Wednesday, 7 November 2012

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On every trip I make to London something small usually happens to me which sticks in my mind, always to do with a stranger. 

The time before last I was just checking my phone at a street corner and an old man made a beeline for me - uh oh - and then started to sing.  Directly to me.   I really didn’t know where to look.  He was serenading, Everyone is beautiful… in their own way which I wasn’t sure whether or not to take as a compliment, but he looked a little manic so I just said, “Thank you!” (?!) and then hurried off, my pace quickening as I turned my back on him.  His vocals continued in my direction and I found myself diving into the nearest shop - it could have been a funeral parlour for all I cared at that moment, as long as it got me out of his range.

Last week my brief moment of connection with a stranger was with a young guy who was homeless.  It's something I always find difficult to witness.  It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with walking past human-shaped mounds under blankets in shop doorways or studiously avoiding eye contact with swaying, swarthy street men whose hopelessness is hard to contemplate; sadly it’s something you expect when you visit any large town or city, isn’t it?  This boy, though – he was like someone I might have known.  He reminded me of the young lads I used to work with in an office several years ago.  Like the sort of fresh-faced trainee with whom I’d have shared some banter, or had a chat with at the coffee machine about the previous night’s episode of a sitcom.  Only... his face was no longer that fresh.  But I could tell he was intelligent and personable, and I wondered how come his life had got so messed up.   I realise that when he first approached me I must have automatically given him that defensive “PLEASE DON'T BOTHER ME!” expression - I just know it would have been all over my face, a kind of reflex, and I can’t imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of that type of response over and over again.  Anyway he asked me so politely if I had some change to help him pay for his hostel that night, but I knew I only had a handful of coppers in my purse.  “Oh I’ve only got a few coins – I’m a bit embarrassed!” I said as I scooped up the two-pence pieces.  You’re embarrassed?” he replied, gesturing towards himself as if to say, “Hello-oh!  Don't you realise who you're saying that to?!”  My tactlessness hit me as he went on, not harshly at all, but very genuinely, “How embarrassed do you think I feel, asking you?”  Stupidly, I just hadn’t thought of it like that.  I apologised (and explained that I’d just wanted to give him a more useful amount), and then we chatted briefly and said friendly goodbyes.  On the train back I found it hard to get him out of my mind, more so than I ever have in that kind of situation before.  There was something about him.   I was going home to a safe, warm house on this chilly October night, and he was going… where?   And I’m obviously still thinking about him now, aren't I?  I find it hard to get my head around how relentlessly tough life must be if you're homeless, especially in an English winter.

Mind you, I once knew of a man who actively chose to live outside in all weathers for most of his adult life.  He had a little camp in a copse by the side of a main road in a village not far from my home town.  He'd amassed all sorts of random objects that he’d presumably either found or been given  – toys, bags, old clothes, etc. and decorated his makeshift home amongst the trees with them, the more brightly coloured and shiny the better.  It was a cheery sight - and site.  Somehow he managed to keep himself, and his little dog whom he pushed around in an old pram, alive and well for years.  His hair never went grey and his skin looked like bark.  He walked for miles every day, complete with dog and pram, and always waved to each car that passed him (including mine – it was a pleasure to wave back).  Every Christmas Day he would accept the invitation from one of the locals to join them for a full, festive dinner.  This was the one and only day of the year on which he’d take a bath too, thanks to the loan of their bathroom and some sweet-smelling unguentsWell into his seventies when he died, he was liked and respected by all who lived in the area, his long life out in the cold no doubt made a little warmer by the kindness of strangers.

12 comments:

  1. It's too easy to see 'the homeless' as some great sludge-coloured amorphous mass, isn't it? And yet behind every one of them will be a back-story with at least one chapter you'd never want to imagine, let alone experience. I'm as guilty as anyone else of turning a blind eye more often than I should, because I'm in a hurry or in a bad mood or just can't be bothered rummaging in my bag for my purse. But you're so right that every now and the, one of the human faces emerges from the mass and brings you up short.

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    1. Indeed... I know if I stopped to help every single one (and every single worthy cause in the world!) I'd never cope... I think we have to put on a tough facade sometimes for that reason but, as you say, every now and then someone breaks through it. It's quite strange really how that one boy had such a big effect on me, but he certainly gave me some perspective!

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  2. Like everyone I guess I also pass by far too often, living in a small town it's easy sometimes to see the same old faces and sometimes blank them. One local homeless guy who I always used to give cigs to moved into the small flat behind me...he set it on fire within a few days...sometimes it's easy to forget the problems they have with life in general.

    And just one pet hate...the people who say 'they'll only spend it on drugs / booze / insert vice of their choice..' - So bloody what ? does their employer vet their spending before paying them their wages or pension ? God knows if they did I'd never have made much money in my life.... These people are adults for god sakes, let them choose !

    Sorry - rant over.

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    1. Your pet hate makes perfect sense to me too. Yes, imagine if employers vetted your spending... aarggghh!
      Plus I feel sure if I was cold and homeless and desperate enough to have to beg for money, no doubt abused and scorned by passers by at the same time, I'd very quickly want to drown myself in a bottle of something nicely numbing...

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  3. Most of my experiences with the homeless have been of a more comical nature. There are visible hard cases in New Orleans and Memphis...in Jackson you never really see the heart breakers (the families in shelters or abandoned houses). Mostly what you run into is the same handful of people who, for the last ten years, have been trying to collect enough money for a bus ticket to Baton Rouge or Houston...where evidently they all have at least one cousin.

    It's mostly warm down here so the weather, at least, is less of an issue than some places. There was one fella who lived down at the river...he spent most of his days in the Waffle House on High St. He claimed to have been a professor at Vanderbilt until his brother and group of faculty members conspired to have him committed. He use to collect the tobacco out of cigarette butts and roll it into cigarettes...with whatever paper he to hand.

    My favorite though is Tony in Memphis...Mole on right cheek, missing gold tooth.

    Missing gold tooth...hahahahah

    Evidently he was a fixture in Memphis...he was telling me all about how much money the city wasted on "rerectricity" to run the street car up and down the mall...when he stopped, stepped out into the street to flag down a city bus. He bummed a dollar off the driver...flagged down a city bus and found a dollar to hold. HA!

    I do remember seeing the homeless in London...looked like a much tougher row to hoe. Kings Cross was good for that. They are now in my thoughts...especially as it gets colder.

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    1. The streets certainly throw up some priceless characters... Your guy down at the river reminded me of a man I met last year who hangs around in a library every day (I think he does have a home but nothing else, so it's somewhere for him to go free of charge) He told me all about the highly important speeches he has to write for the prime minister. Yes, of course he does. The permanent fixture of a plastic carrier bag and his excessive body odour were a dead giveaway....but he was harmless enough.

      "Missing gold tooth".... :-D

      Yes it's cold here in winter, and London can be an unfriendly place.


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  4. Back in my youth living in Cricklewood, I and my flatmates, got to "know" a whole group of homeless people who lived in the back alleyways behind our flat on the Broadway. They were a lively bunch, all quite old, and on the whole friendly and good hearted. Mostly they guarded their tales of woe pretty tightly. They lived to drink and scavenged to survive and I was told on more than one occasion that being indoors was not something the majority of them felt comfortable with any longer.

    It is very hard to be young and jobless unless you have family or friends to take you in. The Welfare State makes very little provision for those without children and young men seem to get the sh*ttiest end of that particular stick. I hope that young guy doesn't lose hope and manages to find his way back into employment and housing, or at very least a warm shelter for the winter months. You were probably one of the few that day who spoke to him as one human being to another, a basic human right that so many people seem to forget.

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    1. That must have been quite an experience to witness the lives of those people at such close hand, perhaps it's something we could all do with a little taste of just to help us understand?!
      Yeah I think you're right about the young men who don't get much help. I really hope that guy gets back on track. I wanted to ask him about his situation... but I didn't. Maybe he wouldn't have told me anyway.
      Thanks for saying that about speaking to him as one human to another; it's made me feel even more resolute to be better at doing that in future too.

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  5. Have you read 'Stuart: A Life Backwards', the story of a homeless young chap from Cambridge? Heartbreaking. You've left us with some food for thought with this post, C.

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    1. I haven't read the book but I do remember hearing about that guy, and Cambridge is a very familiar place to me, so perhaps I should check it out (if I can bear to...!)

      (I'll have to try and make my next post a bit lighter too!)

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  6. Where I work is right adjacent to one of the large terminus rail stations. Therefore a haven for homeless folks, i.e. lot of people walking through, shops to get stuff etc. and a small park/gardens where they can gather/sleep. I've only been working here since July and twice to my knowledge someone has been found dead there in the morning - it is a startling statistic that!

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    1. Oh, that is a startling - and saddening - statistic :-(

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