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Brief encounters

Old drunk shouty Jamaican guy

He approaches me as I’m sitting and reading. His lines are delivered three times louder than mine.

Him: “Are you Sherlock Holmes?”
Me: “No, mate.”
Him: “You would make a GREAT detective... just sitting and... watching people. You’ve got nice teeth. You smile like Clint Eastwood. Are you a king?”
Me: “I’m not a king.”
Him: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Dave.”
Him: “Are you working?”
Me: “Yes.”
Him: “What is your job?”
Me: “I’m... a reporter.”
Him: “Do you make good money? Fifteen thousand? Or more?”
Me: “A little more.”
Him: “Then can you spare 20p?”

I give him some change and he gets overexcited: “Do you have more? I need three pound. Look again, look again,” he says, looking hungrily at the pocket I’ve just delved into and getting way, way too close. I put my hand on his arm. “That’s what I’ve got, my friend.” He spins around and walks off, vaguely remembering to deliver a passing “thank you” over his shoulder before he starts hustling other people.

Crying girl

It’s way past midnight and drizzling. I’m coming back home from the shop round the corner. She waylays me; early twenties, lean, tearful. “Excuse me, can I talk to you for a second? I won’t lie to you, I swear, ‘cos I’m a Christian and that’s against my religion. I’m two weeks pregnant and I’ve been out celebrating with champagne, and now I’ve got to try and get back to Southampton, and I think I’ve missed the last train...” She sobs. I give her enough for a bus to Victoria in case there’s a single syllable of truth in her story, and if there isn’t, she clearly needs something to help numb herself against whatever her true situation is.

“Thank you,” she sniffles, after we’ve established that that’s all she’s getting. “If you—” (and then I already know what’s coming) “—give me your address, I’ll send this back to you, I swear, I’ll send it to you.” Someone told me recently that there are stories of people agreeing to this, and then one day, years later when the former vagrant dies a millionaire, being left a fortune in their will for that one good turn. So, cursing the previous times I’ve turned down panhandlers who have offered me the same service in the past, I eagerly hand her over my address, contact numbers and a spare key. All right, I don’t; I decline her offer and point her towards the bus stop, waiting until she has disappeared from view so she doesn’t see that we’ve been standing right outside my front door.

Banquo’s ghost

I come out of the tube station around rush hour, hurrying home. A man—tall, lanky; unkempt blond beard, woolly hat—is holding up the wall outside the station and asking the wrong people at the wrong time of day to stop and give money to a stranger. “Excuse me,” he says to me. “Sorry, no change,” I say, honestly, as I dash past. He is affronted. Perhaps he didn’t just want to hustle me, his indignant tone implies as he starts whining—not being pejorative, he really was whining—“I just want to talk to you! Oi! Excuse me!” at my rapidly departing back. Perhaps he wanted to talk about rare Underworld 12-inches or the latest Chris Ware collection, he seems to be suggesting; how will I know unless I stop selfishly trying to deal with my own affairs and stroll over for a chinwag? Sometimes in life you just have to stop and smell the... what is that smell, exactly?

That evening I go out to the shop. Matey is on the stretch of pavement outside my flat. Soon as he sees me close the door he starts up again (he does mention change this time, in case you were becoming concerned that he might actually have been an old schoolfriend or something). Now I’m annoyed because (a) he’s having another go and (b) he knows where I live. “Look, I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing to give you,” I interrupt with less civility than I usually employ and walk on.

The next night I’m at Cambridge Circus in the centre of town, heading for a nightbus in the rain. A guy wearing a rain hood stops me in the street. “You’re the guy who gave me all that abuse,” he says. “Not me,” I say, “I don’t give people abuse.” “You did,” he says. “Last night.” I look at him more closely. Under the hood lurks a familiar unkempt blond beard, and it’s not mine. “It’s you?” I explode. “Bloody hell, that wasn’t abuse! I just told you I didn’t have any change! And I didn’t! And I don’t owe you anything anyway!” This goes on for a while, him alleging abuse and me vigorously refuting it. Eventually I just give up and leave him and our small, bemused and soggy audience to it. I haven’t seen him around here again.


There’s no repartee to report here, merely a reminder that sometimes—in Peckham at two in the morning, for example—the decision to give change isn’t so much a moral choice as the payment of a toll. Manic darting eyes denote his status as troll under the bridge. He gets some change and tries to demand more. I’m civil but utterly insistent that that’s all I’ve got. He takes a lot of persuading, but eventually he lets me pass, I presume because I’m bigger than him. The fool—he could have taken me easily.

I don’t always hand out; far from it. That’s why I know that I am a “posh cunt” and a “wanker”, among other things. On the other hand, from encounters when I have offloaded the odd bit of shrapnel, it has also transpired that I am “a gentleman” and “black on the inside”.

Over the years I have learnt that an extraordinary number of well-dressed people seem to need 80p just to get home this one time. I have learnt that London is filled with beneficent beggars prepared to send you back that pound if you’ll only hand over your contact details. I have learnt that that person you see bleeding profusely in public who seems more interested in money than in being taken to A&E will be in the same place a few days later at most, in exactly the same state. And I have learnt that ageing rastas are usually the best at taking polite rejection in good heart (unless crack is involved), while consistently the worst for feeling hard done by and doling out abuse if you haven’t coughed up are scrawny white English lads who look like Badly Drawn Boy on a crash diet.

“Some people say, ‘Don’t give them any money, it’s probably for drugs or alcohol’. Well, yeah. You’ve never been a fucking drug addict, then. Drugs are pretty important to a drug addict.”—Bill Hicks


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 14th, 2007 11:40 am (UTC)
A:'They'll only spend it on drugs and drink, you know.'
B:'So? That's only what I'm going to spend it on.'
May. 14th, 2007 11:41 am (UTC)
That were me.
May. 14th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
So it was!
May. 14th, 2007 12:37 pm (UTC)
Hi. Look, I'm very drunk and three minutes pregnant and I just need enough money to get to uh ... the Maldives.

May. 14th, 2007 12:47 pm (UTC)
Chip shop, downtown Glasgow. 1986, or thereabouts:

Gentleman Of The Road (to man in queue behind me): Excuse me pal, have you got 8 pence for a can of lager?

Man: Here, have 16 and you can get me one too.
May. 14th, 2007 01:00 pm (UTC)
Ha ha! Two weeks pregnant! Cambridge circus is my beat - come down on a Friday night and claim my protection!
May. 14th, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)
You can only guess that a beggar might spend your money on booze or glue or a flick knife but you can be absolutely sure that a beggar is poor.
May. 14th, 2007 02:04 pm (UTC)
'"What signifies", says some one, "giving halfpence to beggars? they only lay it out in gin or tobacco." And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence? it is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to shew even visible displeasure, if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths.'

Samuel Johnson, quoted in Piozzi's Anecdotes.
May. 14th, 2007 04:10 pm (UTC)
These are all the ingredients necessary for a BBC2 musical. It could be broadcast on Christmas Day to finish us all off.
May. 15th, 2007 12:39 pm (UTC)
I wish you'd got Crying girl's 'phone number. She sounds cute.
May. 16th, 2007 09:11 am (UTC)
The beggars I really hate are the ones who walk along tube trains reciting The Script (which seems to have been developed by some central begging committee).

"Excusemeladiesngentlemenverysorrytobotheryou but I'mjusttryingtogetsomemoneytogethertogetintoashelterforthenight."

Do homeless shelters charge people to get in? It seems a bit unlikely.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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