Regretting the Hunger Gauge Idea

The other day, I was walking home from work for lunch. I do that. It sounds decadent but it’s a bit of a rush-job really. Twenty minutes to get there, twenty minutes lunch, with a good book, and twenty minutes back. It’s nice though. I know I’m lucky to be able to do it…

…which will probably become the theme of this post. So, watch out… just… watch out.

So, there I am, walking home up the main street and there’s this guy lying on the street up ahead. Right in the middle of a busy lunchtime town centre street. And he’s got a sleeping bag which is covering his legs and he’s got a bulging rucksack tucked in behind him and his legs are stretched out so far onto the pavement that people are getting in each other’s way trying to get around him and not having to resort to stepping over him. And he’s got a handwritten sign on his sleeping-bag-covered knees. It’s a very carefully written sign, blue biro on brown cardboard box-flap. It’s saying:

“Please help me. I am very hungry.”

And, within the dusty confines of my own head, I get a bit annoyed.

I mean, look at this guy. Looking moderately well-to-do. Taking up half the street with his begging-ensemble. He’s obviously a member of one of those rolling groups who get ferried from town to town, landed in the town centre, and there get left to beg for what they can before being bussed back home again. He is playing us all, with his rucksack, and his beard, and his sad face.

But it’s the sign. It’s that sign that’s the worst of it.

You’re really very hungry, are you? It’s there, writ large in blue Bic on your cardboard flap. Very hungry, you say. But what happens when some kindly passer-by gives you money, as many already undoubtedly have, and you nip into the adjoining shop and score yourself a nice sandwich and maybe a latte? What happens to your sign then? Answer: Nothing. You come back and ease into your sleeping bag and hold up the very same sign that says you’re very hungry even though you’ve just had the full feed. Because that’s the con, isn’t it? That’s the game. You don’t have a series of alternative signs in your rucksack, do you? ‘I was hungry but I’m not anymore.’ That one isn’t in your repertoire, is it? No, it bloody isn’t.

Ideally, you would have some LED sign, which could be revised in accordance with how much food you had eaten. “I am moderately hungry, as I’ve just had a big bap,” it might say. Or “I am fully satiated now, food wise, you don’t have to worry. Shall I pull my legs in a bit?” Perhaps there could even be a gauge on the sign, an easy-to-read graphic indicating, on a scale of 1 to 10, how very hungry you currently are.”

I strode on, eager to get to my tea and my book. But, as I got near the town green, my pace slowed, my mind turned on itself.

Who in the hell did I think I was? Who in the hell was I becoming?

How many slips, how many trips would it take for me to be the person lying on the side of the road, begging for alms? Three? Two? One, even? How self-satisfied and insular am I, that I can mentally berate the person whose feet are marginally in my way or whose sign might not accurately reflect the state of his hunger-level? Make no mistake, Bucko, that could be you. That may well be you, someday. And not in some outlandish ‘Trading Places’ fairy tale scenario either. That could be you within a year if everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

And so what if that guy is part of some larger ‘bussed in’ money begging project. Is that what he envisaged for himself when he was a kid? Is this where his mother hoped he might end up?

I see it all over the place. People so wrapped up in themselves that they care nothing for the other person in front of them. Not only the ‘not caring’ but, more than that, the active resentment of the person who has slipped further down the ladder than the rung on which they currently sit. I’ve seen that all over, but I hadn’t seen it so much in myself, until now. And mark me, I didn’t like seeing it in myself. Not one little bit.

I don’t have to give the guy money. If I think he’s being exploited by some organised immoral system, I don’t have to support it. I don’t have to be that na├»ve. But, by golly, I surely do have to recognise that the man on the deck with the sign and the sleeping bag is 100% as valuable a human as I am.

And I have to remember to treat him accordingly.


Jim Murdoch said...

The word "scam" never existed when I was a kid. I mean, yes, the acual word was around but it wasn't a meaningful word and certainly not a daily word. "Sugar" was a daily word, "God," and "television" and "pee" but not "scam." Now if a weird e-mail pops into our inbox the first thing we expect is a scam; same with an unexpected knock on the door or a phone call. This is the world we live in. We don't trust reviews on IMDB so why the hell would we trust a guy lying in the street?

I remember very clearly the first tramp I saw. I was sixteen and took the train to Glasgow for work. My first time in the big city alone and, me being me, I was an hour early so I went for a walk. On Union Place I ran across an unconscious man by the bins behind a shop. I had never seen anything like it in my life. There were no tramps in my home town, or beggers and only the occasional tinker. This was new. I have a memory of buying a pie from a nearby Greggs or a sandwich and leaving it beside him or maybe I thought to do that but didn't but I never forgot him. He even ended up in a poem. I called it 'Street Games' and I remember too what my dad had to say about it: "Life's not a game."

Jim Murdoch said...
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