Been and gone

Friday, August 22nd, 2003

Last Christmas there was a young homeless guy called Tony sleeping rough against a wall of the Bank of England, and I'd stop to talk to him quite often.

He was engaging, cheerful, full of hope for the future and – so far as I could tell – stone cold sober and drug-free.

I wasn't the only person who talked to him, he had several Christmas cards including one addressed to “sleepy head” – I saw the envelope where it had been left on his sleeping bag one morning before he woke up. 10 out of 10 for compassion, I remember thinking, but whoever left it might have bothered talking to him long enough to find out his name.

Of course, people being people, most passers-by did just that – passed by without stopping or looking, even though he didn't beg and was usually clean-shaven and reasonably tidy.

Then, after a while, he disappeared. Occasionally I'd wonder how he was doing, and hope that he'd sorted things out.

Yesterday he was back. He recognised me from 100 yards away, while I was still searching his face to see if it was the same guy. I remembered his name and used it before he needed to prompt me, which pleased me – and possibly him, who knows? He must have considered the possibility that I'd neither recognise nor remember him and walk straight past.

Instead I sat down next to him and talked for maybe 10 minutes. Things haven't been going so well for him. He tried visiting his home town, got in a fight, assaulted the police officers who were called to sort it out, and was jailed. Now that he's out the criminal conviction is stopping him getting work or housing.

He's screwed up totally, and knows it. He's not cheerful, or full of hope any more. But he still seems to be drink and drug-free, and he's still taking care of his appearance. I hope it lasts.

I don't suppose, as I sat and talked to him, that I looked as if I was going to be spending the night on the street. I was wearing a smart shirt and the trousers from a suit. But that didn't stop me getting the same evil looks from passing business people that he was getting. Nor did it stop people walking past me with their noses in the air, deliberately not seeing either of us. That included one person I work with, who never even saw it was me he was walking past.

That sort of behaviour looks very different when you're sat on the pavement from how it does when you're walking too. It was a bit of an education.

This morning when I arrived at Bank station I bought him breakfast – juice and a bacon and egg croissant. Of course, when I got to where we'd been sitting he had gone.

Anyone want a croissant? I can't eat it, I'm vegetarian. Shame to waste it.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.