There is a hint of sadness in those grey eyes and the figure wrapped up in weather-beaten jacket and trousers. But if you were to ask Donald Michael, 77, would say, “life is good,” and his eyes wouldn’t betray him. He is a contended old man, who has seen the good and bad in life.
At the University of Queensland’s St Lucia market, Don (as he likes to be called) is usually seen sitting comfortably on a chair. His gray hair is combed back and his watchful eyes gaze from behind a table full of small potted plants that he sells. Time stands still in his cosy corner, but it always attracts some who want to stray away from the hullabaloo of university life.
Don is the oldest among the stall owners at the market. His relatives have often suggested that he go to an old home but he is determined to carry on. Despite the hard work involved in loading, unloading plants and setting up the stall Donald maintains that he enjoy his independence.
Selling plants is Don’s post-retirement job, one that supplements his superannuation. Life isn’t difficult but he still has to make ends meet. “The fortnight 380 dollars simply isn’t enough,” he says. “Besides, I come to the market to meet people, people like you.” He laughs out loud and quickly, with a no-nonsense tone in his voice says, “I observe people.”
Occasionally, Don nods or waves at students and staff as they walk by. He has been at the university’s market and other markets around Brisbane for the last 10 years selling plants. “That was when I retired from my job as a land surveyor,” he recalls.
It wasn’t for a love of plants that Don started the business, but he has developed a green finger over the years. Often people come with gardening or pest control queries. And he always has a suggestion.
Don has also developed friendship with some university students. “Since he is friendly it is easy to start a conversation with him,” says Ngo Thi Linh Chi, a postgraduate student of University of Queensland. “I admire the efforts he puts into his business but I get the feeling that it’s is not all about money. He enjoys interacting with people.”
To be among the crowd Don makes his way to the markets three times a week in his Holden Barina. “The other days I go to the nurseries at Capalaba to buy plants or shopping to stock the fridge,” he says.
Don always makes it a point to visit the markets every week, except on holidays such as Christmas. With his business taking much of his time, Don has little leisure time which he spends watching television or listening to the radio. At home, in the evening, watching television is his usual routine. He lives with his wife and grandson.
With a flicker of pain in his eyes Don says that his wife adopted his grandson after his father passed away at the age of 30.
However, Don does not let the pain extinguish the happiness he felt when each of his children were born. “The best memories are of the times when I saw my new-born babies,” he says. Don has seven children, all of whom were born nine months apart.
The time he met his wife at a social and days at the beach as a lifeguard are other memories that he often turns back to. “I was a good swimmer,” he remembers. “When I was around 16, my friends and I would go up to the Gold Coast and stay Fridays and Saturdays patrolling the beach.”
As a teenager, Don won the north coast championship and represented Queensland at the Australian Championship in Sydney and Adelaide. He was also the school captain at Brisbane State High School, a school which he remembers fondly.
“I received a call the other day from the school and they have invited all the past school captains to the school in November,” he says. “I will be presenting school leaving certificates to the students.”
Such simple things make Don happy. Occasionally, he bumps into old high school classmates, some of whom he had never talked to. Such chance meeting makes him happy, too. But, most of all, what would please him is a vacation either at the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Coast.
“I’d love to swim,” he exclaims. “I haven’t done that in the past two years.”
Having to earn a living, Don finds it difficult to find time for a vacation. He has even given up golf, another sport he likes to play.
Despite having had to give up a number of things after retirement, Don happily insists that life is good and he wouldn’t trade his home, job and his independence to go into an old home.