Homeless Man on the Northern Line: 12:04am

From: B.A.
Category: Other stuff
Date: 09 August 2002


The moment I have been dreading comes at about 12:04am on the Northern Line travelling between Kennington and Waterloo because I am travelling alone and the carriage and both adjacent carriages are completely deserted but for a shabby looking man stumbling about and fumbling with the door because he has already spotted me.

He has asked me for change once already - about 7 minutes ago on the other branch, before I changed over, and as usual I have said “Sorry, mate” and looked down at the floor, and felt a guilty complicity with the few other passengers who did the same.

An intense feeling of fear and disgust rises in my chest as he half-collapses into the seat opposite to mine. His hair is matted and black and greasy, growing in haywire curls, in one place over what seems to be a recently healed cut. He is unshaven and dirty, and has a small green tattoo on his cheek and tattoos on his hands. There are several gaps in his crooked teeth. My paranoid city-brain contemplates how possible it would for him - if he had a knife and were deranged, or high on crack - to simply stab me to death in the noisy emptiness of the no mans land between stations.

My reaction is instinctive, a primal fear of the other, of the intrinsic threat of difference. My body responds to this random reconfiguration of our urban space as to the echo of some ancient wasteland - with adrenaline and oxygen, burning taut in my chest.

But now I realise, when he speaks, and I see the desperation in his eyes, that really he poses no threat. My emotion changes pitch, from fear to pity. He tells me he needs to get to the shelter. He needs 11 pounds and has nothing. All he wants is to get home but he can’t afford the ticket. He says he’s been trying for weeks but he can’t get the money together. He believes that nobody will help him. He says he can’t take it anymore.

I give home 2 pounds, which is "all of the change I have". I don’t feel I can afford the crisp 10 pound note in my wallet. I feel very sorry for him. Another primal reaction, I see myself echoed in him and understand his need.

When we arrive at the next station he gets out too and begins to walk with me. For a moment he hopes I will really help him – he tries, in his slurred and clumsy way, to ask if I will buy him the train ticket.

But I don’t feel that I can.

“Sorry, mate” I say.

Instantly he turns his back on me and walks off down the platform. He doesn’t even bother trying to persuade me - as if this has happened a hundred or a thousand times before.

I know what he’s thinking.

You’re no different.

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