I have lived in the city my whole life, and it has made me defensive. I avoid people’s eyes when I’m walking down the street; I avert my face from the stranger on the train. You never know when you will be asked if you have been saved (correct answer: yes, thank you, and hallelujah! This is my stop...); asked if you have a dollar; or told at great length about tedious grandchildren. Perhaps this is why so many of us drive – it’s a great way to stay in one’s bubble.
This regular practice of avoidance takes its toll, however. I’ve done it for so long that it has become a habit of mind; and I realise that, rather than it being a deliberate strategy I adopt when necessary, it has become my starting point. I now find myself avoiding people when I have no need to: in the playground, on the footpath, sometimes even at home without really meaning to. It’s not that I don’t want to talk. It’s just that somehow it’s all a bit hard, and the sense of risk outweighs the possible benefit.
Not long ago, I climbed onto a bus. There was a vacant seat next to a crinkly old man. His crumpled face was dotted with liver spots and skin tags. He had grown too small for his clothes and they hung from his skinny little frame. One glance, and my alarm bells began to ring. Would he insist on telling me about his long life? Would he be smelly, perhaps even incontinent? Would he be very strange?
I didn’t know, but I am sick of that constant companion, trepidation. So I sat next to him – coward that I am, however, I armed myself with a book.
But buses and books don’t agree with me, so I soon shut it again. And the man, whom I had felt reading over my shoulder, asked me what I thought of it. ‘I knew the author,’ he said, ‘when he was at Melbourne University. His wife and mine were great friends. But I haven’t read that one.’
‘Oh?’ I asked, ‘and what did you study?’
‘I was a teacher,’ he said. ‘I taught a lot of new migrants. Had a terrific time. They called me il Professore!’
I read with refugee kids each week, so I mentioned that. And we suddenly launched into one of those great big life-giving conversations, ranging from refugee kids, ghetto schools and educational practices, to the process of writing and action research. ‘Life,’ I suggested, ‘is one big action research project’ and he nodded emphatically, and laughed.
He told me about volunteering with older boys at the youth remand centre. He encouraged them to write stories about their life ‘behind the roller door’, and arranged to have their work published. ‘You’re authors now,’ he’d say to them, ‘so write more! Write more!’
‘What a man!’ I thought. It was the best conversation I’d had in weeks, the sort of I’d hope for at a good party.
The burden of living in a city is also its great gift: the daily interactions with strangers. It takes time and energy, and the bypassing of caution, to engage in these friendly encounters. But when I do, there is one thing I’ve learned: I am surprised and delighted time and again, even on the local bus.