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#32 You annoy everyone who loves you
When I was 22, I worked in what was by all accounts Melbourne’s oldest workwear store. It had stood on Russell Street since the early 70s, and in another spot before that since the 20s. It felt like I arrived at the shop when it needed me most. It was cavernous and dusty and owned by an unexpectedly elegant and softly spoken man, who wore merino sweaters and round black spectacles. He had inherited the business from his father when he was 20 something, and now 60 something, he was tired.
The store needed me because it was dying, and because I understood it’s quiet magic. I was a good person to love it in its last days.
During the months I worked there, I noticed daily the ways in which the store was unchanged by the passage of time. There were things that had been there since long before I was born; black and white family photos on the wall, Levis posters from the 60s, decades old Bonds mannequins. Iconic in its steadfastness, Helen Garner wrote about the shop in her 1977 novel Monkey Grip; because it was where radical young people went to buy Lee jeans and Hanes Beefy tees back then.
When I worked there in 2012, people mostly came in to try on Blundstones and Doc Martens. Our customers were tradies and hipsters alike.
Pink haired kids and burly men.
Photograph by Alan Atwood; 2013.
Jeff would smile quietly as I served people. I’d bring out box after box of shoes in a half size up, in the cherry, what about the 8-Eye boot instead? “I don’t know how you have the patience” he would say.
I spent hours in the windows, on very quiet days, re-dressing mannequins and styling possum-wool gloves and selecting the boots most in vogue, I’d remove Jeff’s big yellow tags and rewrite prices small and neat. He hated that. “They need to know the price. It stops them having to ask us”.
“It stops them having to come in at all”, I’d say.
Jeff would buy gourmet lunches at least once a week, deli meats and olives and French cheese, crunchy-chewy sourdough and lattes. He was generous. My pay was well above what I deserved. He made me a store manager, with keys, so he could have Sundays off.
And all this to say, what I learnt from Jeff wasn’t much to do with work. Like I said, I came to the store when it was dying. A dignified death, slow and soft. It was as online shopping was becoming the thing, and people started coming to try on boots just to know their size, so they could go home and order them online for twenty dollars less.
There’s more to life than saving a buck, I learnt that.
But because the store was soon to close, and Jeff was ready for it to, we stood around most days chatting. Chopin or Beethoven playing softly in the background, Jeff standing over at his desk in the corner and me behind the cash register.
We talked about so many things; family, relationships, work, travelling, music, death, politics. I learnt that there is a certain kind of honour in taking on the family business, even if you might have had other dreams. I learnt that good food is an exercise in happiness, the cheese, the bread. I saw the way food can punctuate a grey day with joy. A sip of strong coffee, an olive bursts between your teeth. The dimly lit storeroom filled with shoe boxes doesn’t feel like a trap anymore.
There are small and real ways to bring joy in.
Jeff used to say that when he was upset with an old friend, over the myriad of things one might get upset with an old friend about, he would pause and ask the question, but what is upsetting about me? And he would rattle those things off, not in a self-hating way, but just as an exercise in truth telling. The list would be reasonably, humanly long, and it would calm his upset. He is flawed, but god, so am I.
I don’t know if I really understood that at the time, I was only 22 and I either loved people or hated them. But I understand it now in almost every relational context I have. I’m beginning to know what my flaws are, they’ve been brought to me like bird carcasses from a well-meaning cat, by people who love me. I’m almost always late, I’m disorganised, I’m not good at receiving constructive criticism, I care far too much what people think of me, I can be critical, I can be the kind of person who says one thing and does another. That’s just the shortlist. I’m working on these things and getting better at admitting they’re real.
Ten years ago my flaws were a fiction I railed against, now they’re facts I’m trying to footnote.
And these days, when I’m upset with someone, for a quality that seems both unchangeable and deeply antithetical to me, I try to think, but what’s upsetting about me? And I can refer back to the list above, not in a self-hating way, but as an exercise in truth telling. You are not perfect, but god, neither am I.
A few weeks back, Haley Nahman, one of my favourite writers and an always-inspiration, responded to a prompt in her newsletter Maybe Baby. The prompt was something along the lines of; coming to terms with the qualities in your friends that you find deeply annoying.
Her response was revelatory to me:
When it comes to friends’ annoying but seemingly unchangeable traits, I try to challenge myself to think how this trait “causes” something I love about them. A friend who’s always late but has a calming way of not taking life too seriously. A friend who’s really bad at planning ahead but is always down for a spontaneous hang. A friend who’s bad at answering texts but is unusually present with you in person. A friend who’s a little messy and chaotic but magical and addicting to be around. Almost every annoying behaviour pattern has an equal and opposite upside. This isn’t just a consolation prize, it’s a necessity: very often if you were to fix the annoying thing, you’d lose the special thing on the other side. This can be helpful in your own self-assessments too. No one can be everything good without occasionally being everything bad.
It’s a magnanimous and deeply loving act to pause and really see that someone who always seems so highly strung is also a consistent and reliable friend. That someone messy makes you feel at ease in your own chaos. That a pompous gourmand is often the most thoughtful host.
And this made me think of that. Jeff and his classical music, and olives, and the quiet way he understood his own ineptitudes. We all have cracks. We are perfectionists, passive aggressive, bratty at times. We feel slighted at the slightest. We give feedback unsolicited. We don’t respond to text messages.
We each of us have badness and a million ways to infuriate the people who love us.
So as Jeff might say, there’s no one you love that has never annoyed you, and there’s no one who loves you, who you’ve never annoyed.
*Some details about the store and the man who owned it have been changed for privacy.
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