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.
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