See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge, and also my post on Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers for an ex-post-facto rationale.
1. Saturday 11 December. I’m not sure if this counts as a warm encounter. I was waiting on the platform at Town Hall Station when I saw a young man in the train about to leave the station throw a piece of rubbish on the floor of his carriage. I somehow caught his eye and gestured my dismay. Beneath my mask, I muttered, ‘Pick it up, you little [expletive],’ but he couldn’t hear or even read my lips. He gave me the finger, removed his mask, took a puff on his vape and blew it in my general direction. I made a number of gestures in his direction that could have meant anything. I got out my phone and took a photo, threatening (inaudibly) to post it on TikTok. He cocked his fingers like a pistol and shot me a few times. Then the train left. I choose to believe all this was in fun, that we were each entertaining himself with these little performances.
2. Sunday. I was in my favourite bookshop, Gleebooks, buying gifts for, it turned out, eight greatnieces/nephews. A silver-haired woman commented as she passed me, ‘You’re doing well!’ A niece had given her a list of books her children might like, but without authors’ names or other helpful details. We had a pleasant little chat as we attempted to sort out whether it was great-great-nieces we were buying for, or just one great, and swapped book anecdotes. (She got help from a staff member and was delighted to find what she was looking for. I did well too.)
3. Monday morning at the swimming pool, we were greeted at reception by a woman who I’ve seen around but never in that role. As I was leaving I decided to have an actual conversation with her: ‘I’ve seen you around,’ I said, ‘but not here. Have you been working here long?’ She has worked at the pool for a long time, she said, but in the office (vague upward gesture). Covid lockdown meant that everyone had to take a turn at reception. So of course I asked after the three sisters who worked there for years before Covid, and got some of the story of how they got trapped in Queensland.
4. Tuesday. The other person in the sauna was a young woman. I made a small opening gambit – something about the wall clock having stopped – and we chatted for close to half an hour, the kind of chat that Joe Keohane says increases the wellbeing of participants. She’s a musician. I asked if I should have heard of her. ‘Not yet,’ she said modestly. But she told me her professional name and I visited her website later. When she’s famous I’ll be able to say I knew her when.
5–7. Saturday, middle of the day. An in-person birthday party for a four-year-old. I didn’t keep track of how many new people I engaged with, but I estimate at least three. Most memorably were two young parents who left Australia a bit over three years ago for one of them to work in Dublin. They got caught there by Covid–19, and returned just a couple of weeks ago, now with two young Irish-born children. I initiated the contact by advocating for their three-year-old daughter who was too shy to assert herself in the rush for a slice of the teddy-bear cake (a splendid creation of the Emerging Artist).
8. Later on Saturday. I was in the local bottle-shop’s coolroom looking for my preferred non-alcoholic drink. Two young men sauntered in, one of them lifted two cartons from the top of a pile of beer cartons, and the other picked up the two cartons below them , and they both walked out, all done smoothly and wordlessly as if they shared a brain. As I left the coolroom after them, one said to me, ‘Pretty smooth, eh?’ I said, ‘You must have done it once or twice before.’ I added, ‘I have one criticism, though. You should have taken the [brand name of top two cartons redacted].’ He was momentarily shocked. The cartons they took were also [redacted], but a different colour logo: ‘It’s a good drop, eh?’ ‘I don’t drink,’ I said, ‘but my old next-door neighbour is the brewer.’ ‘You don’t drink! You’re in the wrong place then.’ I laughed and said, ‘I can still look, can’t I?’
Running total is now 270.