A while ago I wrote a post about coffee, describing a memory of seeing my mother order a cappuccino back when I was a young child, and then went on a ramble about takeaway coffee. Mmmmm, coffee.
As it happens, I started out with an entirely different intention for that post, but I got sidetracked (it’s not unusual!) and decided to let the post go in a different direction. (I must admit that many of my published posts began as an idea that morphed into something quite different when I started writing.)
So tonight I thought I’d revisit the original idea. I can go back to it, because I scribbled down some notes straight afterwards. Yes, literally scribbled – with a pencil, on paper, whilst on a moving train, just as if it was 1985, before the advent of the smart phone, or, for that matter, as if it was 1885, before the advent of the Biro. One of the positive aspects of a 50 minute commute on a train to work is that I’m free to scribble, and also to think – something that can’t be said for every activity one undertakes these days! By cleverly combining both activities, I have 50 full minutes to indulge in thinking and scribbling notes. It’s quite a good imitation of what I’d be doing all the time if I was a real writer.
Back to the notes I scribbled that morning. There is mention of missing the train, and a description of how, having nearly 20 minutes to wait for the next one, I walked across the concourse and down the steps to the street, where I stood waiting at the traffic lights, intending to cross and order a coffee at a little cafe on the corner. Yes, yes, we’ve heard all of that before, I hear you thinking, hurry up and get to something new!
Where those notes veer off in a completely different direction from that previous post is when they mention the man who spoke to me that morning:
Waiting at the lights, I realised that a man standing nearby had said something. Or rather, was saying something. I looked over at him, and immediately clocked that he was homeless. He was repeating something quietly, which I assumed was a request for money. There were a few other people at the lights, and although he was not looking directly at me, I also assumed that this petition was directed at me, since I was standing closest to him. To be sure that he was asking for money, I said, “Sorry?” Without raising his eyes, and as if he was not a human but a pre-recorded tape playing at a very low volume, he responded so quietly that it was hard to decipher, moneypleasemoneypleasemoneypleasemoneyplease.
Like many large cities, Melbourne’s residents are a mixture of the obscenely wealthy, the very poor, and the spectrum of all of the rest of us, who fall somewhere in between those extremes. I can assure you, the obscenely wealthy would never set foot in Footscray, the the inner Western suburb where I was standing at the lights that morning.
Inner suburbs in the North, East and South of Melbourne, such as Richmond, Fitzroy, Carlton, Collingwood, and the imaginatively-named South Melbourne, gradually morphed in the last century from working class areas to fashionable areas where real estate prices regularly soar to new record heights every few years, and, with the exception of the government housing that still exists in all those suburbs as a reminder of their recent past, only the wealthy can afford to buy, or even to rent. The streets in those suburbs are lined with all the signifiers of middle-class abundance – clothes shops, shoe shops, cafes, bakeries, bars, galleries, antique/vintage/retro furniture stores, beauty parlours, tanning salons, manicurists, gyms, and Thai Massage parlours. Meanwhile, the inner West retained the stigma of being working class and undesirable, right up to the end of the 20th century, including Footscray, the inner-suburban hub to the rest of the western suburbs.
Unless they live in a neighboring suburb, as I do, few Melburnians ever travel to Footscray just for an outing. It’s not an area you’d travel to for window shopping. The streetscapes are not particularly pleasing to the eye. Any “modern” touches in the central shopping area appear to have been designed in the 1980s, when tubular structures in salmon pink or bright aqua, combined with glass bricks, may have seemed exciting. Unfortunately such design elements did not stand the test of time, and they now look faded and sad. The streets are lined with a store fronts and cafes in bright garish colors, a varied mixture of cheap places to get good Vietnamese food, African cafes, Vietnamese hairdressing salons advertising hair cuts for $10, African tailors where you can have your clothes altered for $6, clothes shops with racks of cheap, sweat-shop produced clothing hanging from floor to ceiling, and “$2” shops with colorful plastic items physically bursting out of them and onto the footpaths out the front.
According to Wikipedia, Footscray contains a high (over 55%) proportion of residents who were not born in Australia, with the largest proportion of refugees coming from Vietnam and East African countries. There is a huge diversity of cultures in the area, and that gives the area its own character but it can make some people uncomfortable.
Services in the area include the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and other charitable and grassroots organisations working to help refugees and the homeless. There is plenty of genuine poverty in the Western Suburbs, and Footscray is at the hub – all trains to the Western Suburbs pass through Footscray.
That brief little introduction to Footscray’s demographics was not in the notes I scribbled on the train. I didn’t need any context that morning when I looked at the man asking me for money at the station. I had no doubt that he is, or has been, homeless for a lengthy period, with no means of income. If I’d encountered him on the streets of Toorak, one of Melbourne’s wealthiest suburbs, I would just as confidently have known that.
Generally, when someone in the street asks me for money, I take a second to decide whether I think they are genuinely suffering hardship or just a con artist, and another second to decide whether I’m willing or able to give them money. (The answer to A does not necessary determine the answer to B.) I didn’t need a second in this case. This man’s inability to make eye contact, or even speak at a volume I could hear properly – something that would best serve his interests – seemed to confirm that from years of living on the streets, he feels invisible, and is unable to relate to the people milling around him in anything other than a robotic way. Ask for money, receive money. Ask for money, don’t get money. Ask for money….repeat.
I rummaged in my purse and gave him some gold coins. As I handed the coins over, I thought how genuine interaction must be a rarity for him, so I said brightly, “Here you go, have a nice day,” but his response was mechanical and indecipherable, and, having received the coins, he was already turning away.
But as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I had a strong reaction – I felt ashamed of them. The lights changed again, I crossed the street, and went, as we know, to buy the coffee that prompted a whole other post. While I waited for it, I could hear my voice echoing in my head, “Have a nice day!”
As I replayed those words in my head, I detected a tone that I hadn’t intended, or hadn’t realised was there when I said them. I hope that in play-back, my memory was distorted, because I sounded forced, too bright and cheery – patronising. Smug and self-righteous. I sounded as if I was issuing an imperious command. As if I thought that, now that I had generously bestowed him with about 5 measly dollars, he should do like Pollyanna did: be intensely joyful for what he had been given. Basically, when I played myself back to myself, the voice I heard sounded like a misguided, privileged, white, middle-class, bleeding heart do-gooder. Which is, no doubt, what I am.
I chided myself for my ridiculous command. What could it mean to such a man, if he gave it any thought, for a stranger to breezily say, after dropping some coins in his palm, Have a nice day? His expectations for his day would probably centre around hoping that he’d end up with something to eat and drink, that he’d find somewhere to sleep that wasn’t too cold, that he’d get through another day safe and unharmed. No wonder his response to my breezy conversation sounded mechanical.
Standing in the coffee shop, for a moment I wished that I was the kind of person who would have led him to the cafe and bought him coffee or a sandwich. I hear of people who do that sort of thing. But even as I tried to picture that, I wondered how you would do that without it also being patronising and bossy. I know that I’m no good at false, bossy friendliness, and I just can’t imagine myself doing that to this quiet, almost invisible man.
In any case, I don’t think he even registered what I’d said to him. I’m sure he wasn’t losing any sleep over it – he has far more basic things to worry about. For him, that brief interchange at the lights, whether on that occasion with me or the next one with someone else, was not an interaction with another human, it was a transaction, and it was over the moment he received those coins. He was already on his way, to ask the next person moneypleasemoneypleasemoneyplease.