April 20, 2020
There is a novel by Richard Wright in which a character is thrown into an existential terror after a door is locked and he is outside. When I first experienced something similar, all I did was walk and walk until it became daylight and I negotiated to be let inside. I remember it well because it was in Denmark and I had never seen so many hares in my life.
A few years ago I found myself outside in Paris. I looked for somewhere warm to stay. I stayed in an accident and emergency waiting room. Sat in a metal chair. I could not sleep because every few minutes drunks were being admitted. A big man was brought in once, then the second time the police had pepper sprayed him, and he counted the steps from the door, and while waiting for a doctor, still blinded, he made his way to the reception desk and took his wine and made his way out. I thought he should be on a talent show.
After my girlfriend died, I was penniless and spent several weeks sleeping on a bench in a sleeping bag with a view of the Little Belt, a strait between the island of Funen and the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark. Each night I heard and saw porpoises only a few metres away. I felt blessed as I was still grieving for my love. This form of homelessness was made possible by collecting empty beer cans and plastic bottles which I recycled in the supermarket. In the day I stayed in a wonderful library. A toilet facility is heavenly. When it rained heavily, the large tree above me sheltered me. I love trees. I touch them when I can, just to signal "Hey cousin, how are you?”
In Firenze I slept in the doors of the most magnificent example of humanist architecture, the Santa Maria Novella Basilica. I made friends with a Latvian and others. The life is hard. Wine figures heavily in life on the streets. It is very easy to become an alcoholic when wine is just a euro or little more. I however managed to control the devil. I thought it crazy sleeping in the doorway. But I did. My friend has done it for seven years.
There is a world unknown to tourists. A dark and yet sometimes comical world, populated by drunks, thieves and people who have lost their way. You hate them. Then you love them. Then you are not sure because you become one. To become homeless, a man or woman of the streets is not romantic. Each wears a scar or something as a badge of courage. I have six dislocated fingers because I had blocked punches from drunks. You learn to watch for signs. In Britain the equivalent are more aggressive and violent. In Firenze I understood the Arabs and Romanians, as well as the gypsies. I went to the same church. Listened to the same sermons and collected the one euro fifty afterwards. Enough for a vending machine coffee and a vino Rosso.
I learnt so many things. Firstly you must trust people who sleep near you. I trusted my friend Samir who is Syrian. I trusted Renato who came from Napoli. I trusted Gloria. Beautiful Gloria. A fallen angel. I slept under the arches of the Palazzo Pitti, always waking up at 6.30 am. To sleep there became normal. I had cardboard for a mattress and a sleeping bag. In Firenze there is a whole system of Catholic charity and help organizations, I love them all. If I could I would be a vegetarian and Catholic; I cannot, but I sure want to be. The sisters were unbelievably kind. Really. We did not starve or die from the cold because millions believe in God. In these times, of the novel virus, I wish God/s look after them all.
It seems strange that every day I walked over the Arno. Every day I noted changes. Saw the nutria, the catfish, the herons and egrets. Every day I walked over the old bridge, and every day I saw the Duomo. I felt a kind of cultural vertigo at times. All this art and culture, but then I watched thieves and scammers in action. I felt sorry for the tourists, yet like Camus perhaps, I understood what made the boys tick. I was robbed five times, until I knew what to do. Have nothing. A more recent experience in England was very different. I could not trust anyone. Everyone wanted something. I felt a foreigner. I slept near McDonald's and as hundreds of nightclubbers passed, I discovered in the Millennials a sense of compassion. They donated food and money. Enough so that I could breakfast in McD. I dearly wanted to use the toilets! Then finally I arrived at a bus stop with a view of the Malvern Hills. I huddled in the shelter and looked at those hills. I saw Trinity Church where I was baptized. I heard sheep grazing on those hills. The hills made famous in Elgar's Enigma Variations, and walked upon by every writer from Langland to now. I was homeless but at home.
In times of the pandemic, there was an initial transition period. One by one the World of homelessness became greyer and greyer. In England there were clearly mixed signals. Will they go for herding or quarantine? Gradually, as the tragedy of this pandemic became a reality, services and places to sleep and rest dwindled. The most telling was McDonald's where they cordoned off the eating area like a crime scene. Takeaway only. The buses became like flying Dutchmen. Few took buses. Eventually only the homeless roamed the street, until there was an order. They must be isolated. Not everyone has. They lose their revenue of "donations" and access to drugs.
I found myself suddenly going from sleeping at a bus shelter going into a three star hotel. It is like a deep sea diver coming up too quickly. It feels strange in a way, even though I had some breaks at friends' places and slept in real beds, this was by myself, as a free individual, and very odd. It was like moving from one culture to another. Becoming them. The bed is too comfortable. The shower perfect. The food rich. The wifi great. It is pretty silent. Everyone has been so nice and supportive. I think of Trading Places. Yes, that movie. What is odd is that outside there is the sci fi world of death and anxiety. H. G. Wells long ago wrote a short story entitled the Stolen Bacillus, all about bioterrorism; in a way, this is like that. One can think of short stories in a collection called Love and Death in Isolation. Scary that there is a big flat screen which will reveal like a window, all this horror.
I just want comedy. A Cary Grant movie will do.
Stephen Pain is poet and short story writer. He is a graduate of the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, where he studied under Malcolm Bradbury, and whose graduates include Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Tracy Chevalier.