All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable … Fran Lebowitz
If this was a podcast, you’d be listening to it being read in a slightly incredulous, confused and amused voice laced with traces of puzzled angst, optimism and irritation. Think crazy fusion. Harley Quinn swirled with Marg Simpson, Patti Smith with Kiri Te Kanawa, Tom Petty’s good girl with Fran Lebowitz, Roxane Grey with Danielle Steel, Talia Marshall with Hilary Barry.
It’s really weird but in the last week I’ve had cause to wonder, on more than one occasion, if I’ve had an up close and personal experience with that dark underbelly our country, despite its friendly, open nature, is rumoured to harbour. That cruel little flip side to our so-called South Pacific paradise, located just one stop before the Sub Antarctic.
This phenomenon seems to have coincided with me taking more regular and longer walks around my neighbourhood. By doing so, it appears I may well be opening myself up to skeins of malice only experienced when one is out and about, exposed as it were, to the elements. Whatever those elements happen to be. Good or bad. Stormy or benign.
For example, a few days ago, just on three o’clock, there I was innocently bobbing on past a bus stop, minding my own business, when two high school students thought it a bit of harmful fun to hurl in my direction a lurid, personal insult. Uncalled for and nasty.
For the rest of that day that sudden, unexpected taunt, persisted as an unwelcome echo; a chilling ripple in my otherwise peaceful millpond. Unfortunately, I could easily picture them as the full-blown haters they were surely on the path to becoming. I could place them in dim bedrooms, tapping out their mucky responses, comments and insults. The TikTok District they ascribe to one of pure vile.
For some time, until I could replace that filth left on the doorstep of my mind by two spineless brats, the usual regard I hold for young people the same age as my grandchildren, was in jeopardy of suffering permanent damage. However, after a bit of time, equilibrium was restored. It was okay. Just an isolated case.
The equilibrium however only lasted two days before another walk was spoiled. This time by a very large, growling Alsatian bounding towards me across the golf course that we both happened to be traversing. I don’t blame the dog for not being on a lead. Of course not. I blame its seemingly unconcerned failure of an owner hidden around the corner, unsuccessfully calling out for his dog to, ‘Come back here!’
The third incident happened one early morning when walking through what remained of a Fair (aka Gypsy Fair) held in the weekend. Before me, a splendid line up of cute caravans and leather-brown house trucks, parked under a glowering, Ootepoti sky. Good-hearted, freedom lovers making early morning preparations for a trundle off to their next stop. Gentle, long haired chandlers in patchouli-soaked boho vests, the word VAGABOND emblazoned on their house truck’s headboard.
As I continued to stride on past that quiet morning circle of wagons, I harboured nothing but thoughts of goodwill.
Then suddenly there was a woman with two dogs (unleashed) who, before I could even sum up the situation, told me not to look scared because that’s when her dog – the larger of the two, who at this stage was merely a muddy, grey-brown shape scuttling about in my peripheral vision – would react. I was to not make eye contact but to just walk on past, she informed me. Which I promptly did (gladly because I’d already had my share of scary dogs this week, thank you very much).
But for some reason it seemed my silent retreat was perceived as a cold refusal on my part to be drawn into any other exchange with dog or owner. The woman started yelling, ‘Go on then. Walk away. Go on.’ Adding, ‘You’re just a typical, ignorant Dunedin person and that is why I can’t wait to leave this place.’
I was truly puzzled. Wasn’t I simply doing what she suggested? Walking away from her canine; that dog with a dubious nature? Simply; albeit wordlessly; walking away? Arguably, she’d caught me off guard, unprepared for any exchange and no doubt (like many times before in my life) my resting face was being unfairly judged.
The only other logical explanation that I could come up with for such an unwarranted outburst of anger, was that I chose to respond to her instructions with silence. Is silence offensive? Well, if she was expecting a grateful exchange after having informed me that her dog would attack me if I so much as looked at it, she was very much mistaken.
These recent encounters of the weird kind have left me flummoxed. Why has walking around my previously semi-bucolic neighbourhood all of a sudden become fraught? Is it an after-effect of the pandemic? Some kind of social breakdown of caring, good manners? A Judith Collins-type backlash? Is it because of the wearing of masks? Are masks unmasking bad behaviour? Perhaps it’s fallout from the current war being waged between Vaxers and Non-Vaxers.
I have a horrible feeling these open seams of no-longer contained anger and disregard for others that I’ve been exposed to recently, are simply a social reality. These are the people who shout abuse at supermarket staff. Who yell out racist comments to people on the other side of the street.
I also suspect such random rancid experiences of an underbelly are universal. For me personally though, it’s a bit of a wake-up call to the climate of the 21st century. That quiet, insidious erosion of the 20th century mores of neighbourly kindness and tolerance that my upbringing was steeped in. Values which I cannot separate from. My own indoctrination.
By far, the majority of people I encounter on my walks exchange smiles. The philosophy, ‘treat others as you would be treated yourself’ still operates. We are in fact far more inclusive and tolerant of difference now than we were back in the 20th century. So I will not stop going for walks in my neighbourhood; despite the risk of coming into contact with bottom feeder mentality and / or glimpses into New Zealand’s shifty underbelly. I’ll just make sure there’s a brick in my handbag. ‘Course, of course. I’m kidding. Of course I am. I’m kidding.