No Romance on the Mean Streets
I remember vividly when I saw my first homeless person.
I was ten or so. Sitting in the backseat of Dad’s car. Going who knows where. We were stopped at a traffic light in the city and I looked down an adjacent alleyway and there was a pile of rags.
And then it moved. It was a man.
He must be sick, he was in trouble. It was winter and it was cold.
“Dad, there’s a man. He’s sick.”
“Over there, look. We should help him.”
“Oh, no we can’t do that. He’s a homeless man.”
“Doesn’t he have a home?” I’m ten, remember.
“We should take him to our house.”
The lights changed, and the relief Dad must’ve felt at being able to pull away would’ve had its own smell.
“No, Dad. No. Go back. We have to get him.”
“We can’t help him.”
“We can. We can. He can sleep on our lounge.”
To Dad’s credit, he turned back. He parked and went down the alleyway and spoke to the man. Gave him money. I sat in the car and watched. I wasn’t allowed to go with Dad. I wasn’t happy the man wasn’t coming with us, but I accepted Dad’s explanation that he didn’t want to. I realise of course, Dad would never have invited him home. He had two little kids and my Mum would’ve left him for the milkman. I realise he took a risk going down that alley with his kid in the car. This was the time before mobile phones and well lit streets, of more regular outreach services for the homeless.
I’ve never forgotten the cold night, the dark alley, the pile of rags that became a man. And the feeling of responsibility that we didn’t do enough to help him.
Dad doesn’t remember this happening. He does remember Sam the milkman.
Years ago, I used to walk from work up the road to get my first morning coffee. One morning there was a woman sitting on the stone wall along my walk. She smelled terrible, urine and alcohol, it made my eyes smart. She was there every morning. We started to do that nervous smile thing. Eventually I spoke, said good morning. She asked what drugs I could get her. Then she asked for money.
We started talking. Just a little every morning. Her name was Amanda. Not Mandy, Amanda. She didn’t used to be like this. She asked for money, for drugs. Her boyfriend had thrown her out. She was homeless and had nowhere to go. She turned tricks and stayed nights in a refuge. Sometimes. Sometimes she slept at the John’s place. They were the better nights, because there was a shower and usually drugs. Some days she wore next to no clothing, the shortest skirt, beat up heels, the semblance of a top and worn ugly makeup. Other days she wore filthy jeans, a torn t-shirt and went barefoot. She was always hungry. She didn’t want help. She knew where to get it but you had to be clean. I bought her coffee and toast. She cried that first time. Tried to give them back to me.
I bought her coffee and toast every morning for a couple of weeks. She still asked for money but she did it with a laugh, and then one day she simply wasn’t there.
I asked around. Shop keepers knew her. No one knew what happened to her. Someone mentioned an ambulance. I want to believe Amanda got help. I want to believe that, but I think it would’ve been a miracle.
A few years ago I consulted to a firm at the harbour end of the city. Every morning I’d walk across circular quay and every morning Sydney’s most famous homeless person was in her place in the lee of the train station, behind the walls of her cardboard boxes.
Sometimes she simply took in the sun, or read the newspaper, other times she would be knitting. She also made jewellery. She had the best view in world of the ferries coming and going, people hurrying past and all the buskers about their business. In winter, at night, it would’ve been freezing with the breeze straight off the water. Her skin looked like old brown leather.
Her name was Gina. The RTA offered again and again to re-house her, but having been evicted from her last home, Gina preferred living on the streets, despite the constant fear of being bashed or raped, or both.
She never troubled anyone. Shop owners and pedestrians gave her food and bought her coffee. And because homeless people have rights, she was able to stay.
She lived there six years, until a renovation forced her relocation.
Recently my day job had me working in the city again, and I was shocked at the number of homeless or down on their luck people staking out traffic lights on Pitt Street, begging. At lunchtime they were thick on the ground like autumn leaves and just as easy to kick. One at each intersection as if there were official territory rules in place.
They were in the way, with their old caps and pieces of cardboard with illegible scribble describing their troubles, with their eyes on the asphalt in crossed legged poses of humiliation. In the throng of people you almost stumbled over them and that was deliberate. They made me feel angry and mean and uncomfortable. There are services they can access, not that it would be easy, but this is Sydney not Java where women held babies to the window of our car, banging their fists on the glass and begging. Where a hamburger I had in a hotel would keep a family in food for a month or more.
But I was so torn. Every time I had to use that intersection and step around one of them I was the eight year old in the car, I was the me who feared for Amanda and yet could do nothing much to help her, or wasn’t brave enough to try harder in the fifteen minutes of my chargeable consultant’s time I gave her each day.
One particular guy had found a spot where he could jack into a free wifi service. He was the first cyber homeless person I’ve seen. I don’t imagine he’ll be the last.
Most of us living in this country have more than we physically need. I certainly do. Most of us, I hope, will never need to know what it’s like to live in our car, to go hungry or rely on social services or the kindness of strangers, to make the decision to sleep rough, or have it made for us, to beg, to have a bag and an old laptop, and a wall of cardboard or a shopping trolley, and for that to be our world.
I wrote a story about a homeless man. It’s called Inconsolable. It’s based on the notion that homelessness is not simply the purview of drop outs and druggies, that it can affect anyone who becomes ill, is broke or broken, without support. The homeless are young and old. They are sick and well, they are well educated and barely literate, born to poverty or once doing comfortably. They’re statistically mostly men. They’re all troubled in ways I can only attempt to imagine and they no doubt all had different lives in mind.
The physicality of Inconsolable is real. For a decade a man known as Jhyimy Two Hats lived tucked into a cave on the cliffs at Bondi Beach. Because of where he chose to live he was a possible danger to himself and others. The local council tried for years to move him on, residents supported him being there, and council only succeeded when Jhyimy was accused of a crime and the judge suggested the solution was for him to move on to somewhere safer.
Jhyimy was an older man than my character, Drum, and he had a rambling, flamboyant camp site that was regularly mistaken for an art exhibit when the public sculpture event took place.
I don’t know why Jhyimy wanted to live on the cliff. The views were sensational, but the risk of falling off was ever present and the cold and wet would’ve been difficult.
In writing Inconsolable I tried to imagine what might make a man choose to be homeless and to pick a place in the world where he might fall off, where he might want to. I tried to make that reason unexpected and still real enough inside the constraints of a romance to be true.
We all know there’s nothing romantic about being homeless, about not having enough to eat, or warm clothing, about living on the edge of society and having people step around you. About not feeling safe. About having little hope that things might get better.
I wrote a hero I hope you can love a little bit despite the fact he’s chosen an awkward, difficult way to live. It’s my hope that perhaps by loving Drum a little, we’re capable of seeing the Amandas and Ginas and Jhyimys and all the pile of rags, cardboard holding, cap out front, wifi jacking, knitting homeless people for more than the annoyance and embarrassment, pathos, confusion and terror they make us feel.