Gertrude Stein serves lunch in the hospital cafeteria. Wedged into black t-shirt, trousers and macca-style paper hat with red piping, she ladles out innominate soup to traumatised interns, piles potato gems over the lips of thin cardboard cartons for hyperadrenalised nurses. I ask her how she feels about her work. “Some people get emotional about chips but I don’t,” she says, “I don’t get emotional about chips. But cutting up a potato cutting cry┬áI cry when cutting up a potato.”

I met Georges Perec in the Cafe Bouquiniste yesterday. He was scrunched onto the futon in the art corner, nursing an espresso and a cigarette and a notebook. Black candyfloss hair, Marty Feldmanesque eyes: it was definitely him. I ordered a coffee and sat nearby and started writing myself (these words, these ones right here). My coffee arrived and it happened that we looked at each other.

“What are you writing about ?” I asked.

“Oh, you know,” he shrugged. “Everything, nothing. The ordinary. All the absolutely ordinary stuff.”

It seems that for some writers there is no alternative history. Or that there is nothing else.

There are Hemingways everywhere.

Every city I’ve ever lived in I’ve seen at least one. Wide men with wide beards over wide-toothed smiles, and all of them doing something that’s sedentary and active at once: moving, travelling, always mobile, but always the same routes to the same places, and always taking their own familiar versions of their immediate world with and around them. And always service jobs: bus drivers in London, cabbies in Brighton, a tram driver in Adelaide, a train conductor in France – even a sleigh driver in the Tyrol and a passenger-tricycle pedallist in Hiroshima.

Here in Brisbane, the Hemingways ply the great brown river. The jocular wide-witted ones pilot the exciting and adventuresome CityCats along the languid serpentine loops through the shining city. The more morose versions, the ones who have nightly nagging intimations that they missed a step, that they’re wrong in the world, that they were supposed to be doing something else – they run the cross-river ferries, the older, grungier, chugging workhorses of the spiky and unglamorous world.

I saw him in the hospital lobby: the other Samuel Beckett – thin greasy hair and a hunted look, wearing an old parker, haunting public places with quick little steps and inoffensive glances. Unpublished, unlauded, never learnt French, never heard of the Resistance. Scribblings in a dozen manila folders in a suitcase on a shelf in the shed.