I shift my gaze to the right to find a man’s face a couple of inches from mine.
“oh! I thought you were drawing!”
“nah, just studying.” I had woken that morning so excited to see an absence of rain that I just had to do my study in Civic Square that day. And the interaction that follows made it well worth the effort.
“Are you an artist?”
“No haha, quite far from it! Are you?”
“I do Maori carving! Look, I made this guitar pic from bone! What about music, do you do music?”
“I do actually! Piano and voice, mainly”
“Wow! I sing like a dying ngeru. That’s Maori for cat, by the way. Look, I’m learning the windpipe! Except I sat on it so I had to duct tape it. Why is duct tape called ‘duck tape’? It doesn’t quack!”
The gentleman rummaged in his bag and pulled out some cracked wooden tubes, strung together with rainbow-coloured yarn, sporting a new addition of grey duct tape around its edges. After giving me an impressive demo, despite the circumstances, the conversation continued:
“So, you study? Where?”
“Victoria- just up the hill there.”
“Oh, Victoria! That’s really hard to get into. I tried. But they won’t take Maoris who can’t read or write very well. I wanted to do carving there, you see. And WINZ have let me down this week. You see, I’ve got all my carving tools in storage, but I missed my storage fee this week because WINZ stuffed up. Anyway so I’d better not lose my storage, because then I’ll have nowhere to keep my tools!”
(I’m pretty sure Victoria don’t teach carving but that’s beside the point).
“That sounds really frustrating!! Do you know somewhere else where you could study carving?”
“I’ve asked Whitireia- they want people who can read and write too. You see its so hard for us guys. And WINZ keep telling me I need to get a job, but its not as easy as that you know? And I almost have my bus driving license, but its too expensive to do the last bit. And, e hoa (friend), you should see the men’s home! Oh! I didn’t introduce myself!”
After an exchange of names, my new hoa continued.
“Yeah anyway the men’s home is terrible- I’m not a lunatic, you know! I said to WINZ, don’t put me in there with all those crazies, I’m not like them, you know! The guys always ask me if they can play my XBox with me, I say nah man! Get your own! I don’t really trust them with my stuff that much aye.”
The gentleman blessed me with more insight of what its like to be scraping and crawling everyday to make ends meet, only to be treated by society like its your own fault. The topic moved from WINZ, to the expenses of Wellington CBD, to job prospects, to bike repair, to Maoritanga, to his previous jobs driving tourists around Fox Glacier.
And then I learnt about his new security guard friend who’s been giving him dating advice…
“Yeah, he said, bro! Don’t just ask a girl out when you first meet her! She’ll be running down the street to Stuart Island! You’ve got to get to know her first! You know, like, if I wanted to ask you out, I’d make the effort to get to know you first, like what I’m doing now…”
uh oh… I know where this is going…
“Yeah so like for example, if I were ask you out, just for example…”
Pull out now bro… Don’t do it…
“Yeah, uh, I suppose I’m asking you out.”
And I just felt disappointed.
He wasn’t dangerous. He wasn’t creepy. He was just lonely, and excited that someone had actually bothered to treat him like a valued human being.
I felt disappointed because, at this point, due my age compared to his, my gender, and potential vulnerability, I needed to withdraw from the interaction to ensure my safety.
I felt disappointed because the encounter, until now, had been incredible. It was definitely soul-restoring for me, and it may well have been for him too. And now, unfortunately for the both of us, the conversation needed to end.
Finally, I felt disappointed for him. He has great potential to develop and maintain meaningful social connections, if he just practised a little more self-control. Then my disappointment transferred to anger at our social systems that have stripped so many of our tangata of the opportunity to operate as equally valued members of society. I am convinced that my new friend’s lack of social self-control is not his fault.
Nevertheless, I made a connection which enlightened my mind, fulfilled my heart, and renewed my soul.