Today, I saw a man bargaining for bread. In a bakery. He was trying to get a better deal on a loaf.
There I was, on Victoria Street, at Lo Bahn Mi Bakery, buying a Vietnamese pork roll. It was a crisp autumn day, the sun was shining, and the footpaths along this strip of little Vietnam were thick with people.
The bakery was pretty full. Lo Bahn Mi has the best pork rolls in all of Melbourne. They are the best in Richmond, and consequently they are the best of the best. The vegies are fresh, the chilis are hot, and the pork and sandwich loaf are instilled with the finest of preservatives. And they are an absolute steal at $2.80.
As I ordered, I looked at the people around me. There was an elderly Greek woman whose hair sat flat against her crown, flakes of dandruff scattered through, a myopic chinless man asking for directions, and girl with a foot in a brace, hobbling on her remaining leg, trying to stop jam from her donut soiling her white T-shirt. Too late.
A came in, his arthritic limbs keeping his steps small. It’s like he bustled in, but in slow motion. He sidled up to the counter, pushing past the girl, more jam spilling.
“How much for the roll?” he asked.
“$1.90,” said the grey-toothed lady behind the counter. He stood for a moment, staring intently.
“Can you do any better than that?” She looked at him, confused. So did I.
“It’s a pretty small loaf,” he continued, unabashed, “don’t you think you can do a little better than that?” He looked around at me frowning. “What are you looking at?”
“You. Bargaining for bread,” I said.
“So what?” He threw his hands up, his shoulders frozen down. “You can bargain for electrical equipment, right? So why not food?”
I stopped for a second. Everyone looked at me – even the directions guy. Through coke-bottle glasses his eyes were the size of golf balls.
“I don’t know. I guess,” I said, pondering his logic. “For God’s sake, don’t let me stop you.”
He flung his arm up again, shooing me away. He turned back to the woman behind the counter.
“$1.50,” he countered.
“Hah,” the old Greek lady said, crowing loudly, “you’re kidding, Max?”
“$1.60, then,” he said, now irritated.
“Does anyone know how to get to Kmart from here?” asked the man with spectacles.
“$1.70,” yelled the man. He scratched nervously at his facial hair. It was the first sign of buyer’s nerves. Another drop of donut jam fell. The Greek woman cackled again. The girl behind the counter smiled benignly, baring her grey teeth. Like she was daring him.
“Fine then,” he said, looking around, “forget about it!” He yelled it at me, shaking his cane vigorously. He turned, taking in the room, his hostile audience, before turning back. He fumbled around in his coin purse, mumbling as he did, before taking out a five dollar note and a single gold coin. He slammed them down with a strangely unsatisfying clink. “Three loaves, thank you kindly,” he grumbled.
The girl behind the counter turned, took three loaves out, and placed them carefully into separate bags, before handing them to him. She took the money and headed for the register. As she did, the grumpy old man began to walk away.
“Sir,” she called, “you forgot your change.”
“Ahhh, keep the change,” he said, waving his cane forcibly in my direction.
We all stood, watching.
“Bye, Max,” called the Greek lady, scratching some dandruff from her flat patch. Max took tiny steps, faster and faster, like a wind up robot, gradually motoring towards the door. The donut girl took a final bite, the sugar dusting her lips. The chinless guy continued attempting to read a napkin.
“Keep the change,” Max mumbled. He twisted around as far as his frozen joints would allow, the puff gone from his voice, a little defeated. He raised his cane, almost too heavy, before he looking at me. And he said, “I wanted her to keep the change.”
And then he turned and left the shop.