A to Z of Being Down and Out

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Tony Wilkinson – Down And Out, BBC books

I read the news this morning and felt ashamed.  There was I feeling down about unemployment when there were people in Vegas going to enjoy a bit of music and paying the price of their life for it.

I’d planned to write about the anger I feel at being professionally sidelined and abjectly poor, but on discussing the news, Mandy suggested another A to Z (which she enjoys) in which I could offer some less angry, wry and hopefully humorous observations on the plight of the unemployed homeless nomad.  Faithful readers (thank you Trev in Worksop) may remember I promised to kick the A to Z thing into touch, but I bow to popular demand and give you my third alphabetical lexicon of this diary to date:

THE A to Z OF THE DOWN-AND-OUT

– Apology from the system that failed me and their admin error which meant I’ve gone hungry.  Mercifully this was rectified when I signed on this afternoon and I might get my peanuts come tomorrow.

B – Broke.  I fucking hate being broke.  Also Bastards…

– Creditors.  When a man is on his arse, these bastards queue up to rub salt in his haemorrhoids.

D – Dog,  The fucking black thing that renders one unemployable.

E – Endless misery and inability to stand your corner at the bar.

– Friends and family.  Thank God for them.  I’d love to name-check them all but they’re too numerous and too kind – they give me love, food, wine and the will to live.

G – Gratitude.  What you feel for the above.

– Hope.  There has to be this or otherwise go Hungry or Hang yourself.

– Ignominy.

J – Jobseekers’ Allowance.  They should call it Jobseekers’ Weekly Humiliation.  You have to apply for several jobs per week.  I’ve done so and heard Jack-shit…

K – Keep trying, even though you’ve got in touch with contacts in your field (some of whom go back years) and they’ve completely fucking ignored your calls and emails.

L – Lucky bastards and professional fair-weather friends and contortionists.

M – Motherfucking misery.

N – No.  My least-favourite word.

O – Oh no.  My least-favourite phrase.

P – Poverty.

Q – Queuing with cap in hand.

R – Rejection.  A writer or jobseeker’s nightmare.

S – Shit.  It’s what you feel or are made to feel.

– Terrible.  Ditto.

U – Undervalued.  Ditto.

– Vagabond is what you feel you are, because if you’re not careful you begin to smell of baby wipes and shit.

W – Waste.  That’s waste of a talent when others less so are earning thousands and to be frank I wish them Wakeful nights.

X – Xanadu.  There has to be one for us somewhere…

Y – “Yes I have a job for you…” which would help.

– Zero money in the bank but zillions of characters and stories to write about.

So there you are.  Some Anger did come out I’m afraid.  When you’re homeless, jobless and pot-less the “A word” – like the dog – isn’t easy to keep from the door.  Then again, watch the news and you see anger and cruelty at its worst, so perhaps I should just shut my mouth and be grateful for what I have as I travel north again to Manchester and its tantalising wealth.

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Homeless – My Night with a Down-and-out

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York – The Shambles by the Author!

I always knew there’d be a first time for someone to sleep the night with me in my van, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d be a bloke.

To give the backstory, just like many other towns and cities, York has a real homeless problem – in recent years it’s seen a rise of 40% of those officially considered to be in that category.  I don’t include myself – my Ottermobile is my home, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a roof over my head with certain amenities so enough for me to call it that.  But yes it’s only one small step away from the streets.

Which is where I met “Tony”.  Normally those you encounter in shop doorways lie in a shambles of bedclothes with a paper cup in front of them, and they’re mutteringly asking if you have any spare change.  But there was something noticeably different about Tony – well-spoken, smart but casual in jeans and anorak, clean-looking, he politely approached me and asked for help.  Though homeless and penniless, there was something in his eyes that made me warm to him.  I knew there was a story but I didn’t want it there and then so I invited him into a nearby cafe and bought him a tea and a bun.  Gratefully he put down his bags and found a table, where I described my project and my own proximity to homelessness.  Hearing this seemed to touch him all the more so I wondered if in return he’d tell me how he came to be here, joking that he didn’t get the comestibles for free.  He laughed and begun his tale, which here I summarise.

Originally from Blackpool, he left school with nothing to write home about and drifted through dead-end jobs and relationships, finishing up in a fairground burger van.  Eventually he managed to save up and get himself to Brussels, where he studied catering with dreams of becoming a restaurateur.  Suddenly he heard from his brother that his parents and Auntie had been killed in a car crash.  Returning home to see to the funeral, he met a guy who’d become his lover.  They settled in Blackpool where he got a job as a waiter while setting up a bistro with his brother, using their small inheritance.

The hikes in rent hit him hard and he eventually lost the business, and when his boyfriend deserted him and he was duped by his brother, he went into financial and mental decline.  Since then he’s drifted around our cities to find work.

It was a story far from unique I supposed, and heartbreaking, but as with Aline (see Land of a Thousand Hills) there was the air of “that’s how it goes” pragmatism – Tony doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though he is at times baffled as to how this happened, how he got here, how rapid was the journey.

But don’t suppose either of us were down in the dumps; Tony was a very funny young man of 30, good-looking, bright, friendly and hopeful; all he wanted, he said, was to get a full-time job, save up and get back to Belgium.

Impressed with his positivity and warmed by his wit, I asked how this is possible when sleeping rough – isn’t it dangerous?  Does he encounter violence etc?  With a shrug Tony said this and other things come with the territory.  He’d been propositioned for sex, which he’d never lower himself to, he’d been attacked over a cup of tea, and he’d been offered drugs though he’s never so much as smoked a spliff.  Sleeping rough is a last resort, he said, he sometimes gets casual work and can afford a hostel, but finding a full-time job is difficult.

I really liked Tony and felt for him, especially when he said he’d slept rough the night before and got drenched; he’d spent his last pennies on getting his clothes laundered.  Though the weather had improved I couldn’t bear the thought of him kipping in a doorway so wondered if he’d prefer a roof over his head, just one night…

So I found myself in a lay-by near Murton, setting up stealth-camp.  Knowing he was hungry, as was I, I vowed to rustle something up, explaining I love cooking for people and don’t get the chance nowadays.  He was the chef and I was the novice but with meagre provisions I managed to make a meal which he seemed to enjoy.  Beggars can’t be choosers, he said!  There was no wine to go with the dish, but we didn’t need it because we were laughing like drains at how bizarre all this was; total strangers, sharing food, sharing jokes, playing Ludo (!) and bonding in ludicrous adversity.

Though the Ottermobile claims to be a two-berth it’s a tight squeeze, but I managed the awkward and funny manoeuvre of the seats to bed down – not before I’d declared some ground-rules:

No farting

No breakfast

In the morning he must be gone before I do my ablutions, and

No funny business.

Responding in order, he said he doesn’t fart, he’d get breakfast elsewhere, he’d no desire to see me “ablute” and as for funny business he wouldn’t touch me with a fucking barge-pole.  I said I felt a mixture of amusement, offence and comfort from that peroration.  Tony laughed, telling me I was a lovely bloke, if a bit mad, he’d had a great time and I’m crap at Ludo.

Next morning, after a quiet night’s kip he made a sharp exit as promised, with a quip that I could now shit in peace.  He also took my number and promised to stay in touch.  Whether that will happen I very much doubt, but that doesn’t matter.  He was a fine young man; he was good company, he made me laugh, but most importantly he made me think about what’s important.  “We Stand Together” went the mantra after recent terrorist attacks.  What more can we do but help each other through?  We’re human beings and that’s what we do, or most of us.  I’ve always championed the underdog, it’s in my make-up.  If I can help I will, and I wish I could do more.  I’m no saint, God knows, but I like to think and I like to know that whatever happens to me and if I end up in Tony’s shoes, someone will be there to help me.  I’ll think a lot about Tony and marvel at his cheer in dark days, I’ll hope he’ll get back to Brussels, and I’ll forever be saddened at how it got to this.  We all roll the dice I suppose, but only some of us score a six.

Right now though I’m concerned about getting to the Filey coast and up into Scotland.  Time for me, like for everyone, is running out.

Ludo