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.
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.
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?”‘
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.
& 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.)
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday this week, I heard my name called. It was a friend who said, ‘It’s no good talking to us, you already know us.’ Thus encouraged, here’s my next report on the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge.
Monday 26 April, in the sauna, when I came back from my shower, a chap was lying down on one of the benches, reading his phone. Though I said not to worry, I had plenty of room, he sat up at a notionally Covid-safe distance. I had my book in hand (Rabbit poetry journal, the Science issue). He said, ‘Time goes slowly in the sauna when you don’t read.’ I agreed. I didn’t bring a book last time I was here and spent the whole time willing the minute hand on the clock to speed up. ‘But is it safe for your phone?’ I asked. ‘Everyone says that, but I have to have something to read.’ We went back to our devices, then I realised that the glue in some books melts in the sauna heat, and showed him where a number of pages had come loose in my journal in only 10 minutes: ‘Phones might be OK, but not books.’
Wednesday, in the sauna again, reading Rabbit again (I’m going a lot because it does wonders for a stiff neck). A chap came in and before he sat down poured water from a plastic bottle onto the coals. If people ask, I never object to this barbarism, but as far as I’m concerned the sauna is for dry heat and there’s a steam room two metres away for anyone who wants steam. I didn’t say anything, but got up immediately and left. The third person in the sauna laughed: I must have made my displeasure crystal clear. As I showered in the dressing room, I regretted not saying something, preferably something civil, but as I was putting my shoes on the situation was redeemed. I tuned in on two men who were chatting loudly. ‘So rude,’ one of them said, ‘reading a magazine in the sauna. Some people have no respect.’ He was the man who laughed, taking to the man with the bottle. As he walked past on his way back into the sauna, I asked, ‘Are you having a go at me?’ ‘Was that you?’ he asked – people look different with clothes on. ‘Not having a go, but you shouldn’t read in the sauna. There are too many memories.’ At least I think that’s what he said. Maybe it was ‘too many members’. For some reason this little exchange had me smiling all the way home.
Wednesday evening, I had a call to say that a friend with Parkinson’s had had a fall and none of her friends who are on call could get to her place. A young man had helped her from the nature strip to her apartment and waited there until I arrived. He and I had a brief chat before he, his partner and their little white dog went on their way. Really, the chat was pretty transactional, but I’m including this encounter because it’s not right that acts of kindness to strangers should always go unrecorded. (My friend is fine, except for a badly scraped knee.)
Thursday midday, we went to Observatory Hill to have lunch with the Granddaughter, and visited the extraordinary Tree of Life exhibition at the S H Ervin gallery while we were at it. As I was leaving, the volunteer at the cash register asked if I’d enjoyed the exhibition. I said yes, very much. That doesn’t really count as a conversation though, more of flesh-and-blood evaluation survey. A woman leaning heavily on a walking stick spoke to me from the doorway: ‘It’s spiritual!’ Not a term I would have used but she was describing something real. We exchanged a few more words and then I was back to grandfathering.
Thursday, 5 to 1 at the Sydney Observatory – I know the time because we were waiting for the Time Ball to drop – another woman leaning on a walking stick, with whom we’d crossed paths in the museum, joined us. ‘That’s a powerful smell,’ she said. My sense of smell is feeble at best and I couldn’t smell a thing, but I said, ‘It could be the lavender.’
Friday early afternoon, picking up some new lights for our kitchen, I said to the man behind the counter, ‘Now we’ll be able to see.’ ‘Always a good thing,’ he said. So I told him the story I’d just heard from Lily Brett on ABC Conversations – she had cataract surgery and suddenly could se how filthy her apartment was.
Friday at our 4 o’clock session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I had a chat with a woman sitting beside me. My opening line was, ‘Do you know who we’re here to see?’ ‘No,’ she said, and we both laughed, then looked up our programs and remembered why we’d booked these tickets so long ago.
Friday an hour or so later, as we were leaving the Carriageworks, I spoke to a security man with an impressive waxed moustache. ‘This must be a cushy job,’ I said. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘It’s a writers’ festival. I don’t know what they’re paying me for.’ ‘Just wait,’ I said. ‘All these silver haired people will get rowdy when the sun goes down.’ At least I wish I’d said that.
Lateish Saturday morning as we were arriving at Carriageworks for our second session of the day, a small family group with English accents were walking just behind us – a man, a woman and a child in a stroller. They the woman was saying they had great seats in Row CC. Given that we had seats in Row BB, which I had assumed meant way up the back, I turned around and asked her if she knew for sure that BB meant up the front. ‘Definitely,’ she said. They went on ahead of us, him reminding her several times in few seconds to keep left on the footpath.
Saturday, just before 12.30, waiting in Row BB (second from the front – the Englishwoman was right) for the session to start, a man sitting in the front row a couple of metres from me turned around and we caught each other’s eye. we didn’t speak, but there was a definite friendly exchange. He did talk to the women sitting right behind him, and I fairly brazenly listened in. He was the partner of one of the speakers, down from the country, and pretty glad to be there. He and I exchanged friendly glances a couple of times during the conversation: I think he may have been glad to have at least that much contact with another man.
Saturday, after that session, in the Festival bookshop, I had picked up a copy of Nardi Simpson’s book, Song of the Crocodile. A woman said to me, ‘I’ve got a hundred pages to go in that.’ And we chatted for a while about the session we had both just attended. You hear a talk differently depending on whether you’ve read the book or not. Both our book groups have read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip.
Saturday, before the next session, I stepped out of the queue when it started moving because the Emerging Artist hadn’t come back from the toilet. The volunteer who was policing the queue asked if I had a problem. I explained, and all was good. Later, I asked her how long her shift was, and thanked her for volunteering and doing the work so cheerfully.
Running total is now 103. Posts on the Festival are coming soon.
Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. The encounters in these posts probably break down half-and-half into conversations that would have happened in the normal run of things but that I’m noticing in a slightly different way, and those that I initiate because of the challenge. You can probably tell the difference just by looking.
Sunday 18 April, walking down Alice Street in Newtown, we passed two Mediterranean-looking men staring into one of the tiny front yards. I didn’t hear what they were saying but I realised they were looking curiously at a couple of fruit trees. I stopped and said, ‘That’s a cumquat.’ ‘Ah,’ one of them answered, ‘yes, a cumquat. But what’s that other one?’ ‘It’s a guava.’ ‘Oh, guavas are delicious,’ he said, and I was flooded with fellow-feeling. The Emerging Artist, who was also there, hates the smell of guavas and refuses to taste them. ‘Do you think we could lean over and pick some?’ one of the men asked. ‘No, but they’re too green anyway.’ I told them where we’ll all be able to pick ripe guavas from trees growing in the street just a couple blocks away in the next couple of weeks. As I type this I’m salivating.
Monday afternoon, at the sauna, where the Covid-safe limit of three people is still in force, person number 3 came out of the door just as I arrived. Alas, a hefty chap rose up from a nearby bench. ‘You’ve been waiting?’ I asked. ‘Yep,’ he said, smiling with relief that he didn’t have to fight for his rights. I went instead into the steam room opposite, from where I saw another bulky chap arrive a few seconds later and go into the sauna unchallenged. Never mind, I had the warm glow of having done the right thing.
Tuesday evening, when the lights came up after the curtain calls at The Removalists at the New Theatre, I turned to talk to the person sitting directly behind me. This was mainly for the sake of this challenge, but also because I thought I might be about to clap eyes on someone who had giggled during a truly horrible moment in the play. It turned out it wasn’t the giggler, I could tell by his voice. I asked the young white man (knowing the answer) if the play was set for study at his school (‘Yes’) and if he’d read the script (‘Yes’). I said I liked the casting of someone who isn’t white as Kenny, the man who is beaten up by police. He agreed, and asked if I went to the theatre often. I laughed and said I’d been three times in the last four days. Suitably shocked, he asked if that was usual. I reassured him that I usually go every couple of months.
Thursday morning at GymKidz, I asked a woman with BLAH printed on her T-shirt in rainbow colours if this was her first session – it’s the start of a new term. ‘We’ve been coming for a year,’ she said. I expressed surprise, as her daughter seemed to be about two and a half. It turned out that they started coming when her daughter was just 18 months old, and played in the free play times. Then someone made them a gift of a term’s enrolment, her daughter loved it and they’ve been coming steadily ever since. This conversation happened in three parts, in the interstices of the gym session.
Thursday, a little later, as we were making our way back to our car, we fell in with another couple of mothers and children. I commented to one of the mothers that I liked her small son’s brightly coloured pants. Yes, she said, they came from Gorman’s, and she did her best to make sure he didn’t get caught in the standard dullness of boys’ clothes.
Thursday, early afternoon at Sydney Park, looking for a patch of grass where we could have lunch, we passed what at first glance looked like a fine china tea-set on a blanket. On a closer look, I realised the cups and teapot were plastic – it was a children’s play set. I said something to the woman standing guard over the set. It doesn’t really matter what I said because, though she smiled as if she thought what I’d said was mildly amusing, I now think she didn’t understand a word of it: when an older woman turned up a few seconds later with two small children, they spoke to each other in what may have been Latvian.
Friday evening. No words exchanged, but this was a sweet moment. Walking near the Marrickville Metro Shopping Centre, I heard loud music coming from a parked car, and saw a woman sitting behind the wheel dancing vigorously with a big grin on her face. As I came closer I saw that a young teenage girl was sitting in the front passenger seat, looking cheerfully mortified. I smiled broadly and muttered under my breath, ‘What an embarrassing mother!’ She couldn’t possibly have heard me, but the girl smiled back and waved her arms in shadowy imitation of her mother, who also grinned in my direction.
Saturday, on our morning circuit by the Cooks river, we passed a man with his toddler daughter who was insisting on walking back over a little wooden bridge to hear the sound it made as she walked on it, while the mother stood patiently with the stroller at the other end of the bridge. We stomped a little as we entered the bridge and earned a wide-eyed stare from the little one. As we passed the mother she said, ‘You can see why walks always take forever.’ ‘And it stays that way for years,’ I said.
Later on Saturday morning, coming out of the Metro shopping centre, I saw a man with two small boys. He had lifted one of them up and was speaking sternly, and intimidatingly. into the small one’s face: ‘You have to wait for me. You can’t go out there by yourself.’ Seconds later, the boys were happily leading him towards the little water feature. ‘You can only look,’ he said, still sternly clearly having given up on the intimidation tactic. ‘You can’t get wet.’ I laughed and said, ‘Good luck with that one.’ ‘It’s a never-ending battle,’ he said. [This interaction is no less evanescent than any of the others, but I like to think that a friendly, amused word from another adult can be a huge help when parent-child tensions are brewing.]
Saturday, a few seconds later, I stopped to draw Ruby’s attention to the toy monkey she had first noticed more than a year ago hanging from a high branch. [We were enjoying the rare treat of a weekend visit from Ruby and her father.] As we all strained to see the monkey, another family group coming the other way stopped to see what we were looking at. I explained, ‘We have to look at it every time we come past.’
Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. Eileen Chong tweeted about my post on this challenge last week – it was her book launch where two of my encounters happened. And one of my encounters did a blog post about the event – here. From now on, I’ll give a little detail if the encounter happens at a cultural event.
Sunday 11 April, the Emerging Artist and I went shopping for new kitchen lights. When I gave the very helpful saleswoman our address, she said, ‘Oh I’ve just moved to near there, in Dulwich Hill.’ The conversation progressed from the geography of Marrickville (we live at the other end of it from her), to the similar work fields of our sons, to her reasons for moving, her previous work and her feelings about her current employer (positive). Afterwards I wondered aloud how much of the conversation was a product of her training as a sales person – ‘Rule Nº 3b: Establish common ground with the customer’ – and I mentioned The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983), a book about air hostesses that I’ve never read but think about often. The EA dismissed my concerns and said that if we ran into that person in, say, Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill, we’d be pleased to see each other. Of course she’s right.
Monday afternoon in the sauna, there were a couple of encounters. The first was pretty insubstantial, but I need to keep my numbers up. When I came in for my second 20 minutes, a man was lying on the top seat along one wall. He immediately sat up as I entered. I said not to worry, it was fine by me for him to lie down, but with Asian politeness, he persisted in staying upright. We lapsed into companionable silence.
A few moments later, a young woman came in, only the third or fourth female I’ve seen in that sauna, including the EA. She was wearing a high-cut bikini, perfectly OK for the beach but arguably underdressed for the sauna. We all said hello and went back to ignoring each other. The other man left after a minute or so. I started to think about this challenge, and had pretty much decided that in that circumstance it didn’t make sense for me to start a conversation. Then I coughed, and I had to speak: ‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘I’ve got asthma. And I’ve been vaccinated.’ She laughed, and said something about how Covid–19 had made so many things feel fraught. We chatted a little and soon lapsed back into silence, me reading my book.
Thursday morning in Gleebooks in the previously mentioned Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill, Granddaughter and the EA were at loggerheads over a Bluey book that we already own but GD wanted to buy. As the emotional temperature began to sky rocket the EA reminded GD that we were in a bookshop and it would be a good idea to take a deep breath and say what she wanted calmly. By sheer good luck I saw a Bluey book on the shelf that we don’t have. ‘Ooh, look,’ I said with genuine delight, ‘there’s a Bingo book.’ Suddenly everyone was happy. The talk-to-a-stranger happened next. A woman, probably also a grandparent, caught my eye as she passed by and grinned a conspiratorial congratulations.
Thursday afternoon, two women were wandering around in our complex of units. I asked if they were considering moving in, and the older woman explained that she had lived here when she was a student and was showing it to her daughter. I was a little surprised at her nostalgic tone, given that our main building, a beautiful Italianate mansion, was a home for ‘girls who gave their affections unwisely’ run by the Salvation Army. But no, that wasn’t her, she said. In her time, 1995, it was a boarding house for women students. No men allowed in the rooms, and there was always a Salvation Army chaperone on duty in the parlour. When her mother told a neighbour in Bathurst that she was staying at this address, the neighbour burst into tears and said, ‘That’s where we got our adopted daughter!’ The section where I live was a parking lot in 1995. The daughter stayed silent throughout: ‘Why is my mother talking to this stranger?’
Thursday evening, I took our recycling out. A woman was going through the bins that had been put out for collection. I stood beside one and asked if she had already looked in it. She misunderstood and came over to check the contents of my two small bins. ‘No,’ she said, ‘only cans or beer bottles.’ As I emptied my bins, she went on: ‘So many cans today and I didn’t bring a trolley. Usually there are other people here but I’m the only one today.’
Saturday early afternoon, at the National at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a group of maybe 10 women were sitting quietly on straight-backed chairs around the edge of a circular rug. On the walls near them were a number of projects involving quilting and knitting. I asked one of them if they were somehow part of the artwork. She ignored me, but a gallery attendant explained that they were waiting to be joined by Kate Just, whose work Anonymous Was a Woman took up two of the walls: the idea is that women book in to sit and chat with Kate while she continues to knit panels for Anonymous, and the other women work on their own knitting projects. I asked another woman about her project, and she was happy to explain that she was holding a loom: ‘Not actually a loom, but that’s what it’s called. I.m making a beanie.’ She explained a little about the technicalities – like complex French knitting. We chatted a little until interrupted by the artist’s arrival.
Saturday mid afternoon, I chatted to a baby on the tram. The baby in question, close to a year old, was in his stroller facing away from his mother and older sister. When he dropped his bottle, his sister scrambled around on the floor and retrieved it, but quite rightly gave it to their mother. He was left unable to see them and without his bottle, and started to fret. I was standing right beside him, so I said, directly to him, ‘It’s all right. Your mummy’s got the bottle and she’ll give it back to you later.’ He calmed down, and looked interested, so I kept taking. ‘You’ve got something stuck in your hair.’ I picked a small piece of purple paper from his hair and put it on the rail of the stroller in front of him. Even more interesting. I said something to the mother, she smiled the wan smile of the exhausted.
Saturday evening, at a performance of Jonathan Biggins’s The Gospel According to Paul in Parramatta, with 10 minutes or so to spare before the show started, I asked the young man next to me if he was a Keating fan. It was a genuine question. He can’t have been more than 20 in an audience that was mostly at least 25 years older than him and was solo, so he must have had a particular treason to be there. Yes, he said, he was a Keating buff. When he asked, I said I wasn’t a buff, but an admirer. He’s studying politics, at Sydney Uni I think he said. He’d been intending to see the show the previous night with his parents but had to finish an assignment, so came tonight instead. We chatted until the lights went down: he was impresssed when I told him I’d been the editor of a magazine he’d enjoyed in primary school (though I realised I had already left the job by that time). At the end we agreed it was a terrific show and exchanged names.
Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. We were on the road this week, and though I must have talked to strangers I didn’t start keeping track until half way through the week. Still, here’s what I’ve got:
Thursday 5 April, late morning at the fabulous Gunyama Park Aquatic Centre, Ruby was holding back from the small water slide, not willing to challenge the cheerfully rough surges of older children. I protected one set of stairs for her a couple of times and she clearly loved the slide. In a lull, a small boy, hardly any bigger than her and not at all aggressive, came to the other set of stairs, and this was enough to make her back off. The little boy’s mother saw the problem and, after a little bit of explanation from me, asked Ruby’s name. We introduced the little ones to each other, and for a little while they did some parallel sliding – until the big ones came back.
Thursday afternoon, while sitting for 15 minutes after receiving my first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine, I noticed that the man in the nearest chair had taken out his phone to photograph his documentation. I broke the prevailing silence to say what a good idea that was. He more or less grunted. I said something else inane, and photographed my document.
Saturday morning, as we were walking by the Cook’s River, the Emerging Artist was expounding on the crucial importance of breath in competitive swimming as explained by her physiotherapist. My attention was grabbed by a woman and a roughly three-year-old little girl, who were doing something that involved a water bottle, sitting in the grass beside the path and some kind of cheerful negotiation. I said to the EA, ‘Sorry, I was distracted.’ The woman we were passing heard me, and asked, ‘By cuteness?’ That wasn’t a word that had been in my mind, but, well, she was right.
& 5. Saturday midday, in a small art gallery in Chippendale having given up on the White Rabbit because of a huge queue, we heard loud conversation and laughter coming from a small room off the main exhibition area. It didn’t look like a private area, so we went in. Two people were standing in front of a photograph of a woman in a red skirt and heels (if you like, you could click on this link before reading on). ‘But because the background is dark,’ said a youngish woman, cheerfully browbeating a bearded man, ‘it could be lower than she is. She’s definitely about to jump.’ A quick look at the photo, and I could see what she meant: the woman in red was standing on the edge of a rail platform. The bearded man expressed good natured but definite disagreement. The youngish woman looked over her shoulder to include us, and said, ‘He’s the artist,’ which explained why there had been so much laughter. On closer examination we could see that the woman in the photo was actually standing in front of a newsstand – what we’d taken for railway tracks made much more sense as indistinct magazine racks. The artist, clearly delighted with the conversation, told us he had given up ever telling people where his photos were taken when someone was bitterly disappointed to learn that one of his images was created in Coogee and not, as she had thought, in Venice. As she left the room, the youngish woman called back over her shoulder, ‘Definitely Anna Karenina.’ 6. Saturday evening, arriving at what was to be a joyous and convivial book launch, I asked a young woman in a hijab if the seat next to her was empty. She said yes, and we had a brief conversation after I sat down. Basically I said we had the best seats in the room and she agreed. I almost asked her if she was a friend of the poet but opted for amiable mutual ignoring. 7. Saturday evening a few moments later. A young white man (everyone under about 65 is young to me, apparently) asked if it was OK to sit in the chair on my other side. I was a lot less diffident with him. I asked him if he knew the work of the poet whose book was being launched. It turned out he had met her when she came to his school. She had become a mentor to him in his own poetry. We talked about the relationship between his poetry and his cherishing of his two young sons. I told him my anecdote about David Malouf saying that three-year-olds are the most interesting things in the world just now. And we chatted on pretty much until we were called to order. 8. Saturday evening, after the readings, the signing queue was too daunting and I decided to take my book home unsigned. But instead of slinking off into the darkness, I stopped to speak to the launching poet’s father. I congratulated him on his daughter’s success and he graciously accepted my handshake. I asked an awkward question about how he felt about featuring or not featuring in her work, then faffed around until I managed to make it somehow amusing. He looked vaguely relieved when I said goodnight.
Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. Two comments on last week’s post inspired me to aim for more sustained conversations. Or maybe it just happened that way, because I’m not sure I can take a lot of credit for some of this week’s encounters. On the other hand, while I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to people I see roughly once a year, there hasn’t been a lot of chance to meet actual strangers over Easter. There haS been plenty of ‘Good morning, good morning‘ while out and about, but I’m not counting them.
Saturday 27 March, in Murray Art Museum Albury. (Actually this happened before I posted about the challenge last week.) The upstairs gallery invigilator asked us as we entered if we knew about the exhibition. We politely declined the implied offer of an explanation. A couple of minutes later, in the rooms full of the photos of Olive Rose Odewahn (1928–1960), taken as snapshots and now digitally captured and enlarged to show them as she never saw them herself, the invigilator turned up and engaged us in conversation. I don’t know that she learned anything about us beyond that we came from Sydney, but we learned a lot about her biography: migration from England deceived by Australia House propaganda, back to England disappointed, then back again to this backward country, to marry (biggest mistake of her life), have children (not a mistake), have a multifaceted nursing career. She wasn’t white, and I wondered how much of her unhappiness about Australia when she first came here was because of racism – but didn’t get to ask.
Sunday afternoon, after we’d checked in at our Melbourne Air B’n’B on the dizzying 44th floor of a residential building, there were two thirty-somethings in our lift back to the ground. I asked them if they lived in the building. ‘Yes.’ ‘How is it?’ A twist of the lips from both of them. ‘How long have you been here?’ ‘Just about two months.’
Sunday, at dinner in Carlton with the Emerging Artist and a friend. Somehow the conversation turned to the unpleasantness of ageing. Striking a contrary note, our almost-70 friend stood up in that post-Covid crowded restaurant and touched her toes with straight knees. Not to be outdone, the EA, fully 70, stood and placed her palms on the floor. Our friendly young male waiter stopped by and demonstrated that he couldn’t do it. I stood and showed that I could manage even less than him. It was a joyous moment of connection, all about bodies young and old, male and female.
Later Monday afternoon in Swanston Street, a man in an Afghan-type turban went down on his knees as I walked past, then prostrated himself on the footpath. It looked deliberate, but I stopped to check that he was OK. An older, slightly dishevelled woman, seeing me stopped and looking, tapped me on the arm and said, ‘I’ve been following him all the way from Melbourne Central and this is the third time he’s done that. After a while he stands up and raises a fist and shouts. It’s a war cry, like those terrorists did just before the attack on the bridge in London.’ ‘I don’t think he’s a terrorist,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ she said. ‘The army or the police won’t listen to me. It’s happened to me before, you know.’ She had once seen men with machine guns on Melbourne rooftops, and when she told her doctor he made a note that she was prone to psychotic episodes, even though just as he was about to have her taken away by ‘the men in white coats’ they heard on the news that there had been a security drill in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, in which men with machine guns were all over rooftops on the Melbourne CBD. We were now walking back the way she had come (she had decided to change course to avoid any terrorist action). She told me she comes out to draw on the footpath, because it gets her out of the house, and showed me a phone photo of one of her beautiful drawings. We swapped names, and said goodbye when she stopped to talk to the man begging with his dog at a station entrance. ‘I hope we don’t see ourselves on the news,’ she called out in parting.
Wednesday morning, descending from the 44th floor with our bags, we shared the lift with a young woman. Again, I decided to break the Silence of the Lifts. ‘Do you live here?’ ‘Yes.’ The EA: ‘Have you thought about what you’d do if there was a fire?’ (This had been the subject of some discussion during our stay.) ‘No, I haven’t. And I won’t in future either.’ Pause. ‘Do you live here?’ ‘No, we’ve just been staying for a couple of days.’ ‘I was wondering when I saw your bags. Can you stay here like a hotel?’ ‘No, we’ve done it on Air B’n’B.’ ‘Ah!’ Somewhere in there she mentioned that she actually lives nn Geelong, and stays here a couple of days a week.
Sunday afternoon, at Airey’s Inlet, where huge waves are breaking on the beach and there’s a steady flow from the ocean over the sand barrier into the inlet, we meet a man in budgie smugglers with ‘DUBROVNIK‘ blazoned across his bum. ‘I was going in but it’s too rough,’ he said. ‘High too,’ I said. We communed, more or less wordlessly, in our sense of the sublime, and went our separate ways
Running total is now 64. I’m falling well behind my goal of roughly 10 a week.
Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge.
Sunday 21 March in Sydney the sustained heavy rain had strangers talking to each other, especially in the crowded supermarket. When the Emerging Artist said to me, ‘You stand in line while I get the rest of our stuff,’ a woman with a strong southern European accent burst out laughing. We had been unwittingly blocking her path to the end of a checkout line. I let her in front of me, and a conversation followed. Was there a new Covid panic that none of us (a couple of other people joined the conversation) knew about? A young woman in a mask and a stylish tattoo on the nape of her neck searched her phone for news. The conversation kept up, among strangers thrown together by the weather, until my load was rung up and paid for, and I headed off to the fish shop. A quarter of an hour later at the greengrocer’s, the masked young woman and I passed by each other like total strangers.
Tuesday morning at the pool, as I finished my eight laps in the slow lane, one of the attendants was fiddling with the lane-dividing ropes. I said something banal like, ‘Tightening the ropes?’ She said, ‘You’re all swimming too fast.’ I laughed: ‘It’s a long time since anyone said that to me.’ She only had one line: ‘You’re all swimming too fast,’ she said again, and gestured vaguely to the adjacent gentle exercise area. [Incidentally this is an example of a tiny exchange that laid the basis for subsequent ones – on Friday morning, she initiated a brief chat.]
Wednesday evening, unusually, I was in Marrickville Library at 7.15. When the lights were dimmed, I was engrossed with my computer and it took a while to realise it was a signal. Without thinking, I turned to the person next to me, who was also packing up her computer: ‘I could have kept going for another hour.’ She said, ‘Yes, you get into the zone, don’t you?’
Wednesday, a little later, when I stopped to buy a quick meal at a Portuguese place, I decided to go for something beyond strict transactionalism. I asked the young man serving me if he was Portuguese. ‘No,’ he said, ‘are you?’ When I said I was from north Queensland, he looked as if that was surprising, and told me where he was from. I had to ask him to repeat it, but was too embarrassed to ask when I still didn’t catch it.
Thursday morning at GymKidz with Ruby, I was sitting on the sidelines as usual while the Emerging Artist did the hard yards of encouraging and assisting. I turned to the woman sitting –suitably distanced – in the next chair and asked, ‘Are you a grandparent too?’ She smiled and gestured to indicate that she didn’t speak english. A little later her daughter joined her, and she and I laughed together admiringly at our respective young descendants’ skills.
Thursday, later, a beautiful day at the zoo, the three of us were standing at a glass wall staring into a deep, empty pool whose surface was a couple of metres above eye level. A small boy, maybe four years old, approached us and said, ‘My nan told me to tell you that there aren’t any seals in there.’ We thanked him, and acknowledged his nan as we left.
Friday morning at the chemists while waiting for some prescriptions, a little girl was crawling on the carpet. Her mother said something like, ‘Good dog,’ and her slightly older sister just looked mortified. I said softly to the mother, ‘What a beautiful puppy you’ve got.’ ‘Yes,’ she said, isn’t it.’ We chatted, and after a while the older girl picked the younger one up in a big hug.
Friday evening, we checked in at a motel in Albury (this is starting to feel like a personal contact tracing exercise). The tired-looking young man at reception was wearing a colourful T-shirt featuring Kramer from Seinfeld. I said I liked it. We discussed Kramer briefly. I asked if he had a printer so we could print off our permit to enter Victoria. He said having it on the phone was fine, and anyway no one was checking now – he’d travelled to Melbourne and back a couple of days ago and forgot to get a permit: ‘I felt naughty.’
Friday evening, a little later, a family group was walking on the opposite footpath to us. One of the boys – probably about 8 – called out a cheerful greeting to people in a passing car. As we got closer, I saw that he called out and waved to every passing car, and that there was then a discussion with the other, older boys about whether anyone had waved back. I asked if that’s what he was doing, and expressed my approval.
Saturday afternoon, at our accommodation in Carlton, I asked the young man at reception if there was any parking nearby. He said the basement parking was theoretically full but he’d work something for us. Bearing in mind this challenge, I remembered to ask him his name when I thanked him.
Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. As I think I’ve already said, this is partly making notes of the kind of casual encounters that happen almost unnoticed in the normal run of things, and partly recording moments when I step out of my habitual civic disregard (a sociological term I learned from a clever niece).
Saturday 13 March. In a shop in Gerrigong (a small coastal town south of Sydney), the young man behind the counter had already activated the eftpos device by the time I extracted a couple of notes from my wallet to pay in cash. I said something about being old-fashioned. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Since Covid arrived people have been using cash much more. We used to get a lot of complaints that we didn’t accept cards for less than $10. Now the same people insist on paying cash no matter how big the bill.’ His hypothesis is that because Covid meant that most holiday rental properties were idle, many owners took the opportunity to have work done, which meant that tradies in the area had a lot more cash than usual.
Monday. My computer was showing signs of imminent explosion, so the Emerging Artist and I went shopping. Covid is still around, so I was interviewed outside the shop before I could go in and do the actual buying. My interviewer was a charming 20-year-old from Western Sydney. While we were waiting for a necessary SMS, we had a great conversation: her career ambitions (the EA gave her career advice, which was cheerfully noted and probably filed under ‘To Be Ignored’), and some highlights of belonging to an immigrant community (I particularly loved the way she gestured to her face as a way of saying she encountered racism, and could be seen mentally sifting through possible terms before lighting on ‘person of colour’). We swapped fragments of life stories. All three of us laughed a lot.
Wednesday morning at the pool. I’m a slow swimmer, used to being overtaken, and I often wait at the end of a lap to give way to slightly faster swimmers. This usually happens with minimal or no verbal or facial communication. Today I was faster than the only other person in my lane. He waited for me to pass him at the end of a lap. I stopped to check that that’s what he was doing, said, ‘G’day,’ and we exchanged friendly smiles as between to ageing, slow males.
Also Wednesday morning, on the way home from the pool I passed a woman sitting on the grass flanked by two boxer-type dogs, with four slices of bread on a cloth in front of her. She placed a slice of ham on each slice while the dogs watched patiently. I would normally have smiled quietly to myself, but I stopped and commented: ‘What well-behaved dogs!’ She gave the standard reply: ‘Sometimes.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘ they’re both being incredibly restrained.’ ‘They know their turn’s coming,’ she said. [This was a slightly scary encounter. How many tweets have I seen complaining about men feeling entitled to conversation with women just going about their lives alone in a public place? If she’d told me to f*** off, I would have understood … but there were dogs.]
Still Wednesday morning, at the dentist for major repairs, I introduced myself to the dental assistant, who is relatively new to the practice and completely new to me. Like her predecessor, she hardly spoke during the rest of my time there, but at least we had each acknowledged that the other had a name.
Friday morning, back at the dentist, there was a different dental assistant. I was a bit preoccupied with having a tooth crowned and didn’t do more than nod on arrival. But after about half an hour of unpleasantness, while we were all waiting for something to set, I seized the moment. ‘You’re W–, is that right?’ (The dentist had called her by her name once in his stream of soft-spoken requests and instructions.) ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m Jonathan.’ ‘Nice to meet you.’ Then she stuck a suction hose in my mouth and we both went back to our non-speaking roles.
Saturday evening, at the movies, the first time the EA and I have been in a fairly full theatre for a year (and yes, this is deemed safe in Sydney now). A couple of minutes before the lights went down the man in the seat in front of me asked if I minded if he tilted his seat back. Of course not, but I didn’t let it go quite at that. ‘I didn’t know you could do that,’ and I asked how to do it: ‘It’s like travelling first class.’ He laughed, and several people in our row tilted theirs back along with me. It was the Alliance Française French Film Festival, but the polite man had no trace of a French accent.
No one has told me to stop, so here’s another week of the talking-to-strangers challenge. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. Here are some startlingly relevant lines from the title poem of Speak to Strangers (1960) by R D Murphy, the first poet I met in the flesh:
---------------------------- My grandfather's name
was Adam. we may discover a thing or two
In common, tastes the same. This is your place?
I'd not pick your purse or kinsey at the keyhole,
But merely borrow a match to see your face.
And here are the matches I lit this week:
Sunday 7 March, midday. We walked to Addison Road Markets for dumplings. When we ordered the special, the Emerging Artist said she didn’t want the pork bun or the dim sim. The woman serving us had trouble with the English, and the owner stopped cooking to translate. Though we’ve been going there on Sundays for years now, I don’t remember a previous conversation with him. He told us that his dumplings weren’t the North Chinese, but the Hong King kind, made entirely with rice and so gluten free. I asked how the excellent dumplings of Xian fitted his schema. He pointed to a laminated page in the counter offering Xian noodles, but said the weather there was terrible – too much wind and dust. We swapped travellers tales for a minute or so. It turned out he hails from a small village in northern China, and has been in Australia for 18 years. Gesturing to the deep blue early-autumn Sydney sky, he said he didn’t want to go back.
Sunday evening, at a poetry reading. After the first guest poet had read, I approached her with awkward fan-boy effusions, which doesn’t count for this challenge as we already know each other. She introduced me to the other advertised poet and we exchanged a couple of words. I was too embarrassed to be fanboyish all over again, partly because I have only read a handful of his poems (none of the ones he was about to read, it turned out), but mainly because fanboy-times-one is embarrassing enough. Still, contact was made.
Also Sunday evening, during the same break, I went to the closest physically-distanced table and spoke to the man whose female partner, the first open-mic reader, had mentioned that it was his 65th birthday. I asked if he was also a poet. He isn’t. He’s a photographer. He talked about being sidekick to a poet, mentioned one of her greatest hits. I chatted about my own experience as sidekick to the Emerging Artist. We may well run into each other at future poetry readings.
Wednesday. I got on a bus whose driver was maskless, the first time this has happened for a very long time. I was about to say something when he beat me to the conversational initiative. ‘That’s clever,’ he said. ‘I like it.’ It took me a second to realise he meant my T-shirt (photo below, though not of me wearing it). ‘Me too,’ I said. ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ I love it that this happened so soon after I’d said on this blog that men don’t comment on each other’s clothes. Evidently it’s allowed if there’s wit involved.
–7.Wednesday evening, We had a small dinner to celebrate a birthday ending in zero for the Emerging Artist, and also a less prominent birthday of mine. One of the guests brought a handful of frangipanis to decorate the table, and I stuck one behind an ear. When I went to pay the bill, the cluster of wait-staff were unusually cheerful, as in someone had just said something funny. If they had, it may have been a remark on my flower, or perhaps on my clumsy attempts to speak Italian earlier. Anyhow, the flower was an excellent conversation starter: the main waiter has a frangipani tree that isn’t in flower yet, also true of the one in our yard; we live in adjoining suburbs, not far from the friend whose tree had produced my ornament; the woman who had waited at our table said she liked my flower; at least one other joined in. 8. Thursday morning, we went to our regular GymKidz class. The Emerging Artist has made good connections there, and three-year-old Ruby is at intense hugging stage with another girl. I generally hover in the background trying to look benign. I took a tiny initiative today beyond my unusual smiling and nodding at both children and parents. I’d noticed a young couple with a tiny, energetic boy during the unstructured playtime that precedes our class. It turned out I was sitting near their stroller. He came careening towards the stroller, saying’Ba!’ His mother produced a banana. I said something about his ability to say words. She said, almost apologetically, that he only said one syllable – ‘ba’ for banana, ‘ma’ for mother. I said, ‘Give him a couple of weeks.’ When they left a little later we all said a proper goodbye, including waves from the toddler. 9. Thursday evening. Continuing the birthday, the EA and I ate out at a favourite pizza place. During dinner we noticed the main waiter teaching someone else how to hold more than one plate safely on one arm, and momentarily demonstrating how to hold three or four. This probably shouldn’t count because I’ve had a ‘Hello, it’s good to see you,’ relationship with that waiter for some years, but I presumed to build on that and asked him as we were leaving how many plates he could hold. ‘A lot!’ he said, and gave me a short demonstration of technique. ‘It’s an art,’ I said. ‘Every profession has its arts,’ he said as he waved us off into the night. 10. Friday afternoon. Continuing the birthday celebrations, we are renting a house in Gerroa. As we unpacked our car, a young man was doing the same at the top of a steep drive opposite. We waved to each other. A little later, as we were heading out for a walk, he came running down the drive, chasing a ball one of his small children had let loose. I said, ‘Is that their way of getting exercise?’ ‘Yep,’ he said, ‘make Daddy chase your ball.’ [On Saturday morning, the three children were playing with smaller balls up and down the drive, but had enough discipline not to chase them out into the street.]
See this post for the brief description of the challenge.
This week I haven’t done well at all – partly because I’ve been preoccupied with people I already know, and patly because I haven’t got out much. I realised that this project isn’t quite as trivial as I might have thought when I went for a walk by the Cooks River one afternoon and passed maybe 20 people of a range of ages, ethnicities and genders, and try as ai might I couldn’t even make eye contact with one of them … except for the one who features at point 5 here
Saturday evening, 7 o’clock, walking down Marion Street in Leichhardt looking for somewhere to eat, we had to make our way through a crowd of partygoers, carrying balloons and wearing funny hats. Three young women seemed the most approachable, especially as one of them was carrying a huge slice of sponge cake on a paper plate dripping with whipped cream. I said something inane to the cake-bearer. She laughed.
Tuesday. I went to a shop to pick up something that someone else had ordered. At my first words to the young man at the front of the shop, a voice from behind a tall display called out, and its owner emerged with the thing I was after in his hands. It turned out we had met briefly before in completely different circumstances, and had a brief and friendly chat about bike helmets as disguises
Thursday. At the pool with our granddaughter, I was paying to get in, and having trouble making my phone make the payment. I made several attempts that produced only clicks, no card image. The young man behind the counter – without a hint of pity, contempt or disdain – said, ‘You have to click twice. You’re pressing the volume button at the same time and taking screen shots.’ Quick as a flash, I said, ‘I knew that,’ and we were in business. (Just now I deleted three photos of the pool’s Covid sign-in screen from my phone.)
Thursday evening, the eve of garbage collection, I took our non-compost food scraps out to put in the appropriate council bin. Two women of a certain age were going through the recycling bins from our whole complex of units, collecting bottles and cans that can be redeemed. ‘Having any luck?’ I called to them. People mostly don’t seem to grasp the actual words I use in my opening gambits. ‘Bring it over here,’ one of them replied. ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘This is rubbish.’ ‘Okay,’ she said, and they both lost interest in me.
Friday evening. Walking beside the Cook River, just as I was despairing of making contact with anyone we passed, a couple of tiny dogs in a house yard took noisy exception to a harmless-looking Labrador who was approaching us with a woman in tow. The Labrador ignored the hostile yappy dogs. The woman looked our way apologetically. I said, ‘Your dog’s handling that well.’ She said, ‘Poor thing.’
& 7. Saturday midday. As we were heading out on a walk, two youngish women were reading the small explanatory board near our front entrance and admiring the handsome Victorian Italianate house that is part of our complex of units. ‘So it is a residence,’ one of them said. I seized the opportunity. ‘Yes, it’s a residence,’ I said,. ‘There are 43 units.’ They looked interested. ‘It used to be a hospital, then a home for unmarried mothers.’ And I pointed to my favourite phrase on the board: ‘young women who gave their affections unwisely.’ Someone said (remember, this is the week when Australian parliamentary leaders seem to indicate that sexual assault is beneath their serious attention), ‘Always blame the women.’ 8, 9, 10, 11. Saturday a little later. On my way home I passed an auction in the street a block away from the recently reopened Enmore Theatre. The auctioneers rolled up contract came down on 2.3 something million dollars, and the crowd of stickybeaks began to disperse. I checked the poster at the front of the house – a corner terrace with 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom – and, this being Sydney, fell into easy conversation with a young woman who was also checking it. Then another woman and two men joined in. Someone’s phone told us that the median price for a three bedroom house around here is 1.6 million. We variously commented on how happy the vendors must be, likewise their neighbours, and how prohibitive the housing market was. My impression that one couple, possibly both, were hoping to buy something sometime and weren’t being cheered. But maybe like me they were just passers-by seizing a chance to speak to strangers.
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