My three beggars - Page 4
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 22: MoneySexPower
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Louis Nowra
WITH TERRY, I HAVE A DIFFERENT arrangement, undergoing constant negotiation for some five years now. I first saw him sitting on the doorstep of an apartment block a few doors up where he has become a permanent fixture. ‘Got a couple of bob?' was his constant cry. One night I gave him twenty cents. He held it in his gnarled hand and looked at it with contempt. ‘I said a couple of bob,' he complained. ‘Well, that's twenty cents. That's a couple of bob,' I said, not a little miffed. ‘Look,' he replied. ‘A couple of bob now means two dollars.' ‘Well, why don't you ask for a couple of dollars then?' Terry rolled his eyes, incredulous at my stupidity. ‘People give a couple of bob, they won't give a couple of dollars.' So that's how our relationship began. He worked his pitch at night and whenever he saw me he'd ask for a couple of bob and gradually and insidiously this became a nightly event.
Like Tom and Nonie, there is an element of the troll or elf about him, as if the weather and his constant mantra have determined his appearance as an extra in a grim fairy-tale. He has a face the colour of dirty beetroot. He wears a scruffy tweed jacket and baggy trousers in summer and adds a jacket in winter. When he stands, which is not often, he is short. From a distance, as he sits hunched up on the doorstep, he resembles a church gargoyle. His clothes and hair hide his great distinguishing characteristic – he is tattooed all over his body. When he has a haircut you can see (because you're generally staring down at him) that even his head is covered in tatoos.
Terry is prey to wild mood swings. Sometimes he is so morose he cannot even say the words ‘two bob'; at other times he is so jittery with excitement that he can barely sit still. The first time I saw him in a euphoric mood was in the video shop across the road. As I worked my way from new releases to cult films, I noticed Terry lying supine on the concrete floor. He had arranged himself in a crucifix position. Surrounding him were empty DVD cases. His eyes opened when he heard footsteps. ‘Hi, Louis,' he greeted me casually. I took in the covers of the DVDs. At the end of both hands he had placed religious movies like The Passion, at his feet he had arranged comedies like Porky's and Police Academy, and around his head was a halo of three horror movies. ‘I like your choice in movies, Terry,' I said. ‘Shit,' he sighed and jumped up. ‘Shit, shit, shit,' he muttered to himself and hurried from the store.
This was a strange part of our relationship. When he was on a manic high, he grew irritated with me if I answered his questions correctly. He would give me tongue twisters like ‘AWoopBamABooBamLoopBangDooBang' to say, and if I repeated them exactly he would yell out ‘Shit!' and storm away, forgetting to ask me for money. One time when I was coming back from a walk with Coco, he asked me to tell him what NMRA stood for. I told him. ‘Say it. Say NMRA,' he demanded. I started to tell him again, but he just wanted to hear the initials. 'Tell me what NMRA stands for,' he berated me. 'NMRA,' I said. He didn't seem that happy with me and turned his back on me. One night he asked me to say ‘Blue Cadillac in Las Vegas'. I deliberately said, ‘Red Corvette in Los Angeles'. ‘See,' he said triumphantly, ‘you couldn't say it.' Then he held out his hand for his money.
Sometimes the mania would possess Terry utterly, and he would chase after me if I were on the other side of the street. I knew he was crossing Darlinghurst Road because I could hear screeching brakes and blasting horns as drivers almost collected him. He would arrive breathless and grinning, not wanting money but just to say hello. It became patently obvious when he was on medication and when he wasn't. On medication, his mania vanished. If he had taken his medication too soon after assuming his regular spot for the night, then he was withdrawn and almost incapable of communicating. I had worked with mental patients, so one evening I asked straight out if he was schizophrenic. He nodded calmly. ‘Everything was all right, until I was about eighteen,' he said, ‘then my life went haywire, but I'm OK now.'
Terry and I established a rough sort of etiquette. I would run into him frequently during the day away from his spot, but he never asked for money. We would chat a little and then he would scurry off as if he were late for some appointment. Sometimes when he saw me leaving the liquor shop he'd smile and ask me how much I spent on the wine. I never told him, but he'd shake his head ruefully as if I had and remark, ‘That's quite a lot of dosh, Lou.' He used the shortened form of my first name when he was taking the piss out of me. Everyone in the area knows him by name, and when they return from a holiday or business trip he knows exactly how long they've been away. Once when I came back from a research trip, I handed him some money. He stared at the coins for a time and said, ‘I want some notes'. I wasn't going to put up with this kind of blackmail. ‘Look, Terry, that's pretty much what I give you every night.' He stood up on the step of his spot so he was my height. ‘You see, Louis, I've counted up the days you've been away and I've worked out you owe me notes, not coins.' I was irritated with him and told him that if I gave him notes then he would continue to demand them. ‘Maybe,' he replied carefully. ‘All depends what mood I'm in.'
One late afternoon, I saw him in his regular place, drinking a can of beer – which was unusual. He patted the space next to him and asked me to join him. I told him I didn't drink beer. ‘That's OK, Louis, just sit here.' So I sat with him and talked. It was fascinating to see the world from his perspective. It was amazing how many businessmen looked down at him (maybe us) with expressions of absolute contempt. Others passed by, pretended indifference. A few locals greeted him by name, which pleased him no end. I asked him if he was ever beaten up. ‘Once or twice by hoons, but you gotta accept that.' I questioned him as to why didn't he just stay at the hostel where he slept and get the dole. ‘That's a living death. A real living death,' he replied. After an hour, I stood up. ‘That's my world, Louis,' he remarked cheerfully.
We've been haggling for a long time now. I tell him I'm quite prepared to give him ten or fifteen dollars at the beginning of the week, rather than doling out coins every time I see him. I used to think he had calculated that perhaps the loose change I give him adds up to more than such an amount. But now I'm not too sure. I think he's afraid I won't have to talk to him for the other nights of the week.And that's the thing about these three beggars. If they wanted to, they could shift into a hostel and collect welfare payments and not have to be outside – sometimes in appalling weather – but there is something else that is common to the three of them. They may be loners, but begging gives them an identity. The wealthy newcomers may despise them, but long-term residents know them by name and stop and chat to them, sometimes giving them money. I think the important thing is that they feel that they are known and accepted, not as beggars, not as faceless names in some stifling bureaucratic hostel that seems like death's waiting room, but as people. There is something wonderful about that. ♦