Category Archives: Around Marrickville

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.

500 people: Week Sixteen

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

  1. Sunday 30 May, at a one-year-old’s birthday party, I met a number of new people, but really only had one conversation with someone who was new to me – the baby’s father’s stepmother. (We didn’t discuss what relation that makes her to the baby: I’d just go with grandmother.) She’s been travelling to Europe for work three times a year until last year, and was happy to regale me with tales of her travels, including a particularly lovely three days working at her computer on a train from Chicago to San Francisco – three very productive days with fabulous scenery rolling by outside her window. I asked the potentially annoying question: Did she know a friend of mine, from the same country of origin as her parents? After some memory trawling and adjusting of my pronunciation, she realised that she did know my friend, whom neither of us has seen or some years.
  2. Tuesday afternoon, I was having a hot drink with a couple of relatives from out of town at the Art Gallery of NSW. As I carried two large slices of layered honey cake to our table, the woman at the next table looked up from her abstemious salad and said something envious. ‘They’re not for me,’ I said, sharing her envy.
  3. Wednesday, in my second 20-minute session in the sauna, I somehow managed four conversations with new people. When I returned from my between-sessions cold shower, the two men I had left in sombre silence were chatting. The subject was tattoos. When one of them said, ‘I actually regret about half of mine,’ I seized the chance and asked him which ones. He backed off from his original statement ], but gave us both a tour of his calves and lower thighs, where he sported the images of a number of computer games – Pacman, Mario Bros, etc – and (the reason he’d backed off) the names of his three children. He saved the upper part of his body, he said, for more spiritual images. Something from The Everlasting Story scraped into that category.
  4. Wednesday, a woman joined us, and took control of the situation, swapping names and information about how long we had all been coming. I mentioned that my partner had stopped coming because the sauna was a bit male dominated, and people didn’t observe the Covid three-person limit. As it happened she had come in and made it four, but we didn’t make an issue of it. When another man (more about him soon) poured water on the rocks, she said something like, ‘It doesn’t matter to me, but there’s a sign asking us not to do that.’ A little later when the same man took a swig of water, she said, ‘It makes no difference to me, but I’ve read that if you drink while you’re in the sauna it takes away from the health benefits.’ She didn’t seem to mind that she got grunts in return and when, after a decent pause, the man took another swig, she exchanged a rueful smile with him.
  5. Wednesday, somehow the conversation turned to health and the water-swigging, stone wetting, grunting man, who had long blond hair and had a godlike surfy beauty about him – someone I was prepared to dislike on sight – volunteered that he’d recently had a brain tumour removed. While the woman, who had facilitated the conversation so elegantly, expressed sympathy, I went for vulgar curiosity: ‘Did you have a general anaesthetic, or did you have to be awake for the surgery.’ He’d had the anaesthetic, but knew it wasn’t always so. In that brief exchange my whole understanding of what was happening with the grunts etc was transformed. Later, I saw him with his clothes on, and something in his demeanour made it clear that he was dealing with the after-effects of the surgery.
  6. Wednesday, then I was alone with the other man who had been part of the tattoo conversation. He said he wouldn’t be game to bring a book into the sauna. And we had an interesting chat about the problem of too-many-books. He’d recently sold some art books for about a fifth of their worth, because it was easier to just accept the first offer from a bookshop. In the earlier conversation, before we got to tattoos, we had been taking about flexibility, specifically the possibility of putting one’s palms flat on the lower bench while sitting on the upper one. He had said to tattooed man that he could help him get there. I’d chimed in – and maybe it was my entry onto the conversation: ‘You’d never get me that flexible.’ He took it as a challenge: ‘Maybe not. But I could get you closer to it.’
  7. Saturday in the Inner West (Dulwich Hill, Earlwood, Marrickville, Enmore) I kept noticing other drivers being courteous and generous, often with a friendly smile, which was pretty good given how heavy the traffic was. I’m not counting them, but we had a similarly courteous encounter while walking on the Earlwood side of the Cooks River. As we approached a little sandstone-block chicane (see photo) designed to make the path unpleasant for bike-riders, a 60-something man with earbuds approached from the other direction, jogging at an impressive pace. We stopped to let him through, but he also stopped, and waited until I gave an explicit ‘After you’, then ran between the stones and past me with a friendly smile.

Running total is now 151.

500 people: Week Fifteen

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge. I’m realising that the point of taking note of these mainly probably ephemeral encounters is to pay attention to moments of making connection. Since starting these weekly reports, I’ve remembered my first encounters with people who have been important in my life – which is another story, but not unrelated.

  1. Sunday 23 May, we made an unplanned visit to the Corner Gallery in Stanmore, where there is an exhibition centred around beautiful photographs of Central Australian sites by Philip Bell. The artist was present, and we had an interesting chat about the work: he took the photos some time ago, and has reconsidered them in the light of Mark McKenna’s book Return to Uluru and the story of Bertha Strehlow.
  2. Tuesday morning, as I was heading out to the street when a tiny white dog with a pink collar yapped a furious challenge. I bent down and offered her the back of my hand, which was enough to change her challenge to a warm, bouncy greeting. So of course I got to talk to the human who, it turned out, has just taken on looking after the puppy two days a week. She, the human, lives in a part of our complex that means she rarely has reason to come to the lovingly tended flower gardens, and she was enjoying noticing them. We chatted about dogs and working from home, and then …
  3. Tuesday, immediately after that encounter, I was hailed by a recent acquaintance (Number 4 of Week 14), who introduced me to her partner, who was cleaning the brick wall outside their back door with a high-pressure hose. He apologised for the noise and, as expected, I said it was no bother. Truth be told, I’d barely noticed it.
  4. Tuesday, later in the day, I was in the sauna with an old acquaintance (Number 9 of Week 13) when a third person came in and pretty much ignored my greeting. After we’d been sitting in silence for a while, my old acquaintance started doing stretch exercises, and the newcomer asked, ‘Do you have flat feet too?’ We three then had a wide-ranging conversation, starting with flat feet and achilles tendons, taking in the Indian army’s policy of rejecting applicants with flat feet or no space between their thighs, to the difficulty of making friends in a new city and the possible role that ethnicity (polite word for racism) might play in that. Both my companions were the sons of servicemen. The newcomer had to ask us to repeat some things, so I realised that his initial lack of response may have been because I had mumbled incomprehensibly to a non-native English speaker. Possibly the mumble’s friendly tone helped him to take his later initiative.
  5. Thursday, as usual, was grandfathering day, and being in the company of a three-year-old person makes encounters happen. This Thursday, we had hot drinks at a cafe near the Newtown police station, a table away from a couple of men in suits who were discussing the prices of different sized USB sticks. when one of them went inside the cafe, someone at my table burped loudly. The USB man couldn’t resist. ‘Was that the young lady who did that?’ he asked. The young lady in question hung her head in pure shyness. I said, ‘No, she wouldn’t do a thing like that.’ He said, ‘Not yet.’ Given that everyone involved knew that I was the burper, this was a complex exchange, mostly benign exchange.
  6. Thursday, a little later, we were on a train. A young family – man, woman, baby nearing 12 months – sat opposite us. Out of the blue, the woman produced a shiny white camera and having asked permission took a photo of us. She then handed us the undeveloped polaroid snap, and all six of us watched the image emerge. It turned out they were o their way to the airport, going home to Melbourne. The Emerging Artist and I expressed our sympathy – they were heading back to a week’s lockdown, and there we all were, chatting maskless on public transport.
  7. Thursday, on the train on the way home, a woman sitting opposite us started chatting to Ruby. She responded with bowed-head shyness. The Emerging Artist asked if the woman and her companion were on their way home from work, and that led to a substantial conversation about their decades of employment for the same company, their prospects for retirement, and eventually the woman who had started it said she was sixty-five years old. The EA expressed surprise. Though I had also thought she was in her mid 40s, I thought this was a bit of an ageist gaffe, so I pointed at the EA and said, ‘She’s 35.’ (The EA is brilliant at making connections with new people – she does it by asking a lot of questions. I guess my most comfortable way is to make a joke.)
  8. Saturday morning, we’re spending part of the weekend with friends at Patonga, secluded beach town north of Sydney. On an early walk, the EA and I were behind a family where each adult in turn had something to say about how the teenage girl should dress for the unexpected cold weather. One of the women noticed us drawing even with them and said, ‘Sorry,’ in that Australian way of acknowledging proximity. I said, ‘Nah,’ or something equally articulate, then pointed to the EA and said to the teenager, ‘She’s been trying to figure out what I should be wearing too.’
  9. Saturday, later in the morning, we went to buy hot drinks at Cafe du Blueza – a marquee pitched in its owner’s front yard that serves snacks and drinks. I noticed some Girrakool Blues Fest merchandise and asked about his connection with it. It turns out he was the director of the Festival, but had to make a Covid pivot when it was cancelled – and is now doing quite well as a weekend front-yard barista.

Running total is now 144.

500 people: Week Fourteen

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

Here’s another week’s worth of apparently almost meaningless encounters. I say apparently because I can feel my general attitude changing when I’m out in public. Where I used to be content inside my bubble, either alone or with my companions, perhaps enjoying people-watching, I’m now tending to notice possibilities for connection – and notice how generally people welcome a friendly word out of the blue. It may not be the beginning of 500 beautiful friendships, but it changes the feel of public places.

Click on the image to see its source
  1. Sunday 16 May, early afternoon, walking with the Emerging Artist in Sydney Park on another beautiful late autumn day, I passed a man and a woman who, like us, were in their couple bubble. The man’s T-shirt caught my copy-editor’s eye. In a beautiful cursive, it read, Theiyr’re. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, and by their startled reaction I may have said it in a tone of great urgency, ‘where did you get that fabulous T-shirt?’ They both laughed, and he said, ‘Google it.’ It turns out, of course, that the joke is everywhere, but none of the T-shirts I found on line did it as beautifully as that one. The pic above came closest.
  2. Sunday, on the same walk, near the skate park, I was similarly awe-stricken by a birthday cake sitting on a low wall. It was shaped as a blue skateboard, with wheels made of chocolate-topped cupcakes and candles shaped as the numeral 10. Such art cried out for an appreciative audience. After a moment of polite, silent appreciation, I caught someone’s attention and asked, ‘Who did that?’ ‘The mother,’ someone said, and the mother came back from a short distance away. ‘That’s fantastic,’ I gushed – sincerely. ‘It was a rush job,’ she said, in the classic ploy to avoid the evil eye. And she laughed.
  3. Monday morning, I bought a soy and linseed sourdough loaf at our local artisanal bakery. The masked man behind the counter, whom I hadn’t met before, said, ‘There must be a Spanish joke in that.’ Replying to my raised eyebrow, he went on, ‘Soy is I am, so Soy latte means I am milk.’ Being a smarty-pants, I said, ‘It would have to be Soy leche.’ Then as I was leaving, I said, ‘It needs work but you may have the makings of something there.’ (Arguably this exchange doesn’t qualify for inclusion here, because I did nothing to provoke it, but on the other hand I’ve had nice casual friendships with other people in that bakery, and who knows about this one?)
  4. Tuesday morning, setting out to visit the physiotherapist, I passed a woman wiping down the wrought iron fencing in front of part of our complex. I stopped to chat, we told each other which units we lived in – hers, obviously, was the one whose fence she was cleaning (‘Spring cleaning,’ she said, even though it’s late autumn). She asked if I was an owner or a renter, and when I said, ‘Owner’, she told me her name. I reciprocated.
  5. Tuesday, on the way home, in the back streets of Newtown, near the back of Camdenville Public School, a woman called to me from her car. ‘Can you tell me the way to Newtown Public School?’ Embarrassingly, I couldn’t. ‘I can tell you where Newtown High School is,’ I said, and offered to look up the primary school on my phone. ‘It’s OK,’ she said, indicating her own phone, and drove off. I’m still not sure where Newtown Public School is, but about five minutes later I passed her on foot in King Street looking as if she’d found what she was looking for. I don’t think she recognised me.
  6. Tuesday, at the vegie shop later in the afternoon, the woman ahead of me at the cashier was leaving with a wide open zip on the bag slung over her shoulder. I called out to warn her. She said, ‘Yes, I usually leave it open because I’m always in and out of it.’ When I’d finished checking out, she was still outside the shop with her two or three young companions (sons?). I kind of apologised. She said she usually has the bag at the front. I confessed that I’m regularly told that my backpack zip is wide open, and I was just passing on the favour. (Actually I have a new backpack whose zip isn’t broken, so those encounters are generally in the past.)
  7. Wednesday afternoon in the sauna, clearly a good place for talking to people, I had an actual conversation when there were just two of us there. I can’t remember how it started, but I know it was my doing. I learned a lot about how saunas are done in Finland: in particular I now have a mental image of my sauna companion gasping for breath in the ice-cold pond he plunged into after his first Finnish sauna, barely able to gasp out the word English so the nice man who was trying to help him could switch from Finnish to impeccable English to advise him to slow his breathing right down. We talked about life as a paramedic; I recommended Benjamin Gilmour’s movie Paramedico, though sadly couldn’t remember Benjamin’s name; my companion had read the book of the movie; he had suggestions for where there might be a sauna better suited to the Emerging Artist’s needs and preferences.
  8. Friday early afternoon at the School Strike for Climate, I was impressed by the row of policemen who marched beside the demonstration about two metres apart, keeping us to our side of the street (alas, not shown in the photo below). Remembering a moment fifty years ago at my first demonstration – a moratorium march against the war in Vietnam – when I said something to a policeman and received a punch in the head, I decided to see what happened this time. I don’t remember what I said in 1970, but in 2021 I said, ‘Thanks for doing this.’ The young policeman smiled and said, ‘You’re welcome.’ Emboldened, I said, ‘This must be a change of pace for you guys.’ ‘No,’ he said, we do this most Fridays and Saturdays. There’s usually a demonstration about something, not always climate change.’ I went back to chanting, ‘Stand up, fight back!’
  9. to 11. Friday, a little later, we were about to be organised to spell out a message – ‘Invest in the future, not gas’ – for a drone shot and a commercial TV helicopter. A woman standing next to me asked nobody in particular what letter we were standing next to. I was able to tell her that we were standing on the edge of the E. Someone joined the conversation and said we were at the end of the future, and a small group of three or four people bonded over the dark joke.
    12. Friday about 5 o’clock, in the thick of King Street, a young man with a scruffy beard (not an unusual sight in Newtown) was shucking a big and evidently heavy backpack. A long white arm stretched from the top of the backpack. Instead of just noting this as a colourful detail of the street, I stopped and asked him about it. ‘It’s my travelling companion,’ he said, with what may have been a British accent. ‘When I’m asking for a lift, I hold it out.’
    13. Saturday lunchtime, we were in a small Lebanese cafe where the owner said the kafta burgers were made using her mother’s recipe. I asked if she’d seen the recent episode of The Drum on ABC TV where they talked about vegetarianism. ‘I never get to watch TV,’ she said in the familiar sorrowful tone of the small cafe owner. I told her: ‘They were saying that a lot of men won’t give up meat because it would somehow affect their masculinity, and a man on the panel said, “I’m Lebanese, and if I stopped eating meat my mother would kill me.”‘ Our host laughed and told a story of what happened in her family when she tried to go vegetarian temporarily. ‘Oh yes,’ her father said, ‘have some of this delicious lamb.’

Running total is now 135. There are 32 weeks to go and I’m 365 short of the 500 goal. So about 12 encounters a week should get me to the goal. I reserve the right to shift the goalposts

500 people: Week Thirteen

Almost all the encounters I’m recording in this series are pretty much hit-and-run. That doesn’t mean they’re insignificant, of course – some of them are the first salvoes in what might go on to become something substantial. But who can tell? See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

  1. Sunday 9 May, as we came home from somewhere, a young man with a lot of tattoos and a part-shave haircut was opening the door of our small block of flats. We introduced ourselves, and he volunteered that he’s moving in with a downstairs neighbour, or perhaps just visiting.
  2. Wednesday evening, we had our annual fire services inspection. This meant a man with a ladder came into our flat and set off the smoke alarms. After the minimal transactional exchanges, I said, ‘It must be hard on your ears doing that a hundred times a day.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I think I’m deaf.’
  3. Thursday at GymKidz, in order to deal with a bit of social awkwardness among the young gymnasts, I asked a man for his daughter’s name. He wasn’t her usual escort, and she had been having a great time showing off her balancing skills to him. He had tried a couple of times to encourage her to pay attention to the instructor, but given up with cheerful resignation. We swapped the names of our young charges, but not our own names. It was his birthday, and he said that spending it at the gym was a lot better than being at work.
  4. Thursday lunchtime at Sydney Park slippery-dips, a young woman in a hijab was playing on the slides with her two young children while a man I took to be her husband sat under a tree and filmed some of their activities. As we were moving away, I said to him, ‘You’ve got the easy job.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I try not to fall asleep.’ (I should say there was no hint from anyone that he wasn’t just as active as she on other occasions.)
  5. Thursday a couple of minutes later, I spoke to the woman in the hijab who was then watching her daughter walk across a rickety bridge. When I admired the little girl’s fearlessness, the mother smiled broadly and amplified my comment. We chatted a little about our young people’s relative ages and sizes.
  6. Thursday, still in Sydney Park, Ruby and I were riding our scooters around one of the ponds when a big dog came bounding over to us. He was friendly enough, but given that he was more than twice Ruby’s size it’s not surprising she backed off in alarm. In the nick of time, the dog turned his attention to a middle-aged man in lycra who came jogging by at a pace. The man saved himself from falling, and turned indignantly to a woman sitting on a bench nearby nursing a dog lead: ‘You have to put him on the lead, that’s the second time he’s nearly tripped me up.’ She made a compliant gesture with the lead and he jogged off. A couple of seconds later the dog, still not on the lead, got underfoot with another jogger, who went on his way discombobulated but without saying anything. At that point I said, in what I hoped was a friendly tone, ‘You really should put him on the lead.’ ‘It’s an off-leash area,’ she said. ‘That’s why we come here.’ And she and the dog, still off-leash, went off, leaving me and Ruby to our negotiations with our scooters. We passed the cranky man a little later, but by then the offending dog and its owner had left his circuit.
  7. Thursday about a quarter of an hour later again, we were playing in a sandpit near a small boy and his mother. (Only the young ones were actually in the sandpit.) The mother spoke to her son in some English but mostly in another language. I broke the ice by asking what language she was speaking – Polish. Every time Ruby or our friend’s little boy went near the little Polish boy, he would clutch his big yellow tractor and say, ‘Mine!’ His mother was embarrassed, and said he had only become possessive like that since gong to childcare. We chatted about the possibility that he would keep both languages into adulthood. As we left, I refrained from saying Dasvidaniya in case a) it was Russian, and b) it meant something other than goodbye. It turns out it does mean goodbye but it is Russian. The Polish, I now know, is Do widzenia.
  8. Thursday evening, when I took our recycling out, there was a new man going through the bins for cans and bottles. We chatted briefly. I rescued my single Heaps Normal can from our small bin and handed it to him.
  9. Friday afternoon, I had the sauna mostly to myself. When a young man wearing a small cross on a gold chain came in I asked, conventionally, ‘How are you?’ and it turned into a conversation: he was having ‘a bit of a wild time’. We chatted for a bit about his not-very-wild dilemma (choosing between almost identical job offers) before he turned on his ear buds and I went back to my book. I couldn’t swear that this was the first conversation he and I have had. Certainly it felt as if some groundwork had been done on previous occasions. But I’m counting it as part of the challenge anyway.

Running total is now 123.

500 people: Week Twelve

I started the week at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which you’d think would be a great place for talking to new people. But, though I caught up with a number of people I hadn’t seen for a long while, and was pretty awkward with a couple of writers whom I admire, even love, I didn’t do a lot of talking to strangers as such. See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

  1. Sunday 2 May, at an afternoon session, I fell into conversation with the woman sitting beside me. (I’m not counting the man in a wheelchair a couple of seats further away who unleashed on the subject of accessibility.) We’d seen Mehreen Faruqi in different sessions, and it was fun sharing our slightly different perspectives on her.
  2. Monday early morning at the pharmacy check-out, I got into one of those slightly awkward dances about where the queue actually went. I said to the woman at the till, ‘In Spain, instead of having queues you just ask when you arrive, “Who’s last?”‘ She said, ‘Yes, it’s the same in Cuba. You arrive and say, “Qui es ultima?” Then everyone can sit, or move around , or chat with people who arrived much earlier.’ The man I’d had the little dance with chimed in: ‘That’s what we do in my barbershop around the corner. When a customer arrives, they ask, “Who’s last?”‘
  3. Monday evening at the Griffin Theatre for Dogged (which I recommend), I was sitting next to a woman who seemed to be alone. Ever original, I asked, ‘Do you come to this theatre regularly?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m from Albury.’ and we had a very pleasant chat, reminiscing about theatre (we both used to come to that one when it was the Nimrod), grandchildren (she has more than me, and she comes to Sydney to visit them as well as go to the theatre), etc. Despite being masked, we may well recognise each other on future nights at the Griffin.
  4. & 5. Tuesday in the checkout at the supermarket, a small child (about a year old) was calling, ‘Baby,’ to the world in general. I asked where the baby was, and he pointed to the stroller with the woman ahead of him. Then he said, ‘Dog,’ and pointed over my shoulder to where there was indeed a cardboard cutout dog. I observed that there was a cat next to it, and he said, ‘Cat.’ Other words were exchanged, and his father joined the conversation less monosyllabically.
    6 & 7. Thursday morning at GymKidz, little girl came up to me and wordlessly showed me a sticker on her hand. when I admired it she peeled it off and offered it to me. I graciously accepted it, and asked if she’d like me to stick it back on her hand. She held the hand out to me, and I stuck it back on. Then I realised her father was the burly bald man with a pirate beard a couple of seats away who was wrestling an older child into his socks and shoes. I said something about the juggling act he was performing. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you learn how to stay cool under pressure and be in two places at once.’
    8 & 9. Thursday evening at the launch of Radicals, I mostly chatted with people I know. One conversation was joined by a Famous Person who, if we’ve met previously, certainly doesn’t remember me. ‘Hi E–,’ I said. ‘Who are you?’ she replied, and soon I was being eased out of the conversation she had just joined. Not rudely, but definitely. Later I had a chat with a man I’d not met before. It was an evening for reminiscence and ancient gossip, and that’s what we did. The bit I remember is that Geoffrey Roberson had told him he was radicalised by realising that the copies of a Shakespeare play given out at his school had had the rude bits cut out. I told him my story about the pious Brother who taught me Macbeth dictating the rude bits so we could write them back into our bowdlerised books: ‘Showed like a rebel’s whore, that’s W-H-O-R-E.’
    10 & 11. Saturday, at the Dobell Drawing Prize exhibition at the National Art School, I was entranced by a video component of Maryanne Coutts’s Dress Code, when two women who seemed to know a bit about art started chatting about the work. ‘It’s got a bit of everything in it,’ one of them said. I boldly offered, “I love the video.’ We watched companionably for a while. The other one said, ‘I like that outfit.’ (The video shows the artist emerging from a closet, walking about with large, Frankensteinish movements, then crawling back into the closet, her outfit changing every second or so.)

Running total is now 114.