Memoir

My three beggars

LATELY I'VE BEEN haggling over money with Terry. I tell him that I'm quite prepared to give him one payment per week instead of spreading my money over four or five nights. He shakes his head when I offer him the deal. ‘I don't know, Louis,' he says. ‘I'd like to think about it.'

Terry is a beggar, and has been for some years. He has staked a claim a few metres from my apartment, strategically placed between the liquor shop and the junction of streets and roads that gives Kings Cross its name. He is not the only beggar in the area.

There are many. If one is to give a rough summary of the types of beggars who proliferate in the cramped area that includes the higher regions of Darlinghurst Road down to the halfway mark of Macleay Street – the main drag of the Cross – then the most common are the temporary beggars who, grimacing with severe hangovers, crop up of a Sunday or on Monday mornings wanting money for extra drinks or just enough money to flee back home from their disastrous weekend. Then there are the importune men who hover around the railway station pleading for money to buy a train ticket. Their familiar cry is for ‘spare change', or a small but uncommon amount like forty cents, in the hope that the impatient commuter will palm them a fifty cent coin or dollar just to get rid of them.

Before the recent transformation of Kings Cross, they would succeed more often than now, because the professionals and yuppies who have since shifted into the area, and who flood into the station of a morning or exit of an evening, have no time for these dishevelled losers. Strangely, these city workers often give money to a scruffy man waiting outside the entrance to the station. This is Ed, who is a go-between for junkies who have arranged to meet a bearded man with a silky terrier who will take them to a drug dealer down the street. Women especially take pity on the unkempt tiny dog he always carries and give Ed money without him even asking for it.

There are the severe alcoholics, of course, who need just enough change to dash off to the hardware shop to buy their metho. They slump in alcoves or on the doorsteps of apartment blocks and shops, their faces looking like giant bruises, holding out trembling hands to ask for money, giving a hideously bad performance as someone who needs enough to get back a train to the most distant suburb they can think of. Except for one, who haunts the doorstep of a friend of mine and who begs for spare change with an accent that would not be out of place with an actor playing an aristocrat in English repertory; most do not stay long. They either die or vanish into a drying-out facility with disturbing frequency.

Then there are the crazies. The last twenty or so years have seen a growing influx of madmen into the area. Thrown out of asylums because of government cutbacks and society indifference, they wander through the streets muttering to themselves, cursing God, or suddenly loom in front of you with wild grins demanding money – sometimes ridiculous amounts, like the schizophrenic young man with a wild black beard who demands ten dollars, with the implied threat of violence if he's not given it. You can tell where he is by the parting of a crowd as he's given a wide berth by passers-by.

The worst are the ice addicts. If there is a common topic of conversation amongst long-standing Cross residents discussing drugs, it's that heroin addicts are excellent people to deal with compared to ice addicts who are aggressive and unpredictable. I have been physically attacked a couple of times by agitated men at the mercy of the chemical. They make the worst beggars because by the time they get up enough courage to beg they are simmering with hostility, having been up for two or three days without sleep, and any knock-back they get is an affront to their self-esteem. They yell and hurl abuse at the frightened man or woman whom a few seconds ago they were addressing with a brittle charm that barely concealed their impulse to attack them.

Perhaps the most unlucky beggar is a deaf man in his thirties. He holds out a piece of paper the size of a business card that says he cannot talk and could we give him money? If he is hoping for sympathy, he doesn't get it. There is something about his practised mime (wide eyes, much pointing) that gives people the impression he's a fake. As he walks off, after another unsuccessful attempt at cadging for money, people frequently yell after him a warning like ‘Look out!' in an attempt to prove he can hear, but he moves on, deaf to their cries and their knowing laughter.

 

WITH THE ECONOMIC turndown, there are more beggars but none of them have the staying power of the three who I run into practically every single weekday. Perhaps the most alarming for the new arrivals in what has become the newly chic Kings Cross is Tom.

Recently I saw a well-groomed man in a business suit carrying a briefcase and hurrying towards me. He must have been taking a shortcut to the Kings Cross railway station because he seemed out of place in the narrow lane. He grabbed hold of my arm. ‘You'd better be careful,' he warned. ‘There's a guy just over there and he's shooting up.' The ashen-faced young man hurried off. I walked on and stopped. Sitting on the kerb, surrounded by the squalor of plastic bags full of garbage he had collected from rubbish bins, was a tiny fellow locals have nicknamed ‘The Rat Man'. His hair was wild and dirty, his face blotched with veins and pustules, his clothes filthy. He was injecting into his leg the dregs from a syringe he had found. ‘How you going, Tom?' I greeted him. He looked up at me and smiled. ‘It's a good morning, ‘cos I found some good stuff in the rubbish, Louis,' he remarked cheerfully, and went back to eking out the residue of the drug.

If anything indicates the great divide that now exists in Kings Cross, it is this recent encounter, but Tom's harmless. He haunts the back lanes and narrow side streets in a constant search through garbage looking for tossed-out syringes that may have the remains of drugs in them or any sort of pill that may give him a high or just alter his metabolism. Paramedics from St Vincent's Hospital know him well, and have had to save his life on a regular basis. It's one of the marvels of life that he isn't dead, and residents speculate that his blood must be a petri dish of disease. He smells and has the gauntness of an anorexic, but also the manners of a Victorian gent. Once when he asked my wife for a cigarette she handed him one and he slightly recoiled when his grubby fingers touched hers as if she were the tainted one. He wanted her to light it, but not when he had the cigarette in his lips because she would be too close, so he held it out with suspicious fingers in the hope he wouldn't catch a disease from her.

Tom's begging mantra never changes. He asks for spare change in a manner that suggests he doesn't care one way or the other whether he is successful. One of the problems is that he seems too cheerful, full of an optimistic bonhomie that is weirdly at odds with his sickly body. No doubt his odour is off-putting, and his face has more than a hint of a death mask but he never takes offence at rejection – it's as if he expects it. When my wife gives him money, he thanks her in a courtly fashion, almost bowing from his familiar sitting position surrounded by garbage. ‘You are most kind, Mandy.' A few months ago, he returned from his regular stint in the hospital where they had saved his life again. This time his straggly beard was shaved off and his hair cut. One Saturday afternoon, we saw a waiter ejecting him from a side door of a restaurant into Kellet Way after he had gone in there to buy some food with money he had earned from his begging. ‘I only wanted to buy a schnitzel,' he said indignantly to us.

A few weeks ago, on a sunny morning, he was sitting in the Fitzroy Gardens on a bench under a pair of palm trees. He was naked except for a hospital blanket decorated with the words ‘Property of St Vincent's Hospital'. ‘As you can see, Louis, I need some spare change.' I gave him some coins, and as he stared at the glittering metal objects he vomited on them. He looked up at me, smiling brightly. ‘Sorry about that, Louis. Must be something I ate.'

Despite his appearance, Tom collects more money than you would think. I've seen people throw coins at him from a distance as if they're afraid of catching a virus, but once he has made enough he can indulge his one passion besides drugs – gambling. The only time he is seen indoors is when he is in the pokies section of the Darlo Bar or the Vegas Hotel. He always plays alone because, quite simply, he stinks. He sits on his stool like a wizened imp with a tic in one rigid finger until he has run out of money, then he quietly slips out of the hotel, leaving the bar staff to wipe down his seat with disinfectant.

 

IF TOM LOOKS like a permanent passenger on the ferry crossing back and forth across the Sytx, Nonie resembles a troll. She has been begging for almost a decade now. Like most professional beggars, she has her own territory. I first saw her working the Darlinghurst Road restaurant precinct at night. Her clothes have never changed. She wears a battered windcheater, baggy trousers and scruffy runners. Stocky, with a brown face like weather-beaten leather, she shuffles back and forth, covertly eyeing off her marks. She's Aboriginal, a fact that is vitally important in making her the most successful beggar in the Cross. Her targets are couples, especially professionals who are in the early stages of dating. She approaches the man, never the woman, and asks for money in as servile a voice as possible. She grins shyly and allows the street lights to hit her face, giving it a softness that daylight never does. The men hardly ever fail to give her money. After all, they want to look charitable in the eyes of their girlfriends, especially towards an Aboriginal woman.

One evening, when I was sitting outside a restaurant watching as she unctuously approached couples, she spied me and tried her technique on me. ‘I like the way you play into white guilt,' I remarked. ‘It's very good.' The angelic expression immediately transformed itself. ‘Get fucked,' she snarled and then turned on her heels to stalk an unwary couple, for spare change.

From then on, we had a combative relationship. Whenever she saw me she would sidle up to me and whisper, ‘Get fucked'. Having learnt her name, I would answer back, ‘Now, now, Nonie, remember to play to white guilt.' But I did admire her, especially as I was to learn even more about her. Nonie is a junkie and earns enough not only to feed her habit but to dispense money to others if she can crash in their apartments in the rough areas of Woollooomooloo. Local Aborigines beg money from her, which she bestows with the hauteur of Marie Antoinette handing out cake to peasants.

One night when I was walking my Chihuahua bitch in the tiny St John's churchyard, Coco, who was off the leash, ran into the shadows. I heard a female voice impatiently telling her to get away. I went to get Coco and saw that it was Nonie, huddled up in the dark shadows between the sandstone steps and a crevice in the wall. She was shooting up. I grabbed Coco, who was trying to smother her with affection, and a weary Nonie glanced at me, saying gently, ‘I'm sorry about that.'

This exchange didn't mean there was any softening of our relationship. On the contrary, a few weeks later she was still addressing me as ‘Get Fucked'. Finally I stopped her at the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Macleay Street and, with mock anger, told her that she should be ashamed of herself. Coco had been severely traumatised by seeing her shooting up. Her eyes narrowed. Was I having a lend of her? Unsure, she shuffled away, but from then on she avoided me. I didn't see much of her for some months because she changed her beat. Now that over three thousand yuppies have moved into the area, the financial demographics have changed. The money is now down in Macleay Street. I hear from friends that Nonie is making a killing with her guilt shtick. Those young white professionals are easy prey.

At the recent Kings Cross dog show, held in the Fitzroy Gardens, Coco won a trophy by dancing, doing high-fives and begging. About a fortnight later, I was walking Coco down the main drag when Nonie approached me in her typical stooped shuffle. ‘I saw her win first prize,' she cooed. ‘She's beautiful, isn't she?' She was grinning, and for the first time I saw a sort of maternal warmth to her. ‘Thank you,' I said, moved by her obvious delight. Coco, who adores being adored, rose up in a begging position that makes her resemble a meerkat. ‘She's quite good,' said Nonie with a professional discernment. Then she looked at me through her wild tangle of her and grinned wickedly. ‘Not so traumatised now, is she?' With that she was off, heading down to the posh end of Macleay Street.

We have a truce now. I give her money only if she tells me what she wants it for. If she says, ‘Louis, I really need it for my habit,' I know she's desperate and give her some.

 

WITH TERRY, I have a different arrangement, undergoing constant negotiation for some five years now. I first saw him sitting on the doorstep of an apartment block a few doors up where he has become a permanent fixture. ‘Got a couple of bob?' was his constant cry. One night I gave him twenty cents. He held it in his gnarled hand and looked at it with contempt. ‘I said a couple of bob,' he complained. ‘Well, that's twenty cents. That's a couple of bob,' I said, not a little miffed. ‘Look,' he replied. ‘A couple of bob now means two dollars.' ‘Well, why don't you ask for a couple of dollars then?' Terry rolled his eyes, incredulous at my stupidity. ‘People give a couple of bob, they won't give a couple of dollars.' So that's how our relationship began. He worked his pitch at night and whenever he saw me he'd ask for a couple of bob and gradually and insidiously this became a nightly event.

Like Tom and Nonie, there is an element of the troll or elf about him, as if the weather and his constant mantra have determined his appearance as an extra in a grim fairy-tale. He has a face the colour of dirty beetroot. He wears a scruffy tweed jacket and baggy trousers in summer and adds a jacket in winter. When he stands, which is not often, he is short. From a distance, as he sits hunched up on the doorstep, he resembles a church gargoyle. His clothes and hair hide his great distinguishing characteristic – he is tattooed all over his body. When he has a haircut you can see (because you're generally staring down at him) that even his head is covered in tatoos.

Terry is prey to wild mood swings. Sometimes he is so morose he cannot even say the words ‘two bob'; at other times he is so jittery with excitement that he can barely sit still. The first time I saw him in a euphoric mood was in the video shop across the road. As I worked my way from new releases to cult films, I noticed Terry lying supine on the concrete floor. He had arranged himself in a crucifix position. Surrounding him were empty DVD cases. His eyes opened when he heard footsteps. ‘Hi, Louis,' he greeted me casually. I took in the covers of the DVDs. At the end of both hands he had placed religious movies like The Passion, at his feet he had arranged comedies like Porky's and Police Academy, and around his head was a halo of three horror movies. ‘I like your choice in movies, Terry,' I said. ‘Shit,' he sighed and jumped up. ‘Shit, shit, shit,' he muttered to himself and hurried from the store.

This was a strange part of our relationship. When he was on a manic high, he grew irritated with me if I answered his questions correctly. He would give me tongue twisters like ‘AWoopBamABooBamLoopBangDooBang' to say, and if I repeated them exactly he would yell out ‘Shit!' and storm away, forgetting to ask me for money. One time when I was coming back from a walk with Coco, he asked me to tell him what NMRA stood for. I told him. ‘Say it. Say NMRA,' he demanded. I started to tell him again, but he just wanted to hear the initials. 'Tell me what NMRA stands for,' he berated me. 'NMRA,' I said. He didn't seem that happy with me and turned his back on me. One night he asked me to say ‘Blue Cadillac in Las Vegas'. I deliberately said, ‘Red Corvette in Los Angeles'. ‘See,' he said triumphantly, ‘you couldn't say it.' Then he held out his hand for his money.

Sometimes the mania would possess Terry utterly, and he would chase after me if I were on the other side of the street. I knew he was crossing Darlinghurst Road because I could hear screeching brakes and blasting horns as drivers almost collected him. He would arrive breathless and grinning, not wanting money but just to say hello. It became patently obvious when he was on medication and when he wasn't. On medication, his mania vanished. If he had taken his medication too soon after assuming his regular spot for the night, then he was withdrawn and almost incapable of communicating. I had worked with mental patients, so one evening I asked straight out if he was schizophrenic. He nodded calmly. ‘Everything was all right, until I was about eighteen,' he said, ‘then my life went haywire, but I'm OK now.'

Terry and I established a rough sort of etiquette. I would run into him frequently during the day away from his spot, but he never asked for money. We would chat a little and then he would scurry off as if he were late for some appointment. Sometimes when he saw me leaving the liquor shop he'd smile and ask me how much I spent on the wine. I never told him, but he'd shake his head ruefully as if I had and remark, ‘That's quite a lot of dosh, Lou.' He used the shortened form of my first name when he was taking the piss out of me. Everyone in the area knows him by name, and when they return from a holiday or business trip he knows exactly how long they've been away. Once when I came back from a research trip, I handed him some money. He stared at the coins for a time and said, ‘I want some notes'. I wasn't going to put up with this kind of blackmail. ‘Look, Terry, that's pretty much what I give you every night.' He stood up on the step of his spot so he was my height. ‘You see, Louis, I've counted up the days you've been away and I've worked out you owe me notes, not coins.' I was irritated with him and told him that if I gave him notes then he would continue to demand them. ‘Maybe,' he replied carefully. ‘All depends what mood I'm in.'

One late afternoon, I saw him in his regular place, drinking a can of beer – which was unusual. He patted the space next to him and asked me to join him. I told him I didn't drink beer. ‘That's OK, Louis, just sit here.' So I sat with him and talked. It was fascinating to see the world from his perspective. It was amazing how many businessmen looked down at him (maybe us) with expressions of absolute contempt. Others passed by, pretended indifference. A few locals greeted him by name, which pleased him no end. I asked him if he was ever beaten up. ‘Once or twice by hoons, but you gotta accept that.' I questioned him as to why didn't he just stay at the hostel where he slept and get the dole. ‘That's a living death. A real living death,' he replied. After an hour, I stood up. ‘That's my world, Louis,' he remarked cheerfully.

We've been haggling for a long time now. I tell him I'm quite prepared to give him ten or fifteen dollars at the beginning of the week, rather than doling out coins every time I see him. I used to think he had calculated that perhaps the loose change I give him adds up to more than such an amount. But now I'm not too sure. I think he's afraid I won't have to talk to him for the other nights of the week.

And that's the thing about these three beggars. If they wanted to, they could shift into a hostel and collect welfare payments and not have to be outside – sometimes in appalling weather – but there is something else that is common to the three of them. They may be loners, but begging gives them an identity. The wealthy newcomers may despise them, but long-term residents know them by name and stop and chat to them, sometimes giving them money. I think the important thing is that they feel that they are known and accepted, not as beggars, not as faceless names in some stifling bureaucratic hostel that seems like death's waiting room, but as people. There is something wonderful about that.

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