ColumnsHeli St. Luce

Random act of kindness

I remember years ago seeing and immediately buying five packs of cards that said

‘Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty’.

I gave them out for years in the latter stages of the 20th century and recently found three or four hidden away in a box filled with photos, letters and other random memories

I remember the term usually because I have been the recipient of some-ones random kindness. It encourages me to remember to practise it more myself. Which I decided all those years ago to try to do within 36 hours

The cards had a stylised line drawing of an angel, an explanation and a list of examples of random kindness. It was ‘very American’ but in a positive way. There is little information about the woman Anne Herbert (writer) who coined the phrase except that she died in 2015 and that in a magazine article in 1991 she was described as tall, blonde and forty!

The idea is probably most familiar now as ‘pay it forward’ which is another term for the same thing that came much later. Do something outside of and above the general low level kindness that is current. Best of all, aim it at a stranger and keep them a stranger.

I am not 100% sure if I have done both especially the senseless acts of beauty. Though I think it is highly likely that random kindness could be described as a genetic trait in my family. My mother speaks of my ‘broken wings’. The range of usually unhappy or damaged people who have passed through my life and in that way hers.

The term is her way of helping me get over the fact that so few of the people who I have supported have ever done the same for me, shown gratitude or stayed in my life long enough to be able to do either.

In the last years, as I have matured the people who I put energy into supporting in general tend to a greater appreciation. I try to be more aware of the random kindness that I have received in a world that tends towards the opposite.

A notable exception to my choice of ‘broken wings’ who are capable of being grateful and or returning the favour is my last ‘proper’ job that I did to help a woman I knew vaguely who desperately needed support. Through her and that job it was made very clear to me, in fact underlined, that my beloved bike (that I had for twenty years) had been stolen in an act of malicious spite by a Moroccan man who took an instant dislike to me when I worked in her bar on the JPHeijestraat.

The theft was accompanied by unsubtle threats of physical violence in the form of recordings played loudly at the table next to me of ‘Men of faith’(Imams) encouraging ‘true Muslim men’ to repress with violence ‘feminist’s’ as I sat outside having a drink after work.

As I searched the street for my bike where I had locked it, he laughed and called out to me, secure in his support from this woman and contemptuous as she had overturned the ban I had issued in the afternoon. I had refused to serve him any more (the right of any establishment manager) due to his continual rudeness and attempts to humiliate and put me down. My refusal elicited a first threat a desire to kick me to death in the bar.

My employer not only dismissed both the threat, she then refused to pay me for the month I had worked because I took the threat in the afternoon and the recordings seriously and refused to come to work again. Throughout she had consistently taken ‘his side’ in the series of incidents leading up to the threats.

‘I get on great with him, I don’t know why he has taken such a dislike to you. Maybe you should try and be nicer to him.’ I had told her from the outset that my days of ‘being nice’ to men because they expect it were over.

I am a competent bar worker. My previous employer for bar work told me I was their best. I can learn fast and I think good service is important. I want it, so I do my best to give it. Impartially. It never needs to entail ‘being nice’ if you are professional. A lot of women bar workers conflate professionalism with flirting.

But then a lot of them are chosen for the job based on their looks or bodies. I am chosen for my skills! I don’t feel the need to be grateful to male customers for compliments based on anything other than those skills and give short shrift when I receive them.

Which often generates another male tendency which is to insult when one (the object!) is unflattered by what they (the men) perceive to have been a(n unwarrented) compliment. These tendencies are one of the reasons why I took the qualification to be a bar manager! (To be able to refuse to serve them.)

My employers’ version of ‘getting on great’ with him consisted of having made an agreement that he can deal (drugs) from her bar rather than having to pay him the money that was stolen from him by a young man she describes as ‘being like a son to her’, who incidently also ripped her off when he did a runner to Morocco (everyone assumes).

She is one of the women I describe as ‘handmaidens of the Patriarchy’. One of those who ‘has no time for feminists’ and isn’t ‘very keen on women’ but makes continual excuses and exemptions for the obnoxious behaviour of men. I had decided to help and support her because we need more women running businesses generally regardless of their personalities and politics

All this to say for some months I have been travelling around the city on public transport with a general feeling of great resentment (and loathing) towards the oppressive sexism that I see (in certain communities) and women (that I judge to be) like my ex employer in their attitude towards the women around them. As you can imagine it’s not the happiest state in which to get from one place to another.

The recent increase in costs in travel and the changes to the network that mean that I have to be very careful to not get into an ‘automatic mode’ (I’ve lived in the city for decades and knew the public transport network in Amsterdam like the back of my hand from when I was scared to go on a bike).

I now have to stay very alert when travelling because otherwise I find myself in a completely different part of the city, late and faced with working out which tram actually now goes to where I need to be. Having spent three times or more the cost of getting to where I was going in a period of time where I am earning nothing while I set up my business.

So why did I start with random acts of kindness, when so far I have talked only about directed acts of cruelty, and discontent?

I got on the bus that stops at the end of my street one evening, it’s a short ride from the station. I remember saying good evening to the bus driver. I don’t always do it but very often I notice that no one has. My exchanges with bus drivers tend towards the negative. I think this is because we (travelling customers) tend to treat them like trees until we want something and when we want something we ask for it like we are asking an inanimate object.

I have had a couple of occasions where I asked a question ‘does this bus go to…?” and the first reply is “good evening” or “hello” mostly I apologise and start again corrected.

More often I have had unwarranted rudeness from (actually only male) bus drivers predominantly white. Connexxion seems to have a collection of nasty, (probably racist), definitely sexist, bad tempered bus drivers who love driving past the bus stop, secure in the knowledge that your average Amsterdam’ian’ can’t be bothered to face the indifference and hostile obstacles put in ones way when making a complaint.

So, I got on the bus, I said good evening. As is often the case I was reading. It is the one thing that makes travelling on public transport fabulous (deepest sympathy to all the people unable to). There are only three stops from the station to my street and it is very common that I forget to ring the bell and get off at my stop, then end up leaping up at the following one to walk back – it’s not far.

In the last bit of time there have been three occasions where I forgot to ring the bell and ‘found myself’ walking swiftly to get of the bus, that had stopped at my stop, with the doors open. Two times I was blinking rapidly on the street wondering what had happened before I realised. The last time I managed to say a breathless ‘Dank u wel’.

The driver ‘knew me’ and had stopped to let (just) me out of the bus! I don’t know if all three times were the same driver, my intuition tells me not.

The deep sense of appreciation, gratitude, surprise that I have felt on all three occasions are the foundation of this piece and an inspiration and call for all of us to try to be the person on the end of the joyous, grateful, appreciative love and best wishes that I send out to protect and bless the/those bus drivers who showed me that random kindness

Heli St Luce

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