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 squirrelled 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 at which I am much relieved. Hopefully she can get the care she clearly needs there.
If she gets there ok.
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.
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.
Due to a sloppy head cold, nasty wet weather with a chilly wind playing off the snowfields and an upsurge in customers, last week was a tough one for yours truly. I’ve had to break out my woolly vests for the first time in 3 years.
The increased visitors were the result of the school holidays, but there were also a large number of extra customers who had lost their gruntle due to buses at the nearby stop. Trams are slow but buses in city traffic are slooooow.
“Very poor service!” snapped one entitled young woman in crisp, upper-class tones. “I’m going to miss my country train because of you.”
Her posh accent (Melbourne Grammar at least) made my hackles rise but I resisted temptation and refrained from pointing out that she’d cut her connection too fine if it was that important. That never goes anywhere good.
But the toughest thing about last week was seeing M and C who once again find themselves homeless.
They showed up with a large suitcase having had to put their new-born baby into care with the Salvos. So at least he is warm and dry. Apparently they are able to visit him every day too.
Lately when M has showed up scrounging money “for milk for the baby” I’ve wondered if this unseen child actually exists, but their distress last week was palpable.
“It was awful leaving him. Little M cried and then M cried and then I couldn’t help crying,” said C.
M tells me he was in care from the time he was six. I suspect he fears for his son as well. Bad luck and small mistakes make a critical mass of difficulties that are difficult to get over. There but for the grace of God …
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 with something she thinks saved her life, 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 who are curious about this possibly lifesaving 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 beginning 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 though 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.