My three beggars
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 22: MoneySexPower
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Louis Nowra
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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.