Monthly Archives: August 2013

Spirit of Place

Saturday has a slightly different flavour. It seems as though people are taking a little more time to meander down the street. “It’s a nice street on a Saturday”, one man says, “if you saw me on a Monday or a Tuesday going to work, I wouldn’t be in such a friendly mood.”

I am glad to see several of my neighbours shopping local. I also meet the self-confessed, “Hackney’s answer to Mr Angry,” who finds, despite its architecture, the street “is tacky. I wish two thirds of the Pound Shops, pawn shops and nail bars would go.” He shared his opinions, but was friendly, and clearly cares about the neighbourhood. Several people have said to me, “wouldn’t it be nice if there was a café?”

Busyness as an impediment to friendliness came up. Someone said, “people get tangled up in work, have no social life, then they’re unhappy. They don’t communicate outside their family and friends. Instead of bars, there are casinos (betting shops), so there’s nowhere to meet people.” One person says of the Narrow Way, “it needs to change its psyche”.

Someone else dreams, “Imagine a roof over the street, a bar and some music…and old, young, fat, thin, beautiful, ugly, a real mixed bag of everybody.”

Someone reveals a rich seam of local history to me. Apparently “some of the oldest remains in the south of England have been found near here; evidence of an ancient settlement, adjacent to Hackney Brook”, which ran up past Hackney Downs. The buildings in the Narrow Way are a higgledy-piggledy “mix of different widths and heights” because of the medieval plots that the original buildings were built on.” Appropriately enough, “the graveyard is the dead centre of Hackney.” Look up next time you are passing to see the variety of the buildings.

The debate whether Hackney is or isn’t friendly, provoked mainly affirmative responses today, (perhaps there is a sunshine/weekend factor too). Variously people said, “that’s true”, “wonderful experiences of friendliness in my street”, “it’s a lovely message”, “wonderful smile and welcoming ‘hi’ – should have more people doing it”, and “there are some lovely people in Hackney. I think so”.

I wished someone who is 18 today a “Happy Birthday!” One very engaged parent sees “parents lapse”, and “kids grow up too fast, wanting boyfriends at 12”, their offspring meanwhile did a beautiful drawing with felt tips.

Someone talked about their own transformation. “The only way you can get out of poverty is to get a good education. Reading is the key. The key to knowledge.” Someone suggested, “rich people often barricade themselves in”, describing, “isolation as corroding for people”.

I was asked today about “the nature of friendliness”, and “what does it mean to be friendly?” One person answered this as “openness”, but closely linked to “kindness”, and also “community spirited.”

A few paces from the cart, a man tripped and fell. Someone passing asked him, “Are you alright?” Once back on his feet, he carried on his way. There was a lively exchange afterwards about the best question to ask someone in trouble, as “obviously, they’re not alright”. Someone explained that, “Can I help you?” would have been a more courteous and practical question to ask. This demonstrates how a well-phrased open question can allow a more appropriate response.

Someone asked me about my experiences and epiphanies of the project. I tried to describe something of the awe I feel at the journey so far. They then brilliantly described (using the felt-tips to draw a Venn diagram) the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project in terms of a Roman idea; where “Hackney (the place), is (the action of the project which celebrates the place), friendly (the people, who nurture and sustain the place). If any one of these three goes, the whole system falls apart. These three interdependent elements come together as “the spirit of place – the Genius Loci. You are accidentally representing the Genius Loci. This is one of the most powerful things you could do.” It is certainly a very powerful experience, and the people I meet reveal a spirit of place, which is enlightening.

These are just a few of the people I met today:

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Organic Magic

The design of the barrow – two wheels and two handles to pull it – becomes a conversation about rickshaws, with someone from Sri Lanka, and we marvel at the twenty 45kg bags that might be carried on one.

The memories and histories that people bring to Hackney creates “the most incredible diversity ever” which people often tell me they love about the place. I feel privileged to hear snippets from some of these life stories.

Someone tells me about the importance that “gathering life histories” can have working with elders in dementia care. At the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project, these fragments of real lives become doorways into communication, finding subjects, that can allow two or more people to connect.

A visitor from Christchurch in New Zealand spoke about the aftermath of the earthquake there. While there is “a lot more resilience” in the community, she described the “impact of trauma” still unfolding now, two years on, and the ongoing stress caused by the damage, delays in insurance payouts and the fear of it happening again.

Whatever the background, culture or origin of someone, the aim of being friendly for me, is to find a shared humanity. This ethos is recognised by many who say “feel the love” or something encouraging.

Two young adults setting out into the world of work see the need for friendly skills in professional life. A series of conversations with parents and adults who have worked with children explored the difficulty of teaching the next generation to be friendly. I heard that “parents are afraid.” There is widespread “fear of paedophiles”, and “kids are taught not to take sweets from strangers.”

“Even kids age five have phones so their Mums can check up on them.” The retreat from the streets into the technological world of social media and games keeps coming up. Twinned with loss of the physical – no longer doing things like skipping and playing in the park.

One Mum likes the project because it shows how social interaction on the street should be, and contradicts the interior world that her kids think is normal. Someone suggested that we need to “empower people to feel safe”, by teaching them to say no and create boundaries.

Lots of positive feedback tells me that the project is understood and valued by many. “We need this everywhere”, someone says. Someone else finds that “it’s difficult to talk to people in the street, and you need a place where it is normal to speak, a meeting point.”

The boxes to sit on in the Narrow Way are allowing more conversations to happen naturally it seems, and at the barrow, people are not just talking to me, they are talking to each other. Someone shy finds it helpful to “take a role”. Someone else says, “people are curious”, but to encourage friendliness, “smile!”

One man sees some communities “separating themselves – their daughters can’t mix with our daughters.” Someone talks about a generation that is too insular, knowing only home and school near by. “It is important for people to have different experiences. People are the sum of their experiences.” We talk further and agree that “love is the foundation” of everything.

A chance conversation with a friendly regular last week uncovered someone who loves to skate but has no skates. This week we managed to unite him with an old pair of rollerblades. This was a small piece of organic magic which happened, and made us happy. He assured all present that the next time we saw him it would be “like a flash.”

“Hackney has always been friendly”, said one man, and another found it “neutral with a diversity of friendliness”, but celebrated the fact that things like this can happen here. “This is the coolest place in the world right now.”

These are just some of the people I met today:

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Social Consciousness

A young man points at the banner, which reads ‘Hackney is friendly?’ “That’s a lie. Take it down!” he says with force. For him, it did not provide an opening gambit to conversation.

Someone else, distracted by the barrow, chuckled, “it made me laugh, made me feel good, made me forget what I was doing.” For many people, the barrow does provide a starting point for communication. “That’s a good idea, because some people are lonely. I’m not lonely, I’m just nosey,” said one woman. Some of the people who chat to me may be lonely, but I have the sense that people talk to me or approach the cart for all sorts of different reasons.

The kind of interactions and the subjects that people raise vary hugely. I try to follow the flow, to pay attention, to meet each person. I am moved when someone said, “you are looking at me with love.” Multi-person conversations happen, which can create a more complex dynamic. After one of these, someone observed, “I wouldn’t have heard that woman’s opinion without this.”

Chance encounters with strangers can be wonderful and surprising. I am greeted with “Kupla” (Klingon for hello), by someone sporting a ‘Klingon disrupter’ and Starship Enterprise shirt. After speaking for some time, we part with the appropriate hand gesture and salutation, “Live long and prosper”.

Although I meet many who find Hackney friendly, there is a feeling, often voiced by very friendly people, that it isn’t easy to be friendly here. One theme that continues to be explored in different conversations is the tension that exists between different people. The financial pressures on those who were “born in Hackney, grew up in Hackney, but can’t afford to live here”, is a recurring lament. Those who own their house may be winning, but rising rents are forcing out their kids, and the people who are not in a position to buy.

Someone who has recently left cited, “too many children are going the wrong way – drugs and all that.” Crime is also a part of the picture. Someone looking at the banner says, “That’s ironic, I’ve just had my phone nicked.”

I meet parents, grandparents, and kids. Being a parent is not an easy job in our “i-culture”, where kids use technology, but may miss out on learning “social consciousness”. I meet a father in search of justice who wants to be more involved in his daughter’s life, and finds that the legal system seems to be stacked in favour of mothers.

For many who have lived in other parts of London or the South East, it does seem that Hackney’s rich diversity offers a friendly welcome, but for those from further afield I hear that it seems to be less so. A visitor from Canada admits that so far she finds “London is not friendly”, and we discussed why this might be. “British reserve” certainly plays its part. Perhaps those she chatted to gave her reason to change her mind.

“I’m from the Caribbean, and everyone there greets everyone on the bus or in a shop whether they know each other or not,” someone says. While big place/small place, and rural or city are factors, there are cities out there that I hear are more friendly than London.

I ask people about friendliness, and they ask me about my experiences too. I try to explain how hearing so many points of view has changed my own. “Were you a generaliser, or narrow-minded before?” someone asks me, “Didn’t you know everyone is different? That’s just common sense.” I thought I knew, but hearing personal experiences is very powerful, and I feel that I understand something of the differences I see in a more meaningful way than I did before.

Every day on the Narrow Way I meet people who are busy in small, often unseen ways, knitting our community together. I meet mentors and those actively doing things to bring positive engagement, communication and skills. I ask them how we can improve things. “It’s got to start with education, and it’s got to start young,” said one, who told me about the potential in and around schools where children and parents meet people from other cultures. Another talked of the many small projects all working independently in different ways, and the possibility of them gradually coming together.

One man tells me about his experience of falling victim to bad luck in New York, followed by finding extraordinary unexpected generosity. He shares stories and rhymes with me, and others at the cart. “How can we make our community better?” I ask, “More of this free stuff, do something for love”, he replies.

These are just some of the people I met today:

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Extraordinary People

As people walk down the street, I look for small signs of interest, a glance that might allow engagement. I cannot know what someone else is carrying with them – their history, and circumstances; but I notice body language – posture that is weighed down, or proud, gestures that are confident or shy, faces that are closed or open, pace and styles of walk that say, “I’m busy,’ or ‘I have time’.

Two of us today hold the space by the barrow and wait to see who enters into it. Some come to say, “I love this idea,” best of luck to you,” or wave in friendly solidarity. Others bring issues and opinions that they are grappling with.

Many return visitors invest something into a budding relationship with the project. This capital of friendly goodwill is growing. It feels as though something is sprouting, and at some unknowable time and place in the future, this will bear fruit.

I experience a series of wonderful meetings with extraordinary people, who each share something of them-selves and may have something to teach me.

Someone talks to me about the injustices and contradictions they see living in this borough with its “extremes.” They speak of a movement in America where citizens “take back the streets.”

One conversation about the nature of being human expands into a philosophy for life. “Use your super powers for the general good of the populace, or for your own selfish ends. Kindness starts with being kind to yourself”.

Another of these conversations was with a philosopher who probed into my thinking processes with provocative questions that explored the NHS, democracy, history, greed and hunger; each question opening up more and more uncertainty in me and expanding the conversation.

A mum whose friendliness is a way of life tells me, “I talk to everyone. It’s just in me. It’s not the way I was brought up. I was told, ‘you shouldn’t talk to strangers.’ I tell my son that, but it’s different for an adult.”

Last week, someone suggested bubbles. Today some kids helped us to make bubbles happen. They turned in circles and let the wind blow the bubbles. Then some adults experimented with bubbles, which felt like a brilliant leap, being playful together, changing the dynamic of the street.

Some take ‘Hackney is Friendly’ to mean happy. I am often smiling, the barrow is colourful, happiness is a good thing, but it is not the only way to be friendly, (although for some it can allow a way into connection). “I’m not happy,” someone said today. “Want to chat?” I ask, “No, I’m joking,” they reply, and we laugh.

One man remembers Hackney 53 years ago. “There was more freedom then – a game of dominoes, going to the pub. It was every man’s dream to have a car.” Now he has a car but regulations make it impossible to park.

Someone asks me for my opinion on difficult conundrums about politics and religion. I notice that through meeting and talking to people, my own views have become less certain. I say, “things mean different things to different people.” We speak of generational or cultural differences. Everything is relative.

In conversation with the philosopher, the responsibility for government is brought down to its smallest unit, the relationship between two people. “Government is people,” he says. “Communities happen one person at a time”, says someone else. Hackney may be a place, but more importantly, it is people.

These are just a few of the people I met today:

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Why Am I Doing This?

Without the buses, there seem to be fewer people in this part of Mare St. A conversation with one trader echoed opinions I have heard from others whose livelihood relies on passing trade. His plea was for the council to “monitor what’s going on and bring back the buses. It’s killing trade.”

Since the school holidays started, there are more kids around. Children dare to stare at me. They turn their heads, dragging behind a parent or a pram to have a better look, and sometimes run back to ask something or pick up a card. They look at the barrow’s colour and have not yet learned the cynicism that the adult world requires. They say the words on the banner and ask direct questions.

“What are you doing?” one girl asks me. When I reply that, “I am here to have conversations,” we start again. Very formally she asks me, “How are you today?” and I reply, “I’m very well thank you.” An adult admits, “I’m suspicious of friendliness,” as I suspect many others have learned to become.

“Why are you doing this?” One man asks me. I can’t now recall how I replied, as it was part of a much longer conversation that meandered through a range of subjects. One answer is that I was inspired by my own experience of small friendly exchanges locally, particularly between the diverse range of dog owners, and the gradually increasing number of faces I have got to know and greet in the street.

One local smiling face has been a particular inspiration – Shiva, our local newsagent who supplies our family with Oyster top-ups. In the unleashing of mayhem and anger on the night of the riots in 2011, his shop was totally trashed. He was unaware of the effect his friendly presence had in the daily encounters of many people. Consequently, when a campaign took hold to raise money to put him back in business again, there was overwhelming support for him both locally and in a web campaign that moved people to contribute from further afield. He was amazed.

Myriad random moments and small exchanges took place on the street again today. I shared three words of Hindi with someone who was also not Indian, but is interested in the sound of words. Someone who described me as “being in the pink army” left me pondering on an African saying, “Beware when a naked man offers you a shirt.”

“Is this a collection?” someone asks, “No, but I can give you a postcard,” I reply. “What are you selling?” someone else asks, “Nothing, but would you like a postcard, or a chat?” I have had postcards printed, with small images of people who have taken part in the project that reads, “Greetings from Hackney.” I hope these cards will go out into the world to make more connections.

I met 8 of the people who are pictured on the card today, “That’s brilliant, cool!” was a typical response to being given one. Two kids used the felt-tips on the barrow to customize the cards. One changed it to read, “Greetings Earthlings.”

I met relative newcomers to the area and people who have been here for many years. I heard about a new live music venue that will be opening in Hackney Central. “Hackney has really changed in the two years I’ve been here, it’s not so scummy,” one person said. I heard from someone who’s been here for 35 years whose friend originally “thought they were mad coming to Hackney”.

One in depth conversation detailed a history of Hackney over the last 55 years from “village thoroughfare”, the Krays’ operations here, “white flight”, “the 70’s when all the squats were here,” “Centreprise coming from Harlem and becoming a hub,” to when “Hackney became known as the worst borough, which was propagated by the media.” The truth is that, “bad things happen here and elsewhere.” We talked about the differences between grassroots action and top down politics.

Over the years, someone has witnessed “waves of outsiders” coming to Hackney. Post riots I was left wondering how it might be possible to build bridges between people with different views or experiences, and people who may feel like ‘outsiders’ or be perceived as ‘outsiders’.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems of our society, I don’t have the power to make big changes, I don’t have instant solutions, but I do see that Shiva’s daily practice of being friendly had far greater consequences than he could have imagined. A friend recently quoted Margaret Mead, “Never doubt the capacity of an individual to change the world, for it’s all that ever has.” Can the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project spark small dialogues and actions between individuals that make a difference? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a try.

These are a few of the people I met today:

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Undercover Positivity

From the moment the barrow leaves the workshop where it is stored, there are a stream of looks, reactions and comments. This ‘performance’ takes me past those that hang out at the bottom of Clarence Road, (a friendly crowd who are now used to my comings and goings). One regular gives me a peck on the cheek today, which although not appropriate according to my own guidelines, feels like a mark of acceptance.

I navigate the pedestrian crossing at the lights and head down the Narrow Way. I set the barrow down where the pavement is wide, north of St Augustine’s Tower, ready to engage.

The curious but unsure read one of the signs on the barrow or take a card, then continue on their way. Some ask what I am doing, but choose not to enter into conversation further, others chat. “Hackney is getting friendly,” came one view. “Hackney is friendly, but…you’ve got to watch your back”, said someone whose neighbour had just returned having had his bike wheels stolen in a few short minutes. “It depends on the effort you put in,” suggested someone, making a fair point.

I am asked for my view by someone; who then introduced me to the concept of ‘Positive Psychology’ (the scientific study of what makes people happy). I am interested to hear about it. “If you write down three positive things that you’ve done today it increases your wellbeing.” I am very aware that the ‘Hackney is friendly?’ question seems to be answered in terms of a general ‘glass half empty’ or ‘glass half full’ view of life. Luckily mine is usually half full.

Six ‘chuggers’ just down the street arrive and create a net to catch a different kind of conversation. They are unusually keen and step towards their targets with a forthright, “How are you today?” I hook one of them myself, to try and glimpse something of their experience of the pavement we share. I found a young person whose passion for the charity they serve was clear. They felt that if the public only knew what was happening in the world’s crisis locations, they would donate, “I can’t understand why people aren’t running up to me.”

I watch passers by swerve to avoid the fund-raisers, shutting them out by lowering their gaze. Vying for the attention of those who might be open to communication, I relocate further north.

For charities and many of the traders in the street, there are slim financial pickings in these straightened times. Prices and the cost of housing and food are recurring themes in conversations. Someone today felt that the street needed another good value pound shop, while another saw where, “those who can afford to buy good food may choose other spending priorities instead”. We talked about the vicious circle of the greed driving corporate privatisation of services, fuelled by advertising, and our complicity at chasing low prices, at the expense of independent shops.

Despite all the reasons to see hard times, there are also many people out there in small often un-noticed ways working with good intentions. Someone today described our society as “a block of flats where a few people are cleaning up all the shit.” I guessed they were one of the ‘cleaners’.

Every day I am out on the street, I discover these undercover workers striving for the good of all, and I am often surprised by what they look like, and how they are using their individuality to bring about change.

One inspiring individual working with “sport, music, creativity, and sharing through the things that people love,” sees how “creativity has no borders,” so can bring people together. We talked a shared dream to build bridges between different groups within the community. He quoted John Lennon, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality”.

These are a few of the people I met today:

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Peddling Conversation

The ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project is gradually building momentum. People are returning and connections are slowly building. “Everything builds from the past,” someone says today.

With total strangers topics like the weather, and Hackney are safe opening gambits but as I get to know people we range further afield exploring the “interesting times we live in.”

The pedestrianisation is an ongoing theme which continues to provoke strong views positively and negatively. The wooden boxes which have appeared, to make informal seating and planters are referred to by some as “coffin boxes”, and sat on by others. People come to ask me what’s going on. I tell one man about the planting workshop (this Sunday 11am-4pm) and they ask, “Can we plant marijuana? It would make people happy!”

Most pass by without speaking to me, but some say, “I love Hackney”, or “I shall miss it when I go back to Camden Town.”

The street seems quiet this afternoon – until a lost child stirs a great commotion up and down the Narrow Way, with women of all ages bursting into a tsunami of conversation during and after the finding of the child.

At the barrow, the art of being friendly is discussed. Someone talks about the great benefit of offering, “appreciation, being nice, kindness, simply by extending your greetings.” There is consensus that people need to learn social skills. Someone finds that “people are all so tied up with their own selfish worlds,” that they don’t have time to chat. Someone mentions lives “lived behind a screen,” where real eye contact and relationships are not developed.

Some of the friendliest people I meet often describe being regarded as mad for chatting to people at bus stops. Someone says of the project, “It’s a great idea. It might actually teach people to respect each other.” Being friendly with a stranger involves taking a risk, which can be scary. It means risking being rejected or dismissed as mad.

Someone on their way to go swimming considered the potential risk involved in going down a shute at the pool “at my age”, and someone else told me about the “great risk they had taken in their life at middle age,” which they have navigated, through being radically honest.

During a conversation about the benefits of travel – to learn about other people and other ways of life – someone from Tooting arrived. One woman described London’s north/south divide, “like crossing the Berline Wall, going south of the river for the first time when I’d just retired.”

Another conversation about the society we live in, and the democratic process, explored where we may be “losing our rights”. One determined and informed person said, “If it matters to me I’ve got to stick up for their rights.” We talked about the spread of corporate space. Someone else talked about shopping centres, and their popularity, “I hate those places”, they said. It was pointed out that in standing on the street with my barrow I am technically peddling, engaging with people, and exchanging ideas.

These are just some of the people I met today:

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Weaving Threads

Across the whole of London, the Hackney Empire is known and respected for its pantomime. I suspect there is something particular about Hackney that welcomes and enjoys this lively art form with all its brash colour, humour and audience participation. Panto is the offspring of Victorian music hall entertainment that also blossomed in the east end was thriving when the Hackney Empire was built in 1901.

We have a lively chat with someone from the Empire about the sponsored ‘Dame Dash’ (yes you can join in on October 27th). There is teasing talk of wigs and thigh boots. By chance someone involved in legendary community pantomimes in Hackney over the years, also came to chat today. I remember one many years ago, which has lived on in my memory for its extraordinary panache and the social glue that it created.

I am probably more Dame than Principal boy, in dress at least. Over and over again people come to see, “what’s all this then?” because they are “attracted by the colour” or the “flowers and smiles”. Someone who “loves to chat to people,” has “a wardrobe full of colourful clothes,” but has to “dress plain for work”. Many of those who admire my colourful attire are also people of style and colour themselves. We notice people dressing more brightly in this warm weather.

One of the threads that wove through today’s conversations was creativity and the making of things, often my apron or the banner as starting point. I met people who like to crochet, make jewellery or want to do some sewing; and I had my photo taken with a Lomo camera that had the gentle click of a non-digital gadget. “What do you like making?” I asked someone, who without hesitation replied, “noise, mess and out”.

Two friendly policemen were up for a chat, and I asked them about their experience of working in Hackney. “it’s like Thunderbirds: anything can happen,” one said. We discussed some of the topical issues around policing, and I asked what they thought the biggest problem in the area was. “Gang on gang crime,” they answered. Playing neither heroes nor villains in this piece, it was interesting to hear about things from their vantage point.

I was delighted to meet more genuine stars; people who bring a huge positive attitude to their interactions, and share stories, and friendliness. Lots of people are also returning to say hello and see what’s going on. Someone who has come from Blackpool, “where everyone talks to everyone” finds it different here, and is working on improving things in their community.

Someone pointed out that the sunshine will be increasing our vitamin D levels, making us happier, and that it takes a lot more muscles to frown that to smile.” There was a lot to be said for the smile, and the effect that it can have. its use as a way in to communication.

One inspirational speaker gave me some advice on winning the trust of the young, who are likely to want to know, “what’s in it for me?” He suggested giving them space to “let them talk it out, and then pounce”, to motivate them positively.

There was playful joshing with some who come to chat or are getting to know me. Someone suggests that someone else does a striptease, then leaves giggling. Some fabulous gold patent shoes – which have been sitting with potatoes in for 3 days for moisture to help wear them in – are out for a short walk. They pose for me on the dance steps (tango and some swing steps apparently). The temporary paint designs have a Marmite reaction – love it or hate it.

Someone else says, “You’ve calmed me down already,” after trying to deal with forms at the post office. “I am not a paperwork person”. We wonder at the world’s current complexity, and we share something that makes me feel good. A man approaches but is confused by being offered a cup of water without any further expectation. He is waiting for the catch, the “it’s behind you” moment.

There is an ongoing exchange of ideas in these short dialogues. Someone who sees a broader pattern emerging said, “People are waking up to the fact that they can do things. There’s a lot of interesting things going on, (and there’s a lot of awful shit going on at the same time), but people are starting to come together.”

Hackney is friendly. Oh no it isn’t . Oh yes it is!

Here are just some of the people I met today:

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