Like so many of us, when Erica Williams moved to the city, her profound compassion turned to apathy as homelessness just became part of the scenery.
A month or so ago on a Saturday night, I walked to Woolworths and wasted twenty dollars on a tub of ice cream, two new pens, the latest issue of Frankie Magazine and a blue notebook with a mediocre motivational quote printed on the front cover in yellow letters.
I’ll probably never write anything worth reading in the notebook. The new pens didn’t work. The ice cream had raisins in it, so I shoved it to the back of my freezer with several lonely frozen peas and an abundance of ice cubes. I felt vaguely sorry for the ice cream, but I’ve always had a persistent distaste for raisins.
The following Monday, I made another trip to Woolworths because I’d run out of Mi Goreng noodles and instant coffee. As I was walking home, I saw a man squatting on a small slab of Lygon Street pavement. Over his shoulders was a patchwork blanket, and maybe each patch was once a different colour. Maybe, years ago, the patches had made a beautiful pattern of yellow and red, purple and blue, orange and green. It would’ve been a homely blanket. The kind of blanket you’d put over your legs in winter to keep warm on tea-sipping Sunday evenings. Now it was a blanket made of varying shades of brown. You’d use it to clean your car or perhaps you’d throw it on the floor for a pet dog to sleep on. I wondered how many years it had been since the blanket had lost its colours. The man himself had lost his colours; a man sketched in greyscale.
In front of the man was a small white bucket. It was empty except for a single twenty-cent coin, twinkling in the yellow streetlights. Leaning against the bucket, a makeshift cardboard sign read, “HOMLESS UNEMPLOYED HUNGRY HELP.” I did not help. I read the man’s sign and observed his blanket and kept walking.
Later that night, it started to rain. I sat at my desk and watched as heavy beads of water broke on my window, sliding down the smooth surface, turning the world outside into a smeary watercolour painting. It was an abstract of colours and shapes and lights and buildings. If I squinted my eyes hard enough it was almost as though the city was melting.
It never occured to me that the man with the patchwork blanket was somewhere outside, that maybe he was washed away with a downpour in the night, like a chalk drawing on the pavement, leaving no sign that he ever existed in the first place. Maybe he found shelter and watched the rain until the morning, when everything would be shiny and glistening with wetness and the first breaths of sunlight.
Maybe. But it never occurred to me. Not even once.
Somehow, I had allowed myself to feel sorrier for the plight of my raisin-flavoured ice cream last Saturday evening than I did for a human being spending a night out in the rain. A human being with only a tattered patchwork blanket to shield him from the cold wetness of the night. A human being with nothing to his name but a small white bucket and a tarnished twenty-cent coin.
Perhaps the city has hardened me. Perhaps I’ve started handing out compassion in rations. Perhaps I was never compassionate in the first place. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to care about caring.
There’s a part of me that wants to feel sorry for the raisins in my ice cream more than I want to feel sorry for the ghosts of the city; the watery reflections of people that used to be. More often than not, I choose to see without really seeing.
It’s as though I’ve started to think of the homeless in the same way that I think of cigarette butts and graffiti. Part of the scenery. Part of the city. Part of a long list of things that aren’t my problem.
Sometimes my compassion demands reassurance, so I tell myself that I can’t afford to give to every half-hearted good cause. There are too many good causes anyway, and I’m a poor uni student on a minimum wage. But just how minimum is it? Minimum enough to waste twenty dollars at Woolworths on Saturday evenings. Minimum enough to turn up my nose at raisins.
If I was being honest with myself, I would say that it’s wrong to keep claiming that I cannot afford to give. Except that I’m hardly ever honest with myself. Maybe that’s why I have the time to read a plea on a makeshift sign, but taking the coins out from my back pocket is always too much effort.
Sometimes I think I spend half my life with headphones glued inside my ears. I keep my blinkers on, like a racehorse at the starting gates. I don’t want to look at those who quietly inhabit the periphery of life.
Some time ago, I got sick of feeling my heart drop into my stomach each time I came across another person less fortunate than myself. I think I turned that heart-dropping part of myself off when I came to the city.
Yesterday, I sat at a café and wrote a piece of prose from the perspective of a homeless man. I romanticised. I embellished. I made things up. I told myself I was using my creative license. I made homelessness sound beautiful. When I got home, I tore up what I had written into tiny pieces and tossed them out of my eleventh story window. They looked like snowflakes as they fell.
I had given homelessness a story that I was not entitled to give, and yet, I had never given anything that would make a difference to the cause itself. I had made homelessness sound beautiful because I am always looking through a lens which filters out the grainy blemishes that stain my surface vision of life.
There is nothing beautiful about a child sitting on dirty lino under an ugly fluorescent light-globe, waiting for his mother to finish shooting up behind a public toilet. There is nothing romantic about three days without food, or a bucket, empty except for a single twenty cent coin. Of course it’s easier to observe a blanket and hurl your sympathy at neglected ice cream.
Next Saturday, chances are I’ll walk to Woolworths, telling myself that my twenty dollars will not make a difference. Then I’ll buy a tub of ice cream, two new pens, the latest issue of Frankie Magazine and a blue notebook with some anonymous quote about following your dreams printed on the front cover in yellow letters. Maybe this time I’ll choose the right flavour of ice cream.
On a small piece of Lygon Street pavement, a man will try to stay warm underneath his patchwork blanket made of varying shades of brown. I’ll sit in my bed eating ice cream without raisins and feeling irrationally unsatisfied with life. A man will whisper thanks to God when he hears the sound of two dollars falling into his white bucket. My washing machine will finish its cycle and I’ll complain about hanging out the clothes. A woman will overdose behind a block of public toilets and her son will fall asleep in spite of himself, curled in a trembling ball on dirty lino underneath an ugly fluorescent globe.
The periphery of life will turn violent at night and I’ll take one last glance out of my eleventh story window, before climbing into bed and thinking about how unfortunate it is that I have to wake up at seven tomorrow morning.
If I was being honest with myself I would say that I should try to make a difference…except that I’m hardly ever honest with myself.