On Sunday morning, I got up at 5.30am and drove a car load full of stuff to the Camberwell Market. My friend Zoe and I had decided to have a stall to rid ourselves of some unwanted items, and, let’s face it, to make a bit of money too. The choice of mid-winter for said stall was my doing, and possibly one of my less intelligent ideas, but there we were, setting up our trestle tables in the dark in the car park behind Burke Rd, waiting for the sun to rise. We had mugs of tea to warm our hands, and, I hoped, the friendly chats with fellow stallholders and customers would make the whole experience worthwhile.
The first thing that happened, predictably, was that people started rifling through our things before we were properly set up. An elderly man pushed past me to rummage through a bag of clothes, his torch at the ready. Soon there were people, lots of people, blocking us from setting up our stall as they fossicked through our things. Finally, as the sun came up, Zoe and I managed to get things in order: a clothes rack on one side, miscellaneous odds and ends at the back, jewelry on the other side, shoes and bags at the front of the stall.
At 7.30am, once our stall, along with the rest of the market, was set up and ready to go, a white car drove into the empty space beside us, pushing one of our packing boxes along the ground with its bonnet. A woman got out, tall and thin with dark hair and bright red lipstick. She marched to the front of the stall.
“I charge ten dollars a meter,” she barked, looking at our clothes rack, which was maybe 20cm over the line towards her until-recently-empty stall. “Ok, sorry,” I said, hurrying to drag the rack back over our side of the line. “Is that OK?”
“What do you think?” she snapped. “You look pretty intelligent. Does that look OK to you?”
“Umm…I think so?” I said. “It’s just that we’re new here, we don’t usually do this so…”
“Oooh, you’re NEW are you? Ooooh, right, that’s it then. You don’t understand, is that it?”
“It’s about RESPECT,” she said. “It’s about basic RESPECT.”
Zoe and I moved our things well back over our side of the line and avoided the woman for the rest of the day. I felt shaken, and angry, and hurt. Why couldn’t she speak politely? All it would have taken was an “Excuse me, would you mind moving your rack back a smidgen?” What was it about me that so offended her? Why was she so rude?
As the morning progressed, I noticed the way in which she spoke to customers: telling stories about her items, asking them questions, acting sweeter than a Violet Crumble. So it was just stallholders she was rude to, I thought. Or maybe it was me.
The morning dragged on. All the customers wanted to haggle. I did a bit of haggling over in China, but it’s not something I enjoy. At Camberwell Market, it seemed, people wanted to pay maximum $5 and preferably $1 for anything, whether it was a lovely pair of leather shoes or a chipped bowl. It grated on me. It seemed vulture-like. The ugly, scrooge-like side of people was on show. By the end of the morning, I started just giving things away, tired of the constant wheeling and dealing. Have a free t-shirt. Have a free bowl. Seriously, the difference between $1 and free is not that great. Just have it.
That afternoon, after washing the market-grime from my hands, I flopped down on the couch and flicked through the Sunday Age. A woman from Hawthorn, a teacher, had written a letter in response to my article, stating that I had gone into teaching to ‘satisfy my ego.’ It hurt. “She doesn’t know me!” I thought. “800 words don’t come close to defining a person’s motivations. How dare she!” To be fair, I can see how a long-term teacher might read that into the article, but on that particular afternoon, it was one more example of how mean-spirited people can be.
We humans like to read patterns into things, and we like to group things together. We can’t help it. A rude person + a scrooge-like situation + another rude person = THE WHOLE WORLD IS RUDE AND MISERLY AND AWFUL. Combined with the grey weather and the chilly temperatures, I think it’s easy to start thinking like that. People are rude. The world is a cold place. Everyone is just out for themselves.
But I don’t believe that.
The other day, I was walking through the underpass beneath Flinders St station. An older man was wheeling a baby in a pram. As he got to the stairs to get up to Flinders St, he turned the pram around. A young man grabbed the front bar of the pram and, with Grandpa holding the top, lifted it easily up the stairs. “Thanks” said Grandpa, smiling at the man. He just nodded and walked off, as if it was nothing.
On my last day in Sri Lanka, I made my way from the small town where I was staying to Colombo Airport. The train to Colombo took two hours and was packed, so I stood in the aisle, my legs aching. When I reached Colombo station, it was pouring rain. I searched for the right airport bus and finally found it. I got on and discovered that it, too, was completely packed. After another hour of standing, a young man offered me his seat. I thanked him, and asked if he knew how much longer it would take to get to the airport. “Another hour,” he said. “I’m going there too. I’ll tell you when to get off.”
Finally, the bus came to a stop and everyone was instructed to get off. I hopped out, stretched my legs and looked around. It was dark now, and we appeared to be in some kind of suburban market street. Where was the airport? I checked the time – half an hour until check-in closed, and I didn’t know where I was. I looked around frantically for a taxi.
“Excuse me,” I said to the young man who had offered me his seat. “Do you know where the airport is?”
“Not far,” he said. “We can take you. My friend is coming now.”
A white panel van pulled up and the door opened. Inside were maybe eight young Sri Lankan men.
“Come on, we’ll take you there,” he said. I looked at the men in the van. They smiled. I thought back over all the advice I had received from every person and television show and film I’d ever watched. Do not get in cars with strange men. Do not get in panel vans. Do not trust people you don’t know.
“OK,” I said. “Thanks.” I jumped in.
Five minutes later, I was deposited at the departures terminal of Colombo Airport. “Have a good flight!” called the men. “Come back to Sri Lanka soon!” I tried to give them some money for their kindness, but they refused it, waved goodbye and were gone.
When things seem wintry and bleak, I think of those men in the van. I think of all the acts of kindness, small and large, going on around us every day. And I think of myself. I think of my own inner darkness. I can be mean and selfish and scrooge-like, whether with money or time or the way I interact with other people. But I can also be generous and kind and warm. I like that part of myself much more.
Every August, around my birthday, the jasmine in Melbourne starts to bloom. It feels a hint of warmth creep back into the air, opens its lovely flowers and shares its sweet scent with the world. When I see jasmine cascading over a laneway fence, I breathe it in and relax a little, ready for the spring. Winter comes every year, but it doesn’t last forever.