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.
Running total is now 81.
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.
Running total is now 72.
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.