Whatever way you slice it, human beings are frequently very annoying. Moving among them is asking for trouble, but something that we must all do unless we have a large enough fortune to live in total seclusion except for encounters with an ancient retainer. I’ve often thought about staging my death, or otherwise organising a Lord-Lucan-style disappearance but, even with a fresh identity, I would still need to mix with others, so, really, what would be the point?
Recently, I have had a few encounters that were not the kind to raise one’s spirits. To start with, I’ve been engaging in the loathsome act of selling old books to second-hand dealers. One of my friends is admirably ruthless when it comes to getting rid of literature, as he has a mania for ‘maximising space’. This is all well and good, but he always insists on involving me in the shoddy enterprise. Yes, he drives the car and it’s mostly his books that we are selling, and all I have to do is engage with the booksellers to get a sizeable cut but, really, I’d rather rip my own head off and feed it to an alligator.
Second-hand booksellers have this cosy 84 Charing Cross Road reputation, all misbuttoned cardigans and salt-and-pepper beards, vehement love of the written word, and quaint tortuous-literary-reference shop names rendered in an olden-time font. Sadly, though, it would be impossible to meet a bigger pack of bastards. The standard back-and-forth with one of these people is as follows: you ask them if they are buying books and they look at you as if you’re their crack-smoking adult child wanting to ‘borrow’ the Blu-ray player; they reluctantly agree to cast their learned eye over your wares; they contemptuously hurl the, many, unwanted wares on to the counter; they squint suspiciously at a brand-new hardback, begrudgingly say that they will give you an extra five dollars for it, and you know with a certainty unusual in life that they will put it in their horrible front window and sell it for approximately seven times what they gave you. (Apparently, the only title that every second-hand dealer is desperate to snap up is JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, copies of which are as much a part of every one of their shops as an ignored-by-all-and-sundry ‘Please leave all bags at counter’ handwritten instruction.) To put it plainly, it’s impossible to emerge from selling second-hand books without feeling as though you’ve been grifted, masterfully, by someone from The Old Curiosity Shop.
So, all this was bad enough, but then I had to go to the doctor the other day, in regards to a vague complaint. The medical practitioner in question has a very warm manner; you emerge from her surgery feeling as though you have made a new, and useful, friend. On this occasion, once we had got the vague complaint out of the way and I was given a referral to a specialist whom I know I will never bother to see, she asked, ‘Is there anything else at all that we can do for you today?’ I told her that, unfortunately for the both of us, I could use a pap smear. ‘I’m afraid we’ve run out of time,’ she immediately announced. Now, if I were a doctor, I wouldn’t want to conduct pap smears either, but this rejection did wound me for the entire afternoon.
Even worse than encounters such as the above, though, are the variety that lead to vomit-worthy columns in the broadsheet press about how such exchanges, with its inhabitants trying to do good turns even for those they don’t know, demonstrate that Melbourne continues to be a humane city. Now, I can barely stand talking to those with whom I am acquainted, let alone to strangers. It troubles me that otherwise desirable inner-city areas are always promoting themselves as being ‘village like’. Aside from the fact that this is manifestly not true, why do those responsible consider it to be a drawcard? I don’t want to live in a village, with nothing to do and everyone having a Mrs Kravitz-like fascination with my most insignificant action.
The other day, while making my way to work through pelting rain, I was creeping along Collins Street and quietly wishing I were dead. Then, a tiny woman stopped me and informed me that I had mud on my pants! Perhaps she was trying to be helpful but, as I don’t carry a drycleaners around with me, I fail to see what I was supposed to do about this problem. And then, the very same day, while I was waiting for the tram home, I’d extracted my wallet from my bag and not closed it immediately. Instantly, a fellow turned to me and told me in tones of urgency that my bag was wide open. Again, perhaps this was kindly meant but, really, how much of a reflection on me is this that he thought I might not have realised that my own handbag was gaping like the mouth of Tiny Tim in one of those terrifying Martin Sharp depictions?
But the worst example I’ve ever heard of the awfulness of being addressed by a stranger didn’t even happen to me. An ex-colleague of mine once told me a story about how while shopping in the supermarket one day, she saw some harmless individual buying a packet of pancake mix. My ex-colleague went up to this woman and said, ‘Don’t you know how easy it is to make pancakes?’ I wanted to respond, ‘And yet, this poor lady didn’t smash you over the head as hard as she could with the nearest implement she might reasonably have expected would kill you?’ but I didn’t feel able to do this, of course. I had to work with this individual, after all.