Thursday, May 01, 2008

Karma, swift and sure

Hubby and I like to go to house sales. Not the sales of actual houses, mind you, but sales of the contents of houses. These are rather like an American yard sale or garage sale, but with a peculiarly South African twist: they are conducted with the white South African’s paranoia about crime taken into account.

Unlike American sales, there is no array of goods spread out on tables and tarps spread out in the driveway and lawn to tempt passers-by to stop, browse, and spend. Here, the signs posted do not give an address or even arrows one can follow to the sale. You have to subscribe (free) to the company that manages these sales and then, each Thursday, you receive an email listing all the sales they are hosting over the weekend, an inventory of the goods at each sale (and photos on the website), and the address (and directions to) the sale.

Once you arrive at a sale, you find a queue of people waiting for the sale to open. The organizers are scrupulous about allowing no previews and refusing to open the sale until the stroke of the clock. Once the door is opened, the manager of the sale will step out and give his little introductory speech for the benefit of first-timers: if you like something, take the tag off it, and if you change your mind, please put the tag back so others may have a chance to buy the item. That's it.

I suppose there could be an expectation that you enter the premises in the same order as you are queued outside the door, but it would be wrong. We’ve been to several of these things now, and once the doors are opened the crowd surges forward to fill the available space. At the first sale we queued outside a garden gate, and when the gate was opened, people rushed through, spreading out to climb the broad porch stairs in ranks four persons wide. When we had to narrow it down to file through the front door, people who had been far back in the queue were through the doors before those at the front. Arriving early at a sale only gets you a chance at being first through the door, but no guarantees.

We arrived at Saturday’s sale about half an hour early, which put us about twelfth in a queue that eventually grew to a crowd of about thirty people. Considering that it was being held at a relatively new flat in a pricey complex, the venue was suffocatingly small. Not only were the exterior passageways narrow, the flat, once we were admitted, was shockingly tiny. Had the bed not been removed from the bedroom, there would not have been room for more than two people at a time in the room. We were there for a pair of Elna machines…a sewing machine and an overlocker…but seeing the crowd outside, we were pretty sure we weren’t going to be able to get them. Another attendee, however, did not have so realistic an expectation, it turns out.

At the pole position was a dark haired woman wearing delicate silver and blue crystal earrings, and second was hiking-booted blonde woman of middle years who seemed peculiarly bent on informing new comers as to the order of the queue. Veterans of the sales just ignored her, but others took her seriously and dutifully assumed places at what she identified as the end of the line. When the door opened, of course, pandemonium ensued and while Silver-and-Blue Crystal-Earrings made it through the door first, Bootsie didn’t make it through second. Ah, well…such is the “structure” at such events.

Bootsie did make it inside before I did, but as she stopped to ask the sale manager the location of the sewing machines, I stepped around her and headed down a dark, claustrophobically narrow hallway towards the bedroom. Before I achieved my destination, however, I was roughly jostled aside by none other than Bootsie herself, who burst into the room like an avenging Valkyrie and stormed across the tiny patch of open space and frantically searched the two machines for their tags. As I expected, someone else had made it to the machines before I did, so I turned and began to thread my way back up that horrid little hallway, only to be bashed aside by Bootsie yet again as she crashed her way back towards the main rooms. As I finally emerged from the hall…being a congenitally polite person, I excused myself and apologized to each person going the opposite direction with whose body I was forced to make relatively intimate contact as we squeezed past one another…I heard an altercation going on in the kitchen. A brief glance revealed Bootsie verbally assaulting a slightly-built coloured woman, Bootsie screaming something to the effect “I sat out there for and hour-and-a-half! I was first in the queue!” and the other woman muttering responses I couldn’t quite make out. I hunted up Hubby, who was out on a balcony that looked to be bigger than the flat itself, and indicated I was ready to leave. The machines were gone, the flat was entirely too crowded, and the “good stuff” had obviously been retained by the owners…there was nothing more of interest in the dingy, suffocating little box.

As we made out way out the door, Bootsie was continuing her tirade at the unfortunate woman in the kitchen. It turns out her invective was directed at the person who had collected the tickets on the sewing machine and overlocker. Because the lady with the tags had been further back in the outside queue, Bootsie seemed to be convinced that the woman was unfairly in possession of the tags for those items, and was intent on browbeating her into surrendering them! She was apparently labouring under the misconception that being early in the queue bought her some kind of privilege, perhaps that she had first (or, in her case, second) pick of items for sale.
Hubby and I exited the sale and headed towards the lift. From behind we could hear the voice of the sale manager entering the fray and next thing we knew, Bootsie and her husband were hurrying onto the lift with us. She put her face in her hands and literally wept at what she perceived to be the unfairness of the queue-jumping being allowed to retain the tags…to which I felt compelled to comment “I’ve been to several of these things and my experience is that your position in the queue means nothing once the doors open.” She looked at me incredulously, then put her face back in her hands, hurrying off the lift without a single word.

Naturally, Bootsie’s conduct was the topic of conversation once Hubby and I got into our car. I had thought her officiousness at informing all the newcomers as to their place in the queue to be a bit odd, but I have learned over my years here that many of the white folk in this country are uncommonly bossy and imperious, even to complete strangers. (Example: instead of telling you that you should try something (advisory), they will tell you that you must do something (imperative)…and not in that Sex in the City “oh, darling, you simply must try this divine citronella daiquiri” way, but in a manner that is clearly commanding.) Once the whole scene had played out, it was clear that her bossy directives…and her announcements of her own place in the queue…were for the express purpose of securing an early enough entry to get to those machines. How she planned to circumvent Silver-and-Blue-Crystal-Earrings was not clear, but by the time she got into the wrangle in the kitchen, Bootsie had clearly forgotten that she was second in the queue, not first.

Her rudeness at shoving people aside, moi included, surprised me. Although the sales tend to be a bit of a free-for-all, the previous ones I attended had been at least moderately civilized affairs, people saying “excuse me,” and treating each other politely when the desired items had already been taken. This was my first encounter of someone developing a sense of entitlement and then, when thwarted, throwing a public tantrum. I was embarrassed for the woman, even if she didn’t have the good manners to be embarrassed for herself.

Considering my experience with the conduct of buyers at other sales, I would have to say her conduct was nothing short of outrageous. First, there was her presumptuousness at trying to control the buyers as they arrived to wait for the doors to open. Then, her incredible rudeness in literally, physically, shoving people aside in order to get past them. Next, her unbelievable chutzpah at accosting the tag-holder and demanding that she relinquish the tags, based on nothing more than their relative places in the crowd outside the door before the doors were opened. And finally, there was her public weeping and obvious sense of feeling ill-used because she didn’t get her own way.

Somewhere along the line she failed to take note of the fact that she was not the person in control of the sale. She could invent any rules she wanted, of course, but none of us were obliged to abide by them, only by the rules established by the managers of the sales. And when they opened the doors and gave us the spiel, there was no mention of keeping our original places in the queue and proceeding in an orderly fashion.

And that was as it should be. The purpose of these sales is to sell the goods and each potential buyer, whether he arrived first or last, needs to have a feeling that he has a chance at getting the good stuff. If you arrive last in a queue of fifty people and you know that you will therefore be the fiftieth person admitted through the door, will you stay for the sale? Likely not. But if you know that when the doors open, there will be a crush and some confusion, that you might be able to work your way into being the fifth or tenth in the door, then you feel you have some chance at getting the items you want. Why would the managers of the sale want to discourage potential buyers by guaranteeing only the very first people in the queue had a chance as getting their hands on the choice bits of merchandise? What a brilliant formula for ensuring very short queues and poor sales!

We are very much hoping that Bootsie was so disappointed at this sale that she doesn’t return. We heard the sale manager speak to her and just seconds later she was hurrying to the lift, so we suspect that she was invited to leave. Hopefully, she was invited to not attend any more sales. Should this kind of skirmish become commonplace, you can be sure that buyers will think twice about attending: the beauty of the sales is that once a tag is in your hand, the item is yours.
Hubby was as appalled at her behaviour as I was, but with typical Indian aplomb he simply wrote it off to swift karma. Her attempts to advantage herself at the expense of others was immediately rewarded by her failure to secure the goods she desired. But something tells me that, rather than take a lesson about acceptable conduct from her experience, she will enshrine the event as one more example the “ills” of the new South Africa.

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