The man in the pork-pie hat

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On a Saturday morning, a few suburbs away from home, I am shopping in a produce store piled with lush peaches, avocados, tomatoes, cheeses, breads, pastries, sauces, condiments, fruits and flowers. It is a place of plenitude. Affable aproned humans are ready to help find the pomegranate molasses and fresh figs my special-occasion-recipe requires. Trolleys are politely steered by people with well-shod feet. The atmosphere is attentive and restrained.

Artist's impression of the man in the pork-pie hat, by Chris JohnstonA small commotion at the open doorway of the store catches my attention. A short man in a pork-pie hat marches across the threshold. He carries a small back pack and steps with an uneven gait. He has a sure message, calling out a gamely, 'Good morning! Good morning everyone!' He looks about with purpose as he enters the shop.

The staff behind the bread counter recognise him and call out their own hello. He continues with the energy of someone on a mission. 'Good morning young lady. Good morning young man.' He nods as he addresses people.

Initially no one replies, but eventually he gets some muted acknowledgements from bemused customers. When he comes past me, emboldened by his energy, I call a robust 'Good morning'. He does not directly reply, and I wonder if I have overstepped the mark, displaying too much exuberance in the try-hard way that seems to piggy back onto my nice-church-girl upbringing.

The man in the pork-pie hat keeps up his call and meets my eye from across the store. No offence seems to have been taken. It's amazing how rattling just saying hello can be in a restrained environment. He tips his hat. It seems designed for doffing. The hat is neat and lightweight with a narrow brim and a dark hatband. When he has completed a lap of the store's perimeter he threads his way through the crowd and leaves, still calling out as he goes.

It is such a rare thing to be greeted in this way for a non-commercial purpose. It seems the man in the pork-pie hat regards it as a civic duty to say hello to people. I think he's onto something.

This suburb used to be home to many people who were 'different'. When I was a child, our family briefly rented a house on one of the main roads. Often at the shops or tram stops were people who startled my childhood sense of 'normal' with postures, sounds and gaits I found strange.

 

"Saying hello is such a simple thing, but overlooked, mistrusted even, among strangers-who-could-be-neighbours."

 

My dad would always cheerily greet or return greetings as they moved about in herded clusters or disturbed solitude. My mother was more reserved and whispered to me not to stare, at the same time reassuring me and my little brother that all was well. She'd look up and give a quick nod and a quiet hello.

The-people-who-were-different lived in a huge institution on the hill. A far place to my child's eye. We never visited, the residents were the ones who came to the shared public space of the shops. They no longer live on the hill. Government policy and real estate values have seen them dispersed. Occasionally a hint of the former life of the suburb will reappear amidst the leafy security and large house blocks of the area.

The man in the pork-pie hat is possibly a survivor from that era, well dressed and confident; in the lingo of assessments he would be called 'high functioning'. Later I saw him treading intently across the pedestrian crossing. It was as if he was a messenger from a far place where people greeted one another as a matter of course

Saying hello is such a simple thing, but overlooked, mistrusted even, among strangers-who-could-be-neighbours. The capacity for joy, for crying out in a crowd without self-consciousness, the instinct to be glad or grateful and to signal this is often all but lost in a reserved security. Why upset the equilibrium of restraint by speaking? There is a possibility that you will say hello, initiate a greeting and then feel foolish because it is not returned — better not to risk it. Worse still, you might be greeted in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.

Activist Carly Findlay has a rare skin condition, ichthyosis, and is often dealing with people's blunt shock and rude questions — even before they offer a greeting. Finlayson says her memoir is about 'ableism, media representation and beauty privilege'. Findlay says, 'The book is called Say Hello because that's what I want people to do, instead of ignoring me, looking shocked or scared, or making a rude comment about my face.' She's not asking for the be-polite-to-the-poor-disabled-people kind of greeting. Just say hello.

On Conversations for ABC radio recently, Sarah Kanowski interviewed author Samantha Wheeler about her book Everything I've Never Said. Wheeler has a daughter with a disability who cannot speak more than a few words. The book imaginatively portrays her daughter's experience. Kanowski asked the author what she would now tell her younger self, the self who had no contact with disability. Wheeler's advice was simply to say hello, to take the risk that the person may not want to respond or be able to, but to say hello anyway.

A greeting can go wrong, it is a risk. Not saying hello has an invisible cost — at worst erasure or indifference. What is gained can be more than the sum of its parts. A greeting does not have to be a pick-up line or a marketing strategy. Something in common is affirmed. Human connectedness makes its beginning with saying hello.

 

 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.

Topic tags: Julie Perrin, disability

 

 

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Existing comments

Goodonya Julie; REALLY Goodonya! True friendliness is like pushing back the darkness but, as you say, it seems to be somewhat patchy. In my experience, walkers around Mt Gravatt hardly ever greet; whilst, walkers around Nudgee almost always do. Sunday Holy Mass at a Sandgate church kicks-off with everyone warmly greeting each other; whilst, at a Banyo church most seem stiff and frozen; and, puzzled or even put-out if you give them a cheery: "Howaryer?" Do we need a few more loving little homilies on: "The freedom and joy Christians have in Christ!"?
Dr Marty Rice | 18 March 2019


Such a beautiful story and an encouragement to break free of the usual routine and likewise just say hello
WG | 18 March 2019


Thanks, Julie. As you say, a possible non-reciprocation or rebuff is a small price to pay for a friendly greeting, the stuff that societies are made of at the grass roots . . . a stark contrast to the cartoon I saw recently that displayed a man drowning near a dam's edge, his cries for help deaf to the ears of by-standers engrossed in their phone screens.
John R D | 19 March 2019


Thankyou very much Julie. I was reminded of my mother as I read your article. We used to go shopping in Newcastle. Mum always used to stop and chat with a woman pushing her child with a serious disability. There was another woman with an intellectual disability she also used to chat with. These gestures normalised disability for me. I remember a neighbour who I would label gay now but then was simply a male that I could show my new dresses to as I would show another female. Labels have given power to gay people but I do look back to my childhood when everyone was simply human.
Anna | 20 March 2019


Thinking more about Julie's well-written article brought to mind the unnecessary losses each year in Australia caused by intentional self-harm (about three thousand) and motor vehicle accidents (about twelve hundred). Of course, numbers of people significantly injured far exceed this. What percentage of this awful annual loss might be saved from death or injury if we, as a nation, were deliberate about creating a more friendly society, where everyone was recognised and regularly greeted everyday? With self-harm the answer to this must surely be probably 50% or more? What of the road toll; surely that's unrelated? Well, maybe; but, if we had a more empathetic culture, wouldn't drivers tend to be more respectful of the humanity of other road users and so more careful how they drive? Just a thought. Maybe those of a statistical mind could help answer what impact would it have on GNP if more generous interpersonal friendliness was taught & cultivated in Australia? Also: is there any psychological data on beneficial effects (a 'pork-pie hat effect') for greeters who recognise others? My instinct is that Julie's on to a genuinely win-win mental, cultural, & economic improvement strategy. Be great to hear from the experts . .
Dr Marty Rice | 20 March 2019


People can be observed as locked into a sense of isolation or unique negative experience, even in a crowded room. We can render random acts of kindness by sharing a smile, a hello or a good morning. It is a blessing to ourselves and others to be able to experience meeting another's gaze, looking into their eyes and touching their soul.
Felicity | 04 May 2019


Sometimes people can be quite mystified if you even smile at them. I must admit, I can't help myself: I do it all the time. It's something I've done since I was a kid. Even when having a coffee at the local coffee shop, the casual smile can be the route to many interesting conversations. I'm aware that many people who live alone just come out for a coffee to 'rejoin the world'. Unfortunately mobile phones get in the way of casual eye contact and the smile that might follow. :)P
Paddy B | 06 May 2019


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