While waiting at Elsternwick train station I was approached by a man asking for money. He was indigenous, incredibly skinny, dishevelled and wearing a silk, burgundy shirt.
‘Excuuuuuuuuuse me, d-d-do you have ten dollars. I ne-e-e-ed t-t-ten dollars to get to A-a-a-lbury.’ He was shouting and finding it hard to produce his words. I had 6 dollars in my wallet. Three of those dollars were needed for the impending coffee waiting for me in Windsor. I gave one dollar. ‘ C-c-c-an I have five?’ he pleaded. I shook my head and apologised and he moved on, sobbing loudly, ‘I’m having a tough time!’
I went to sit down and watched as he approached the older woman sitting next to me.
‘Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii… sh-sh-shake…. m-m-my.. hand!’ he pleaded.
The groomed woman, with her neatly peroxided hair, said something along the lines of ‘oh dear.. I’m sorry love but my hand’s bad at the moment.. my doctor told me not to really use it very much.’
He looked at her and responded, ‘s-s-s-so use the-the-other one.” (touché silk wearing man, touché!)
She reluctantly shook his hand and as he pleaded for ‘t-t-ten dollars to get to Albury’. ‘Would you believe I don’t have any money! I know I don’t look it, but really, my girlfriends just had to shout me lunch!’ she excalimed. Standing close to me, I could smell his sweat and noticed that he had a fading tattooed letter on each of his fingers. I could make out the letters A-T-E, but letter on his pinky was too blurry to see. Did it say ‘HATE’ perhaps…or ‘MATE’? As he walked off disheartened but not deterred, the woman plopped herself next to me.
‘Oh.. I feel terrible.. he’s not drunk.. he’s clearly spastic. I mean people must think he’s drunk because he’s slurring his words.. but he’s not.. he’s spastic. I know I don’t look it.. but I don’t even have any money on me. I have 7 dollars on me actually. I don’t have that much money.. you wouldn’t guess it to look at me though (she kept repeating that). Oh I feel terrible. What’s wrong with people! Oh I should probably have given him.’ While she was talking (at) me she took out a tiny container of hand sanitizer and carefully rubbed it on the hand the beggar had just shaken.
‘I’m part of this women’s volunteer group. All of the other ladies are so wealthy, heaps of money and every Christmas we give presents for boys without a family. The girls always receive more.. so we give the boys. lat year I bought a present, I spent 15 dollars, which is a lot for me. I mean you wouldn’t know it by looking at me but when you work a few days a week and rent like I do…well 15 dollars.. it’s a lot. But these other women… they have beautiful homes, loads of money and the presents they got for these kids… Bloody hell, they looked like..like.like..”
“The dregs?” i interrupted.
‘Yeah.. yeah.. dregs, that’s the word! Oh look I should’ve given him money.. he’s not drunk….I suppose you pass judgement. But who am I to pass judgement? It’s none of my business! I used to work in guinea would you believe and the way some of these civil servants would treat the locals, it was disgusting. You’d have them employing some boy in Moresby for the equivalent of 3 dollars an hour working him to the bone from 6am to 12 at night. I tell you what, I don’t know why people are so awful!’
While the woman continued to ramble on about ‘human kind’ (older people often tend to tell me about what human kind is really like these days) I could still hear the man begging in the background. Dissapointed in herself, she ran off to give him some change. Another woman behind me who had just been approached by the beggar commented, ‘ten dollars… why does he need ten dollars? it’s a bit much don’t you think!’ I wondered to myself what would be an acceptable amound to ask for.
Beggars make us all feel so uncomfortable. We never know if they are exploiting us or if we are meanspirited for entertaining that thought. They remind us of the numerous cracks that exist in our society and just how easy it is to fall through them. Their smell, their clothes, their visible distress all give us a weird, yucky feeling between the heart and the gut.
The train pulled up and thankfully I didn’t have to think much more about the moral and ethical dilemmas that one dishevelled man in a silk shirt can stir up.