I’m walking down Plein Street when he catches my eye. He offers a packet of sewing needles. “No, thank you”, I say, not breaking stride. That could have been the end of it, but he turns after me. Please, mummy! It’s my last one. I can buy some more to sell and get me something to eat. I show him my back. He follows, his tone darkening. Please, mummy. I asked you nicely. Well, no. It wasn’t nicely at all. When I join the stream of pedestrians at Golden Acre he gives up and turns back.
Such a small scene, but it stays with me. What just happened? Why am I left so irritated and bemused?
I love walking the city in rush hour. I move fast, weaving through dawdling schoolgirls and other slow-moving traffic. As is usual here, I meet the eyes of people I pass, often sharing a quick smile. I accept a jeweller’s flyer and stop to buy fruit and shampoo from pavement hawkers.
In public spaces like this, we generally mind our own business and give each other space. An accidental bump gets a Sorry! But still, there are acceptable ways to interrupt a stranger. One can appeal for help – for directions, say, or a cigarette light – without harm, innocently. Generally, this draws a response of friendly helpfulness. It’s not much to ask. Everyone gets a little charge of human warmth.
Another approach is to offer some goods or service. Like Simple Simon with his pieman, we stop to try their wares. But it is only an offer, an invitation: the passer-by has to remain free to pass by. This is how the young man approached me. If I had bought his needles, we would have danced the complementary roles of merchant and customer and all would be well. But I didn’t, not even as a hidden act of charity.
The moment I declined to be his customer, he dropped the salesman approach. He pleaded with me as a woman of privilege, in the name of the mother, but with none of the humility that’s required for a true appeal. What he called “asking nicely” was coercion laced with hatred (for me, himself, the whole wretched situation). Violence was in the air.
In this encounter, there was no way for us to meet as equals. One of us had to be demeaned by the other, whether by the instrument of my social status or his force. I think this is why I instinctively refused to participate and walked away, and also why I felt so perplexed. Now I perceive how he struggles to play the game, even to play by the rules, even as he knows it is rigged against him and resists. An impossible position.
I don’t mean to establish any justification or precedent with this. In the end, it’s just another small story about the iniquity of injustice that debases us all.