By Estelle Birdy
We, my friend Orla and I, were out for a meal. It was early winter in 2012. I know that because I remember the main topic of conversation. Savita Halappanavar. It wasn’t too long after her death and we’d both been at the protests in the aftermath. We were angry for her and for us and for our children. We were upset for her husband and we were bowled over by his dignity and strength. Green 19, on Camden Street, was the location for our dinner. For those of you not as hip as myself, it’s a trendy café/restaurant on Camden Street,with reasonably priced food and friendly staff. At the time, they had main meals for a tenner. Camden Street is probably the biggest ‘going-out’ street in Dublin now. They bring in Portaloos on Saturday nights. At 4am, it’s like Armageddon. This was much earlier and much more civilised. We both had steak, as I recall, and a nice glass of wine each. Then, at about 8.30pm, the owner, (an unusually unassuming but nevertheless full-on hipster, complete with Osama beard, unusual hats and a difficult looking bike), apologetically came and crouched down beside the table and said we needed to vacate it as he needed it back. He’d warned me when I booked, so that was grand. He moved us to some high stools at a bar area. Orla’s a filthy smoker, so we ended up outside. There’s a little table in the porch area, with a small table and a couple of chairs on the inside and a chair backing onto the street. It was the first really cold night of that winter. We stuck the jackets on and we were fine, underneath the heater, cheeky little Portuguese wine in hand, bellies full, watching the world go by on the dark street. Then it started.
There were just a couple of them at first. “Can you spare any change?” “Yeah, I’ll see what I have. Here you go” “Thanks a million” And they were gone. Then Joe arrived. Same thing, but as he was talking, I copped the accent and I said, “Are you from Dundalk?” He was, of course, from not far from my house at home. I don’t know what age he was. Younger than us anyway. He had a sleeping bag wrapped round him and he looked a bit dishevelled. Without the sleeping bag, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Fumbally café, (bar the fact that he wasn’t enough of a poseur). The three of us got talking. How come he ended up here? When was he last home? That kind of thing. A series of unfortunate incidents had got him to this point. Stuff that could happen any of us. When his brother hanged himself, he was the one to find him. He couldn’t get that picture out of his head. His mother died after that. He’d always been close to his mother. Then she was gone. Someone tried to set fire to him the night before when he was trying to sleep in a doorway in town. Threw lighter fluid on him and lit the match. He managed to put it out. Who was it? Just some randomer. People do that to you when you’re street sleeping. He did have a sister but she has kids and, he cast his eyes downwards, ashamed, “I’m fond of the drink”.
“Aren’t we all?” we said with our nice wine in front of us. “Whatever gets you through the night. If I were in your place I can guarantee I’d be fond of more than the drink to help get me through”
Suddenly, out comes red-haired Osama. “Come on, move on. Clear out”, waving his arm at Joe to get him to move away. We protested, “No, he’s a friend of ours. We’re having a talk. We know him.”
The owner said some more stuff, we protested some more and suddenly, he said, “Well sit down then mate, you’re blocking the entrance”. He sort of was obstructing the pathway out. He was kind of wide, what with the sleeping bag wrapped around him. Joe looked a bit surprised that he’d been invited to sit down, effectively, in a restaurant. He stayed with us for a good while, talking about home and the logistics of getting back there, only an hour’s drive down the road. It seemed like the most impossible journey.
Customers passed us by, coming out of the restaurant. We didn’t notice any of them except one party of three people. Two glammed-up women and a primped-up tube, (as myself, Joe and Orla might say) As he passed by, he made sure to audibly sneer, lest we might miss the fact that he was sneering. He even let out a disgusted snort. Joe didn’t notice. At least, I hope he didn’t. They went out onto the street and were trying to hail a taxi. Now, I’m not one for criticism of people’s style of dress but I’m giving this man the respect he deserves. He was in his mid to late 30’s with overly ‘done’ hair, greased back. Much scummier looking than Joe’s, for example. His beard was groomed within an inch of its life. He was wearing a faculty scarf. I don’t know which faculty but it was a college scarf and frankly, at that age, there is absolutely no excusing that. His trousers and jacket were too tight for him. Intentionally so. You know the look; trousers that look like they belong to your twelve year old brother? The colour of the results of untreated feline colitis? Too tight at the arse and around the crotch, so they’re pulled up above your ankles to show off your craaaazy socks and expensive leather brogues? All of this would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the fact that he placed himself on the street in our direct line of vision. So that he could keep looking back with a head on him like the *Eagle from the Muppets; snorting and sneering. He had the look of a fella who might have had lots of snorting experience.
We kept talking to Joe who, thankfully, had his back to the street. He was spared this epic performance. I don’t know how long this man kept this up but it seemed interminable to us. We couldn’t say anything though, or give it away with our facial expressions, for fear that Joe would turn around and see what the Eagle was doing behind his back. I gave Joe some money. We chatted for a while longer. Then off he went into the dark. I’ve never seen him since. When he left, myself and Orla stared straight ahead out into the blackness of the street. My jaw was so tight it hurt. “Did you see that arsehole behind him?” I said. “See him? I wanted to…..”. Out of respect for the polite amongst you, I will leave it up to your imagination what she wanted to do to the adult man whose sneeriness made his lips meet his nose. She had that white line around her mouth. That’s the dangerous time. The Eagle was lucky that a taxi had swept him away.
After Joe left they just kept coming. All men. Of all ages. There was the one who laughed about how he wouldn’t make it to 40 because you can’t live like that for that long. He said he expected to die in the next couple of years because that’s just the way it is. He was in his early 30’s. “No one lives past about 45 on the streets. It’s too hard a life” he said. There was the neat and scrubbed older man who, tight mouthed and angry, asked us for money. He politely said thanks but he looked a bit like he hated us. I can’t say I blame him. I could be wrong but he looked like he hadn’t been on the streets too long. He could have been a Dad at our kids’ schools.
There was the one who, when we really had given away every bit we had in our pockets, said, “That’s ok. Listen, thank you very much for looking me in the eye and talking to me” We asked him what he was on about because we hadn’t loved him up or anything. He was young and handsome and sad. People just talking to him as an equal human being was important to him, he said. He’d been put in care when he was two and no one acknowledged his existence again until he was given his social welfare card when he was sixteen. Those were his words. Succinct. I wish he had stayed longer to talk.
There were ones with few teeth and the tell-tale gauntness or the moon- face. The ruddy and cut up faces of the drinkers. The clean- scrubbed faces of the ones holding it together, with neat back packs and ironed looking shirts. The ones who marked themselves out from a distance with a sleeping bag. It was like a tsunami of homeless men. Not a tsunami of ‘the homeless’. There is no monolith to see here. Every single person, different from every other with something interesting to talk about and a story to tell. Homeless people.
There’s a hostel on Camden Street, so presumably that’s where they were all heading. Eventually, their numbers dwindled. I went across the road and got more money out, went to the bar in the restaurant and ordered two more glasses. The owner, eyes downcast, just like Joe’s had been, said, “Sorry about that earlier. I shouldn’t have been so hard” I said, “No problem, we knew him, he’s from home.” He said, “Nah, I’ve never had any trouble with him. I shouldn’t have gone on like that. I’m sorry ok?”
He was genuinely ashamed of himself, or so it seemed to me. He seemed awkward. He’s a nice fella. Not many people running a business like that would have asked Joe to sit down. Joe wasn’t there to hear the apology though. I got the apology, but then, I wasn’t being thrown out.
Myself and Orla sat there, like we’d been hit by something hard. We didn’t even look at each other. She just said, “Hhmmm”
There was no need to say anything. We had had a privileged evening.
Last year, I was walking into town during the day. It was freezing cold. That kind of damp cold that penetrates your warm jacket and gets into your bones. I was just thinking how much I was feeling the cold, when I passed by the ATM outside Break For The Border. There was a queue of a few men and one woman standing at the ATM. Almost at their feet, there was -what looked like- a corpse. I reversed a few steps when the scene before me sank in. I looked at the man lying on the ground, a yellowish grey, his body contorted into a silly position on his bag, with stuff spilling out of it. I looked at the queue of people. I asked (what I thought to be) the obvious questions in the circumstances. “Is he alright? Is he alive? Is he breathing?” as I bent down to the maybe-dead-man. The men in the queue, all well- dressed officey looking types, became entirely engrossed in the fabric of the jacket of the man in front of each of them. I started to wonder was I actually dead. Such was their huge interest in matters of cloth and their apparent inability to hear or see me. Only one person in that queue could hear me, a woman, “I don’t know”, she grimaced with tears in her eyes. She looked distraught and relieved that I’d asked and horrified that this was happening. I felt sorry for her. The look in her eyes. She just didn’t know what to do.
I touched the corpse’s hand and found that he wasn’t quite dead yet. He was cold but he moved slightly and groaned. He was off his face. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t open his eyes. I said, “If you stay here, you’re going to die. Do you understand me? It’s freezing. He couldn’t really open his eyes, he was so out of it. I left and went round the corner and called Focus to get advice on what to do. The woman on the line told me to do nothing else. That their outreach teams would be doing the rounds and they’d get to him in due course. She said there was nothing I could do. I wasn’t going to call an ambulance because he’d likely not go with them and I wasn’t going to call the Guards because…I wasn’t going to call the Guards. I went back and told the corpse-man that someone would be round soon from Focus. Not that he responded too well but he did manage to look at me. Sort of. He murmured some animal sounds. I hoped they meant, “Yeah, grand so.” I zipped up his jacket and he conked out. A man in the queue snorted at me and the almost dead man. Everyone else, (part of an entirely new queue of people) was very interested in everyone else’s back. They’d got each other’s backs.
Earlier this year I was working with a group of people who are part of a community drugs scheme. I was chatting to one of the women in the class afterwards. She’d often be a bit out of it during the class. This wasn’t an altogether bad thing. She was really enjoying it and she got a lot of the relaxation and meditation, she said. I could boast about my Yoga Nidra skills here but I fear Methadone was a bigger factor in her enjoyment levels. She got sneered at by some of the jumpy, aggressive young fellas in the class. So, we were talking about her maintenance programme and how she had got her methadone down a bit. She was glad to be making progress she said. She nodded her head back towards the room where we’d just done the class and said, “There’s a stigma around heroin users. The others look down on us”
I said, “Are you telling me that other people with drug problems look down on you because of your drug problem? Are you fuckin’ serious?” I’d had a bellyful of the aggressive pill-poppers in the class that day.
“Yeah that’s just the way it is. We’re just junkies and scumbags. But ye know, people say that ‘this drug is a gateway drug’ or ‘that drug leads you to heroin’. I didn’t even drink before I started. I never smoked a joint. Never took anything. I smoked heroin for the first time and a couple of weeks later I was banging up”
Before heroin, she had been pregnant. She was really happy, she said, looking forward to having her baby. It was discovered late in the pregnancy. Something was seriously wrong with the baby. She wouldn’t have survived outside of the womb. Her baby died inside her. She had to carry the baby for a period of time. I can’t remember how long she said. Then she was induced and had to give birth to her dead baby. She lost the will to live. She said that it probably sounded stupid but she couldn’t get over how horrible it was. How excited she had been one day and the next day everything was terrible. She said she was like a zombie. Then she was at a party and someone says “Here, try this. It’ll make all your pain go away” And it did. After that she lost everything. Her family, her home, her friends, everything. She said she had done things that she never would have believed herself capable of before. I could imagine. Someone had cut her an extra wide smile at some point. She was a big soft baby of a woman.
There’s a line in the film Mississippi Burning where Gene Hackman’s character, FBI Agent Rupert Anderson, quotes his father. He’s explaining to the younger, FBI agent, about how things work in the Southern States. His father was a farmer and his father’s near neighbour, was also a farmer. A black farmer. The black farmer does well for himself and then some white people come and burn his place down and destroy his crops. Just to show him like. In explanation of how he lived beside this man for so many years but did nothing to defend him, Agent Anderson’s father said,
“If you ain’t better than a nigger son, who are you better than?”
It’s the line that always stuck with me and when I hear, variously, “What about our own?” “I don’t give them money, they’ll only spend it on drink or drugs”, “They need to be moved out to the outskirts of town, they’re putting the tourists off” “Some of us pay our mortgages, why should I subsidise those who don’t?” “Same sex marriage devalues my marriage”, “Knackers”, “Scumbags”, “Junkies”, “Sluts”, “Slags”, “Whores” or just a big obvious, curled- lipped snort, all I really hear is, “If you ain’t better than a nigger son, who are you better than?”
In a world where we’re told that hierarchies and invisible ladders are real things and that that is ‘just the way it is’, I’m just not feeling any rung beneath my feet and I can’t see anyone above me either. This culture of ‘better than’ is making me sick and I can’t be the only one. Given the right set of circumstances, I could be anyone of these people. Been at that party, had someone I loved die, been too fond of the drink. Maybe, if I hadn’t messed up so much and had so many weaknesses and been just about perfect, I could even have been Mr. Snorty Eagle or a Jacket Fabric Obsessive. Maybe.
*Orla recognised this style of head as being like the Eagle from The Muppets