Let me take you by the hand
Imagine for a moment what it might be like if every single day were just the same as the one before and the ones to come stretching endlessly ahead taunting with their refusal to give any hope. No light at the end of the tunnel, treated like an object to be scuttled past hurredly by those who prefer not to be tainted by the invisible plague you so clearly carry. To have the humiliation of having to beg for the odd coin from those same scurrying strangers. To have no roof, no bed, no blankets. To be reliant on a bundle of stinking rags and decaying cardboard to bring some warmth whatever the season and including the biting depths of winter. To have no clue if the ache in your belly might be assuaged at any point today by some sort of meagre nourishment. To wear the cloak of invisibility simultaneously with the suit of shame by the crowds that fix their gaze anywhere but at you, assuming as they do that somehow you deserve to be where you are. In the gutter.
My friend, actually HB²’s oldest friend, Gee often remarks that we are all of us ever two steps from the gutter. There but for the grace of something or other. There we could be. Gee and I have both faced a future with nothing. Possessions sold for puny pickings in a seemingly pathetic attempt to keep our battered boats floating. Both of us fell hard. At different times and neither knowing the other. I can assure you it is levelling and I suspect far too many of you have similar stories.
Homelessness is a cause close to my heart and I wanted to do something tangible at Christmas. Having signed up for the big Christmas Eve surprisingly baudy bash for the old and alone, I was niggled by the notion that what I had intended to do was something of value to those who are sleeping rough. This city has good systems in place to aid les sans abris (homeless). Very very good, but there are still those who have no place to go. So I took the money that I would have spent on presents for the family and I bought the makings of care packages. I researched the subject thoroughly and some of what I found was quite shocking. There were several articles that cautioned me against doing what my heart screamed was the right thing for fear of causing offence. Don’t misunderstand me, I entirely agree that swooping down like an evangelising buzzard wearing a judgemental halo and a self-righteous expression would be offensive, but given that we are often urged not to give money for fear of perpetuating drugs or alcohol abuse, it begins to feel as though there is a danger that people are being given the ultimate get-out via the interweb, the excuse to do nothing at all. Being a bolshy bird, I ignored the advice, took note of the various lists that seemed to make sense and sallied forth to the shops to buy what I could afford. Gloves, socks, chocolate, granola bars, toothpaste and brush, liquid soap, wet wipes, tissues – there was more but I don’t want to bore you with my shopping list. I wrapped them with the care I would put into any Christmas gift which is not to say they were exactly elegant but that the thought was evident.
On Christmas morning, surprisingly spruce from the night before, The Bean and I set out to the places we knew we would find those whose celebration had not started and was not expected to. I sat with each in turn, some petted the dog, some were deeply suspicious, some less so. I talked to them. I let them talk to me. We are, after all, simply humans and even though my French can still be less than polished when speaking to strangers, the fact is that decency and kindness disolve barriers.
One of those I sat with, I sit with regularly. He calls me ‘Princesse’ or rather he mostly calls me Princess, occasionally I am promoted to ‘la reine’ (the Queen). His story is this: he had it all – wife, children, good job. He worked very hard at his job and often worked late and away. She had an affair and asked for a divorce. He preferred that she keep their house for the sake of his children. New man moved into his old house and his ex wife and his children had a new life, a life that he didn’t figure in. He began to feel increasingly alienated from his children. He became depressed and began to drift at work. He lost his job. He was unable to pay his ex-wife child support so she stopped him for seeing his children. He turned to drinking and his alcoholism spiralled out of control. He spent his rent money on booze and soon he lost his roof. It’s a simple and achingly familiar tale. It’s a tale that should resonate with us all because I promise you that only one thread of our fragile lives has to unravel and we can find ourselves sitting next to my friend begging for the money to feed a habit that blanks out the bitterness of reality. I met him once in the local Intermarché buying groceries – he was armed with his food tokens and was horrified to see me. I passed him by and pretended not to see him out of respect. This man did not want la princesse to see his circumstances even though he knows full well that I know he doesn’t live in a hunky dory homes and gardens centrefold house and that a roof other than a canopy of stars is an occasional luxury in his life. Respect. Along with decency and kindness, respect is the silent gift that we can give to all, no matter what their appearance.
All of those I gave parcels to were happy to receive and happy to chat for a few minutes. It was the least I could do. To remember that their faces are the faces of someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent perhaps. Not at all the face of someone who has chosen to be faceless and passed over as we hurry about our frightfully important lives.
I am prompted to write this follow up to my last post by the Weekly Photo Challenge titled ‘A Face In The Crowd’. The laudable gallery of other entries is here.
The picture was taken on my recent visit to my mother in England. I generally don’t take pictures of people, in fact I do everything in my power to avoid photographing strangers, feeling as I do that it is an invasion of privacy to snap and post on whatever Social Media forum is the flavour in favour. Actually in France it is an offence to publish an image of a person without their express permission. So my picture is a sheepy face in a flock. He is the odd one out and is standing apart from all the rest. It seems to fit what I am saying.
PS: Because there must always be a PS, the title comes from a song that I first heard as a young girl. It affected me then as it affects me now. It is touching and too familiar and no matter whether we are talking of London, as Ralph McTell is in the song, though he originally penned it as ‘Streets of Paris’, or another place entirely, the fact is that all these years later the scourge of homelessness has only got worse. And the very least we can do is to not be arrogant enough to imagine that our fortune is in some way an immunisation, to not judge but rather to be sympathetic and mindful that a kind word, a smile and indeed a coin, even if that coin gets spent on something we disapprove of, is far preferable to turning our stoney faces away and pretending we do not see. There but for the grace, so my beg is to please – be graceful.
Streets of London
Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
With his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
Hand held loosely at his side
Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news
So how can you tell me you’re lonely,
And say for you that the sun don’t shine.
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I’ll show you something to make you change your mind
Have you seen the old girl
Who walks the streets of London
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?
She’s no time for talking,
She just keeps right on walking
Carrying her home in two carrier bags.
In the all night cafe
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man sitting there on his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his tea-cup,
Each tea lasts an hour
Then he wanders home alone
Have you seen the old man
Outside the Seaman’s Mission
Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care
None of us can truly understand unless we walk in those shoes. A wonderful way dear Fiona to understand and to help! You are so lovely! xoxo
You are so right …. we can sympathise but not empathise but if we are minded we can do something even if is just to smile rather than every our eyes to show that we care. Xxx
This was really an amazing post and an amazing thing to want to do and to experience! Thank you for sharing this! I wonder how many people have a story similar to the one you told us. Truly we all are just one step away from a life unraveled. much love
I am certain there are many many too many …. actually one of those who read and commented is homeless. That’s just amongst the few dozen who have read this post. Extrapolate the figures globally and it is a breathtaking issue and none of them asked to be where they are. I’m so glad but wholly unsurprised that you have responded …. those who have suffered themselves have the greatest care for those suffering xxx
This is deeply moving, Osyth. What an angel you are. We are in synchronicity this time as I was working downtown at a hotel and noticed how many homeless people there were. Many of them were clearly mentally ill and older. The manager at the hotel was very kind and respectful. There is a special Catholic Church for itinerants just around the corner and various shelters. Your kindness to the forgotten is what gives us hope for the human species. On a similar note, I was working at the airport for the same contract and noticed a garishly dressed mentally ill woman. Eventually she had a meltdown (I could see it coming). I offered to help and managed to get her to relax with the help of some thoughtful staff. Eventually we put her in a taxi to the nearest doctor after the paramedics had seen to her. I noticed some ignorant people taking photographs of her which made me sad.
It takes an angel to know one. Your story of the poor lady at the airport makes me both angry and sad – thank heavens you were there, lovely you. The issue of homelessness is the greatest tragedy and travesty of our age – that it grows and grows and no government is prepared to tackle the multiple issues (including care for the mental ill) in a holistic way because it would mean diverting money from Defence for example . Meanwhile it does fall to all of us to do what little we can. Thank you for being you.
There is not much point going through this short life if we can’t fill it with kindness. K x
I agree with all my heart – the tragedy is that so many fail to see that simple truth x
Time for me to say “Chapeau” madame; moved by your words and deeds. For a “bolshy bird” you have a beautiful humanitarian plumage 🙂
Thank you so much Andrew …. that is a lovely thing to say 🙂
a magic song like you! you’re so right too.
if you were here, I would hug you hard to make you feel that I think like you …
That is such a lovely comment …. I’m always happy to meet kindred souls 🙂
thank you so much…”kindred soul” 🙂
how did it go today?
How are you?
Limited wifi is how I am. But doing really well in an extraordinarily cold house! ❄️
bye, have a nice night
A poignant post, as ever. It takes so little to turn a life upside down sometimes. Kindness shouldn’t take much, but for many it’s easier to walk by on the other side.
Kindness costs nothing but it takes a conscious effort and often gets marred by complications and nervousness and then scuttling past becomes the easier option ….
This was always my mum’s favourite song to sing in the car when we were small. It instilled in me compassion, which my mum has in bucket-loads. Funny how someone just singing a song can do that. Your post is very moving. I heard that phrase recently, that we are only 2 mishaps away from the gutter. It is so sad hearing this man’s story; it is too easy for men to be alienated from their children in this way, something very close to my heart.
Than you for your comment, Ali … I know I would love and respect your mum – it is that simple. Songs are so evocative of times in our lives. My fellow’s story is dreadful and far too familiar and I am terribly sorry that it is something so close to your heart. Go softly.
Hi Osyth…What an amazing post! Your words—Art. “A seemingly pathetic attempt to keep our battered boats floating”—Truth. R-E-S-P-E-C-T–everybody needs! Reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch.’ “So you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt–show me somebody who ain’t–yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain—but, hell, a little touch-up and a little paint…Thanks for sharing with all of us…Phil
Damn right, Bruce … you have it there. Philip, you are far too kind to make that comparison. Solidarity! 🙂
A beautiful, moving post Osyth. You have such a beautiful heart and a beautiful way of writing. I have a tear in my eye and you are so right, we are all so near to this life. I do find it so sad and feel incredibly helpless when I walk past someone sat wrapped up in a grubby blanket with a pot in front of them and although there are amazing people who do a lot to help, there still isn’t enough done. It’s a crazy world we live in that has such extremes of lifestyles. Thank you for posting this and a wonderful song too xx
Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comment. You are right, there is so much more that can be done … for my part I can’t do nothing and I remind myself that something is better than nothing xx
I need to follow suit & do more too 😊x
Just what you can is as much as anyone can do 🙂 x
Reblogged and shared this Osyth xx
Oh wow! Thank you so much, Sam … that is really kind xx
Your post moved me to tears. In my book that’s certainly worth a re-blog 😊xx
I didn’t set out to provoke tears but I am touched and heartened that you feel so strongly. We need more like you xx
You’ve made me realise I need to do more. So thank you x
This is a brilliant post and I wish I had seen it sooner. Your introduction presents an incredible way to look at those who are homeless. Thank you for sharing this sensitive perspective which will forever change the way I look at the world.
Thank you …. I’m heartened by the response of so many that somehow my meager words made a difference in their perspective. The issue is so vast that we cannot hope to move mountains but at least we can take the goggles off and be kind. You are kind.
So are you.
Hello my friend!
Firstly, you shame me into admitting I have lost contact with you. I’ll make a better effort in keeping up with your antics.
Secondly… thanks for doing what you did at Christmas! Yes, I have been very close to the point where I’ve had to say to myself, there… but for the grace of God, go I! (I’m a believer!)
We’ve been evicted before… horrid, horrid… horrid! To have to explain to a family that you just can’t make ends meet is horrid!
I feel for those folk!
You tell the story so well… you also shame me into admitting it has been quite a while since I have done something for the homeless! Something concrete… something tangible. Not just parting with a few anonymous euro. Something tangible…
Thank you for reminding me to catch a wake-up!
Thank you for calling around at OMBH again… and reminding me of the great interaction we shared a year or so ago!
I shall set myself two goals… to visit here more often… and to DO SOMETHING!
Blogging and the contacts we make are somewhat mutable … As our own world grows and the interactions increase it is hard to keep following closely those from long ago. Revisiting some of my old stomping grounds has been great and yes, we did have a good interaction some while ago. In terms of this post, it was simply something that I chose to do and that I felt was shareable. What each of us do is individual and not to be feted or judged. I do, however, never forget how few mistakes or misfortunes it takes to end up face down in the gutter oneself. That is a lesson I will never keep far from front of mind 🙂 Go gently friend and I hope to see you again soon
You are so right. Our lives are so fragile. You did and seem to do great things. Keep it up. It matters. Your kindness is unique.
I only do what any of us can do. I prefer not to sit contemplating an ungrateful navel but rather to help those who are much less fortunate than I!