I’d just arrived in Melbourne, at a time of the year when the damp, coursing rain, and bone chilling winds rule the streets and suburbs, and, of course, I just had to explore the nocturnal fruits of the city.
After the music stopped, the band packed up, last drinks were served, and we had consumed the mandatory utterly delicious grease, carbs and protein feast that is the glorious rocketburger and fries combo, it was time to part ways and head home.. “oh, bro, you have to taxi it this time of the night- the trains stop at midnight”
Slight problem. My house was at the end of the earth, and I really didn’t fancy spending half a days pay conveying my very tired, and slightly inebriated body back there.
Asking a few similarly stumbly locals outside the deserted and spooky, vaguely urine perfumed façade of the iconic Flinders Street Station on Elizabeth street, I discovered that the budget late night transport option of choice was a wheezing nightrider bus…
A conveyance that generally reeks of kebabs, broken dreams and something vaguely and unpleasantly vintage cheesy at 30 paces in the Swanston st bus mall, and i’m not talking about the stench of maccas and KFC wafting from their open entrances.
Only problem, that there were over a dozen stops to choose from.. and as I blearily stared at the sputum and grease smeared perspex route map placards at each stop, I found them incomprehensible. I just wanted to go home.
He had a little makeshift desk set up, made of a few milk crates, stacked, a laminated info “I” symbol stuck on the front, with a tabletop, a box, post it notes, and a few other papers and paraphernalia on top… like a tourist infodesk.
I didn’t think anything unusual about the setup at that point. drunk people proof maybe? that made sense.
YES! must be a late night PTV customer service worker. Just what I needed.
Dutifully, I lined up, and waited to be served.
The apparent PTV guy was a cheery, industrious looking fellow, with a quick smile and was unusually cheery and happy for a somebody who obviously had been dealing with stroppy drunk, tired and “where do you need to go mate?” I told him my suburb.
“Can you point out your street at all? you have a couple of route choices” he waved his hand theatrically, tracing a couple lines up and down.
Looking down at the big map, filled with hand drawn lines of what must be bus routes, I was rather impressed with myself to be able to indicate my house.
“Ok, you need to take the Eltham bus- that’s the best one for you, the next one is at 03:30AM”
Leaning down over his “desk”, he scribbled the details on a post it note, carefully folded it into quarters, and pressed it into my hand.
Then he threw the curveball.
“I’m a homeless person. I struggle with homelessness every day, and all donations are much appreciated”
He indicated toward the plastic box on the makeshift table, where a few solitary coins were camped out.
I lurched off toward the bus stop he indicated… then just… stopped. had an incredulous double take moment. Turned. Shook off the slight fuzz of alcohol (yeah, ok I’d only had two beers, but I’m a terminal lightweight cheap date), and fatigue, And opened my eyes, and saw.
The orange vest had the insignia of a cold storage company on it, the coat was good quality, but a bit tatty. Shoes looked worn, and the jeans a bit shabby… the man’s face marked with experience, eyes misted with distant memories of better times.
This was a man that had nothing, on the edge of society, was probably struggling with mental illnesses and living in the cold unforgiving street of Melbourne. Was probably hungry and alone often.
I felt for my wallet, fished out the coins, and strode back to the desk and dumped them in. I felt lighter. Somehow seeing a homeless man being entrepreneurial, find a place in a city, a society that was valued, made my own problems, fears and aspirations seem so small, and easy to overcome and accomplish. There was somebody that had stepped up from a low impossible to fathom to help himself, and others.
Every coin was deserved. Earned
I caught his eye, directly- looked at him as an equal. with respect, not pity.
His little “business” even had a facebook page. Solid gold. i didn’t look at it at the time though.
I didn’t see him around for a long time after that, though I did have a feeling I he might have been a guy in Degraves street selling the “Big Issue” magazine. I wasn’t sure though.
I hoped that his disappearance was a good sign, that times had turned for the better for him.
It wasn’t till many, many months later, quite recently, I saw him again at the Swanston street mall again.
I didn’t need any help, but I threw some coins in the box anyway, and stopped to have a chat, and congratulate him on having the up and go, gumption and courage to do something positive, and do a hard days work (or in this case, nights work) , well, and with pride and competence.
Turned out that things were indeed on the up for him, as he proudly told me that Melbourne central shopping centre had allowed him to set up shop below the shot tower, doing what he does best- customer service.
A professional looking desk had even entered into the equation.
The place is a confusing maze, and the touch panels seem always broken or no help at all. I can see how he saw a niche opportunity there.
I was also amazed when he shared with me that he had been living homeless for 30 years.
Looking at his desk, I noticed he had set up a facebook page. Even homeless people understand the importance of the digital channel for promotion and customer interaction. Fantastic.
On that, I learned more of his story.
An amazing, and difficult achievement in itself for us regular, fortunate humans with a warm bed, home and support mechanisms to help us along.
But one degree is not enough for this courageous fellow. Next year he plans to study towards a masters of speech pathology at Charles Stuart university.
Well done, I salute you sir!
You have come a long way in six years, starting outside the Degraves street subway entrance of flinders street station in June 2008, warning people that the entrance to the station closed after 10PM, trying to prevent people from missing their trains.
It’s been step by step in the right direction over the years- from the humble subway sentinel, to drunk person drover, festival football and concert traffic director, shopping centre sage, and now finally, educated man reaching toward the light from the darkness.
Hopefully, the next trip on your journey will be a job, a home and everything that others take for granted in their lives.
All the best, true personality, battler and friend of the city of Melbourne.