Joanne McCarthy: celebrating the dawn chorus

JIM is a local, in his 70s, and every morning before sunrise he does walking circuits of town.

He won’t mind me saying he’s on the heftier side of svelte. A bit of weight gave him protection against things like colds, random attackers, yappy dogs and paparazzi, he said.

The click of his walking stick on the concrete is one of the constants of the morning – along with my dog, Lloyd, chasing rabbits up the hill; the contract cleaners talking about the state of the nation in the surf club car park; and the rituals at my eldest son’s cafe beside the beach.

In summer Jim wears dark shorts and shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. As a treat, because he knows I love it, he wears his hat with the dangling corks. His fashion ‘‘must-have’’ for last summer was a hand-held fly swatter he bought somewhere. I think it was made with old tea towels, shredded plastic bags or recycled toilet rolls. Something odd, anyway.

This week, in the frigid-finger cold before sun-up, Jim appeared in a fetching over-garment shaped like a giant bag with arms. It was some kind of felt in communist-era grey.

‘‘There are only two of these in the country,’’ he said as he ambled into view.

‘‘I’ve got one, and Black Caviar’s got the other.’’

Lloyd was wearing his black jacket with white skull and crossbone motif at the time. They made a handsome couple.

By the next circuit Black Caviar’s blanket was gone to reveal a hefty jumper. I remarked on it.

‘‘Yes. This is only my second circuit. God knows what I’ll be down to by the fourth,’’ Jim said.

The cafe opens at 5am, but it’s not unusual for the doors to be open before that, or for regulars to wander in before opening time seeking warmth, coffee or company.

There’s an ebb and flow to early-morning cafe movements, with Jim’s circuits past the tables marking off the different tides.

Between 5 and 5.30am it’s tradies hitting the F3 for the Hunter or Sydney. They talk about the surf and the weather, and their coffees are ‘‘heart-starters’’.

There’s the cabby who gives the goss on what’s happened overnight while everyone’s slept. The huge factory fire; the taxi driver who had a gun pulled on him, and this week he knew more about how Fairfax was going to fight off Gina Rinehart than even Fairfax does.

By 5.30am the first of the pre-dawn swimmers arrive with their wet hair, slightly blue skin and burning desire to get the seats beside the heaters.

It’s still dark, and daylight is just a promise of inky-blue on the horizon when the first of the ‘‘Table of Knowledge’’ regulars wanders in.

There are millionaire businessmen and builders, a senior NSW public servant, the father of a prominent NRL player, some retired NSW cops, and a retiree or six who turned up for coffee, started talking about footy and politics, and ended up at the table because nobody thought to stop them.

Big Dave, one of the most regular of the regulars who earned his name because he’s, well, big, wandered through to a lounge and stretched out until a second regular walked in.

Second regular: ‘‘You slept here last night didja mate?’’

Big Dave: ‘‘Yeah. You staying for a coffee?’’

Second regular: ‘‘Suppose I could.’’

Big Dave: ‘‘Goodonya mate.’’

On Wednesday this week a man in his 30s walked in carrying a baby girl. Trailing behind were his toddler son and daughter wearing pyjamas, dressing gowns and thongs.

The kids had the droopy eyes and slightly runny noses of some kind of mid-winter bug. The dad had the look on his face that says ‘‘No, I didn’t really sleep last night but I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since 2005 so there’s no point complaining.’’

He wanted – needed – a coffee. He was giving his wife a couple of hours rest. His own day probably started about 3am and would stretch until, say, midnight.

They trailed off into the cold and dark, back to the car, with sympathetic words from the gallery until he was out of earshot, when the blokes exchanged war stories about their kids’ illnesses from years ago – the vomiting kid who reminded his dad of the head-twirling scene from The Exorcist; the holiday that ended with a rush to hospital; the chicken pox outbreak that felled a family of five for three months.

The big topics this week were the Fairfax job cuts, chaplains in school, and Julia Gillard lecturing the G20 about how to run an economy.

‘‘What she should have said was you mine the guts out of your country and flog the proceeds,’’ said a regular who, it must be stated, is not a Gillard fan.

I thought about the communities of people who meet each morning in cafes around Australia. When people meet at night the mood is different. In the morning, and certainly the pre-dawn, there’s less artifice, and the common denominators are coffee, talk and the unspoken sense that, in the end, people like being with people.

A friend suggested I write about this today, because it’s easy to forget that despite doom and gloom from Europe, and seismic industrial shifts here, the daily rituals of life continue. The simplest and best of these is feeling good when you see a friendly face.

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