Tag Archives: Covid-19

500 people: Week 33–34

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

As we reached the end of lockdown and got out into the parks to picnic in groups of (mostly) the legal five or fewer, we seemed generally even less likely to talk to random strangers. However, I had some genuinely warm transitory encounters in those last two weeks.

1. Monday 27 September. The Emerging Artist and I were exploring Pyrmont, at the edge of our permitted 5 k radius. We were about to climb a short flight of stairs signposted ‘Cliff Walk’, when a woman who was busy with a trowel in a small vege garden beside the stairs called to us: ‘Going up to the windy place, are you?’ So we stopped to chat: it transpired that she is a little older than I am, has lived in the area for 10 years or so, and manages the hilliness with some difficulty; she cultivates this little garden as a community service as well as the windswept one in her own back yard; her husband, older than she is, is active in a community recycling project.

2. Thursday. We were back in Pyrmont with Ruby, where she frolicked among water spouts and we had leaf-boat races in a shallow waterway. Between activities, the EA asked Ruby if she’d like a snack. A young masked man sitting just within earshot spoke up: ‘Oh, what snacks are there?’ Not that he wanted to know – this was clearly an invitation to chat. But I told him what I knew of what was on offer at the little kiosk. The conversation expanded, so soon we knew he lives in Camperdown, and that we have places in common where we go with our young ones (his daughter was asleep in a stroller next to him). He gave us a number of tips about good places elsewhere in the Inner West. When he and his daughter headed off, it was with the possibility of meeting again.

3. Monday 4 October. On our morning walk by the Cooks river, we passed a man and a woman picking mulberries – or rather, he was reaching up into the branches looking for ripe mulberries while she was eating one he’d found earlier. I picked one from the opposite side of the tree, and gave it to the EA, saying, ‘I hope they haven’t been poisoned.’ The young man didn’t catch my exact meaning (I was masked and I’m guessing English wasn’t his first language). He said, ‘Oh no, they are mulberries.’ The young woman stepped in: ‘We ate some yesterday, and we’re still here!’ This is a different tree from the one in Week 32.

4. Monday, on the same walk, we passed the Earlwood Spoon Project. People are invited to decorate wooden or plastic spoons, make them into characters of some sort, and add them to this installation. There’s another, smaller installation along the Wolli Creek section of the Two Valley Trail. The recent heavy rain and wind had laid the spoons low, but someone had rendered them upright and orderly. Two youngish women were bending over the display, exclaiming: ‘Look at the bride!’ ‘There’s Wally!’ and so on. I inserted myself by telling them of the recent devastation, and then all four of us spent a little while pointing out clever creations: Homer Simpson, Chuck Norris (?). Someone apologised for swearing. A brief good time was had by all.

Photo by Penny Ryan

5. Tuesday evening, I was walking through our underground garage, maskless though we’re supposed to be masked in the common areas, and listening to a podcast – the Thoroughly Modern Mozart episode of Christopher Lydon’s Open Source. To prevent further ear damage I don’t use ear buds, and I was filling the garage airwaves with the sound of a classical piano. When a masked man with a shock of black hair appeared, I hastily turned the podcast off and fumbled for my mask. We nodded to each other – frostily on his part, I thought. Then he called back over his shoulder, ‘Whose is that piece?’ I could tell him it was Beethoven, but I was way out of my depth, so the conversation couldn’t go much further.

6. Sunday morning. We were helping some friends scope out an apartment they are considering putting an offer on – they’d done their inspection, this was just the environment. A woman emerged from a ground-level apartment and we bailed her up and plied her with questions: strata arrangements, rules about pets, use of the swimming pool, public transport, most convenient shops, development proposals for the nearby green space …

7. Sunday afternoon, it started to rain a few moments into our regular Cooks River walk. We persevered, and a couple of minutes later overtook a large woman who was walking with a stick. As we passed her with the usual nod and smile, one of us said, ‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ She managed a wry grin: ‘Sort of!’

Running total is 228. Let’s see if I manage to be any more sociable with strangers now that the Sydney lockdown is officially over.

500 people: Week 32

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

Lockdown continues. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world. Unlike the lockdown last year, there’s very little camaraderie amid the social distancing this time round: people seem to be much more stuck in their own worlds, as if wearing a mask makes you invisible. Nevertheless:

1. Sunday 19 September. The elderly woman ahead of me at the checkout (probably younger than me) chatted animatedly for a couple of minutes in an East Asian language. When it was my turn I asked the woman behind the till what language they had been speaking. ‘Vietnamese.’ Another employee, white, joined us and said what a hard language it was to learn. The three of us chatted for a bit about tonal languages, the pronunciation of phở, and where excellent phở can be found in Marrickville. sadly I didn’t make a note of the recommendation, but I’m happy with Great Aunty Three in Enmore, and miss their phở terribly during lockdown.

2. Still Sunday, the Emerging Artist and I passed a man and a woman who were packing up their gear beside an inflatable kayak. I paused in my walk to ask the woman how much the kayak cost, a question that had arisen with us a couple of days before, but really I asked for the sake of human contact. She looked at a loss and passed me on to her male companion. He told me how much, ‘but it was second hand.’ We chatted a little bit about the joys of kayaking on the Cooks River.

3. Wednesday morning, we were out of our Local Government Area and more than 5 kilometres from home, but it was legal because the EA had an eye specialist’s appointment, and dilating drops meant she couldn’t drive herself home. We arrived early and ordered a take-away coffee. While we were waiting in the otherwise deserted coffee shop, a woman came in with a dachshund on a lead. It sniffed the bottom of my trousers, and when it came back for a second sniff, I offered it the back of my hand, whereupon it barked ferociously. Now we understood that its owner hadn’t left it outside the shop because she knew it would bail up any passers-by. During all this, the dog owner and I managed to communicate quite a lot without benefit of words mouths or noses.

4. Thursday, we were walking on the bank of the Cooks River beside the Marrickville Golf Club when we had a classic old-style Australian exchange. A group of men in their 60s or so were teeing off. We must have looked as if we were interested as the one who was second in line said, ‘Don’t bother watching him’ – his friend who was about to swing his club – ‘you won’t learn anything.’ The EA knew the correct response: ‘We should wait to see how you do it.’ Of course we didn’t.

5. Saturday morning, on our morning walk past the Enmore Tafe College, we came upon a man on a step ladder reaching up into a mulberry tree that overhangs the footpath. Standing beside the ladder was a woman holding a dessert bowl. There was a lot of red fruit on the tree, and a couple of black ones in the bowl. ‘Ripe already!’ we said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we’re saving the footpath from being stained.’ Trying hard not to imply that he might not have been motivated only by civic mindedness, I thanked him for his service to the community.

6. Saturday afternoon, just an hour or so ago, we were in the socially-distanced queue for one of the few toilets in Sydney Park. (The park was busy; picnicking groups abounded, at appropriate distances from one another and mostly made up of the permitted five or fewer people.) The masked woman ahead of us said something about how thrilling it was to be out in the world and about to go to a public toilet. As the queue moved slowly we chatted, mainly about the fact that we were chatting in a toilet queue, and finding it weirdly liberating

Running total is 221.

500 people: Week 29-31

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

Lockdown continues. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world. Unlike the lockdown last year, there doesn’t seem to be any camaraderie amidst the social distancing this time round: people seem to be much more stuck in their own worlds, as if wearing a mask makes you invisible. Nevertheless:

1. Sunday 29 August. On our daily walk, we went into unfamiliar territory, still inside our 5 k radius. We came across a young man who seemed to be training his dog to run up very steep slopes to place and then retrieve its lead. The dog, a bull terrier, was an enthusiastic learner. We – the humans at least – exchanged greetings

2. Thursday, we were having lunch on the grass in Callan Park with the granddaughter. Just like a couple of weeks earlier, there were two people doing extraordinary things on a low rock overhang – a woman and a man this time. Again I approached them for a brief conversation. My opening gambit was to ask how long they’d been doing it. ‘About five years,’ the woman said. Just like the two young men the first time, they assumed I might want to have a go: ‘The best place to start is in a gym,’ the man offered. I said I was quite happy to watch, hoping I didn’t sound too much like Chance the gardener (as in this movie).

4. Wednesday or Friday that week. Near the Marrickville Metro there are sections of footpath that are paved rather than concrete. This is generally very attractive, but vulnerable to disruption by tree roots and other underground forces. Over the last couple of weeks some rough patches have been under repair. On this day, I passed a man who had pulled up 50 or so pavers that had bulged up in a line stretching from the base of a small fig tree. I stopped to chat, and he happily explained that he wasn’t doing anything to the root – no harm would come to the tree. He was covering the root with sand to create a level surface, then relaying the pavers on that. Next time walked that way, there was no sign of the former trip hazard.

3. Sunday 12 September. While almost all the encounters I’m recording in this series, this conversation was with a new person who I can reasonably expect to see more of. On a carefully orchestrated walk, where there were only ever two of us together at the same time, the Emerging Artist and I met up with one of our sons and a woman he has recently got close to. He had primed her well, and with social eptitude far outstripping mine she drew me into conversation about, among other things, this challenge. We talked about the way ubiquitous mobile phones have drastically reduced serendipitous encounters. She had read a book about dating that said the first rule for successful dating in the offline world (which, as she said, used to be called ordinary life) was to turn off your phone.

5. Thursday morning the car had a very flat tyre. I couldn’t budge the nuts on the wheel so called NRMA Roadside Assistance. The chap arrived in good time, jacked the car up, removed the tyre and replaced it with the spare in no time at all. He did all this without saying a word, remaining pretty much inscrutable behind his Covid mask. He wasn’t rude or hostile, just businesslike in the way he steadfastly ignored my feeble attempts at small talk (‘I haven’t jacked it up because I knew you’d have a pneumatic jack,’ etc.). Finally, though, as he was leaving, I said, ‘I hope all your calls today are as straightforward as this one,’ and he unbent enough to say, ‘Yeah.’

6. Saturday, on our morning exercise outing the EA and I went to the Sydney Fish Market, where a long section of footpath is currently closed because of the new, bigger, better market under construction. As we arrived back at the lights with our fish, there was some kind of kerfuffle. I happened to catch the eye of the the traffic control warden on duty Assuming I’d seen what just happened, he said, ‘There’s always one,’ and we had a pleasant chat about human folly and the need for safety regulations. (He had his mask around his neck.) I hoped he was getting time and a half. He said, ‘That’s the least of my worries. I’m pretty much retired and this gets me out of the house. I’ve only got so much I can talk to my wife about.’ (Pause.) ‘And vice versa.’

Running total is 215.

500 people: Week 26-28

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

Lockdown continues. I’ve restrained myself a number of times from yelling at chin-mask wearers, and I’ve been sharply reminded to put my own mask on twice. None of these count as warm communication with strangers. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world.

1. Saturday 21 August. There’s a circular patch of grass in the grounds of our complex of 43 units. Nothing much else can grow there because there’s just a shallow layer of soil on top of the cement roof of the garage. As I went out for my state-sanctioned daily walk to the shops, I passed two young women reclining on the grass, playing cards and chatting. Seizing the moment, but keeping my mask on, I stopped and said how good it was to see the space being used. ‘Yes,’ one of them said. ‘It seemed a pity not to take advantage of it.’ It would have felt rude to prolong the conversation, but this was warm and neighbourly.

2. Monday in Callan Park, which is just inside our 5 k radius, we passed two young men doing extraordinary feats on a low overhanging rock, probably what’s called bouldering. While one of them clung to the underside of the rock and found handholds and footholds to pull himself along, gecko-like, the other moved a couple of thick mats to catch hm if he fell. Then they swapped roles. The Emerging Artist and granddaughter weren’t diverted from their mission to find the little beach, but I was transfixed. In a break in the action I expressed my awe. One of the young men invited me to have a go. He may not have been joking, but there was no way. I again expressed my awe, and one of them said, ‘There are a lot who are better than us.’

3. Tuesday afternoon – I don’t know if I should count this – I had my first session with a cardiologist. (Nothing to be alarmed about, as far as I know.) We managed some non-transactional chat, partly because that’s clearly her approach as a medical specialist, but also because I was open to it. She commented on my bright striped socks. I said I mostly wore them to please my granddaughter. She, on the other hand, changes into woolly socks as soon as she gets home from work, partly because they’re comfortable and partly because they were a gift from one of her teenage children and she wants (needs?) to show her appreciation.

4. Thursday morning, as the Emerging Artist and I were walking in Newtown, we were hailed by a man emerging from a house across the narrow street. Because of mask-related hearing impairment, I wasn’t sure what he said, and thought perhaps he’d mistaken us for someone he knew. As I moved towards him questioningly, he said, ‘I said buon giorno, good morning,’ and was hunting around with German-sounding words when I said ‘Buon giorno’ back to him. Then I said, ‘Buona giornata,’ and he gestured to indicate that he was pleased I understood enough Italian to muster a reply.

Running total is 209.

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.

500 people: Week Twenty

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

As predicted, opportunities for chats with new people this week have been few, if you don’t count knowing glances shared between people wearing masks in the street even though they’re only mandated indoors. To make matters worse, grandfatherly duty was cancelled because Ruby had been contact-traced and was in isolation. But there have been some chats.

  1. Sunday 27 June: we have new neighbours in one of the two other flats that opens onto our small landing. They’ve been here a week or so, but today for the first tine we both emerged onto the landing at the same time. We swapped names; I made a point of asking the name of the little boy who was enjoying the challenge of the stairs. They’ve only been in Australia for a couple of weeks. I expressed mild surprise that they had been allowed into the country but not, I hope, in a way that suggested disapproval. I said ‘Welcome’ more times than was cool, and practised a little Portuguese (‘Bom dia‘ to be precise).
  2. Monday, I had a bone density test at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The wonderful nurse who did the test said that as it didn’t count as essential my appointment would have been cancelled, but the latest lockdown announcement was made on the weekend, and I was first cab off the rank on Monday morning so turned up before they could tell me not to come. When she introduced herself it was by a first name that differed from the one on her name tag: the tag name indicated complex non-Anglo heritage; the other, as she explained, was given to her in Year 5 at school and she embraced it as straight-up Aussie. She told me bits of her family story, and generally filled the clinical visit with human interaction.
  3. Tuesday afternoon, visiting the new Harry Hartog bookshop in Marrickville Metro, I asked the shop assistant about her name tag, which gave her pronouns (yes, this is the 2020s), her unofficial pastime (I won’t tell you the actual pastime, but let’s say it could have been ‘House sharer’), and the kinds of books she’s interested in. This led to a wide ranging conversation about the bookshop, the amount of attention lavished on decor (it shows, and it works), the special islands of imported remainders. After quite a while, in which the Emerging Artist and I bought a number of books, I realised that I’d read and remembered everything from her name tag except her actual name. We swapped names before the EA and I went on our way.
  4. Tuesday, a couple of seconds later, I had a brief but similarly amiable conversation with the other shop assistant who, in spite of having a beautifully embroidered moustache on her mask, also nominated her pronouns as ‘she/her’. The EA says these young women probably saw me as a needy and garrulous old white man. I choose to believe otherwise.
  5. Wednesday evening, I was putting our recycling into the communal bins to the accompaniment of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens chatting on about laughter. As I was moving huge chunks of styrofoam from a recycling bin to a landfill bin, another inhabitant of our complex came into the room. I turned the podcast off, we introduced ourselves and had the kind of awkward yet almost-intimate conversation you can only have when both people have their hands full of garbage.
  6. Thursday, for at least the hundredth time, I walked past a black plastic fishpond in one of the tiny front yards on a busy street near my place. I often take a moment to enjoy the big healthy golden fish, who provide a splash of colour and elegance in the otherwise fairly dreary street. This day, a man was sitting in the afternoon sun and reading in a cane chair on the front veranda. I stopped to say g’day and say how much pleasure his fish gave me. I mentioned that we have a smaller pond on our balcony, with much smaller fish. ‘They’ll grow,’ he said.
  7. Saturday, on an exercise break in the alarmingly busy Sydney Park, where many people were masked and most were kind of keeping their distance, we passed a family group who were collectively training a puppy. ‘Sit … sit … sit,’ the woman said as she and the rest of the group moved away from the anxious but stationary puppy. I made an admiring exclamation as I passed, and the spell was broken: the puppy bolted to its human. Much merriment all round.

Running total is 191.

500 people: Week Nineteen

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

As I mentioned last week, I hadn’t been paying attention, so this week starts with an encounter that rightfully belongs in last Saturday’s post. It also includes a slantwise account of an event that could have been the subject of its own blog post.

  1. Wednesday 16 June, near the new section of Marrickville Metro shopping centre, we passed a young man standing on a windy corner holding up a sign advertising a major supermarket chain. As we waited for the light to change, I said hello, and then asked how long he was standing there. Emboldened by his readiness to answer that question, I asked how much he was paid. He told me an hourly rate that removed any remaining misgiving I have about what I charge for proofreading.
  2. Sunday 20 June, walking in Sydney Park in the morning, I was amused by the behaviour of a young dog, I asked one of its human companions what breed it was, venturing my guess that it was a border collie–blue cattle dog cross. She was an Australian shepherd and its owners were unashamedly besotted with her.
  3. Sunday afternoon, I attended a small gathering and walk to honour Martin Johnston, an Australian poet who died at this time of year 31 years ago (photos of the event below). The event was organised by Nadia Wheatley, Martin’s literary executor, and Vivienne Lathem, his step-daughter and copyright holder, at the Garden Lounge Creative Space in Newtown. It was a lovely occasion and I hope it becomes an annual tradition. Unusually for a poetry reading, I had warm encounters with a number of people who are new to me. First, the long term partner of an old friend: he is a retired English and History teacher, and we bonded over the joys of travel in retirement, among other things.
  4. Sunday, our host at the Creative Lounge provided hot drinks. A woman who arrived in company of a friend of mine said something about having a hot chocolate, and announced more or less to everyone that she had discovered the joys of chocolate with added chilli. My ears pricked up. We were introduced a little later, but our brief exchange about the joys of chilli and chocolate is what has stayed with me.
  5. Sunday, at the same event, I had the honour of reading one of Martin’s poems (‘Drinking Sappho Brand Ouzo’, the twelfth poem at this link). I asked a Greek-speaking audience member for help with the pronunciation of a Greek word. I did this because, though I did need the help, it made room for him to volunteer that the word – rododaktulos, evidently brododactulos in Lesbos – was from Homer, thereby saving me from providing that possibly redundant information to the audience. Later, I apologised for exploiting his presence in that way, but he didn’t seem to feel it was exploitative.
  6. Sunday, a little later, as we strolled through locations from Martin’s novel, Cicada Gambit, I chatted to a man in a baseball cap who had been staying quietly in the background. He knew Martin after I did, and I asked if perhaps he knew him at SBS, where he worked for many years. No, he said, Martin had ‘succeeded [him] in the affections of X—’. He had a number of colourful anecdotes, and we grieved lightly over Martin’s early death and the role alcohol played in it.
  7. Sunday, as most of the other people were settling down to snacks and drinks in the Bank Hotel and I was taking my leave, among the people I said hello-goodbye to was Julian Neylan, the Joycean enthusiast behind Bloomsday Sydney. He had read beautifully from Martin’s novel. We had a pleasant chat.
  8. Monday morning early I went to the local shop to buy milk for breakfast, and forgot to take a mask – they were made mandatory indoors in our local government area on Sunday evening. I apologised at the check-out. The young woman there said, ‘I don’t like masks anyway.’ I did my bit for the common good, saying, ‘Me neither, but we need to do it.’
  9. Tuesday, back to my regular sauna after a couple of weeks’ absence, and sure enough there were some sweet encounters. Well, two. A young man – I’d guess in his late 20s – came in and commented that reading a book was a good thing to do in the sauna. I said some people thought differently (see previous post, paragraph 2). Then…
  10. (Tuesday) … his friend joined us moaning performatively. It turned out he had a terrible hangover. I tuned out for the conversation about drinking and its aftermath that followed, but a little later they were talking about money. One of them said he was being paid $9.50 an hour. The other said, ‘How can they do that?’ I re-entered the conversation: ‘Because they can.’ Then I trotted out a boomer reminiscence: ‘My first full time job I was paid $60 a week. Then I joined a union and was paid an award wage of $120.’ (To be honest I don’t know if that second figure is accurate, but I do remember feeling guilty about taking the increased amount from my small-business employer.) ‘I spent that much on beer last night.’ ‘Yes, but I remember at that time being shocked when I was charged a dollar for a beer in a flash club, and’ – this is the one that really got their attention – ‘I could buy a packet of cigarettes for 42 cents.’
  11. Wednesday, walking back from buying bread in Marrickville, I met a man who was rubbing his back against a street sign. As anyone would, I smiled as I passed. He explained that his back was itching terribly after a session in the gym. I told him he reminded me of cows from my childhood, rubbing their backs on low branches.
  12. Friday in the sauna, or rather in the dressing room after my sauna, to avoid having my wet bathers drip allover the floor and bench while I was changing, I left them on a hook near the shower. Once back in street clothes, I was about to go get them when a chap emerged from the shower area and told me I’d left them there. I have no idea how he knew they were mine … I guess we all do a lot more observing of each other than we make obvious.
  13. Saturday morning, after a substantial shopping trip to the local behemoth supermarket, I went back for a quic visit to the ATM, and forgot my mask. This time, there was a young woman on the door blocking access to the maskless. I pleaded that I was going about 10 metres into the centre for less than two minutes. She relented and let me through, but warned me that the centre was full of police cracking down on the mask-noncompliant. I waved to her cheerily two minutes later as I left.
  14. Saturday at about 3.30, I went back to buy wine for the Emerging Artist. (I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m the fetch-and-carry person.) Our suburb was about to join the rest of greater Sydney in lockdown in a couple of hours, and not only were shelves of toilet paper bare, but the red wine shelves were looking pretty sparse, though there were plenty of bottles of the $4 merlot. On my way out with bottles of stuff I suspected the EA would turn her nose up at – not the aforementioned $4 merlot – I spent a little moment chatting to the masked woman who rang up my purchase. The alcohol shop, she said, had been very busy all day.

Running total is now 184. Now that we’re in lockdown, I expect there will be slim pickings next week.

A cautionary tale

There hadn’t been any community transmission of Covid-19 in New South Wales for a number of days. The Premier was warning against complacency. In our part of the inner west there were still plenty of masks in evidence, and at the supermarket we politely gave each other wide berths. But the virus is still out there. Here’s a timeline of what happened next in my family (no trigger warning needed):

Sunday 4 October: The Emerging Artist and I had yum cha with four other people. Two people turned up in masks. We all used the hand sanitiser on arrival. When we were seated, in a small private room because that’s what was available, the person in our group who is statistically most likely to have serious illness if she’s infected asked for sanitiser and wiped down the table and her chair. There was some mild eye-rolling. We had a pleasant lunch.

Monday 5 October: With a great sense of liberation and celebration, the Emerging Artist and I had dinner at friends’ house. We ate roast chicken, just four of us, and spent a very pleasant evening catching up on each other’s lives, and laughing a lot.

Tuesday 6 October: One of the people from Sunday’s yum cha – call him Alfredo – spent a couple of hours at his work in close contact with a student, helping her to use some complex equipment. He gave her his mobile number so she could phone for help the next day when she was to use the equipment. Unknown to him (and possibly her), the student’s mother was being tested for Covid while they were meeting.

Wednesday 6 October: The student learned in the morning that her mother had tested positive. She got tested and that night at nine o’clock got word that she too was positive. She immediately phoned Alfredo to let him know. He was the only person she had had contact with at his workplace.

Thursday 7 October: Alfredo drew up a list of everyone he had spent time with at work on Tuesday and since, and told them the story. They got themselves tested and did the self-isolation thing. He also called us early in the morning to let us know.

The Emerging Artist and I were tested late morning – no waiting, friendly people doing the job, and a horrible sensation in the nose. We were grandparenting that day, and as Alfredo had visited our granddaughter and her family on Sunday before the yum cha, we had her tested too – and her parents did it separately. We assumed that Alfredo’s exposure happened after we’d seen him, but no one was absolutely sure who was infected when. All the others from yum cha were also tested, and went into isolation pending results.

On Thursday night, the contact tracers phoned to tell Alfredo that he was regarded as a ‘close contact’, and that he should be tested. He told them he was ahead of them. They said that, as a close contact, even if his test came back negative he was to self-isolate for another ten days and then be tested again. That is to say, it took the contact tracers well over 24 hours to contact him, which I would have thought was time for him to do plenty of spreading if he was infected. They didn’t ever contact us.

Friday 8 October: A little after 6 in the morning, the Emerging Artist and I received text messages saying no trace of Covid was found in our samples or our granddaughter’s. Alfredo, the granddaughter’s parents, and the other Yum Cha-ers got text messages on Friday evening saying they too were negative. Alfredo is still in strict isolation, but the rest of us are back to Sydney-Covid-normal.

It’s sobering to realise that if the timing of those events had been just a little different, this could have been a story to make us roll our eyes in a whole other direction.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

The NSWPLA night used to be a grand affair. Long before my time there was a bread-roll throwing affair when Morris West droned on too long in his acceptance speech. I got to be on the free list one year, then coughed up good money for a number of years after that, and one year I got to be the plus one of my shortlisted niece. It became less fun when it changed from being a full-blown dinner to a drinks and powerpoint affair, but I still followed it, at least on Twitter. (I dutifully blogged the event for quite a while, and if you really want to, you can plough through my blog posts for 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017).

This year, thanks to the Great Leveller, SARS-Cov2, it was again possible to attend the whole event without stirring from home or spending a cent.

So here’s how it went:

After an elegant introduction by John Vallance, Chief Librarian, speaking to us from an empty Mitchell Library, President of the Library Council George Souris spoke from his home and introduced Gladys Berejiklian, who somehow found time off from crisis-management to record a short message. John Vallance then announced the winners without any frills apart from little speeches from a range of relevant politicians:

Multicultural NSW Award went to The Pillars by Peter Polites (Hachette Australia). Peter did a to-camera piece expressing gratitude to, among other things, his publisher’s bowties.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting: Counting and Cracking, S Shakthidharan and auxiliary writer Eamon Flack. The writer, the second from Western Sydney: ‘This award helps to weave this little story from Western Sydney into the tapestry of all the great Australian stories.’ Eamon Flack used his platform to contrast the ‘neglect and carelessness’ of current art policy with the years of policy that enabled Counting and Cracking to happen.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting: joint winners The Cry, Episode 2, Jacqueline Perske (Synchronicity Films), and Missing, Kylie Boltin (SBS). Kylie Boltin dedicated the award to her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother died yesterday.

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: Ella and the Ocean, Lian Tanner, Jonathan Bentley (Allen & Unwin). Both author and illustrator spoke. She spoke of starting the book twelve years ago and then leaving it in the folder marked ‘Abject Failures’ for years. He, a humble illustrator: ‘Thank you for choosing me.’

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: Lenny’s Book of Everything, Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin). Karen said, ‘I want to use this platform to thank readers everywhere who continue to buy books in these times. I want to thank everyone who supports the arts.’

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, Peter Boyle (Vagabond Press). Peter Boyle paid tribute to his late partner Debora Bird Rose (herself a great writer).

Indigenous Writers’ Prize: The White Girl, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press). Tony Birch gave a shout out to ‘every Blackfella across Australia who is writing’.

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction: from 136 entries, the winner was Tiberius With a Telephone, Patrick Mullins (Scribe Publications), a book about William McMahon. Patrick Mullins, looking scarily young, acknowledged his debt to writers and journalists whose work was important to his, and to the many people he interviewed.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Real Differences, SL LIM (Transit Lounge). SL LIM looked even younger, with pink hair and a soft toy, and plugged her coming book, which (I think I heard correctly) calls for the end of the family.

Fiction (Christina Stead Award): The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House). Tara June Winch spoke of the centrality of language to human life. ‘It is a sacred thing,’ she said, in Wiradjuri. The Yield also won the People’s Choice Award and the Book of the Year. Tara June Winch got to speak again, and spoke of her esteem and fellow feeling for the other writers having a hard time just now. She asked the Federal Government to treat ‘our sector’ as our families do. ‘We can’t tell you the story of what is happening to our country now if the only thing on our minds is how to afford the next week’s rent.’ She hopes that our First Languages will be included in our schools’ curriculum.

That was it. It turns out that though I’d read a couple of the shortlisted books, I hadn’t read a single one of the winners, and had seen only one of the performances – the absolutely stunning Counting and Cracking.

You can watch the whole ceremony at: