Tag Archives: Cooks River

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.