Have you ever been alone in a city? I don’t mean just by yourself, like spending the day alone in the park or at the museum. Nor do I mean traveling alone, where your whereabouts are known to friends and family. I mean alone. Really alone. I was once. While I was living in Kansas City. This was about six months or so before I met Thene, my wife, and I was working for a construction company that was doing work for the Housing Authority. As I was walking along one day, it occurred to me that if anything happened to me, no one would know. Oh sure, I had my driver’s license on me, but the fact is, I was alone. I had no family in KC and no one to call or be called if I needed help. It was kind of scary, but also very liberating. I was completely free, bound only by laws and morals.
Having walked around Sydney for the last six weeks (a business trip for her and an adventure for me), I’ve had a similar experience. I typically do not wander around with my passport; I tend to leave it locked up in the hotel room. Uncharacteristically, I was carrying my Missouri driver’s license but normally I don’t carry that either. And though my wife would have noticed my absence, given that our cell phones don’t work in Sydney, she would have had to have waited until she returned to the hotel room to notice my absence. OK, so now after writing this, I realize the utter stupidity of this and promise my wife, my friends and everyone else that I will never do this again and promise to keep relevant emergency contact information on my person at all times (kids, let this be a lesson to you). Never-the-less, the experience reminded of my time in KC. As I looked around, I began to really notice the people surrounding me. They’re no different than anyone you’d find in any big city anywhere in the world (I imagine). But after watching them, it occurred to me that some of them must have truly intriguing (or heart wrenching) stories; or perhaps a bit of both.
Sydney has its share of the Homeless, and though I found this particularly odd due to the social nature of the government, I was told that, as in the States, many are drug addicts who “choose” street life (if anyone ever really chooses such a life). But one man I saw was particularly unique. I couldn’t help but notice him one morning as I was leaving the corner grocery store. His appearance was so shocking and comical that I let out an inadvertent laugh, though I later regretted it. He was fast walking, as though with great determination, with his arms folded tight against his chest. A Caucasian man, his hair was a curly mass that encircled his head and face like a great charcoal mane. His torso was covered in what looked to be a short sleeved black lace dress, which on a young woman might come to her mid-thigh. His legs were covered in tight-fitting, sapphire sweat pants. And on his feet he wore backless, fuzzy pink bathroom slippers. Ya just can’t make up something like that. Shamed by my initial laugh; I imagine these were the only clothes he man had. For him, his options were pretty clear; either wear this ridiculous outfit, or do his impression of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. As unkempt as he was, as oddly attired as he was, he seemed to have great dignity. I’m reminded of a scene from MASH when Hawkeye pulled a really good gag on Charles and though humiliated, Charles walked away with his head held high. That’s how this man walked; with dignity, and purpose. What’s his story? Where was he going? Where was he from? He may show up in a book one day; perhaps the misunderstood protagonist.
Or how about the twenty-something bartender who left her home in Ireland two years ago and struck out for Australia to find her own way. What kind of courage it must have taken to venture out like that. Or the 45 year old, recently divorced Scottish woman we “adopted” during our hike around Palm Beach who was fulfilling a 30 year dream to visit Australia.
Of course there are stories about people NOT alone. While walking through Hyde Park one morning (yep, they have one of those here too) I heard music floating over the breeze. I listened closely and could discern that is was string music, like a violin. I followed the sound to two young, Asian women practicing their violins in the park on a sunny mid-week morning. It was surreal. They weren’t playing together, so the sound was dissident, but still lovely. So who were these women? Like I said, they were not playing together, so it wasn’t an impromptu performance for money. Were they musicians from the opera house? Were they students from St. Mary’s College up the street. Later, as I was leaving the park, I saw a woman carrying a cello in the direction of the violinists. Was the duet going to blossom into a trio? It did not. But I was reminded of a Christmas cartoon I saw years ago involving a musical cricket in New York City. It was a good memory.
My dad called it people watching, not a new phrase, but until now I’d never really done it. Oh sure, I’d see someone that caught my eye, like the man in the black dress (though I gotta tell ya, even THAT was a new one), but I’d never really asked myself, “What are their stories?” Or maybe I just never asked.
On our first day here, we met a young couple on the train, travelling with their two toddlers. Our accents betrayed us, but no worries. Americans are well received here and the Aussies are always curious to know what brings travelers to their shores. We learned that they were on the way to her parent’s house to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. How many people do you know who have been married for 40 years? And what a blessing to be included (if only by notice) that such an accomplishment had been achieved.
A proud lot, the Aussies, they’re anxious to tell their story and invite you to be a part of it. On ANZAC Day, we met a couple while waiting for the parade. They provided the narrative for the procession, adding a depth of meaning that could never have been conveyed by a book. After mentioning our apprehension about driving here in Australia, they told us about their daughter who’s married to a fellow Aussie, who races on the American NASCAR circuit and lives in Colorado. “If he can drive race cars in America,” they said, “You should be able to drive here.” I chided back, pointing out that it’s a lot easier for their son-in-law owing to the fact that he only had to turn in one direction.
Perhaps the best part about being “alone” in a big city is the opportunity to learn the stories of the people around you. Traveling is all about new experiences and when you’re alone, you are forced to interact with other people if only to purchase a bus ticket or order a cappuccino. With few exceptions, most of the people I’ve met have appreciate my efforts to learn who they are, not just who Hollywood portrays them to be. So I open my mouth, and say, “Hi!”