Tag Archives: Cooks River

November verse 9: Our morning walk

I reminded myself that when I dreamed up this notion of writing fourteen 14-line poems in November, my intention was to have at least some of the poems wrangle events from my daily life into the stanza form that I seem to have fallen enduringly in love with. So here’s one about this morning’s walk. In case explanation is needed: the BOM is the Bureau of Meteorology.

November verse 9: Our morning walk 
A cool spring day, and rain's predicted.
Undeterred, our morning walk,
by Covid rules now unrestricted, 
took place just on eight o'clock.
We left our raincoats and umbrellas
in the car. The croquet fellers
played in t-shirts on their green
and clouds were few and far between.
Happy flitting wagtails, peewees,
happy dogs who strain on leads 
to sniff whatever's in the weeds,
happy walkers, far from freeways. 
Day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
the BOM can't always get it right.

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: Weeks 24–25

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge. It was great to read ‘”The assignment made me gulp”: Could talking to strangers change my life?’ by Jamie Waters from the Observer (here), an excellent article that includes the proposition ‘that many of our gravest ills, both on an individual and societal scale, can only be cured by engaging with people we don’t know.’

Warm encounters with strangers have continued to be hard to come by as the New South wales lockdown continues. But there have been some, including some that were barely perceptible to the naked eye.

1. Tuesday 27 July, I arrived at Royal North Shore Hospital late in the afternoon to collect the Emerging Artist, who had been there for day surgery since 11 in the morning, and hadn’t eaten since Monday night. I couldn’t go further than the front door, of course, but the woman in charge of vetting people went off to find out when the EA might emerge. While I was waiting for her to return I got into conversation with her offsider, a much younger man. He had been coopted to this role from ‘next door’, probably because he looked as if he could hack it, he said. He had been abused 35 times on his first day by people who thought it was totally unreasonable that they shouldn’t be allowed to visit sick relatives.

2. Wednesday morning early, I dropped the EA off at the same door for a follow-up meeting with the surgeon. Aware I was being slightly absurd, I gave her a masked kiss on the forehead as we said goodbye. Then, as I was heading back to the car, a woman who had evidently noticed the kiss said, ‘It’s hard leaving them like that, isn’t it?’ It turned out she had just dropped her husband off for a test that would be followed in the next couple of days by bypass surgery. I explained that my dropped-off one had had cataract surgery the previous day. She said, ‘I guarantee she’ll never look back,’ and waxed lyrical about the effect of her own cataract surgery. I was able to ply her with questions about the period when only one eye had been done, all the way to the parking station.

3. Wednesday later, on my permitted outing to buy food, the man behind the delicatessen counter handed me a container of ricotta, and said, ‘Are you going to make something nice with this … or Mum?’ ‘No,’ I said, swallowing my disdain for this kind of language, ‘we have it with jam on toast at breakfast.’ I think this exchange belongs here: one of the forces mitigating against conversations with strangers is exactly the disdain for political incorrectness that I resisted in myself – ‘Don’t call me love,’ ‘Don’t assume there’s a woman to do the cooking,’ etc. This was someone trying to include a bit of human connection in a transaction during lockdown when human connection is at a premium, and a degree of clumsiness comes with the territory. And I was glad of it.

4. Friday morning, on our routine walk beside the Cook’s River, maskless on the northern side and wearing the mandated mask on the south, we passed a woman enjoying a solo dance exercise moment down at the edge of the river – performing a parody mixture of robot and bump-and-grind for her own entertainment, facing away from the path. Pretty much at the moment I spotted her, I noticed a man on a bike on our path watching her with a big grin. As he sailed past, he said to me, ‘Go and join her.’

5. Sunday 1 August, entering a main road while returning mid afternoon from an exercise outing, I gave way to a number of cars, a bus and four bikes. One of the bike riders acknowledged the courtesy with a smile and a wave. It made me think my life would be improved if I always noticed when a person was making space for me rather than simply following the rules. Then, a little later, I stopped at a pedestrian crossing where four bikes were waiting to cross. One of the four waved an acknowledgement, and then laughed as we recognised each other from a minute or so earlier.

6. Tuesday morning, as I went out to buy bread I passed a masked man cleaning first-floor windows elsewhere in our complex. We were advised weeks ago to make sure all our windows are shut today so this can be done, but the lockdown had made us wonder if it would happen. I said to the masked man, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this,’ meaning I was glad we were getting clean windows. ‘So am I,’ he said, meaning he was glad to have some pay coming in. We chatted fo a bit about how he couldn’t do balcony windows because of lockdown. When I came back with my bread, he asked me for the whereabouts of the nearest open coffee shop, given that the one across the road has shut for the duration, and I gave him directions.

Running total is 205. I’m still aiming for 500, but not with a time limit.

500 people: Weeks 21–23

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

In spite of what the papers say, the citizens of Sydney have been taking this lockdown seriously. We hardly go out. and when we do we stay clear of strangers. My project has wilted on its stem, so much that I have very little to report for the last three weeks, 4–24 July.

Today, when we were on a long walk that took us to Glebe Point Road by way of Victoria Park we noticed a large police presence and though something must be up. we passed a group of about five people in a loose procession behind a man carrying a sign that said something about Bill Gates and hoaxes and genes being fried: I almost spoke to him, but didn’t see how any conversation could be even remotely amicable. (Having seen a tweet that described the demonstrators as putting the concerns of straight white people above the safety of everyone else, I should mention that this group of people weren’t white.)

There have, however, been some moments of warm connection with strangers.

  1. Thursday 15 July, walking in an unfamiliar part of Sydney Park, where a number of alarmingly fit looking people were exercising on outdoor gym equipment, generally keeping a safe distance from one another, I watched one man holding parallel bars at waist height, then lift himself up off the ground until his legs were stretching vertically above him, then come back down to earth, slowly, with extraordinary control. He looked around, pleased with himself but not particularly expecting to have been noticed. Having just about drawn level on the footpath near him, I said, ‘I’m impressed.’ He gave a gratified smile. It occurred to me that this is a perk of age: I wouldn’t have dreamed of commenting like that even 20 years ago, but coming from a 70-something pushing a stroller, my remark was obviously straightforwardly friendly and admiring, no other agenda.
  2. Friday 16 July, as took our afternoon exercise by the Cooks River, my lockdown hair acted as a facilitator of human contact. A woman jogger with flaming red hair shouted to us as she drew near, ‘Your hair with the sun behind it makes you look like an angel!’ (See photo below.) This is not the first time my hair when grown longish has attracted comment but I was telling the truth when I shouted to her retreating back, ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my hair.’ She stopped for a moment and called, ‘Bye, angel!’ (For remote context: Roughly 30 years ago I was at a school basketball game when a young Aboriginal boy approached me out of the blue and asked, ‘Are you a mad professor?’ then ran away cackling.)
Me looking angelic?

3. Saturday morning, on our pre-breakfast constitutional (aka permitted exercise outing) we passed a man with a small girl wearing a pink tutu. The girl was engrossed in a book. It wasn’t a children’s book and she wasn’t reading it, but focusing intently on its cover. As we approached, the man said, appropriately enough, ‘Look up, don’t walk into people.’ She ignored him, and as we made our way around her, I said, ‘Never look up from a book if you can help it.’ He said, ‘It’s a good one, this one.’

4. Saturday, we had stopped off on that walk to buy bread. I was standing for a moment with the Bourke Street Bakery paper bag under my arm while the Emerging Artist retraced our steps to deposit a found bag of dog poo in a bin. Another couple out for a walk passed me. The woman called, ‘Ah, I see you’ve just bought some bread for breakfast.’ I confirmed that she saw right. (These moments feel inconsequential, but they increment to counter the innumerable moments when we might as well be blocks of stone, or worse, to each other as we pass).

5. Wednesday 21 July, mid-afternoon, the Emerging Artist and I were heading out for a walk before it got even colder. In the near-deserted park, we passed a woman with two dogs, a black and white collie and another, which i learned is a blue merle collie. I was struck by the dogs’ precisely timed, synchronised movements as they waited for her to throw the ball for them, and then by the way the blue merle leapt in the air with a double twist, apparently for no reason except to show off. I stopped, and expressed my admiration from a Covid-safe distance. ‘Are they trained for agility?’ I asked. ‘That one competes,’ she said, pointing to the black-and-white dog, ‘ but she,’ the other, ‘is too young just yet.’ She must have scores of people stopping to ask about her dogs, but she seemed perfectly happy to chat about them, without for a moment leaving them hanging out for the next instruction. When one of them looked as if it was going to come our way in search of affection, a sharp ‘Eh, eh, eh!’ had her turning on her heel and back to work. There was nothing insincere about my admiration for those two.

6. Wednesday, perhaps on that same exercise outing, we were passed by a woman with two small children on tricycles, maybe three and four. One of them said to her, as if offering a solution to a problem, ‘You could buy us something’. I caught her eye and she rolled hers.

7. Saturday, on our exercise outing, on our way home from the non-encounter in Glebe, I stepped off the footpath to allow a woman pushing a stroller to pass. We did the customary mutual acknowledgements, muffled by our masks. A little later, as she stopped to fix something on the stroller, we passed her, and then the sequence repeated itself. The next time she passed us, I said, ‘We keep doing this.’ She looked surprised to be spoken to, and asked, in a strong European accent, me to repeat what I’d said. I repeated myself. Probably still not understanding what I’d said, she gestured to a block of flats up ahead and said, ‘I live there, nearly home,’ and as she drew ahead of us, gave a cheery wave goodbye. I think this demonstrates that the content of what one says in a brief encounter matters a lot less than tone of voice.

8. Saturday, on the same outing, we passed a small former corner store in Angel Street Newtown with a photo exhibition in its windows. A woman was standing near the windows looking through some art books on top of a rubbish bin. I stopped and asked from a safe distance if she was the photographer. No, she said, but she loved the photos. And we chatted very briefly about the way this corner store often has interesting things on display.

Running total is 199. I’m still aiming for 500, but not with a time limit.