Category Archives: Diary

500 people: It’s a wrap

Early last year I announced that, partly as a counter to Covid/lockdown isolation, I was taking on a challenge to engage warmly with 500 strangers in the year (blog post here). I started out with a very low bar: an exchange of smiles could count. So I was confident that I’d easily make the goal. Alas, it turns out I’m much more stranger-shy than I thought, and I managed only 270 encounters (blog post for week 44 here). I could plead that, especially towards the end of the year, I didn’t keep track of every encounter, but I have to face the fact that I didn’t get anywhere near 500. I could, of course, grant myself an extension, but I’m declaring that time’s up, and I’m acknowledging failure.

Though, it’s not really a failure, of course. I’ve had hundreds of interesting encounters, paid attention to moments that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, made a handful of new connections, learned about my neighbourhood, and understood a little better the negative social impact of smart phones. I’ve remembered encounters with strangers in my youth: conversations on trains and long-distance buses, with hitchhikers I’ve picked up and drivers who have picked me up when hitching, with chatty older people in parks and in the street (a man once buttonholed me to tell a version of the history of Sydney’s settlement; a woman explained to 14-year-old me the miracle of chiropractics), with people at parties and seminars and workshops. I’ve realised with a bit of a shock that with age I’ve become less open to encounters of that sort – more wary, more judgemental, less sure of my welcome, maybe just less interested. A couple of years ago, someone in my local park said to me, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who reads a book while he walks his dog and doesn’t talk to anyone.’ The many occasions in the last 11 months when I’ve made a clear decision to connect have demonstrated – to me at least – that this decline is reversible.

Thanks to Jim Kable’s recommendation, I have read Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers (my blog post here), which makes me realise that this challenge could just be the start of something much bigger and more challenging. I probably won’t blog about it, but I expect, and intend, that something has shifted permanently in my attitude, and probably behaviour, towards strangers

500 people: Week 44

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge, and also my post on Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers for an ex-post-facto rationale.

1. Saturday 11 December. I’m not sure if this counts as a warm encounter. I was waiting on the platform at Town Hall Station when I saw a young man in the train about to leave the station throw a piece of rubbish on the floor of his carriage. I somehow caught his eye and gestured my dismay. Beneath my mask, I muttered, ‘Pick it up, you little [expletive],’ but he couldn’t hear or even read my lips. He gave me the finger, removed his mask, took a puff on his vape and blew it in my general direction. I made a number of gestures in his direction that could have meant anything. I got out my phone and took a photo, threatening (inaudibly) to post it on TikTok. He cocked his fingers like a pistol and shot me a few times. Then the train left. I choose to believe all this was in fun, that we were each entertaining himself with these little performances.

2. Sunday. I was in my favourite bookshop, Gleebooks, buying gifts for, it turned out, eight greatnieces/nephews. A silver-haired woman commented as she passed me, ‘You’re doing well!’ A niece had given her a list of books her children might like, but without authors’ names or other helpful details. We had a pleasant little chat as we attempted to sort out whether it was great-great-nieces we were buying for, or just one great, and swapped book anecdotes. (She got help from a staff member and was delighted to find what she was looking for. I did well too.)

3. Monday morning at the swimming pool, we were greeted at reception by a woman who I’ve seen around but never in that role. As I was leaving I decided to have an actual conversation with her: ‘I’ve seen you around,’ I said, ‘but not here. Have you been working here long?’ She has worked at the pool for a long time, she said, but in the office (vague upward gesture). Covid lockdown meant that everyone had to take a turn at reception. So of course I asked after the three sisters who worked there for years before Covid, and got some of the story of how they got trapped in Queensland.

4. Tuesday. The other person in the sauna was a young woman. I made a small opening gambit – something about the wall clock having stopped – and we chatted for close to half an hour, the kind of chat that Joe Keohane says increases the wellbeing of participants. She’s a musician. I asked if I should have heard of her. ‘Not yet,’ she said modestly. But she told me her professional name and I visited her website later. When she’s famous I’ll be able to say I knew her when.

5–7. Saturday, middle of the day. An in-person birthday party for a four-year-old. I didn’t keep track of how many new people I engaged with, but I estimate at least three. Most memorably were two young parents who left Australia a bit over three years ago for one of them to work in Dublin. They got caught there by Covid–19, and returned just a couple of weeks ago, now with two young Irish-born children. I initiated the contact by advocating for their three-year-old daughter who was too shy to assert herself in the rush for a slice of the teddy-bear cake (a splendid creation of the Emerging Artist).

8. Later on Saturday. I was in the local bottle-shop’s coolroom looking for my preferred non-alcoholic drink. Two young men sauntered in, one of them lifted two cartons from the top of a pile of beer cartons, and the other picked up the two cartons below them , and they both walked out, all done smoothly and wordlessly as if they shared a brain. As I left the coolroom after them, one said to me, ‘Pretty smooth, eh?’ I said, ‘You must have done it once or twice before.’ I added, ‘I have one criticism, though. You should have taken the [brand name of top two cartons redacted].’ He was momentarily shocked. The cartons they took were also [redacted], but a different colour logo: ‘It’s a good drop, eh?’ ‘I don’t drink,’ I said, ‘but my old next-door neighbour is the brewer.’ ‘You don’t drink! You’re in the wrong place then.’ I laughed and said, ‘I can still look, can’t I?’

Running total is now 270.

500 people: Weeks 41 to 43

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

I had a terrific conversation in the sauna this week ranging over the relative merits of cows and goats, Buddhism and Christianity, the gym we were in and the one at Annette Kellerman, and other matters. When I was about to head for the showers I told the other chap my name, and he said, ‘I know, we’ve met before.’ So I couldn’t include the conversation as part of the Challenge – though it does confirm that at least some of these encounters have follow-ups. He may have been Number 7 in Week 14.

1. Sunday 21 November. Usually when I visit an art gallery I wouldn’t dream of initiating a conversation with an artist. Today in Articulate, a small gallery on Parramatta Road, with my 500 People challenge in mind, I did just that. The artist seemed delighted to engage. The works on exhibition were collaborative drawings, and her description of the collaborative process was fascinating. At one stage, saying, ‘I can do this because I’m the artist,’ she lifted a corner of a large hanging to show me and my two companions who had joined us the reverse side of the richly textured paper.

2. Monday, I went out early to buy some celery. At the checkout, a young woman asked from behind her mask, ‘Do you make celery juice?’ When I said I did, she told me about her own celery-and-lemon-juice routine, and how it had improved her health and ‘even’ her skin (her skin looked fine to me). I said I had mine mixed with carrot, beetroot, apple and ginger juice. And we were away – luckily there was no one else in the queue. Her most memorable line was, ‘I used to have mine with carrot juice but I stopped because it was like soup.’

3. Tuesday. There’s a Matisse exhibition on at the Art Gallery of NSW. I had a free ticket thanks to a son’s excellent gift of Gallery membership. I was intrigued by the 1944 painting Still life with magnolia, displayed alongside six preparatory sketches. I turned to a woman who was also looking at it and remarked how interesting it was to see the painting along with the sketches. Luckily she was no more of a connoisseur than I am, and pretty much finished my sentence for me. We chatted a little and then went our separate ways.

4. Sunday 28 November. I called to make an appointment to see a podiatrist (don’t ask!). Miraculously an appointment was possible the next day. As the receptionist was taking down my details, she asked how to spell my name. I told her, and thanked her for asking. She said she knew what it was like as her name is Isabel. I told her that both my mother and my quasi mother-in-law had that as a second name, spelled Isabel and Isobel respectively. (I discovered the next day when I asked after her that she goes by Izzy.)

5. Monday. At the podiatrist’s, I decided to have an actual conversation while she was attending to my feet. It wasn’t hard as she seems to have worked out that life goes better if you connect with people. In response to my asking how she got into podiatry, she told a sweet story. We talked about other things as well … Then, as I was going down the stairs, I heard her greet the next client: ‘I always look forward to your visits.’ ‘Me too,’ he answered.

6. Monday. I had a brief interaction with that man (‘the next client’) before going to the stairs. I saw that he was intensely focused on the Target Word in the Sydney Morning Herald. I contemplated telling him the day’s nine-letter word, but realised that would have been purely mischievous. I did, however, say truthfully, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen someone else doing that.’ He laughed, and told me he usually does the Quick Crossword, but he’d finished it and had time to fill.

7. Wednesday 8 December. I include this as representative of maybe a score of tiny, courteous-to-warm interactions that I haven’t noted. This morning in the pool, the slow lane was uncomfortably crowded. At one stage, I paused at the end of a lap to make way for the woman a couple of body-lengths behind me, who was swimming faster than me and would have had to pass me if I’d kept going. She took a moment to acknowledge the courtesy with a nod and a smile and a ‘Thanks’, and I reciprocated.

8. Thursday afternoon, driving down Addison Road in Marrickville, we passed an ambulance and police car dealing with someone who looked as if they’d been hit crossing the street. The traffic going in the opposite direction to us was banked up for blocks. When we came to our next set of lights, I gestured to the driver of the car closest to me and when she wound down her window I told her what the hold-up was. She thanked me. I know this is almost nothing as far as human contact goes, but the next time we stopped, I made the same gesture to a driver who was about the same distance from me. I could tell that this one saw me, but they (I genuinely don’t remember their gender) studiously refused the overture.

9 & 10. Saturday 11 December. We went on a long walk – from Cowan Station to Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin. We passed very few people, but had a pleasant chat at one encounter. We had been walking up a stretch that was classified as hard, and feeling it, when we met a family – a woman, a man and a teenaged girl – coming down. We exchanged politenesses. Then, inspired by Joe Keohane’s book The Power of Strangers (blog post to come soon), I admired their walking sticks, and asked if they were Nordic style. They weren’t, but both parents were happy to talk about the sticks, which led to an exchange of stories about walking various parts of the Camino/Caminho/Camiño di Compostella, past and possibly future.

Running total is now 262, but bloody Joe Keohane (see above) has ade me realise that I’ve set my bar pretty low in this challenge – most if not all the encounters I have listed are opportunistic, in the sense that these are people I meet anyhow, and many of them aren’t much more than hit-and-runs. I’ll (try to) do better.

500 people: Week 40

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

This has been the second week of the Sydney Film Festival, at one session of which I found myself seated next to the chap from encounter Nº 14 in my last post in this series (link here). We took up our conversation where we’d left off. But there were more new encounters, most of them fleeting.

1. Saturday night 13 November, in a rare nighttime outing, we had another pleasant conversation with another Sydney Film Festival-goer. She and her partner had choctops, the first time in many months she said, and regretted it instantly. We had one film in common – Quo Vadis, Aida?, which we all loved – but in general they had been a lot less lucky than we had in their choice of movies.

2–4. Thursday, I was in our local pool with Ruby. A swimming class was in full swing in the other half of the small pool. A little girl came from the class to play in our area with a woman who was clearly her grandmother. There were only four of us in this part of the pool. I said, by way of an invitation to chat, ‘It’s hard work, but we seem to be managing.’ She accepted the invitation with something equally inane. But the little girl seized the opportunity: she told me her name (A–), her age (four and a half), her pets’ names, where her mother was (at home), and quite a lot more. Her best line was, “I’ve just been in the swimming class, and now I can swim.’ Her grandmother, sensing that Ruby was feeling sidelined, eventually broke into the conversation. We agreed that A– liked to chat, and that it was a good thing there were no skeletons in the family closet. A little later the Emerging Artist joined us, and our two groups reconnected when the other grandmother called the EA by name: they knew each other from a long way back, and it’s true you can’t take the EA anywhere without somebody knowing her (I’m thinking of museums in Manhattan and Istanbul, for example). Anyhow, the third encounter in this batch was with A–’s grandfather, who had been walking around the perimeter of the pool. When I got out, he was supervising A– in the shallow pool. I tried the same opening that had worked so well with his wife, ‘Hard work but we seem to be managing.’ He looked at me as if I was slightly daft and slightly annoying – but I’m including him anyhow.

5. During the same swim on Thursday, when the swimming class was over, a lane of the small pool was roped off and a woman who used a wheel chair was helped into that lane by two other women. With great difficulty, they helped her walk the length of the pool, and then to float and kick. They spoke in what I took to be Vietnamese, and the woman who was being helped – perhaps she’d had a stroke – made quite a lot of nonverbal noise, as well as speaking very softly to her companions. Ruby was fascinated. I was reminded of Andy Jackson’s poem ‘The Change Room’ as I tried to answer her questions. The best I could manage was to make eye contact with the woman: she gave me and Ruby the V sign, and managed a smile.

Running total is 252. I’ve passed the halfway mark.

500 people: Week 39

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

This has been the second week of the Sydney Film Festival, at one session of which I found myself seated next to the chap from encounter Nº 14 in my last post in this series (link here). We took up our conversation where we’d left off. But there were more new encounters, most of them fleeting.

1. Sunday morning 7 November, we came across a ‘cupboard house’ in the park near our place. Someone has created this prototype shelter for a homeless person from a discarded cupboard, put it up in our park and asked for feedback on Insta at old.butstillgood. We were admiring it when another person arrived, ready for a chat. Once we’d negotiated the awkward ideological difference – he said, ‘There aren’t any homeless really,’ a comment which we ignored – we admired the handiwork, opened the cupboard door together, and commented on basic bedding inside. We swapped news about the shameful amount of old furniture going to waste, and also about what each of us had noticed about homeless people who live in the park and their complex relationships to authority.

Photo by Penny Ryan

2. Tuesday. During the Sydney Film Festival, the Emerging Artist and I are making sure we get some exercise by walking to most of our films – abut a 90 minute walk when the movie is on in the city. On this morning, a little before 9 am, we met a woman carrying a small child – school age, but no older than seven – pietà-like, except that the child was struggling and the woman was doing her best to run. As she approached us she was saying to the child, ‘If you knock me over we’ll be late.’ She then noticed us, and we must have both looked we’ve-been-there friendly. She rolled her eyes in mock despair, or maybe real but good-natured despair, and hurried on her way.

3. Friday morning, I met the young man who had constructed the cupboard house we saw on Monday. He was taking it apart in the yard of a block of flats near the park. It turned out that the Council had emailed instructing him to remove it, he had wheeled it to this small concrete yard, where it had attracted the indignant attention of the landlord who demanded its immediate removal. As it happened, someone was sleeping in it at the time and rain was pouring down, so he – the creator – insisted on waiting until this morning to remove it. He said that someone had slept in it every night it was in the park, and that a small group of uni students had used it as a drinking and smoking room, burning a hole in the tarp while the homeless man was outside. I made generally sympathetic noises: he has no illusions that his little project is a solution to homelessness, but it has provided shelter to one man for several nights, and may have some kind of future.

4. Again on Friday morning, back in the sauna, where before the last lockdown there was a limit of three people at a time, now the limit is two. When I arrived there was one other man there. I said, ‘You have to be lucky with your timing these days.’ Neither of us was keen for a proper conversation, but we agreed that it was odd that the limit had been decreased, speculated on the reasons and agreed that the regulation was likely to be ignored anyhow. A little later, a third man joined us. All three of us sat in total silence for about 90 seconds, and hen the left. ‘Typical,’ my new friend said. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘no stamina.’ ‘And no regard for the rules,’ he said. And we went back into our separate sweatinesses.

5. Saturday, again on our way to the Film Festival, we stopped for breakfast at Zenius, a little cafe in Chippendale. It’s a rare treat for us to have breakfast out, especially in Covid times, and we both breakfasts were excellent – an avo and mash and a granola with fruit pieces.Our host/waiter was a bit taken aback by the enthusiastic praise we heaped on him and his cook. He asked if we lived nearby, and we responded that sadly no, we were just passing through, walking to town from Marrickville.

Running total is 247.

500 people: Weeks 35 to 38

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

In the four weeks after lockdown eased, I didn’t manage to be any more gregarious with new people.

1 & 2. Wednesday 13 October. Masked and flashing my vaccination certificate, I stepped into a non-essential retail shop for the first time in many weeks. My mission was to buy new shoes to replace my much loved, double patched and disintegrating old pair. I’d tried to buy a pair online, but had to return them because they just didn’t work. The two people working in the shop were fabulous: they were helpful and informative, and we also got to chat about the state of things. They don’t expect retail in the city to be back to the old normal any time this year; they too have suffered from the lack of barbers/hairdressers – the man removed his mask briefly to reveal a splendid beard which is due for the chop and which, he said, he has to shampoo daily so as not to make his mask smell vile.

3. Monday 18 October. In another post-lockdown first, I went to a movie in an actual cinema. Just a few days after I’d told someone I wasn’t interested in Marvel movies, I went to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which actually doesn’t look like a Marvel movie, at least for the first two thirds. It was wonderful to be in a temporary community watching a film for the first time in months. There was a silent moment of mutual recognition when no one moved at the start of the credits – a sign that we all knew what to expect from a Marvel movie. Maybe a quarter of the audience left after a brief postscript that came on a couple of minutes into the credits, but most of us stayed to the bitter end. As the final logos rolled up the screen, I said to the woman nearest me (a Covid-safe distance away and masked), ‘They sure make you wait!’ Just as the final scene was firing up, she said, ‘Every time!’

4. Sunday 24 October. On our morning walk by the Cooks river, we passed a young man, possibly Aboriginal, fishing with a rod and line. I seized the moment: ‘Had any luck?’ Yes, he had caught five flathead, and two had got away. I asked if he ate them. ‘No,’ he said, ‘not from here. I just do catch-and-release, strictly for fun.’ I expressed a hope that the river would be clean enough one day for fish to be edible again. He agreed, but said that would mean the river would be fished out, like a couple of less polluted places nearby.

5. Saturday night, the Emerging Artist and I broke out, walked to town, had our first meal out in a very long time, and went to the theatre. Not only the theatre, but a musical in a big theatre – Come From Away at the Capitol in Sydney’s Haymarket, where I hadn’t been since I saw Hair there in the 1970s. It was wonderful to be with a big crowd, feeling things together. I attempted to start a conversation with the man I was sitting next to, and although he wasn’t having any of it, I’m counting this failed attempt as one of my 500 conversations.

6. Sunday 31 October. In another reopening adventure, I was drawn to a display of hats at the Addison Road markets. The object on my head was unpleasantly sweat-stained, ragged-rimmed and badly misshapen. As I entered the booth, the merchant said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t offer trade-ins.’ This got us off to a good start, and we had a pleasant chat about hats, specifically the kind I like to wear. I left with a new one.

7. Near our flat a little later on Sunday, we passed a man with a little boy, possibly 18 months old. The man was barefoot, so probably lives nearby. From a reasonable distance, we saw the man, almost certainly the boy’s father, rub his hand affectionately over the boy’s head as he spoke to him from his great height. As we got close, we realised that the little boy was tearful. The man picked him up, carried him pietà-style for a little, then put him back down on his feet. By this time we were within talking distance. I said something, or maybe I just smiled, and the man responded, ‘He’s unhappy today. Something is going on.’ There was a tiny bit more to the conversation, but I was struck once again by the changes that have happened in parenting in the last hallf century: that man spoke to a neighbour-stranger like an engaged parent as if fatherly engagement was completely normal. When I was a father of infants, I was asked more than once if I was babysitting – unthinkable that the father would be simply being a parent.

8 & 9. I wouldn’t include these encounters, but since there were two of them I’m telling you about them. Within days of each other, a passing man has commented on my T-shirt. The first time was on our usual walk at the Cooks river, and I was wearing a T-shirt with semi-abstract images of bright birds. The second time, I had just walked past a couple of Council vehicles. A man in yellow jacket came up behind me from one of them and as he passed, said, ‘I like your T-shirt.’ To save me the trouble of looking down, he added, ‘The periodic table.’ And so it was.

10. On Wednesday morning 3 November, a little after 9 o’clock, we passed a young man sitting under a tree near Enmore TAFE with a baby standing in his lap, gripping his fingers and pulling themselves upright. We made smiling contact with the man and locked eyes briefly with the baby. ‘Nearly standing up,’ I said inanely. ‘Getting dangerous,’ the man said.

11. Thursday morning, we passed a woman who was grooming her dog. By grooming, I mean she was rubbing her hand over the dog’s back and releasing astonishing cascades of fur. I stopped to comment, admiringly, that she was removing so much fur with her bare hand. She said he produced huge amounts. He was a cross beagle and cattle dog, with the double coat (I didn’t understand that term but didn’t pursue it). I chatted a little about cattle dogs from my childhood that were outside dogs, then we all commiserated about how much work these shedding creatures make. Luckily, our interlocutor’s floors are all polished wood.

12. Thursday, on the same walk, we passed a group of old men teeing off at the point where the riverside walk climbs to the teeing ground. One of them said to a man who was about to swing, ‘Patience is a virtue. Wait for these good people to pass.’ We thanked them, and once we were safely behind them, I said, ‘My mother used to say, “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, found seldom in a woman and never in a man.”‘ Surprisingly, the little verse wasn’t familiar to any of the men, nor to the Emerging Artist. Maybe those old men weren’t as old as me.

13. The Sydney Film Festival is on! On Thursday evening, I chatted in a celebratory kind of way with the woman sitting a Covid-safe two seats from me.

14. Saturday morning, before Quo Vadis, Aida, I struck up a conversation with man seated right next to me. We exchanged news and views abut the movies each of us had seen – there were no overlaps. It turns out that we lived a couple of blocks apart a couple of decades ago. he now lives near Wollongong and makes a pilgrimage with his wife each year for the Festival. In the movie, there’s a horrific moment when people are ordered to leave a place of refuge quietly, five at a time, and we’r pretty sure they’re going to their death. As the credits rolled we were asked to bear Covid restrictions in mind and to leave in a =n orderly manner. My new acquaintance and I said, in unison, ‘Five at a time.’

Running total is 242.

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.