Encounters with Melbourne's down and outers

As a newly married young woman I found myself living in Carlton with little to do to amuse myself. I had given up the wild life to be married to a young up and coming doctor who was seldom at home, working long hours at the hospital. Long walks took me around the Exhibition Gardens as I pondered my state. I frequently came across a group of three or four scruffy looking older men, obviously on hard times and often a bit the worse for drink. I had plenty of money and little to do with it, so without being asked, I fished into my purse and parted with change and sometimes a note.

‘You’re the best what ever walked the streets, luv,’ one of them said to me one day. My god, I thought, they think I’m a prostitute. I didn’t care, though, as, young as I was, I liked them and sensed their lives were full of history and story, and sensed also that despite the predilection for alcohol, they had good hearts.

One day in Lygon Street where I was to meet friends for coffee, a very ancient soul with a long white beard and a tattered tweed jacket was rummaging in one of the street bins. I went into the café, but couldn’t get him off my mind. Outside, he was walking, halting, and then walking again, slowly and deliberately. I chased after him, and tapped him on the shoulder.

‘Can I help you at all?’ I said, ready to give him money.

‘No thank you dear,’ he said. ‘I’ve lived with this old ticker of mine all my life, so I’m pretty familiar with it. I’ll be fine if I take it nice and easy.’

I sensed that giving him money would have offended him; he seemed such a gentleman.

‘Goodbye dear,’ he said. ‘Thanks for stopping.’

Reluctant, I turned away and went back to the coffee shop. I never saw him again, but the memory has stayed with me throughout my life. As my own mortality makes itself known at this stage of my life, I wonder how he finished his.

You can’t just throw money at people to make yourself feel better. Another encounter wasn’t in Melbourne, but in Mexico City. My then husband was on sabbatical and was attending a conference there, and here I encountered the Marias as they were known. These women sat propped up on the streets, each one with a skeletal comatose baby in her arms. I had never encountered anything like this before. Once again out came the purse to feed the claw-like upturned palms. The money was accepted wordlessly, without thanks, glance or acknowledgement.

Later, inside our luxury hotel I asked the young woman who was our guide about them, and why I never saw any of the locals give them money.

‘It’s like this,’ she said. ‘These women belong to a tribe of lace makers who don’t believe in owning land or houses. Often the babies are not their own. They share them around. The government has tried to house them but without success. They end up on the streets again. The pimps rent the pavement to the women and take the money at the end of the day. It’s a real problem,’ she conceded.

That fine summer evening in the dining room we were given a delicious meal, more than we could possibly eat. Our table was beside the window, facing the street. On the other side of the window, a man was trying to get our attention. He was selling puppets he had carved. Further along the street but still in our line of sight was a skinny Maria with a child. I felt a confusion of fury and pains, knowing that I couldn’t even give so much as my leftover dinner to alleviate this poverty.

(Above image of beggar in Mexico City courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

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