I pulled up on Norton St near the Palace Cinemas on my way home from an early Saturday morning appointment.
Two skim whites from Berkelouw were in my sights and as I took my free half-hour parking ticket and placed it on the dash, I noticed the little, older man who is often seen around Leichhardt selling hand-made cards.
He was wearing an unzipped tracksuit top over a t-shirt and below were a pair of long, shiny soccer shorts that were at least three sizes two big. Some thongs over socks completed his attire along with a bag slung over one shoulder.
It was a cold morning, he was under-dressed and I decided I would buy the inevitably proferred card. As I walked down Norton he noticed me, and began his distinctive card selling routine. He reached deep into his bag and pulled out the small paper card. His arm then snapped out to full length with the card facing him and he stared at it intently. Satisfied with what he saw he then extended his arm in my direction with the face of the card towards me, and waited.
As I drew closer, I stuck my hand in my jean pocket and pulled out a dollar coin, said hello, smiled, exchanged the coin for the card, wished him a good day and headed towards the cafe. He didn’t speak or smile. Everyone else I saw on the street walked past.
In the more comfortable world of the cafe, with the smell of Campos and the buzz of conversation, the chasm between our worlds opened up and I felt guilty for my one dollar.
Walking back, the thought crossed my mind that I could stay on the opposite side of the road and cross closer to the car, avoiding the card man. There was a slight yearning for this within me, I didn’t really want to bother with the card man’s need. Although it was morning at the start of the weekend I was deeply tired.
But I owe too much to Someone else to give in so easily so I headed back towards the man and he went through his card presentation routine.
As I juggled the coffees and pulled out my wallet, I reminded myself I was doing no great thing, that the man had brought his hand-made cards to stand for hours in the cold to be ignored by most people to earn a few coins. This was were the courage and commitment lay.
‘I’ll have one thanks,’ I said. There was no sign of recognition of the previous purchase.
‘I’m Peter, what’s your name?’ There was a harsh throaty reply but I couldn’t make it out.
The same reply and I was none the wiser. I looked at the card, it had on it just the word ‘love’.
I fiddled in my wallet, saw a ten – still that persistent reluctance – but grabbed the twenty.
As I gave it to the man he looked at me, and then looked at the note for several seconds. He looked at me again as if to confirm I was sure, and then in one motion the note was flicked out of view as he turned and walked quickly down the street, presumably happy now with his morning’s work.
As I walked towards the car I reminded myself that I didn’t pay the money to have the man fawn over me or so I could look good. Any act of kindness or generosity must be enough for its own sake.
Nearing the car, I saw a flouro-vested, female parking inspector standing near the bonnet.
‘Hello, is everything okay?’
She looked at me with an expression of fear and astonishment. I realised she was about to book me, and confused, I opened the car door, still balancing the treasured coffees, to show her the ticket I had placed under the windscreen.
It was then I realised I had placed it upside down, distracted at the time by watching the card man. These could become very expensive cards, I thought.
I held the ticket towards the parking inspector, in a proferring routine reminiscent of the card man’s.
‘Sorry I didn’t realise it was upside down!’
‘Well I can’t read it if I can’t see it can I love,’ she said, finding her voice after realising I wasn’t going to yell at her.
She studied it intently and gave me a small nod and seemed to clear an entry in her little hand-held machine.
‘Thank you’ I said realising how close I’d come to a fine. I wondered how quickly my feelings of mercy and resolve to do good would have evaporated when faced with a parking ticket.
I laughed at myself, sipped my coffee and reflected on who had been kind to who and the apparent randomness of life which is less random than we may think.