By Victoria Hoffarth
It was the 6th of August 2003 in London—at 37 degrees Celsius, the hottest day on record. We were just starting to experiences the evidence of climate change. People were dunking their heads under the fountain of Trafalgar Square, or jumping off bridges to the Thames and drowning in the process—all trying to escape the sweltering heat.
I was redecorating my apartment to prepare for the tenants arriving in September. I entered Sainsbury Homebase, a do-it-yourself store, to buy some bathroom floor tiles. This was no America, and thus no air-conditioning. But though still hot, the store felt far better than being outside in the baking sun.
I walked around, quickly deciding on the particular tiles I saw displayed on the shelf. Looking for somebody to help me and seeing no one readily available, I approached Customer Services. There were three young girls manning the desk.
“I need some help,” I said. “There are some floor tiles I want to buy for a bathroom floor measuring 2.5 x 2.6 meters. I need to know how many boxes I should get.”
“See that man in a blue shirt over there, talking to a lady? He’s the one you should ask.”
I approached the man who looked South Asian and waited. An elderly woman was complaining to him.
“I come here, simply to buy some of these tubes. I thought I’d be in and out quickly. Now, I’ve been here for well over 30 minutes. I have this thing spilled all over my hands from your leaking tube and you can’t help me?”
“I’ve told you, lady. Go to the toilet and wash your hands.”
“But the toilet is well over the end of the store. You mean you want me to go all the way there?”
“Where else will you go?”
“Can’t you ask someone to go and bring me something to wipe my hands with?”
“I told you to go to the toilet.”
This was more or less the substance of the conversation during the next five minutes. Finally, with a harrumph, the old lady marched off.
I was quick to follow:
“Excuse me, can you help me? I need some bathroom floor tiles and I’ve found them. If you come with me, I’ll show them to you.”
When we reached the area and I showed him the tiles, he quickly did some computations in his head and told me to get eight boxes. They looked far too many to me (I later I found out they were twice the number I needed) but I was ready enough to accept his word for it.
“Can you help me with them please so I can take them to the counter?”
“I’ll get somebody to help you,” with that he was quickly off.
I waited for about 15 minutes, fanning myself and whiling my time. Finally, I went back to Customer Services and asked for someone to help me.
“The shelves are too high and the tiles are terribly heavy. I can’t carry them,” I explained.
“Well, Madam, there’s no one else here who can help you. That man is our tile person. If he tells you to wait, you wait.”
Seeing it was futile arguing with them, I started looking for my man-in-blue. I saw him at the back of the store, not doing very much.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m still waiting for someone to help me. Why don’t you help me? All I need is a husky young man like you.”
“I’m sorry Madam; I’ll send someone to help you.”
“What’s wrong with you?” No answer there.
“You mean you won’t help me?” Silence. “I’m a small woman, you think I can carry all those tiles by myself—take them from a shelf I can barely reach?” No answer.
I lost my temper. “What’s your name?” There was no nametag on his shirt.
“I’m not telling you my name.”
“You think if you don’t tell me your name I can’t report you to management? You think I can’t describe the way you look and your attitude?” I was raising my voice by now. “Who do you think you are? Oh, I know, you’re some Brahmin and you think you’re too high and mighty to get your hands dirty. That’s it! It’s a class thing!” By now I was shouting at the top of my voice. “I’ll write to management!”
I had attracted a not-too-few arched eyebrows and could read the faces of my witnesses. How uncivilised! Disgusting! Little Oriental woman losing all self-control. My face was saved (partly) by my new-found friend, she who refused to go to the toilet. She came over and goaded me,
“I know his name, his name is Sugan. Yes, you should write and complain about him.” Being English, though, she retained her well-modulated voice and apparently decided it was only proper to leave all the fuzz-making to foreigners.
All through this interchange, Sugan retained his disdainful silence.
It was my turn to say, “Harrumph.”
I marched back to the location of my tiles, taking one box at a time and checking them out at the till. Four trips to the boot of my un-airconditioned car, making sure I bent my knees each time I picked up one box, and carrying each box close to my body—just as my bad-back doctor had advised me to do whenever I was forced to carry heavy loads.
I was still perspiring as I pulled out of the kerb, preparing to navigate through one of London’s many old, narrow streets made worse by cars parked on both sides, some legally, others not so legally. I saw the driver of the car in front of me nick the fully retractable side mirror casing of the vehicle he was meeting--one of those casings which could easily be snapped back into place. The two drivers started shouting at each other.
“You bloody idiot,” said the one with the dislodged mirror casing. “If you don’t know how to drive, don’t be in the streets of London!”
“You have no bloody business driving such monstrosity in this town,” retorted the other, glaring at his opponent’s massive SUV.
Road rage, I thought smugly, but soon realised that this verbal duel could last forever. The cars piling up behind started honking their horns. This gave me the obvious idea that I should honk mine too and the noise I made with great gusto added to the din. The situation was quickly descending into chaos until one of the drivers whose car was behind mine showed some badge to the feuding pair who in turn suspended their quarrel long enough to allow traffic to move.
After I reached the sanctuary of home, I turned on the TV—my instant stress management tool. It was just in time to hear that in southern Germany (where my husband currently was) the temperature had reached 41 degrees! I couldn’t resist a smile. Schadenfreude! What a beautiful feeling!