a pre-breakfast swim and were hungry. ‘You went for a swim in this weather?’ she asked in Queenslandish horror (we’re having a bit of an Antarctic moment). We reassured her that we’d been to the heated pool. When we left 20 minutes later, she wished us a good breakfast.
  7. Friday, a knock on the door turned out not to be the Emerging Artist returning from the laundromat, but a woman who introduced herself nervously as working with our AirBnB hosts. ‘I’m wondering,’ she began, ‘if you’ve seen—’ I interrupted her and to say that yes, I had seen the bunch of access cards she was looking for. I apologised for not having been in touch as soon as I saw them, as I knew they weren’t meant to be there. Her relief was so enormous, it clearly didn’t occur to her to blame me.
  8. Saturday morning, as we headed out for breakfast and the European Masterpieces from the MET exhibition at QAGOMA, we shared the lift with two brightly clad young people. They barely acknowledged us when they entered the lift, not rudeness so much as mutual absorption. When the woman said something about coffee, I said something about the importance of the first coffee of the day. (I don’t actually drink the stuff, but I’ve learned that it’s richly symbolic of the good life for some people.) That broke the ice, and for the rest of our descent we chatted about the terrible noise from construction work in Roma Street that had kept up all night.
  9. Saturday afternoon, we were barefoot in bathers on our way to the sauna in our hotel/AirB’n’B. Outside the lift on our floor, an elderly gentleman said hello (elderly, but probably younger than me!). I said something about us making ourselves at home and he ignored me completely. A little later, he asked if our TV worked. I said it had last night. He again didn’t respond. At that moment the lift arrived and two much younger people came out. ‘Ah, there you are,’ he said. ‘I need your help. My television doesn’t work.’ I realised later that he must have been very deaf, and had been looking away when I spoke.
  10. Saturday evening, when we’d finished dinner, a group of young people arrived at the door we were coming out of. The woman who seemed to be their leader said they were in the wrong place and should turn around. Knowing that the eatery has three entrances, I said its name and asked if that’s what they were looking for. She said No and set off. The last of the group, a man with a blond beard and a northern European accent, said, ‘We are just confused.’ I said, ‘And I was just helping to increase the confusion.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, smiling. ‘Thank you.’

Running total is now 161.