Summer night on Swanston

Summer wafts down Swanston Street and we float along in its warm evening breeze, all bare arms and sandals. I’ve left the woes of war and capitalism in my stuffy air-conditioned office at RMIT. A mild sun has kindly warmed the pavement throughout the day, and I nestle into a doorway to watch the crowd go by.

They come in waves, you realise when you sit still for long enough. On this summer night they meander by in big chatty groups that look like they’re together, but then you realise they’ve just crossed at the lights at the same time. The city churns in cycles and rhythms, forming us as one and dispersing us just as quickly, like sand on the beach.

She is playing the piano; her white hair becomes a dramatic veil as she sways back and forth over the keys. Her face is somewhere else; her arms stretch far and wide so that each key is visited – tenderly, passionately – by a nimble finger. I wonder how many poems have been written, inspired by her.

A crowd has formed and I can tell some people have been there all night. I imagine that they are receiving some kind of healing. People stop in their tracks, in the middle of conversations, arguments. Orange and blue money drifts into her hat.

Rob is doing his drawing on the pavement, a few metres down – more architecture, really, as he chalks up his grand designs with arches and ruled lines. A few people say hello as they walk by, have a quick chat. If he didn’t live on the streets, and if she didn’t live in a hotel, we might call this an ‘art space’ and serve coffee or chai. If they were richer again, people might pay for the experience.

But in these city margins we are given a taste of high culture, all for free. Around their art a spontaneous, temporary community forms – art appreciators from all walks of life (streeties, suits, people in wheelchairs). We slump against stone walls and shutters, content smiles on our faces.

Her son comes by to help her pack up. “One more, one more,” she calls out, holding up a finger. He shakes his head and laughs as “one more” turns into about four more. A smattering of applause follows each piece (Chopin, Beethoven, The Beatles). Her son is clapping loudest of all.

Eventually she is gone and the crowd dissolves, sand to be washed up somewhere else.