by Myles Abroad
When someone meets a wall of silence. A story of the homeless.
Hearing is just something we take for granted unless of course, you are unable to hear. Noise surrounds us, but then we learn that actually the world really isn't a noisy place; sound is created in our ears and the world is actually silent.
When I was first introduced to this notion I looked at my Father askance, thinking he was pulling my leg. Later, I learned a few more facts like the hammer, the anvil, the stirrup, the eardrum and something about pressure waves. It finally made sense, accepting that my previous notions had a lot of holes in them.
Regardless, though, of how sound is produced I wouldn't like to go without it: to never hear beautiful music and feel the hairs on my neck rising with a crescendo; to never hear the familiar hustle and bustle of everyday life; to never hear words of endearment or encouragement.
Of course, there are times we wish we didn't hear. It's nice to escape to the country and feel the stillness of the silence. Other times, we hear things we don't like to hear, such as: "You're a fool, Pat," from someone you trust, or: "Have you spare change?" from a beggar on the street. At these times I learned not to listen. Some call this selective hearing.
I've known Charlie for many years. Actually, 'known' might be too strong a word. I acknowledged his presence and then chose to ignore him. That was unless he was brought up in conversation as another juicy piece of gossip. He is a beggar, a homeless man I passed every day going to and from work and at lunchtime. He sat in a disused doorway in between a restaurant and our office building entrance. His hair was long, scraggly and dirty, his face grimy and unshaved. Sometimes he would emerge from his lair and try to interact, scuttling up to us in his filthy torn clothes, a hand, ingrained with dirt, imploring us to notice him.
"Any spare change, mister?"
When he first asked me, I was new to city life. I had reached into my pocket and given him the change I had. It wasn't much but to him, it was like I had showered him with treasure. The blind indifference is his eyes had vanished, they sparkled as a smile spread across his face. He gripped my arm and pulled me close.
"God bless ya, son."
The putrid stench of his unwashed body made my eyes water. I pulled back quickly mumbling something innocuous as I continued my march to work. Later on, I was pulled aside by Marie, a co-worker.
"Pat, I know you're new to the city, but you shouldn't give to beggars. You just encourage them. Besides, he'll just drink it."
I was taken aback by her indifference. "But I'm sure he's hungry."
Pam, an older woman joined our conversation. "Are you talking about Charlie?"
I didn't know who Charlie was, but Marie answered. "Yea. I saw Pat giving him money this morning."
Pam frowned at me and shook her head. "You'll learn, Pat."
I struggled to understand their dispassionate attitude. "Someone needs to help him."
Marie threw her eyes up to heaven. "He has been around here for years. He's brought it on himself. The state has tried to help him, but some people just don't want to help themselves. Just ignore him."
Pam put her hand on my shoulder and held my attention. "You can't give him anything. You'll just encourage him to stay here. I don't know how many times I've asked security to move him on."
I nodded my head and went back to my desk resolving to no longer pay him any heed. This was not something I was used to doing, but I soon found I could easily ignore him. I passed him daily, stepped around him at lunchtime, and sat near him eating lunch in the sidewalk caf I, conversing, laughing and getting my fill of food and wine. Charlie, hovering quietly in the background: present but ignored, his needs gone wanting.
A few years passed. I was now a fully-fledged member of the rat race. I worked hard and partied even harder. I spent what I earned on myself and sometimes more. I lived without regard for others or my future. Life was good!
One day it all came to a screeching halt. The firm I worked for went bust. We arrived to work one morning and left an hour later laden with our personal belongings and a promise of severance pay that never came.
I looked for more work, but while I was enjoying life the economy had collapsed. I did what any self-respecting citizen would do; I threw myself on the mercy of the state. I received a stipend but it was not enough to pay the rent. I tried finding something cheaper to rent but with the housing shortage, I was already paying the minimum rate. I pawned what belongings I had, trying to stave off the inevitable. Eventually, I was evicted.
My parents had long since been dead and being an only child I had no one to turn to. What family members I did have, had turned their backs on me. My 'friends' no longer answered my pleas. They had their own problems and were not willing to take on one more.
With all my worldly possessions in a duffle bag and a sleeping bag under my arm, I went from shelter to shelter. Most nights I was met with a closed door, consigning me to sleep rough on the streets. Occasionally I would get a small cot in a room filled with strangers and a chance to have a wash.
I appealed to the welfare office but without an address, they were now unable to help. Looking for work was impossible. The last time I tried, I had walked into a shop asking for work. The security guard grabbed me by the collar and dragged from the premises.
"Get out of here and go have a wash, you disgusting bum!" He shouted as he wiped his hands on his trouser legs.
I stumbled along, deeply embarrassed while people stared. As I wandered the streets I caught a reflection of myself in a mirror. I was shocked by what I saw. I could see myself now as everyone else did. I was filthy, my clothes were torn and my hair was long and greasy. A beard had sprouted on a face I hardly recognized as my own. My skin was leathered and dark with ingrained filth. I dropped my head, overcome with shame, and continued my directionless journey.
I eventually wandered onto a street I knew only too well. I passed the sidewalk cafwhere I used to eat lunch. I stood staring at the customers as they ate their sandwiches and drank their wine. The memory and smells made my stomach rumble. A few diners turned around to glare at me, disgust written on their faces. The waiter came over and ushered me along. He didn't recognize me, how could he.
"Come on. Move along. You're disturbing the customers."
I put out my hand to him, imploring him to listen. "Please, do you have any loose change?"
His eyes glazed over and he returned to the cafe without replying. I turned then and met Charlie's eyes. I ambled over to him and he offered me a seat next to him in his empty portal. He was eating a bread roll, someone's token to appease a guilty conscience. I stared at it. He smiled, broke it in half, and gave me the larger portion.
From that time on, Charlie and I were inseparable. We watched each other's backs. He guided me through a journey of survival on streets that consume people like us. But we are still people with needs, wants and desires. Despite our circumstances, we have something to offer. Instead, we appear as the byproducts of a broken society, an embarrassment to a failed system. To acknowledge us is an acknowledgement of failure. I am now a part of a community that is invisible. Regardless of how loudly we voice our plight, we are never heard. I have descended into a world of silence.