If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many interactions with other humans, it is that we don’t have to love everyone. We don’t have to want to kiss on them or lend them a book or invite them to ours for dinner. We don’t even have to like them. However, we do have to acknowledge their existence and respect the concept of community to be able to live in a fair and harmonious world.
Last night I attended an event where I saw the devastating effects of those who seem unwilling to recognise that other people also matter. Our neighbourhood association meets on the first Monday of each month, and September was my turn to host. Christopher spent much of yesterday tidying up the house and when people began arriving, we had tea and biscuits at the ready. It all started off so well. However, the mood quickly turned when we began to discuss the stone bench we’d commissioned for the greenway.
Colin from Number 18 had photographs of the bench his nephew Billy had just finished, and as we passed the pictures around, he broached the topic of the engraving. Billy would need to charge by the letter and thus we did not have enough money in the pot to have all our names engraved. It was clear Colin was torn up about the issue — he had offered his nephew’s services, but slowly the original estimate and date of completion had changed, and many in the group were a bit put out about it. Now he was asking for even more money, and Colin was stuck in the middle.
“We’ll take him to court,” said Mr Lee, who is and always has been a dickhead.
The colour drained from Colin’s face. Fearing he might slide off his chair and spill his drink of my rug, I quickly suggested that we each chip in five more pounds, and the engraving could be completed and the bench ready for installation by the Autumn Festival.
“Absolutely not,” Mr Lee grunted. “I don’t literally bleed money, you know.”
I felt like pointing out the idiocy of his comment, but I have learned my lesson in the past about trying to explain the definition of the word literally to this man.
“Billy wants 50p per letter,” explained Colin.
“We pay for our own or I’m out,” Mr Lee stated.
“I don’t know,” mumbled the extraordinarily fertile woman who lives at Number 24. “We’ve had to buy new school uniforms this year. . . ”
“That’s your own fault,” Mr Lee said. He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out two pounds. “Just my first initial,” he added, sliding the money across the table to Colin.
Now I personally know this man is not hurting for money, but everyone has the right to be a miser if they so choose. However, it didn’t seem quite right that his response favoured him and him alone (we have a lot of long surnames living in this area). There are a number of people who’d wanted to include their family members’ names on the bench, and, of course, my own household’s contribution would be an additional £16.50. I was willing to pay, but since this was supposedly a neighbourhood project, it seemed more appropriate for us all to make the same donation to ensure that everyone was happy. However, Mr Lee, who was born with a short name and who (obviously) lives alone, was unwilling to put the group’s need before his own.
That was until we got to Any Other Business, and Mr Lee proposed a change to our recycling programme. As he is a keen drinker of Coca-Cola products, he complained that his recycling bin runneth over before each designated pickup. His solution was to petition the council for a weekly collection, but he was quickly reminded that the only way this could happen was via an increase in council tax. He said he was happy to pay. When the grumbling from the crowd indicated the feeling was not shared, Mr Lee stood up and shouted, “This group is supposed to benefit the neighbourhood! Why should I have to suffer just because of you lot?”
“Why don’t you just not drink so much Coke?” Mrs Jones suggested timidly.
Mr Lee turned sharply and fearing he was about to resort to violence, I gave Christopher the nod and he quickly moved into action, initiating our secret the-guests-need-to-leave-now procedure of cutting off all the lights in the house.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said, standing up and looking elegantly distraught. “We’ve got some candles round here somewhere,” I added as I moved to open a desk drawer. “Or we could continue this discussion at the next meeting.”
“Fine,” Mr Lee said as he stomped out of the house.
The other guests gathered up their things and started to leave.
“You should get that fuse box checked out,” Colin said as he headed towards the door.
“Will do,” I called. “And tell Billy the bench looks lovely.”
Once they were all gone, Christopher turned the lights back on and we discussed Mr Lee’s appalling attitude. The group’s mission statement is to better the lives of those living in our neighbourhood. When it came to something that was good for all of us, Mr Lee was unwilling to pitch in, yet when the issue was one from which he alone would benefit, he expected us all to play ball. He could not see beyond himself (which is not a comment on his size, though as you might imagine from his soda habits, he is quite large).
Next month, I will suggest that Mr Lee hire some of the bicycle hoodlums to take his cans to the recycling centre on non-delivery weeks. Compromise doesn’t have to be complicated.
I have no intention of ever running for public office — it seems more trouble than it’s worth and besides I don’t own any pantsuits. But in some ways, it’s not our leaders who are the problem. If each of us could just appreciate the fact that all our lives are equally important and ultimately intertwined, we might make better decisions about how our communities run. Sometimes it might mean personal sacrifice, but doing the right thing is sometimes difficult. And besides, if we create a caring climate for others, then it is more likely that we have someone to look out for us in our own time of need.
I mean, I hate those little shits who ride their bicycles up and down the street day and night, but I’ve never once hit them with my car. I’ve abstained because they are people too and have as much right to enjoy their leisure time as I do to safely drive down my road (also, I am slightly afraid they might vandalise my property if I call attention to myself, but that’s besides the point). To live in an environment of peace and harmony, we must create an environment of peace and harmony. For ourselves, for all of us.
Even the dickheads.