Saturday, April 18, 2009

Good and Bad

I must admit that I am almost entirely incapable of understanding what motivates a great number of the world’s population. I’d like to be one of those people blessed with an inexplicable and unflagging optimism in human nature. I don’t need to be stupidly happy or anything, but I would like to be able to wave off the myriad acts of evil in the world with an inner confidence that everything is going to be alright.
I know at an intellectual level that the majority of the world’s population must be basically good. If they weren’t, then human society would deteriorate into total chaos in less than the time it takes to have an Ultimate Fighting cage match. Which is to say, only a few short, agonizing and deeply confusing minutes. But knowing this and being able to live it in my everyday life, are two very different things. And every time I begin to feel that people are good, some bad apple comes along and spoils the entire barrel.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago when I moved to England for the forth time and I had a couple of experiences that made life fittingly confusing in this regard. I managed to find an apartment, never an easy task, but it wasn’t ready for moving in for a couple of weeks. But fortunately a friend offered to let me stay with him until I could move in. Now, this was a generous offer because I didn’t really know him all that well and he had two children to deal with and a relatively small place. But I stayed there an ‘mucked in’ as the British say, and felt an upsurge of optimism that someone had made the offer motivated only by an innate sense of generosity. However, a few days after I was scheduled to take my own place, an odd event occurred.
I was sitting in the main room on one the few fine days of that particular September, engaged in some frivolous activity like reading Plato, when the homeowner and his son came in from the backyard where they had been playing football. For some reason they were both absorbed a state of utter dejection and they threw themselves on the couch as though they had just heard some terrible news. Upon inquiry they confirmed that they had just lost their football in the neighbor’s yard, which was particularly bad news because this was the first day that it hadn’t rained in nearly three weeks.
Their dejection seemed rather odd to me because the wall was no more than four feet tall and even a child could hope over it with little or no effort. Now, you have to remember that these were English people, and their behavior was inexplicable at the best of times. And I was thus a little reticent to ask them why this four foot wall presented such a monumental problem. I mean this may be a nation of shopkeepers, but they had also beaten the Spanish Armada, so they must be capable of some basic efforts of fortitude. So after listening to the two of them sigh and mumble to themselves for several minutes I felt compelled to ask them what exactly what the problem was.
“Can’t you,” I asked as quietly and tactfully as I could, “simply jump the fence and retrieve the ball, and then go on about your business?” This elicited no response but a loud moan from both of my depressed housemates. So I pushed the issue.
“The wall is only four feet high,” I offered, “it can’t present that big a problem.”
Charles, the young boy and by far the braver of the two, sat up and looked me squarely in the face.
“The man who lives there is a horrible gangster and he won’t let us into his yard.” Then he pulled his hat down over his eyes and sank back into the cushions.
When I suggested that he surely couldn’t be so terrible that he wouldn’t let a boy have his football, my friend quickly set me right.
“Yes, he could be that horrible. We lost a ball in his yard about six months ago and I went around and knocked on his door to ask if we could have it back. But he went crazy. He screamed at us and told us that not only couldn’t we have the ball back but he was going to go straight back into the yard and pop the damn thing and throw it into the bin.”
So here it was, some bad apple who, for no imaginably appropriate reason, was destroying my optimism in people. Unwilling to let this gangster, or whatever he was, get away with a young boy’s football, I immediately walked out into the yard, jumped the fence and retrieved the ball. Though my friend and his son seemed amazed, nothing happened and I moved into my apartment a few days later and forgot the whole incident.
A few weeks later I was lounging happily in my new place, the bottom floor of a corner row-house that was remarkably nice for a reasonably priced house in Brighton. The neighborhood was fairly clean and the place had a sweet little backyard in which I could sit on the few nice days. On one particular Saturday a gentle knock came at the door and I opened it to find a young boy standing there sheepishly. He informed me that he and his friends had lost their football in my backyard and were wondering if he could have it back. I replied in the affirmative and the boy seemed shocked by my readiness to cooperate. I realized then, having so recently been retrieving my friend’s ball, that living in such close quarters as one is apt to do in crowded country like England, this must be a very common dilemma hereabouts.
Because the house backed onto a steep hill, the backyard was hemmed in by a fairly high retaining wall which some of the local boys were using as a football goal. The gate into the yard was tall and in order to open it you had to reach over to release the latch. So I took the boy outside and into the backyard where I received the ball and threw it into the street to where the boys were playing. Then I peered over the wall and told the boys that they were free to enter the yard any time and get their ball back.
For a few moments the boys seemed genuinely shocked by this information and looked at each other in a state of confusion and disbelief. At the time I had didn’t think much about this but soon I would come to understand.
Over the next few days I noticed these boys out there playing football often and I was even a little comforted to hear them holler with enthusiasm as I sat inside and did my work. Then, on a late afternoon, another knock came at my door and I went to answer it thinking that it might be one of the football players again. However, upon opening the door, I was surprised to find a tall, lanky woman of sixty years old or so standing in my doorway. And I was about to ask her what I could do for her when she broke in with a shrill voice and shattered the peace of the afternoon.
“Do you know,” she inquired with her sharp finger pointed in my face, “that these boys are out here nearly every day kicking that ball against your wall?” I told her with a great deal of surprise that the events had not escaped my notice and wondered why she asked.
“Well,” she continued with her offensive tone, “I have seen them going into your yard to retrieve their ball!” She said this as though she expected some particular response from me of which I was not aware. But I simply informed her, with as much grace as I could muster, that I was also aware of this point and inquired, since it was my yard, why she was so concerned.
This information and query seemed to take her by surprise and she was somewhat taken aback and took some time to regain her composure.
“Well,” she finally continued, “you need to put a stop to it! They are always playing out here and the ball has gone into my backyard and into my flower beds more than once.” I then realized, by her indication, that she lived on the opposite corner and that her retaining wall served as the other goal in the boys’ games. “Something must be done,” she finally said, her voice reaching to something of a loud screech.
I stood there for a few moments think about gangsters and bad apples and found my temper rising to an uncomfortable level. I was having trouble processing this situation. I understood that nothing was perfect and that flowers were a pleasant diversion, but I had no serious idea why someone might object to boys playing football in the street unless it was to preserve their own safety. I quickly ran through all the options of what I might say to this difficult and rather offensive woman. Finally I decided to go with the obvious and simply told her they were just boys playing a game. This did not please her at all and she told me that they should go elsewhere to engage in their sporting activities.
“Where do you want them to go?” I asked incredulously. “There is not a decent park within half a mile and this, my good woman, is all they have.” The part about her being a good woman was of course intended as irony but I don’t believe she understood this.
“I don’t care where they go,” she told me bringing herself to a state of frenzied anger. “They can go to the devil for all I care! As long as they are not playing on our street.” This is when I realized that I was dealing with a complete lunatic and that anything I said would be entirely ineffective and meaningless to her. So, upon careful consideration, I figured all that was left to me was complete honesty.
“You, my lady,” I informed her, “are either hopelessly mean spirited or irretrievably mad, and I suspect probably both. So will ask you politely to go home and leave the rest of us in peace.” Then I shut the door without waiting of a response. I never saw that woman for the entire year that I lived there and was quite pleased that our paths never crossed. But her presence and her overt selfishness disturbed me more than I was willing to admit. This event, coupled with the early football issue, had badly shaken my idea that people were basically good and I spent a number of months feeling depressed and frustrated. If people were capable of falling into such conflict over issues as small as footballs in the backyard, what chance was there of a generalized peace? And I ruminated over this for some time feeling sad and wondering where optimistic people found their motivation.
Some time in the early spring I went on bus ride of several miles to a neighboring village to sketch. I had a good day and enjoyed the picturesque church which, according to a friendly plaque on the outside wall, had once been the parish church of Rudyard Kipling. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and I hadn’t realized that the buses back to Brighton stopped running at three o’clock so I had become stranded. I didn’t have enough cash for a taxi ride and wasn’t sure where I might retain a taxi even if I did. But it was still a nice day and I thought, in an optimistic moment that I might walk over the hills back to town. This I proceeded to do, but the journey was considerably longer than I had estimated. About half way through I was quite exhausted and found myself wishing that I had some refreshment. I had taken what I thought might be a shortcut over a field on which there was a clear walking path and found myself under the shade of several large trees behind which there was quite a pretty thatched roof house. I sat on a large stone and tried to recovery my strength when a head popped suddenly over the hedge.
“What are you doing there?” the head asked. The head belonged to a hearty-looking grey haired woman. She was broad-shouldered and looked as though she had grown up working the land.
I mumbled a short reply that I was just resting my legs and would be shortly on my way. Her appearance and voice made me think that she was not happy to see me there and felt, perhaps that I was invading her privacy. I was surprised when she began suddenly to smile.
“You look absolutely exhausted,” she said sympathetically, “you must come in for a cup of tea and something sweet.” Given my recent frame of mind, I was understandably shocked by this sudden turn of events. But her invitation was entirely genuine and I soon found myself sitting in a pleasant little garden sipping tea with this woman and hearing stories about her children and cats. She was a genuinely ‘nice’ woman who had no ulterior motive in offering me her hospitality. This confused me greatly. Later in the afternoon her son arrived and gave me a ride back into town.
When I was walking into my house I looked briefly across the street and saw a large, offensive piece of graffiti scrawled across the wall of the woman across the street.

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