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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
Lessons in common decency can come at the strangest times.
When I was 19, I lived in the Borough of Hackney, a rather shabby area of East London, where the house I rented was too far from any Underground station or useful bus stop to be desirable. Accommodation was therefore considerably cheaper than anything in a more fashionable or accessible area.
At the end of my road of side-by-side Victorian townhouses was the one place every Londoner wants to have within easy walking distance, if not right next door, namely the family-owned convenience store that sells a little of everything from newspapers to noodles, Heineken to henna dye, baked beans to bicycle pumps, and mangoes to mallets.
The shop was run by Mr. Patel, all of whose family members were involved in the business, as his wife handled the books, his two teenage children stocked the shelves and cleaned the floors, and he ran the cash register. They all lived upstairs with Mr. Patel’s mother, who sometimes ventured into the shop to tell everyone where she thought things should be put and to keep the incense burning.
Directly next door, Mr. Patel’s brother had an identical shop with an identical name, selling identical goods. The second Mr. Patel, however, had a bossy wife who decided everything should be arranged entirely differently than it was next door. The result was that I’d find half of what I wanted in one shop and the other half in the other, to a different incense, even though everything had likely been delivered to both in a single van, driven by one or other of the Patels.
It was the perfect arrangement for the Patel families, as they were clearly doing very well for themselves and could send their children to excellent schools, and everyone was entirely in control of the business and immediately responsible for its fortunes or failures.
It was also the perfect arrangement for me, as I could shop quickly on my way home from university each day without having to take a bus to a big store far away, pick up a newspaper and a cold drink, and enjoy it at my kitchen table within minutes.
So there I was one winter evening, quite late, chatting with one of the Messrs. Patel, when the shop door flew open and an extraordinarily angry man burst in and tossed a small container of paste onto the counter.
Ever the gentleman, Mr. Patel quietly asked the man what the problem was, upon which we were both subjected to a truly blistering diatribe against a company that had clearly been deceitful in its labeling, causing the consumer much embarrassment.
The paste in question was an acne treatment identified as “convenient skin tone,” produced in a sort of beige typical of sticky bandages, wet seashells or a Ford Granada.
The customer was a Jamaican man who lived a few houses away. We all knew each other quite well, having bought the same noodles and newspapers at one time or another.
Mr. Patel and I looked the customer in the face and recognized immediately that the skin-tone acne treatment hadn’t been made for him.
I offered the blotchy man a sympathetic smile while Mr. Patel opened the cash register and handed over an appropriate amount of money in exchange for the open container of paste.
Somewhat mollified, the Jamaican man left, politely remembering to close the shop door this time.
“Gosh,” I said to Mr. Patel. “That’s really quite an awful thing to happen. What a dreadful way to label a skin treatment.”
“That’s why we don’t sell that brand,” Mr. Patel said with a tiny smile. “He didn’t buy it from me.”
And there it was. The perfect little neighborhood shopkeeper being perfectly neighborly, quietly generous at the very moment that it mattered just enough, unflinching, unruffled, sympathetic and – let’s be honest – resisting the urge to have a public chuckle.
Mr. Patel and I smiled at each other, I picked up my newspaper and can of beans, and I walked home alone in the rain, contented with life being just so.