Sunday, 11 July 2010

Whatever You Do, Don't Make Eye Contact

THURSDAY: It must have something to do with pheromones. I awoke this morning to the most personally devastating news to come out of George Osborne's nuclear war of a budget. As part-time low-paid University Library Scum I still have a job, although the secrets of what the autumn term will bring -- meaning Over There, Across That Mid-September Line -- are currently being guarded as if any leak of a conjecture will suck all of the oxygen off the planet. But as of this week many of my friends, including those closest to me, are either losing their jobs or in extreme danger of losing their jobs, the danger breathing down the back of their necks as they scramble past all the dire headlines and dodge the budget-slashing cannonballs.

Several of these friends, including the one I live with, work in a field that helps improve the lives of those with substance abuse problems, learning disabilities, and mental and physical problems. But that field has been axed down to the bare minimum, with entire organisations losing their contracts. So who cares about a few people who can't be "normal" like the rest of us? Just put 'em all on benefits; and if they don't die from neglect, abuse, or overdosing -- or, of course, benefits cuts -- they can damn well get out there and get a job like the rest of us. All it takes is proving you're a far better choice than the other 7,500 applicants for the same position.

So it was in this bitterly sarcastic and pessimistic mood that I alit from the bus and made the mistake of walking down the pedestrian shopping street of Fargate. Like sharks smelling blood they emerged, everywhere, every couple of feet, lunging at me with "Hi, how are you today? Have you heard of the Frog Protection Society?" or "Hi, do you have a few moments to answer a survey?" or "Hello there! Love those earrings! Don't worry, I'm not going to keep you too long…", etc. My pace accelerated to a mini-sprint as I dodged through the obstacle course of smiling clipboard holders, remembering a survival skill I had learned years ago at all the Seattle Center festivals: always wear dark glasses, stare straight ahead, and whatever you do don't make eye contact! It may sound harsh, but when you're stressed out about your exponentially dwindling finances, the last thing in the world you need is a charming, grinning, healthy young person making you feel guilty for not giving up food for a week in order to provide a village with clean water for a year.

THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY: As I had an appointment in Broomhill this morning, I'm now sitting in Weston Park having a Wensleydale and cranberry sandwich on a sunflower seed breadcake from the sandwich shop just down the road. I'm sitting on the grass in the shade, being watched over by a wreath-waving figure of Liberty and two bronze WWI soldiers, all part of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment War Memorial. The setting reminds me of picnic lunches I've experienced in scenic cemeteries, specifically Mountain View in Oakland, Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, and Golders Green in London. As it's a warm and sunny but pleasantly breezy day, there are many other people here, students and hospital workers and OAPs and people of leisure, sitting on benches or sprawled on the grass, throwing frisbees or chatting or reading or eating their lunch or simply enjoying a peaceful moment.

Ah, yes, and now another memory comes to mind from years ago when I was in university, when I had at least an hour between lectures on a particularly pleasant day (in Southern California this means "big billowy white and grey clouds in a blue sky" as opposed to "the usual cloudless brown haze"). There was nothing better than staking out my own plot of shady grass, and my pastime of choice was studying my Russian lesson. (Call me crazy, but I've always found learning foreign languages fun!)

Invariably a student I didn't know would stroll up, smiling, and comment on what a beautiful day it was, and I'd concur. And then they would say something like, "Have you spoken to Jesus recently?" To which I would respond with either a sarcastic retort or a quick heartfelt request for them to bugger off and go bother somebody else. One time, however, I was at the end of my stress rope, and I tore into the poor naïve soul, telling him that it had been a beautiful day until he came along and destroyed the idyllic sanctity of my Russian-conjugation meditation with his arrogant assumption that everybody else in the world should stop thinking for themselves and swallow his particular religion hook, line, and sinker.

I never saw that particular student again. I suspect he may have abandoned his studies and joined a monastery.

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