Finest Jamestown Butt Bucket
Outside the station door I have an ice cream container full of sand for people to put cigarette butts in. It cuts down on the mess smokers make. Lately the butts have been disappearing and I’ve naively been assuming the cleaner is emptying them out. So I am terribly embarrassed to walk out of the station and discover a neatly dressed woman my age, crouched over the butt bucket collecting the butts. I cry “opps” as if I’ve interrupted someone doing something shameful, which to my mind I have. But of course that makes it worse because now she knows I’ve noticed. I feel I have created a difficult social situation.
But the lady isn’t ashamed. She’s about my age and looks like a librarian. Glasses and middle class teeth. Assertively she asks me whose bucket it is and if I could put more sand in so that the cigarettes don’t burn down so much. She even asks me if I will collect them in a little bag for her. This latter is bridge too far ever for a chronic people-pleaser like me. I say no I wouldn’t be comfortable with that. Then we have a little chat about holidays, because she is apparently saving for one. Hence the need to save on smoking.
I presume she will take the butts home and either smoke them or unwrap them and make roll ups out of the left over tobacco. Gah!
I’m startled that someone so middle class looking is collecting butts like this which makes me wonder about; (1) my own socio-economic pre-conceptions and (2) more interestingly what sort of life has brought this woman to doing something usually only the homeless do? Divorce, addiction, mental illness, plain bad luck? Homelessness? Its closer to us all than we think. Station life is full of interesting mysteries and wondering about them keeps me going during the quiet shifts.
Sign found in Coburg Station waiting room.
The middle aged man with the beard and the big coat clearly wanted to chat, but I was at the exciting part of my book and had been looking forward to using the train journey to read it. So I replied politely and then disengaged, firmly gluing my gaze to the page
Further down the line, the man got lucky. I was so enthralled with the conversation I stopped reading.
A young bloke with a skateboard got in and the man started a conversation about his neck chains which moved rapidly onto talking about homelessness.
“I lost my f… house, my daughter, my wife two months ago.”
“How are you finding it?”
“F… freezing last night. Terrible.”
“Yeah I know what it’s like. I was homeless for 12 months after my f… step dad kicked me out. Almost died of f… hypothermia a coupla times.”
“Yeah! F… hard to find somewhere dry.”
“Did you know where you can get a free feed every weekend?”
They slipped into talking of ways and means.
Then coming into the junction, the young bloke said,
“I found a place and I’ve been there almost a year. We got two spare couches in the living room. Here, why don’t you take my address and phone number, just come round tonight and we’ll put you up.”
The middle aged man was touched and I, eavesdropping, got a lovely warm feeling in my chest.
“Yeah, yeah! Just show up tonight. I know what it’s like.
“That’s pretty f… great of you.”
My heart was lifted by this conversation yet at the same time I was fearful. What if someone was hurt? What if someone was assaulted or taken advantage of? I was brought up to distrust the kindness of strangers which is sad. But also wise.
But homelessness cuts down your choices
Edward Burne-Jones 1898 The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon
Recently I spent a Saturday shift de-training people (which is not nearly as exciting as defenestrating people or even as exciting as training people)
You walk down the train carriages making sure everyone is out before the train turns around and goes back to the city. It’s a simple job that mostly involves waking up people who are sleeping or engrossed in their ipods.
The only sleeper I had, a young man in black and a cloud of alcohol fumes, just wouldn’t wake up.
I shook him calling” Mate! Mate! Wake up!” (the magical railway incantation to awaken sleepers – I wonder if it works on Sleeping Beauty and the King under the Mountain- see above) The train driver also tried. No Joy!
We shrugged and gave up.
“I hope he’s still alive,” I said feeling guilty. He had felt warm enough.
“I once heard of a dead guy who travelled round on the London Underground for three days before anyone noticed him,” said the driver cheerfully.
This gruesome story pricked my conscience and after I’d finished checking the train I went back and tried again, this time shaking harder and yelling “Mate! Mate!” louder.
After a while the man stirred, lifted his head and regarded me with bleary eyes. I told him the train was going back to town. He put his head down and went back to sleep.
But at least I’d made sure he was alive! Job done.
With permission from http://www.joshshalek.com/discarded-couches-of-portland/
Feeling rather small and ashamed today. A member of the track cleaning crew dropped by and told me that while the trains were stopped for maintenance last night they’d taken the opportunity to clear up the couches in the cutting. Ever since I saw those young men carrying couches up the cutting back in May I’ve been agitating to have them cleared away. That’s because I was assuming this was a cubby house for young thugs or what we in the railways call a “shag garden”. So I was horrified to discover that when the track crew went down there at 1.00 in the morning they found instead people sleeping in a homeless camp. Now I hate myself for being just another authority figure persecuting the homeless who have enough problems as it is.
The Track Man told me that the homeless would probably come back. It’s a really good place to camp if you want to be out of the wind and away from casual intruders. I promised him I would never report those couches again at which he looked very relieved. They hate doing that kind of job and seem to have as much pity for the homeless as I do. They’ve obviously seen way too much of it as has everyone in this time of rocketing rents.
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On a freezing day of sheeting rain, a dark-haired young woman without shoes gets off the 1.44 train. Not only are her feet bare, but so are her legs. I can’t tell if she’s wearing anything on her bottom half. The shirt and hoodies she’s wearing covers her down to the top of her thighs.
I greet her thinking she might be one of the clients of the youth mental health service nearby and in need of directions.
“I’m hungry,” is all she says.
Figuring she needs it more than me, I give her the chocolate bar I have squirreled away for my afternoon treat. I can think of a number of reasons why a young woman would be out in cold rain with no pants or shoes on and none of them are good. She eats it and proceeds to wander around outside the station. After a while she comes back with a cigarette butt she’s picked up outside and asks me for a light which I can’t give her. She tells me she is off to another youth health service in the city. I am much relieved. Hopefully she can get the care she clearly needs there.
If she gets there o.k.
The train is late and for a long time she stands on the edge of the platform staring grimly into the pit. She’s calm – not agitated. Stoned? In shock? The Boss is visiting and she starts to get worried. So do a number of the other people on the platform, many of whom have children in tow. Everyone is watching as the Boss approaches the girl, asks her to come away from the edge and is told, “Don’t treat me like a Fucking Child!”
At this the Boss goes inside and rings Control. The driver is told to come in slow and on the lookout.
As the train creeps in the young woman leaves the coping and walks away down the platform. I shadow her ready to pull her back if need be.
But the train stops without incident and she gets calmly into it. To go where? I wish I knew.
Later that day I ring the place she said she was going, but I only get answering machines. I hope she’s alright. I wish there was more I could have done.
One of my regulars, a lady in her early 60’s, is always telling me about her exercise regime. Apparently these exercises, relayed to her father by a Chinese doctor, have cured her of leukemia. Her skin has the yellowish tone of someone who’s very ill.
Her exercise regime is to do two thousand arm swings every day. They’re exactly like the hundred arms exercise in Pilates only standing up. I don’t blame her for being obsessed, but sometimes when I see her outside the station swinging her arms, I suddenly think of something I have to do in the office. I‘ve known her to miss trains because she hasn’t reached two thousand yet.
Being so ill must be a lonely business. So today I’m listening and so are a couple of social workers up from the hospital waiting to catch the train who want to hear all about this life saving exercise.
“Clench your bottom,” cries the lady. “And tuck in your belly. Clench your bottom and swing your arms.”
Such is the authority in her voice that I see the social workers begin to swing their arms and, I suspect, clench their bottoms. Oh no! I’m doing it too. As the train rolls in, there are the four of us swinging our arms in the autumn sun while the lady yells “clench your bottom.”
I see less of M and C now but this is a good thing. An NGO has found them a place to live. http://www.hanover.org.au/
C is pregnant and I had terrible visions of them being homeless with a newborn. I suspect they did too – though they made tough noises about it. M is delighted with his new backpack and wears it everywhere. A profound thank you to the people who offered them.
Melbourne Street Art by Kranky. It doesn’t have anything to do with the story, but it looks like those dolls are having a difficult time.
Looking back over my blog posts, I’ve noticed the station stories are much darker these days. In the old days it used to be about getting cakes from men in wheelchairs.
This Thursday when I got to the junction they were running all the trains through Platform 4 until the ambulance came for the man who had passed out right on the edge of Platform 2. The police arrived and recognized him as someone they’d just booked for assault, which made the ambo’s a bit jumpy. But when he woke up he went away quietly enough, though with a police escort in the ambulance. The trains switched back to Platform 2
The saga of M and C continues. C has disappeared again and M has reported her missing to the police. He used my phone to call her father who denied knowledge of her whereabouts but said he’d look. M worries that she has gone back to her violent ex. I worry full stop. Who knows what goes on between a couple?
I like them both especially M who is outgoing and personable in a kind of larrikin way. He seems to have a tremendous urge to take care of people which is sad because I see in him a nurse or elderly care person wasted. I’m not sure how he comes to be living on the street and can’t find out without seeming to pry. Perhaps it’s the lunchtime bourbon and cokes. Certainly from the stories he tells me it seems that when he has had choices to make, he’s always made the wrong one.
Still this is a judgement free zone so I give him change for the phone and store his spare iced coffee in my fridge (the kind of thing lots of station staff do) At the moment I’m asking around to see if I can get him a new backpack because the straps on the old one which holds all his worldlies is broken. I have a strong sense that you should be the change you want to see, as the saying goes, but if I was a truly good person I’d invite him to live in my spare room. I want to be helpful but at the same time I’m worried – about not crossing boundaries and about whether I’m being a fool to trust M as much as I do. My bosses would certainly not be pleased if he set up house in my waiting room.
I’ve written before about my homeless friends M and C, How they got themselves into a house and how then they broke up and C went off somewhere. I saw M a lot going past in the train after that and then for a while I didn’t.
Suddenly he started getting on at my station. He told me he’d found C – she was at her mother’s in the country – but that he’d lost the house. He told me he’d been in jail for a few months. “I punched a guy who was fiddling with little kids,” he told me. “But I was good in jail and worked on a trade certificate. I’m a qualified plasterer.”
He’s quite a nice person -he always helps tourists with the ticket machines and timetables very kindly – but it’s also clear he’s got a short fuse and he does love his Wild Turkey and coke. He has a big scar across his head which implies maybe Acquired Brain Injury or is simply due to his epilepsy. For a couple of days he had work on a building site. Then he was back to begging. So one step forward two back.
Then a few days later I saw a familiar figure on the opposite platform. It was C. She waved at me. She looked good.
The next day M waved at me out of the train. “Great news. She’s back,” he shouted.
They stopped by the station a couple of days later. They seemed pretty happy. Though C seems a bit reserved. They had a wizened little old man in tow. C introduced him as her father. “He’s staying with us for a bit,” she said. Staying was a strange word to use. They were all off into the city to do some begging. If they didn’t make enough money for a room, well they had sleeping bags.
M and C make me aware of my own middle-classness – my assumptions about work, houses and stability. You can’t have a relative to stay with you unless you at least have a floor for them to sleep on, can you? They also make me realize you don’t have to travel to experience other ways of life. They are here in Melbourne, right under your nose.
I have done an unwise thing. On a day when it was only 10 degrees, Ms A. showed up at the station barefoot looking very cold and sad after being discharged from hospital. She burst into tears because she claimed not to have the fare back to her home in the country and even though I didn’t believe her, I was overwhelmed by pity and bought her a hot chocolate. Why unwise?
Well A. is a serial and serious pest who shows up at stations all over the system and threatens to jump under the trains. You have to take these threats seriously the way you have to take bomb threats seriously so there’s always the police and the pso’s and the ambulance and hospital. Lots of drama.
She seemed pretty ok that day so maybe they’d given her something in the hospital to calm her down. In the end after a cigarette (somehow broke people always have money for cigarettes, don’t they?) she very docilely got on the train to go to Traveller’s Aid at one of the central stations. Traveller’s Aid lend people small sums of money for tickets home.
Later when the police came by on patrol, I told them I’d seen A. and where she’d gone and they went off to check on what she was up to. As it happened this was the patrol that had arrested her at our station the previous night for threatening to jump under a train.
Well I can only hope that she prefers negative attention and that my giving her a hot chocolate and talking to her nicely will not have the same effect as giving food to a stray cat. It’s all very well to complement me for being charitable but really she’s not someone who should be encouraged to hang around at a station. I fear my Station Master will have cause to curse me.
I’ve mentioned my regular homeless couple C and M before. They were very happy together even though they lived in a derelict shed and supplimented their incomes by begging. Last year they told me they’d moved into a friend’s house for the winter and I didn’t see them for a long time. Then just before Christmas, I was on the train and who should come along but M. He looked better dressed than usual.
“We’ve got into a house,” he said. “We’re getting clean. We’re trying to get the kids back.”
Wonderful Christmas news.
Alas it did not last. A couple of weeks later, I saw M at the junction.
“She’s left me,” he said. “I tried to stop her drinking so she left me and went off with some wino. If you see her round tell her to come home. Tell her I miss her.”
I haven’t seen C again. From the things she shared with me when she’d had a few, stories of domestic violence with a previous partner and the removal of children by authorities, I suspect she has a lot of things to blot out. Sobriety wouldn’t come easily.
I’ve seen a lot of M though. He travels down my line most days. The new house is out the other side of town, but he assures me he’s still there.
“But my friends are all out here,” he says.
These days he mostly has a tin of Wild Turkey and Coke in his hand.