Most of us don’t take well to strangers telling us how to live our lives. I know I don’t.

And yet, there are always exceptions. Jane was my exception. I barely knew her, but when she spoke, I listened. When she told me repeatedly to be grateful, I was. When she gave me career advice – basically, “Legal aid? Pfft!!” – I respected that too. More on that later. 

For now, all you need to know is that she was a stranger who had cred with me.

I guess it was because for a few short months, I walked past her home almost every day on the way to and from class. Her ‘home’ – a bustling city street corner completely exposed to the elements – was marked by a shopping trolley pushed up against the boarded wall of a noisy construction site. It was filled with an assortment of flattened cardboard boxes, bits of food and odd trinkets. All she owned in the world.

By the time we had become better acquainted, the trolley had been disposed of and her home had shrunk considerably. Someone had complained that her meagre belongings were taking over too much of the pavement.

Someone had been inconvenienced.

Bill Posters will be prosecuted

An awkward war

Stopping to talk to a street-sleeper draws attention – the kind I usually try to avoid. So naturally, I managed to turn saying hello for the first time into a painfully awkward spectacle.

Like a malfunctioning robot, I walked consciously past her; stopped stiffly mid-step; backtracked a few steps, then decided against talking to her; only to decide against deciding not to talk to her and retrace my way back.

It was that age-old war within: not wanting to disturb the comfortingly apathetic rhythms of an unseeing crowd (into which a cozy space is carved out for each of us), yet unwilling to defy the more basic instinct of not walking past another human being in need. 

Ah, what the heck. I bent down on one knee so I could level my gaze at the woman sitting cross-legged and hunched over on the concrete ground. A plastic container, in which a few lonely 10- and 20-cent pieces lay, was placed strategically at her feet.

“Hey. What’s your name?”

She looked up at me, faint surprise colouring her slightly bloodshot eyes. “Jane.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“You got some cash on you?”

“Sorry… my mum doesn’t let me give out cash.” (I’m a crap liar.) “Can I get you something to eat?”

She reluctantly, but then gratefully nodded and politely asked for a 6-inch sub. I bought her a footlong and a coffee, placed them next to her and waved goodbye.

The second time we spoke, she motioned for me to sit down. I clumsily plonked myself down directly in front of her, only to be lightly chided for blocking the way for people to throw coins into her container.

Having offered me a red crate on the side to sit on (after insisting that I shouldn’t have to sit on the pavement), she told me her name again – her real name. To which I exclaimed, “But you said your name was Jane!” Laughing, she revealed that she’s fond of the name. Another time, she said her name was ‘Jess’, but I’d caught on by then.

I wondered at this constant switching of names. A name distinguishes us from the next two-eyed, one-nosed face in the crowd. A name can go as far as defining who we are. Who we become. It felt as if downplaying the importance of having one was a way to deal with the loneliness and loss of identity that comes with long-term homelessness. A middle finger, if you will, to the harsh reality that no one seems to care whether you exist or not.

Or maybe she just really liked names beginning with ‘J’.

I didn’t get to dwell on that line of thought for long. Out of the blue, Jane told me how her father had drowned before her very eyes when she was 9. Her family had grown banana trees on a fertile vegetable patch out in the bush, she said.

Caught off guard, I managed a half-shocked “I’m sorry” that got lost in the chilly wind blowing furiously past us. I wasn’t sure if it was shock from the tragedy of the actual event, or the fact that we’d just skipped the usual pleasantries and jumped straight to sharing about deaths in the family.

We sat together in silence after that. Watching, as people scurried hurriedly past us. All of them seemed in a rush to be somewhere: the next meeting to attend, the next person to meet, the next party to crash.

From Jane’s corner, all I felt was a taste of having nowhere next to go.

She was an Aboriginal woman of the Ngewin tribe, though she counted a Scottish great-great-grandfather among her ancestors. Years of sleeping rough were etched into her tired, wrinkled face. Perhaps it was made more weary by the hint of sadness she felt at being unable to speak her native indigenous dialect, many of which have died or are dying out. Or the Vitamin D deficiency she was at chronic war with, which made living on bare concrete that much harder.

It was hard to account for each crease and crinkle.

Over our next several meetings, she asked me where I lived, multiple times. I gestured behind me towards a block of glittering high-rises, down towards Pitt Street. “You should be very grateful,” she would say, and I would nod vigorously. I had always known I was lucky. That by pure chance, I had much to be grateful for. But hearing it from her branded it ever-more permanently into my mind.

A box of chocolates

To borrow shamelessly from the film, a conversation with Jane is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.

Like that time I asked her what she thought of Tony Abbott, our self-proclaimed Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. She greeted my question with nonchalance, a lackadaisical look of “Tony Who?” There was one thing she was adamant about, though.

“Black folks have culture, Asians have culture, Greeks have culture… White people don’t. Their culture is greed.”

I was quick to point out that not all white people are greedy, and there are plenty who are just the opposite. I hate blanket generalisations. To which she smiled, and acknowledged that that was so. It was sobering, however, to realise that her statement still had a damning nugget of truth in it. Two centuries of policy tweaking and countless commissions later, our (predominantly white) political elite’s treatment of indigenous peoples and their native lands is still reminiscent of a doddering old fool prescribing mercury to treat the common cold, because “that’s what’s best for them”. To her, the bad blood’s still there and the remedy isn’t working.

I could drink heartily to her conclusion for this particular conversation, though: “There are all kinds of racists. Rich racists, poor racists… We all need to have acceptance for all people.”

Once, I tried explaining the difference between Hong Kong and China. A difference of great importance to me, now more than ever. We didn’t get very far – “You’re all Chinese, aren’t you?” – so I shelved it away for another day.

Jane did seem to know quite a bit about Chinese-run brothels and gambling dens, however. Gesturing animatedly in the air with her hands, she painted vivid pictures of dingy brothels in and around Surry Hills. In hushed tones, she described Asian gangsters who carried guns on their hips and played mahjong all day. I commented that they surely must be illegal establishments.

“What does ‘illegal’ mean?”

“Well…” I floundered around for a bit before saying, “It means that it’s against the law.” I was struck by the irony of how (overly) loquacious legal decisions often determine the fates of people who don’t even count the word ‘illegal’ amongst their vocabulary. Stunned reflection turned into admiration as Jane went on to talk about the seriousness of human trafficking in Asian countries. She seemed to care more about the issue than many other people I’d spoken to about it did.

A surprising outburst

She may not have known what the word ‘illegal’ meant, but Jane certainly knew what legal aid was.

“What is it you study?”

“I’m a law student.”

“And what kind of lawyer do you wanna be?”

“I don’t really know… I just want to help people.” Just about as concrete of an answer I can give, to this day.

She squinted suspiciously at me. “You mean like legal aid?” I thought about it for a moment, and nodded. An outburst ensued.

“Don’t do it. You get f*** all money!”

Her stark warning caught me by total surprise. I didn’t know how else to respond except with a laugh, but she was being serious.

Worried about my prospects of making – well, scraping – a living as a legal aid lawyer, Jane set about convincing me to take up corporate law instead. Screw legal aid before it screws me, so to speak. I was touched by her concern, before telling her with the total naivety of youth that money really isn’t the most important thing to me.

To distract her, I promptly changed topics and asked more about her family.

A happy day

Seven kids. Wow. Sadly, one of them had passed away – I didn’t press for details. One daughter was in her final year at university. She also has a son working in the city. Puzzled, I asked why she couldn’t just live with them.

“Nah, I don’t want to disrupt their lives, y’know? My daughter-in-law though, she works just down this street. Maybe I’ll say ‘hi’ to her next time she walks past.” I told her that was a great idea.

Some time later, I shared in her joy when her first grandchild, a girl, was born. She proudly showed me photos of a wide-eyed, smiley bub she had saved on her phone. A family gathering was planned for that weekend, and she really needed money to buy a nice gift. It would be something to hold her head high about in front of other family members.

It was then that I gave her a $50 deposit for a canvas painting of a kangaroo. I had spotted her painting away in her corner at times, deft strokes of a thin brush slowly giving way to brightly coloured waterholes, stingrays, crocodiles and other wildlife. 

I didn’t fork over the cash because I felt sorry that she didn’t have enough money to do what all grandmothers want to do for their grandkids – even though I did. Jane wasn’t in the business of soliciting pity, and I’m not in the business of giving it.

Rather, my room at the time resembled the whitewashed interior of a mental institution. I’d also seen similar paintings selling for many times more in tourist and online stores.

$50 now, plus another $20 later to spruce up my walls seemed like a good deal to me. A proud grandmother was a bonus.

Jane carefully wrote my name, deposit amount and kangaroo request into a tattered notebook.

Watching her paint was fascinating. Therapeutic, even. As she began dabbing the outline of an upright marsupial onto a small black canvas, I tried to understand the indigenous art industry from her perspective.

It seems pretty bleak: According to her, she once she sold a painting to a dealer for $100, who then put it up for display in a gallery near Martin Place. It sat there for a few months, before being sold for a profitable $600. Were she to hang her paintings up herself on a street corner, she mused, no one would want to pay anywhere near that price for something that was exactly the same.

She also intensely disliked people taking photos of her paintings. “They just copy the patterns and print off fake ones in the tourist stores to sell.”

Her paintbrush worked its way meticulously down towards the southern border of the canvas. “The trick with telling a real painting from a fake one,” she explained, “is all in the tail.” She lost me as she went into the finer details of an authentic texture and brushstroke. Note to self: Must ask for a recap next time.

The day I picked up the finished painting was a happy one. Not only was I genuinely impressed with her depiction of a kangaroo resting among a swirl of waterholes, but we had a ball trying to snap the perfect memorabilia mugshot of the artist and her work. Each time I clicked a shot with my iPhone, she would immediately scrutinise it on-screen. Unhappy with the shot angle, or the toothiness of her smile, she would insist I delete it and take a better one.

She finally settled on the perfect capture: A slight, humble downward bend of the head. A solemn, but knowing grin. Both hands raising the painting up to chest height. And pure pride. 

 

A final pause

There were many other moments I haven’t recounted, but nonetheless stick out just as much in my mind.

  • That time she asked me to check out a pastry puff someone had dumped on the ground next to her. Some people seemed to think that cleaning out the office fridge and giving barely expired leftovers would be appreciated.
  • That time I asked her if she knew people on the street who weren’t really homeless, but sat out on the street asking for money anyway. Living in the city, I had noticed that some regulars disappeared after certain hours, as if clocking off work. She nodded, and listed a few people on specific street corners she knew had their own homes to go back to. “Doesn’t it make you angry?” I asked. She thought for a bit, then lightly shrugged with a smile.
  • That time she gave me tips on how to make an amazing chicken stir fry. One word: Garlic.
  • All those times we chatted away until she would abruptly remind me that I was late for class and shoo me off to catch the bus.

But here, I want to take a pause.

I’m well aware of the manufactured aura that often surrounds stories of well-off, city kids who chance across ‘homeless people’ and strike up personal connections with them. It’s embodied in glossy YouTube videos of college students giving out cash and hugs to overwhelmed strangers hard-done by life. Uplifting indie-pop swells to emotional cadences in the background. Such videos say: Giving is awesome. You can make a difference. You can change someone’s life. 

I hope this post gives off none of that feel-goodness. 

That’s not to take away anything from those efforts. Yes, giving is awesome. And you can make a difference, if you really want to. Maybe. But changing someone’s life? There’s so much about the structural and individual causes of homelessness – particularly among Indigenous people – that I still don’t have a handle on. It takes a whole lot more than cash and burgers to really change things. It takes ongoing activism, not just one-off charity. A penchant desire to understand, not to save. An open, if uneasy, acceptance of complexity.

More than that, I’m extremely wary of painting rosy pictures of anything. Least of all my ability to do good to others. To change the world, I would first change myself. Sometimes I was simply too tired from work or class to stop and talk. To avoid walking past Jane (and to my shame), I would deliberately take a different route home. There were probably also times when she dreaded having to be hospitable to a well-meaning kid stopping by to rouse her from what had been a tough, dreary day. 

All I really have to go on is that knowing the good you should do can be difficult. Doing the good you can do is even more so.

But we can and should do good anyway.

Recently, Jane’s corner was entirely cleared out. No traces of her ‘home’ remain. She might still be out on the streets somewhere – I haven’t seen her around. We have yet to go out together for cheap Asian food, as per her request. She likely still doesn’t know why Hong Kong isn’t China. And I don’t know what I can do now to help.

Here, there is no happy ending. Only my gratefulness, for that stranger who told me to have it for everything else.

 

Photo credit: Flickr, mark O’Rourke.

Fiona is an impulsive collector of moments. People, places and their stories fascinate her. Having lived, worked and/or travelled on every continent except Antarctica before breathing the last of her first quarter century, she is now chasing the tails of a law degree, some ethereal notion of justice and, above all, the words to make sense of it all.

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