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Monday, 5 March 2018

Bad timing

You might see a man on his knees with his elbows on the pavement supporting his upper body, bent over stubbornly and inconveniently in the middle of the footpath at the corner of a busy thoroughfare with a cup held in his hands and his face turned toward the ground. You might stop and say a word or two and hand him a few coins or you might simply place some change in the cup and hurry on about your business.

You might see the man with a beard and a beanie on his head and his collection of blankets on the pavement in Pitt Street Mall outside the clothing store under the colonnade on the west side near where the buskers draw crowds to listen to the sentimental songs they play. The man always has a large tan dog named Roxanne with him and sometimes she sits on his lap and the man distractedly strokes her short brown fur with his hand. In front of him on the pavement is a torn cardboard sign with some words written on it in black Texta and a paper cup with a few coins sitting at the bottom of it.

For a few weeks in mid-winter last year there was a young woman in Pitt Street Mall with a cat named Narla beside her on the pavement that wore a jacket and that was lying curled-up in a brown-and-white pet bed with a white lining. There was a blue plastic dish on the pavement with cat food in it. The woman sat near the entrance to the shopping centre on the west side near Market Street where the foot traffic is heaviest, waiting for people to stop and put a few coins on the rug that had been placed in front of them for that purpose.

One day at around that time, I spoke with a man who was sitting at that spot. He had a dog with him he told me was named Buddy, who he informed me was seven months old. "I got him in January," he said about the dog, that wore a bright red jacket with twin white stripes running down the sides and was lying on a multi-coloured loose-weave knitted blanket. His paws were resting on a light-coloured crocheted blanket. The man held a leash in his hand that was attached to a collar around Buddy’s neck.

The man complained about Narla’s owner who, he said, had threatened him because he had taken her place on the busy pavement. But he said she had been given $100 by a passer-by and had gone to Kings Cross to buy methamphetamine. "That's why I don't talk to the homeless," he said.

He said the woman's boyfriend worked the pavement nearby, and that she had come from Melbourne to Sydney to beg. He said it was easy to live on the streets in Sydney, and pointed north to Wynyard, east to Martin Place and south to Central Station to indicate where food could be found of an evening. "There's 27,000 homeless in Sydney," he affirmed confidently. I mentioned that the tent city in Martin Place was quiet on that day and he was dismissive, telling me he had gone up there to pitch a tent but the other residents had made him feel so unwelcome that he had gone to stay overnight, instead, in a hotel.

His son was "upstairs", he said, indicating with his thumb the building behind him, where the Myer department store is located. "I've got a 16-year-old boy to support," he said. "I've been here since five o'clock this morning and this is what I've got," he said, nodding toward the small basket next to him that was full of coins. He extracted some photos from where they had been hidden among the folds of his clothing and told me that a photographer had taken them and had given him prints. The black-and-white photos showed the face of the man and that of his dog as well. I shook his hand when we had finished talking and he wished me a good day as I left to walk home.

This past Saturday I was sitting inside a café in Darlinghurst up on Liverpool Street on the corner of Victoria Street. The space has big, sliding windows at the back where the tables were ranked along the wall, and a bench where people sat on cushions with their backs to the street. I sat in a chair facing the street and soon I saw a bedraggled fellow walking east outside the café’s window. He had thongs on his dirt-encrusted feet and he stopped near the corner, incongruously stroking his brown beard with his hand as though he was thinking about something important or as though he was trying to remember something pressing. The tracksuit top he wore open at the front was an indeterminate greyish colour and had at least two holes in it. Then he turned around and disappeared back up the street toward the city.

I had ordered food but it hadn’t arrived yet and I hadn’t ordered coffee so I was just talking with my companion as the sun shone through the window onto the bench where she sat. At tables around us groups of people ate food and talked to one another. The waiter was behind us in the enclosed area next to the kitchen where a counter ran down the length of the room.

The man outside returned to stand in the window’s frame and now he was facing me directly. He spoke: “Can you buy me a coffee?” At least one of his incisors was missing and his eyes were buried in the depths of his face, like jewels set in the mask of an exhumed Pharaoh’s sarcophagus. “No, sorry, I can’t,” I said to him without thinking, mortified, having lifted my face to address him over my friend’s head. He said something like, “Oh alright, thanks,” and turned to wander off in the direction of Kings Cross.

When my meal arrived, I picked up the burger with both hands and despite mixed feelings of shame and embarrassment ate it urgently. It was almost twelve and I had not had breakfast that day. 

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