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Stranger #8 Marcia - Brass Knuckle Brass Band at Reload

Kindness of strangers

“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers” 

Blanche DuBois 

A Streetcar Named Desire

In our world where we are wary of strangers there are always people who will interject, stop and help or intervene or offer some kindness to people they do not know.  In a 2017 article in the Guardian Bim Adewunnmi describes her plane journey from New York to London then onto Nigeria.  She was challenged by border officials in London because she had too many 100ml bottles of lotions in one bag.  The man behind her in the queue, with no baggage or bottles offered to take a bag for her.  The official agreed and Adewunnmi passed onto her next flight.

Not everyone is kind.  There is an ancient story told across cultures about two men who walk into a village.  They are dressed like beggars and are going door to door to make sure everyone is nice to strangers.  In one version of the story the men are Jesus and Peter.  They arrive at the home of an old woman and beg for bread.  She gives them crumbs.  They ask for more.  Jesus miraculously increases the size of the cake baking in the woman’s oven so there is more to go around.  She refuses to share.  Jesus turns her into an owl.

In the many versions of this story the woman is turned into different birds; a woodpecker in Scandinavia, a cuckoo in Germany.  In a Moroccan version of the story Muhammad begs for food with the rich host refusing to kill a sheep for the beggar.  Muhammad is so put out when he is given a boiled cat, he brings the cat back to life and turns the man into an owl.  

In a Japanese version of the story the stranger or ijin (‘different person’) appears as a tinker or beggar but is a priest or god in disguise.  In one version Kobo Daishi, a Buddist priest, arrives at a village to ask for water.  A woman walks a great distance for the water from her home and then back to him.  As a thank you he strikes the ground with his staff and a well springs up near the woman’s home so she does not have to walk as far.  In the next village he visits he is refused water.  To punish these people he uses his staff to strike the ground and dry the well they have.  The settlement fails.

In his book “The Power of Strangers” Joe Keohane uses these stories to illustrate the leap forward humans made once they had learned how to cooperate with strangers.  Offering hospitality was the next step.  All those interactions that revolve around offering food: weddings, funerals, feast days, festivals, birthday parties.  Andrew Shryock an anthropologist who specialises in the act of hospitality says “My own hunch is that humans’ sociability is impossible without hospitality.”

Keohane describes the work of Finnish philosopher Edward Westermarck who in 1906 documents the Arabs of Sinai in his work “The Original Development of Moral Ideas”.  The Arabs would see a stranger approaching across the desert towards the camp.  The  first person who describes the visitor and declares, “There comes my guest” would be the host of the stranger.  This stranger would then be given the best seat at the table, the best food at the host’s disposal and would take precedence over all other members of the household.  Westermarck goes  on to describe the hospitality expectations of Iroquois, peoples of Aneiteum of the New Hebrides, Indians and a Vedic tradition.  The Veda declares that those who offer hospitality the first night obtain earthly happiness, the second gains middle air, the third heavenly bliss and the fourth unsurpassable bliss. Many nights offers endless worlds.

In Ancient Greece the tradition of xenia, (hospitality) grew, emanating from the tales of the gods. The name for Greek hospitality comes from the word xenos meaning stranger. Both English words xenophobia (dislike or prejudice against people from different countries) and xenophilia (love for, attraction to or appreciation of foreign peoples, cultures, manners and customs) are derived from the same root.  Xenia was not just based on the idea of being rewarded by the gods but a practical thing as Greece was a lawless place and building relationships with new people could be an advantage.  If a host offers a place for a stranger to stay the stranger will, one day, be able to reciprocate. More than that they may become allies against a common foe.

In a scene in the Odyssey when Odysseus and his men encounter the Cyclops they request hospitality.  The Cyclops responds by calling Odysseus a buffoon and telling him that he is not afraid of Zeus, god of strangers, and then, to prove the point, eats some of Odysseus’s men.  Odysseus replies telling the Cyclops that he is mad, as “...after this will any traveller come to see you?”.  The implication being that even if you are a one-eyed giant who has everything they need, and who is not afraid of gods, you still need people to visit.

It is not just the concept of hospitality that smooths the way for strangers.  There has to be occasions and places to meet up.  Visiting homes on your travels or setting up in an open space is not always possible.  Luckily, living in a city offers a myriad of places and spaces for us to meet up.  We do not always know the people we are attending with but we have a common bond before we arrive.

Reload is a bar in Sydney Building in the heart of Canberra. It offers the visitor a range of games (board and electronic), food, drink and now bands.  The utility area, behind the bar known as Verity Lane, has been done up and is used as a venue for bands.  The Brass Knuckle Brass Band, made up of two trumpets, two trombones,

Ravi, owner of Reload. Canberra Times

a drummer, a sousaphone and two saxophones of different sizes offers the listener a mix of reggae, gospel, modern pop and funk all arranged to be played by the large number of brass instruments.

The afternoon was warm and sunny, not too hot.  When my companion and I arrive most of the seats around the ad hoc stage had been taken.  It was not as hot as it has been but the sun was fierce and I had no desire to stand in the sun.  I asked a couple if they would mind sharing their table.  They agree and we sat.  The band was still in the process of setting up.  People still accessing the make-shift bar at the back of the building but many were playing the plethora of games set out on the tables.  Everything from Cards Against Humanity, Jenga, Connect 4, Giant Jenga, Uno and Bender Sender a Drinking Game.  The last one is on our table with our new companions reading some of the cards, but not playing the game.  It is offered to us.  I decline saying it is not the sort of game your children would want to play with you.

The space Reload is using has been newly developed.  Last June the works to the infrastructure of the lanes were finished both above and below ground.  Stormwater capture, new asphalt and lighting have turned the space for the rubbish into a shaded, peaceful and interesting area.  It is no longer just the back end of the businesses in the building.  The communal rubbish bins have been housed in locked boxes big enough to fit the large wheelie bins and anyone entering to drop off a bag or two.  This does not stop the European wasps from trying to enter.  Since June 2023 there have been a number of events in the laneways hosted by the businesses backing onto the space.  This feels like an inclusive space.  The band watchers are a mix of well dressed young families, people with their dogs, a group of young men with pink triangles on their shirts (I have not seen that symbol for a while) and a group of men in their 30s who like to dance.  Each has their long hair tied up in some way; a man bun, one long ponytail, the other with his unruly dark wavy hair pushed back into a loose ponytail.  They are all jigging to the beats: lost in the moment. David Byrne's "I Dance Like This" comes to mind.

The stage, still pale pine, not weathered yet, is just holding the band.  It is only raised a few centimetres, maybe 50 from the ground, the band all in close proximity, the sousaphone player at the back with some space around him to accommodate the instrument.  We get a good view from the side.  At one point a toddler with headphones climbs onto the stage to hold the leg of the sousaphone player: maybe it's her dad?

Food arrives for our table hosts.  A huge bowl of French fries, with sauce, and mayo and a plastic basket of fried something, also with sauce.  The woman in red top with matching red lipstick turns to us and offers the bowl of chips by placing them in the middle of the table.  “Too much for us.  That is a huge serve”.  She sips the pink drink she has through a straw.  Her companion, a man in his 50’s with blond dreadlocks to his bottom, takes a swig of his beer.

My companion, my son, who knows about Have We Met? Is keen for me not to talk to these two people.  He keeps looking at me with a stern ‘no’.  I ask him about six degrees of separation.  He is drawn in.  And then he challenges me.  Do you know a connection with these two people sitting next to us?  This is my way in. I introduce myself.  The woman, Marcia, is accommodating; we start to look for connection with work, she is a public servant, not surprising as most people in Canberra work for the government.  She tells me the department, but neither myself nor my son know anyone who works there.  I suggest crochet and knitting.  Most people I have met so far in Canberra are connected to the Canberra Knitters and Crocheters Group or Crafternoons at Smiths.  No she does not do craft.  But she does go to Smiths.  We talk about Nigel and Beth who run the place and our connection to them.  Not six degrees but just one; two people in common. 

Canberra is a small place, 6 degrees is often a stretch, it is often just one or two.  Smith’s Alternative is housed in the matching Melbourne Building on the other side of Northbourne Ave.  Marcia tells me that she attends the Ukulele group on a Monday lunchtime and likes to see bands there once in a while.  Smith's has a great vibe.  She tells me she has other hobbies; martial arts and goth nights. There is a judo competition next week; she has entered but this is unusual as there are not as many women who compete and finding someone in her weight class is sometimes hard.  She tells me about her work at the Department of Infrastructure.  She is an economist by profession but has moved into stats on aircraft.  I thought this might be something the Australian Bureau of Statistics kept abreast of but she informs me that her department keeps stats on cancelled flights, how many passengers, where the flights go to and what planes fly where.  I suggest this might be a job some people would find tedious; she tells me, “Not if you are me.”  The numbers excite her.  

We chat about spaces and places to meet up and how important they are in cities.  She tells me she used to work for some urban designers as urban design is all about the economics as well as planning.  She learnt a lot about design in cities and how important spaces are for interaction, safety, the feeling of belonging.

The band kicks off with some reggae numbers.  As there are no lyrics our table plays a guessing game to see if we identify the song.  I only get one; “I’ll Fly Away” from the soundtrack of Oh! Brother Where Art Thou?”  I did not have a hope of getting the Bruno Mars or Britney Spears but my son did.  

The band comes to the end of the second set, with a new band, with many drums, waiting to take the stage.  My son and I are off to walk to our next engagement; a meet up with other members of the family.  I am a little sorry not be able to stay: it looks like the dancing will be ramped up.  We say our goodbyes and thanks for the chips to Marcia and her friend.  Spending the afternoon with those you know and those you have just met and listening to music in a place that feels chilled is a privilege.

Images: Victoria Wells and Canberra Times


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