This article was posted on http://www.news.com.au/, I am not the author
June 29, 2007 12:00am
HE LOOKED like a wild and scruffy, homeless Santa Claus.
He swayed, half-drunk. He wanted a packet of smokes, had all his money spread out on the shop counter like a crooked conjurer hoping to somehow make them more. But he was 80¢ short.
And the pale shopgirl serving at the 24-hour corner store wasn’t budging. “You haven’t enough,” she said, neither rude, nor polite, just fed-up, eyeing the people in the queue behind him. This was going to be awkward.
Her mouth said: You haven’t enough. Her eyes said: Shit, why on my shift? Just go away.
I said to the young bloke serving me: “Take 80¢ from my change and give him the cigs.” The shop breathed collective relief. An embarrassing stand-off was avoided.
Then a man with arms like fat salami squeezed into tight shirtsleeves taps my arm. He looks middle-class, middle-weight and middle-aged. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he says. “Cigarettes are bad for him. He’s got to learn to make better choices.”
Better bloody choices. It’s a cold night and pouring rain, by the look of him he lives on the street but, yes, he should make better choices. He should kick the habit, pop on a nicotine patch, do a quick gym circuit and race home to steam his five cups of vegetables a day and tuck into a grilled piece of Omega-3-rich salmon. “Sure,” I say. And run to the car in the rain.
The homeless guy isn’t going away. He’s asking for a lift from a guy in a big 4WD who tells him to go away. He comes over to my window. He needs a lift to West End to find a mate. I say: “Yes.” Did the others knock him back because he was homeless or black or drunk? Am I giving him a lift to prove something? So many questions and thoughts in a split second.
Yet I’d rather give someone the benefit of the doubt and occasionally be disappointed than harden my heart and not trust a single soul.
He jumps in, fills the whole damn car with his earthy, not unpleasant smell, big coat and hair, an unruly Lion King mane. He is full of half-drunk talk. We tell each other our names, fail to understand them, on account of the music he’s turned up loud. So he calls me “darling”. I call him Alfred. Asks where I’m from. I tell him the town in north Queensland. “Hey, that’s Juipera mob. Give me a look at you. Hey, you are Juipera mob!”
“Alfred, I’m as white as the moon, fair-haired and blue-eyed, you’re drunker than I thought.”
We turn into West End’s rain-slicked Boundary St. He goes to get out, takes my hand, puts it to his cheek, as if enjoying the touch of human skin. He says it’s a cold night, he needs to find more grog. Be careful, find your mate and stay off the road, I say. “You’re an angel,” he says. I feel like screaming: no, I’m scared of my own prejudices, ashamed of the past 200 years of treatment of indigenous Australians, and overcompensating by giving a drunk stranger a lift, while fighting niggling concerns you were going to vomit in my car and steal my wallet. Apart from that . . .
In between life’s big emotional things like births, deaths and marriages, close encounters of the stranger kind fill our days. Some can leave us with fingermarks.
Writer Richard Ford, in Australia recently for the Sydney Writers Festival, fills his books like Pulitzer prize-winning Independence Day with random social interactions between strangers or passing acquaintances.
He believes many of these have a more profound effect on us than the deepest exchanges with family or close friends. Literary conventions persuade us that when we have momentous conversations, there are cymbals clashing, he says. “When, in fact, we’re talking to our realtor in the front seat of a car.”
It’s true. Random close encounters of the stranger kind often throw up all kinds of challenges and pleasant surprises and sometimes unpleasant realities. Every time we bounce up against someone, it minutely shapes us. You start passing the time of day with a stranger on a plane or a radiographer ultrasounding your kidney for potential stones, and next you’re exploring life’s big questions.
An interior designer I know says she’s seen inside more troubled marriages than walk-in robes. “As a stranger, people have a desire to tell me things because I’m not emotionally involved and I’m standing in their bedroom.”
Close encounters of the stranger kind come in many hues. I ducked into a cafe recently for a cup of coffee, ended up bumping into a businessman friend who was on his way to an art deal. Minutes later we meet the art dealer who dresses more like a house painter and slip through an obscure doorway, like Alice down a rabbit hole. It leads to a space that looked for all the world from the outside like an office, then bang! We are standing in front of a huge $45,000 piece of art. It’s a massive work, like a wall of quilts, glorious and uplifting.
I walk away wondering a hundred thoughts – what role art plays in our lives, who decides what’s worth what, wondering if buyers treasure the beauty or simply the deal.
In the bottom of my handbag, there’s a tiny scrap of paper. It came from the guts of a fortune cookie from a noodle place in Chinatown. Even as a child I’ve loved the idea of discovering your destiny in, of all places, a biscuit. It reads: “A ship in the harbour is safe but that’s not what ships are built for.”
I had no idea who said it. Some say it’s John A. Shedd in Salt From My Attic but, then, I’m sitting next to a silver-haired, thick-jumpered ex-naval man at John Bell’s breathtaking retelling of Moby-Dick at the Noosa Longweekend festival, when I accidentally pull the tiny scroll of paper out when digging for a pen.
“That’s by Admiral Grace Hopper,” he says. “There’s a bit more to it – ‘Sail out to sea and do new things’.”
It turns out Hopper, an American computer scientist and US Navy officer known as Amazing Grace, is one of his heroes. “Her motto in life was, ‘It’s easier to apologise than get permission’.”
He tells me the world can thank Hopper for the computer term “bugs”. Working on a computer at Harvard University, her colleagues discovered a moth stuck in part of it causing problems. She said they had to “debug” the system. Boom, boom. Part of the actual moth now resides at the Smithsonian Institution.
One minute I had just 15 little words on a tiny piece of paper. The next I’ve got a new hero I need to read more about. She was such a computer guru, women at Microsoft Corporation formed an employee group called “Hoppers” which offers scholarships for women. Hoppers has some 3000 members worldwide.
Whether it’s Noosa or West End or left brain or right, whether well-heeled or homeless, close encounters of the stranger kind are what life is about. I hope Alfred the Lion King found his mate. It is always a mistake, according to Buddhism, to think your soul can go it alone.