by Martin James Hunter
The night had been unpleasant. I know now why a friend had advised to beg in a different city. She said the people are less friendly than in Glasgow, and she was right. Particularly on a Saturday.
Shaven heads in white emerge from the working week like mental patients staggering in delirium. Passing strangers routinely challenged by those existing a few evolutionary steps backwards. Walking amid a perpetual battle for supremacy of the pavements.
Their girls too, traipsing over cobblestones like steeds dizzy with lust. Losing control of high heels and clattering to the floor in a mess of jewellery. Hair held back by impatient lovers as their stomach refunds its contents. A particular variety of woman.
As I make my way through palpable tension a dispute sounds somewhere to my left. Seats and traffic cones coiling through the air, sent by more irate figures. Hammering off walls and windows but nothing breaks. A bloody door steward requesting police assistance via two-way radio as the culprits hoot with adrenaline and make their escape.
Wandering deep amongst their numbers it is not long before they catch my scent. A wildman jumps out screaming to the delight of his friends, breath thick with alcohol and shirt stained in it too. Someone else shoves me then hops off to more hyenic laughter. Another scruffs my head, asking where I got my hair cut. It seems that here I exist only for the amusement of this specific breed of male.
Later when enquiring after a lighter I become subject to wild-eyed abuse. Showered in profanity and I guess general disdain. The man’s attitude has a decisive effect on my bearing; it is time to retreat from the combat zone. Heading west I am relieved to see their numbers thinning out. Eventually it gets to the point where it again becomes possible to relax.
A Well-Deserved Plug
“You young man, have a nice day,” says the old beggar from behind a sheet of cigarette smoke. “And be happy.”
I nod back smiling, the geriatric’s words having a favourable effect on my mood. Continuing down the hued avenue I feel my stride lengthen like a soldier dead set on an objective. The people around me now seeming not so bad amongst vibrant oaks and alders and thickets.
Yesterday I came across a sign on the window of a small establishment. It said that once a day the homeless are entitled to come in for a free meal paid for by previous customers. It being closed at the time of discovery, I made sure to memorize the address before moving on. Social Bite, Rose Street.
As I approach its now open doorway, a man in businesswear passes carrying hot food and drink. Inside the place is small and low-ceilinged but homely. From where I stand the staff seem genuinely amiable, particularly when compared to the average till drone. I notice the customers do not seem to mind my presence.
When it is my turn to be served it is by a welcoming girl of Middle Eastern descent. She listens as I enquire about the free meals, maintaining eye contact the entire time. When it is her turn to speak she explains the process clearly and thoroughly and more importantly in a friendly manner.
Social Bite is a nonprofit organisation. Every time a customer buys something their receipt goes in a jar by the till. Said receipt then becomes a token. At this point I am welcome to one, securing me a meal of equal value. Today’s entitles me to a sandwich so I choose tuna mayonnaise. With it tucked under my arm I thank the girl and leave.
By now most workers are in shackles so amongst largely deserted pavements I am left in peace. I start my breakfast with enthusiasm, comfortable in the knowledge that each day I can definitely eat at least once. When finished I am suddenly overwhelmed by emotion and need to take a moment. Not as a result of their generosity but because I truly appreciated being spoken to like another human being.
A few hours later I discover a main road jutting north towards a neighbouring town. Thick with vehicles, its pathways broad too. Deciding to walk its length, it soon becomes evident that I have chosen a route tourists tend not to.
Soon the elegance of the southern city is stripped from view, both settlements standing in aesthetic contrast. However they do share a common attribute – pavements devoid of change, as though our bleak economic climate is enough to ensure that every dropped coin be chased like a wedding ring.
Spent faces and unswept streets and bookie’s pens around every corner. Despite the place having no cosmetic appeal it carries something absent from its neighbour. Modesty. Here my appearance attracts no real attention leaving me yet to feel judged. I walk its concrete as though belonging on it.
An expressionless woman drifts past, eyes fixated on the ground. A single unit amid an army of workers all sharing the same objectives. Keep the economy going at all costs. Forget those who fall. Silently accept your change.
I find myself poking slots on telephone boxes with two fingers as though on a mission to pleasure every one. But despite my efforts the frigid bitches never pay out. My eyes go to passing ATMs on the off chance I hit jackpot, ignoring the fact that these days unclaimed notes are dragged back from whence they came. Eventually evening approaches. Still cash-strapped despite my expedition, I begin my journey back south.
A funny thing I noticed. Back home I frequently encountered mornings thick with unbearable dread. Entire days where I lay around waiting for sleep to take me, drifting off in the hope that the next day bore a brighter outlook. But despite the hunger and uncertainty and perpetual ignorance in all directions, I have remained to some degree content since leaving everything behind.
The sun makes a late appearance, its warmth not unwelcome. A glimmer of hope lying at the end of a barren afternoon.