Rude people make a difference to everyone’s lives

How much unhappiness and rancour can one person spread?

13 October 2017 - 05:48
Image: iStock

I was walking down the road in my neighbourhood recently when I saw a woman chasing a car. This is not as unusual as it may sound. We have many odd characters in my neck of the woods: there's a man who sings Elvis songs in a Marilyn Monroe voice; there is an otherwise perfectly sober and composed lady who sometimes forgets to wear pants.

It would not surprise me at all one day to see a woman chasing a car because she self-identifies as a dog and is trying to add to her hubcap collection, but this wasn't that sort of situation.

The woman doing the chasing was one of those official parking attendants in the bright bibs whose job it is to charge you R7.50 for half an hour, or whatever it is, when you park on Main Road or Regent Road. It's not a great job, being one of those parking officials, because the money you take home is dependent on the money you're paid by members of the public, which means you have to engage with members of the public and, while not all human beings are rotten and vile, I think we can all agree that members of the public most certainly are.

Now there are several ways you might choose to respond to those official parking people: you can pay them with a smile; you can pay them with the sour face favoured by most of our fellow citizens and compatriots when they think they're being unfairly persecuted; or you can do what this person did, and endeavour not to pay at all. She was an older middle-aged woman in a new drop-top white Audi, and she drove away with her gaze carefully averted from the younger woman in the fluorescent bib trying to chase after her and attract her attention.

It's hard to put yourself entirely in another person's shoes, but I can't escape the suspicion that if that had been me chasing after the rich woman who has just stiffed me R7.50, I would have probably sworn loudly and aggressively. I would probably have used some reflexive synechdochical thinking and converted my fury at that individual into fury at the race and class and age-group to which she belongs.

I would, I think, take off my fluorescent bib and throw it on the floor and grow a long Castro beard and stalk off into the hills to join a revolutionary army that would gather its might before sweeping down upon the city. Just witnessing the scene, that's what I wanted to do.

She didn't do that. She stood looking after the car, then turned and walked back to the sidewalk with her face perfectly impassive.

Later that same day I was in a pharmacy, queuing to pay for my treats. I wasn't thinking much of anything but my attention was drawn by a kerfuffle up ahead at the tills. One woman paying at one of the tills was taking umbrage with a second woman paying at a different till.

Like everyone else, I leaned closer to see what was afoot. The first woman was upbraiding the second woman for the way she had been speaking to the cashier.

"It's unacceptable to speak like that!" she was saying. "She works here so she can't say anything about it but I can so I'm telling you that you're a bully!"

The second woman was taken aback. Her mouth opened and closed like a parrot fish, her face clenched like a fist, her throat flushed angrily. She muttered something and picked up her purchases and stomped out. Then with a sudden surge of esprit d'escalier, she reappeared and hissed: "Why don't you just mind your own business!"

"It is my business!" said the first woman, trembling a little, because you could see she wasn't the sort who went around picking fights. "It's everyone's business."

The second woman stomped back out again. I watched her through the window of the pharmacy and I thought about how it's not true that one person can't make a difference, because I thought about how much unhappiness and rancour this one person must spread, day in and out, and all the trail of days she has made worse, including her own, especially her own, and I briefly managed to feel sorry for her and her face pinched and hard as a barnacle, as she threw her packages into the back of the new white drop-top Audi and drove away.

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