Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spare Change

Leamington Spa’s south end of town has traditionally been viewed as the “less well off” part of town. It has a dual reputation for both trouble and (paradoxically) community spirit. A lot if this reputation stems back 200 years or so when money was poured into developing the town north of the river during the boom time of the spas and everything south of the river – the original old town – was left, not so much to fester, but certainly to scrape the barrel for whatever it could find to keep itself going.

Leamington is still to this day filtered by this binary north-south divide. The town in its genetic make-up is bipolar.

The building where I work is on the very cusp of this divide (the river) and this possibly explains the huge proliferation of drunks and ne'er-do-wells who seem to gather in the vicinity. I cannot go out on a lunchbreak or head home without encountering weather-stained men and women, all with beards and ex army ponchos whose aura of alcohol and marijuana would be enough to make a vicar hallucinate Jimi Hendrix’s entire Woodstock playlist.

You have only to pass within 10 yards of them and a hand will come out asking for money while the other hand clutches the ubiquitous can of Special Brew even closer to their chest. “Got a spare 20p, mate, I need to make an urgent phone call?” seems to be the standard form of address.

I must be honest here and say I very rarely comply. I have so little change available and what I do have I’d rather retain for the use of my family. I feel guilty though. As I walk away ignoring them – for that is what I do – I feel I am doing wrong. The old Christian message of giving when somebody asks still burns brightly beneath the thin caul of my subconscious. On occasion my mind even throws up a quick image of me on the Day of Judgement, fluttering my hands with angst, trying to explain my habitual parsimony to St Peter. Look, I just wanted to buy some chocolate buttons for my two little boys...

But then reality kicks in – and I use it to back up my stance even more: they don’t want to make a phone call. They want to buy more beer. Or more weed. Or more [insert your poison of choice here].But really – do I have the right to attach a moral authority to any monies that I may or may not give to someone? Once it’s given surely it’s up to them how they spend it and what they spend it on? It’s no longer my business.

But such a dilemma is not the reason for this post.

The other day one of the drunken bearded men again accosted me for small change. This time however he was neither drunk nor stoned. He was sober. He was compos mentis. He was bright eyed if not bushy tailed. We had a conversation. I saw humour and kindness and a shy but charming personality behind his eyes. I gave him some money.

Why now and not other times? Why now and not when he is drunk or falling over his own inebriated feet? Am I making a judgement call about intemperance? Does dipsomania render him ineligible for charity?

I’ve thought about it a lot since that day. I think when he approached me I saw him for the first time as a person. The mask of drunkenness that so disfigures a human being had fallen away and I saw an individual. I’m not saying I could read his whole life story in every line of his face but for that one unguarded moment I could see all the hurt that had ever been done to him – and that had put him on the street in the first place – there in his eyes. We connected. One man to another. It was a shock. It was emotional. I felt sad for him.

Since then I have wondered whose mask is the more deplorable to wear. Whose mask is the bigger social evil?

Drunkenness; the desire for unending personal oblivion?

Or the hard eye of respectability that sees enough to judge but not to understand?


32 comments:

Tristan said...

Spot on in your analysis, mate. If I were homeless, my life broken, I'd probably seek oblivion too. It's easy to be judgmental when we haven't experience the extremes these people have been pushed to.

Steve said...

Tris: the whole encounter left me feeling uncomfortable - but in a positive way I think. We get too easily trapped by received prejudices - it does us all good to be shocked out of them now and again.

Tenon_Saw said...

I can relate to what you have said. You have given now - for reasons which you understand. Our daughter once gave 50p to an harmonica playing tramp (when we were with her) and he was so grateful he offered to play a request even though he only knew one tune.

Steve said...

Tenon_Saw: that is oddly poignant. I guess the fact he only knew one tune is irrelevent - the fact he wanted to play it to thank your daughter elevates it above all the other times he mundanely played it.

French Fancy said...

This must have been playing on your mind for you to blog about it now. Call me a sucker but when I see people begging with dogs I always give money. I know I'm a soft touch. I realise of course they will run off and buy booze/drugs and not Winalot - yet I still do it.

Steve said...

FF: oh I don't know, if you're on the street and your only friend is a four legged one I imagine you look after it with a passion... he/she is your only source of comfort after all. It might not be a big bag of Winalot but I bet it's the occasional tin of Pedigree Chum!

French Fancy said...

I once verheard a London vet in a pub talking about how well looked after these street dogs are. For a start they are with their owners 24/7 so really feel loved. Also a lot of the London vet practices encourage them to come along for free consultations - well that's what he said anyway (although maybe he was trying to impress a ladyeeee)

Steve said...

FF: free consultations, eh? If I ever get myself a pet maybe it would pay me to declare myself homeless when the occasion demands? I certainly can't afford a dog at the moment when normal veterinary bills are factored into the overall cost.

Mark said...

It is uncomfortable when poverty and dispair comes close. I find it uncomfortable that we spend money on trivia when we know there are millions dying in poverty who would almost certainly have their lives saved if we diverted the money to them (via say medecine sans frontier) There is a well know ethical 'thought experiment' about this that I will blog at some point soon.

Steve said...

Mark: this is true and, of course, one wonders how far one should go - should we stop all expenditure on trivia (holidays, gadgets, meals out, etc) and divert it to those less well off until the balance is restored...? Ethically, maybe even "spiritually", we probably should but then is it so outlandish for people to have te right to treat themselves with money they have worked hard for? I guess it is the difference between quality of life and just sheer survival.

Heather said...

It's something you don't see here, homeless people, I guess cause it's too flipin cold most of the time, but when ever I visit the UK I am blown away by the sadness of it all. so many people of all ages sleeping in doorways with no home, no food, no one to love them or look out for them.

I can't imagine living like that, having everything taken away from me. how would I survive? what would I sped my 20ps on? Anything that would take away that pain i guess.

I used to live in Manchester and saw homeless people begging everyday. i sometimes gave them money but mostly I didn't see them, rather I did but chose not to, if you know what i mean. These days, because they are not so common place to me, I really see them, and it always makes me feel sad and very uncomfortable about having things, money, a home, spare cash. not a nice feeling at all.

I'm rambling. sorry. This was a very thought provoking post. thanks Steve.

Being Me said...

I'm speechless and humbled by your post. Your honesty, more accurately. I think it is something that many would not openly admit or recognise (that they may be judging and, further, making split second assumptions about where the money "will" go and therefore, they don't cough up).

I have a friend who gives out notes - 5, 10, once she even gave someone a $20 - and she is not rolling in cash (single parent, currently without steady income). I feel horribly short in my giving, in comparison. She gives and feels good about it... but that's not why she gives (in order for herself to feel good). She has rendered me similarly humbled and speechless as your post here.

Oh. Guess I'm not as without speech as I thought..... have said quite a bit really, haven't I?

Suburbia said...

Great question. There but for the grace....

Alienne said...

We were walking back to our hotel in Amsterdam one night and passed a bearded drunk; we had a couple of beers in a bag (you can't stay out late with kids and it is cheaper to take your own back to the hotel) and, on an impulse, my husband turned back and asked him if he wanted a beer. He looked round in surprise and and roared 'Jah!', and we gave him one. He practically danced off down the road and for months afterwards our kids used to shout 'jah!' if offered something they really wanted.

My husband reckoned he was more used to being abused than being given anything. A tinny isn't much, but I hope he enjoyed it.

Steve said...

Heather: apparently the way down to the streets is surprisingly short from the few stories I've heard. It doesn't take much to break people and take away everything that the rest of us consider solid and dependable. It's scary.

Being Me: I can remember giving a homeless person £20 once at Christmas - I'd just landed a safe, full time job and it was a joy to do it. Plus I was still living with my parents so had no real drain on my resources. It's a different story now though!

Suburbia: I think we all feel that way when we take time to think about it.

Alienne: I agree. When you have nothing even the smallest act of kindness is a Godsend.

lunarossa said...

I'm a softy and I tend to give when asked. Not much, because I cannot afford it, but a little bit is better than nothing. I don't believe those stories that beggers are actually very rich with a Mercedes waiting behind the corner. Who on Earth would humiliate themselves like that if they had a Mercedes and a well-off life? I once tripped and fell in the middle of York. I was pregnant and I could have been hurt badly. The only person who helped me in the busy street was a one of those Big Issue sellers, all the other passers-by didn't even look at me. That's why I give when I can, because good nature is often more with these people that have fallen very down. Thanks for your post. Ciao. A.

Steve said...

Lunarossa: it's interesting isn't it, how sometimes it's the people on the fringes of society who are the most eager to show compassion and kindness. As if the rest of us are too busy or too scared to dare to take the time to care or feel responsible for other's welfare.

The Sagittarian said...

I read a book once called 'Down amongst the dossers" - written by a chap who gave up his wellpaid job to go and live life on the road, in the bushes and in the booze haze. Even tho' it was written ages ago (well, probably early 70s) it kinda rings true with your post - an effinity is formed however roughly and fleetingly for a miriad of reasons. I think you probably did the right thing, Steve, ALL the times you have ignored and all the times you haven't. That probably doesn't make immediate sense, does it?

Steve said...

Amanda: nope, but it does make me feel a helluva lot better - thank you. :-)

Fran said...

I know the guys you mean. Funny, they never ask me for anything. Perhaps my usual Saturday slobbing around the shops clothes make them wonder whether I have the wherewithal ...

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I don't think it's wrong to deny the charmless money. Not least when you know that substances have stolen any selfsame charm or humanity they may once have possessed. Plus it's not as if they don't have a daily soup kitchen and shelters to go to, even if no one wants to support their habits and subsidise their slow suicides for them.

The man you responded to made an effort. Therefore you did too. Perhaps he is not lost and still has a chance to get his life back. Let's hope so.

No contest that your family should come first re the rest though. They're adults. They made their choices. They live in an age where there has never been more help available to them if they decide to change their mind about their choices.

I too used to tie myself up in knots about how I responded to beggers and whether I gave to them or not. No more. Occasionally yes, the majority of the time, no.

Mark said...

I wrote about that thought experiment I mentioned over at Bike Shed

Steve said...

Fran: theres' nothing worse than discerning beggars!

Laura: a refeshingly sane synopsis of the modern social conscience!

Mark: on my way...

Clippy Mat said...

It's good that you got to look at the person and not the disease Steve.
So, I commend you for your kindness. It's hard to walk the gauntlet of beggars on a daily basis without becoming hardened to their pleas. There's a strong case for and against giving money to addicts but sometimes when you give you are giving them a 'choice' which they don't otherwise have. Maybe one of them will make that phone call that day. Who knows who they will call?
:-))

Steve said...

Clippy Mat: I think at the end of the day the only question we have to ask is do we want to give or not. It's then up to them what they do with the money - that's their choice. And you're right; that in itself might be something that they don't get very often.

Owen said...

I like the part about the vicar hallucinating Jimi's entire Woodstock set list... one must wonder what the vicar has been partaking of ???

As for the rest, I think as a society we need to look more deeply than just the surface symptom of : homeless people in street often inebriated should we give money to them...

But what is causing so many people to become and remain homeless in the first place ? Is it inevitable ?

TheUndertaker said...

Steve this was quite an emotional post, it touched me. It also says more about you and your heart than the big moral picture. I think what you have here is more about you working out your own right and wrong, and being uncomfortable is sometimes a good thing as it makes us re-evaluate what we do in life, and how we do it.
Sometimes we just know it is the right thing to do, as you did when you saw the mans humanity, and not the addiction that is killing him. I don't think there is any hard and fast answers, and the big picture may be just too big.

Steve said...

TheUndertaker: the big picture is always too big! Maybe we just need to work out not only our own place in it but also how we as individuals respond to it?

A Write Blog said...

Both masks hide fear.

The bearers of those masks have merely found a different way to cope.

That in itself opens up a whole debate.

Is the drunk a rebel who rejects society or someone who is so frightened of it and unable to cope he escapes into obliviaon in order to handle it.

And what of the 'denier'; the person who cannot cope with any wayward expression and can only deal with life by adhering strictly to the perceived rules of society.

Neither are evil.

Both are maybe sad.

Steve said...

AWB: sadness can be a great motivator...

Joe Bloggs said...

I shop and change on this subject. Mostly I shop. The thousand yard stare and two kids in tow usually does the trick. But I always spare'm me O'barmy Sin Laden Speech - if Aim inner giving mode I prefer to cough up a fag. Somedimes dough, very extremely rarely, Ale even stick'em a can foam me fryday six pack.

Steve said...

Joe: a tinny has never been refused by any street denizen as far as I'm aware!