“Why did he ask for a coffee, of all things?”
He didn’t have teeth; he had a tooth. A large tooth that hovered at the center, clinging from what remained of a gum, presumably. I couldn’t stop staring at it as I said “Sorry,” and then “I don’t have any cash on me.”
I did have cash on me, but it was all Euros left over from my trip to Poland a week and a half ago. This was London, England. My wallet is bulging in the tight pocket of my red, floppy jeans — with Euros. Maybe a single twenty pence piece, and definitely six train tickets and at least two underground tickets, and a single coin from the United Arab Emirates that I had picked up last year on the way back from South Africa and now enjoy thrusting into peoples’ faces with an encouraging “Look!”. Nothing that can buy a coffee in London, England.
I shrugged off the question. I didn’t know why the homeless man asked for coffee. It was hotter than San Francisco in London today, apparently (according to numbers sent across the air that land into smartphones). My brow was glistening just standing at the bus stop. I had drank a coffee myself — sorry, a tepid cappuccino — a half an hour ago and regretted it as my body then secreted thick sweat from all exposed skin. But, later, I would search the internet to see if a story behind the man begging for coffee existed. It does — “suspended coffee”.
This is a new practice, at least to me, in which people leave extra change behind after paying for their Starbucks brand chai latte. That change then, supposedly, goes toward buying a homeless person a coffee. Hence, homeless people are now asking for people to purchase them a coffee on the streets, I guess, thinking that they’ll have a better chance of getting a coffee than loose change because it’s an effort supported by a global brand or two, and we like those, we can trust those. Imagine that: A homeless man with a ripped, dark green coat, black tracksuit bottoms that sweep the pavements and a flat cap so sunken it looks like hair, swirling a cup of flat white and noticeably unhot Starbucks coffee around his single tooth. Give him a sandwich, surely?
Liz and Ben, who now live in London and were the reason I had travelled up to the city for just 30 hours total, revealed that they would soon be moving to San Francisco. I thought it was a joke at first. I wore a face of disbelief and asked “What was that?” over the music of the club-cum-pub-cum-stylish-bar-for-London-twenty-somethings because I needed to hear those words three more times, at least.
“We’re moving to San Francisco!”
No, I’m happy for them, but I’m thinking about them again. You know, homeless people … again. The mention of all big cities does this to my brain. Not the Eiffel Tower, not Wall Street, not underground clubs or stylish diners, expensive living or fountains with high fences around them, not the nightlife, not the tourists, not the sun, not the public transport or the hotels, not the TV studios, the shop windows, the car parks, the pollution, or five pounds for a pint of lager; the homeless, always.
We’re sitting on leather sofas, laughing about college years, complaining about the adverts playing on the TV on the opposite wall, looking at the skateboards covering the ceiling (this is “stylish” now). I’m drinking lithium (cocktail) through a straw, and then “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam comes on as if to say ‘don’t you stop thinking about all those homeless people on those midnight streets right now’.
“Freezin’, rests his head on a pillow made of concrete, again”
I close my eyes and allow myself a gentle ice cube-cold sip from the two straws protruding from the tall glass.
“Oh, hand out, faces that he sees time again ain’t that familiar, oh yeah”
“There’ll be loads of them, you know”, I say. “San Francisco chews people up and spits them back onto the streets.”
Liz looks a bit uncomfortable, understandably.
“I mean, that’s what I’ve heard.”I need to be less grim, so: “It won’t happen to you. Ben’s already got a job there, after all. You’ll be fine.”
They will be fine. Very fine. All my friends are fine. We have parents with houses that we can retreat to if push comes to shove. I’m doing that right now, in fact. I moved to Southampton nearly two years ago, younger and less wise, without a job or much money. Six months rolled by, my bank account emptied, and I had to move back home with my parents. I thought about the streets then — just before making the phone call. I didn’t want to go back, to admit defeat, to tempt the depression once again. But, I did, and I’m lucky that I had a choice to make, grateful too.
But it made me realize how easy it is to end up on the streets. That could have been me, right then. Without my parents, that would be me now, outside, my body rubbing thin fabrics against concrete floors. Patrick Bateman’s leisurely kill.
In the past eight months I’ve seen homeless people and beggars in Berlin, France, Johannesburg, Krakow, and now London. I used to walk past the same homeless guy on the same street every weekday as I walked to university in Portsmouth. They’re always there. In Berlin they stayed in large groups, adopted dogs, and performed for coins. In France they moped about on the streets with a tin. In Johannesburg they waited for you to walk along the wrong streets, mugging you instantly. London had me face-to-face, eye-to-eye with cupped hands and rotting mouths. In Berlin, two years ago, I had a woman chase me into a shop and watch me for two minutes, pretending to browse packets of sweets as the corner of my eye stalked her outline, watching her slink off into the light outside — a sigh of relief.
They follow me around the world, everywhere. And while I know they’re individual people with their own lives and reasons, they blend into one mass, a haunting reminder of how I’m able to avoid being one of them but, at the same token, have the same hopeless story with a different, fortunate outcome.
San Francisco is the city I fear the most. I’m going there in two months; I have to. It’s probably not quite as bad as I’m expecting. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. There will be homeless people there — that much I know — and they’ll burn their presence into my mind, just like they should.
Writing about them, right now, feels precarious. Are my words offensive? What am I trying to say – that I’m better off than other people, oh, good for me? Stop calling them “them“. Am I looking down upon them, err, homeless people like I would a lesser species?
The suspended coffee thing just annoyed me a bit, I think. That there has to be a corporate intermediary to encourage us to give to the needy. And then what, they get a coffee out of it — a middle class luxury that doesn’t benefit anyone on the streets unless it’s freezing outside. Then, of course, it’s too sweet and warm at Starbucks because if it was hot it couldn’t be drunk instantly by people who are always in a rush so they can be on time for a business meeting. It’s coffee tailored to the lives of suits and shiny shoes.
Warm coffee — what’s the point? That’s not even going to temper the numbness ensnaring the cold fingertips of homeless people during the winter. Ugh.