Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Begging on a Train

on October 3, 2013

I had one of those tiny incidents happen today that got me thinking about one’s lot once again, but it offered no resolutions or answers; just a stark realisation of the complexities of the world and how it happens to people and presents itself in all its forms to others.

I was travelling on the Overground from Highbury to Homerton.  It had just started raining; it was unpleasant to be outside on the station platform, even with cover.  The train arrived, I got in, and leaned in a space by the door continuing to read my book.  All the seats were taken, some people were standing and the train had that atmosphere of isolation in a crowd that trains in London have; anonymity in plain view of everyone, surreptitiously looking at people, whilst pretending to look past them.

The community-enforced silence was broken at Hackney Central, when a man got on and started to address the carriage.  His voice was quiet, nervous, but audible over the only sound, that of the wheels on the track as the train left the station.  He started by apologising for the intrusion, expressed a desire not to annoy or embarrass, explained he was homeless in London and asked for change or left over food or drink, especially water.

He stopped and, for an awkward few seconds, nothing happened.  I noticed his plain black t-shirt, the black frayed rucksack on his back with a scrunched up ‘Sun’ poking out of a torn and tattered hole at the top.  He wasn’t unkempt; his hair was tidy for instance, and he looked like many people do in terms of his dress, but he did look pale and tired.  He reached up to the orange handrail above him, and I noticed the black fingers and dirt round his fingernails and was suddenly vaguely aware of a stale wet smell.  I checked; it was still raining, and I thought of him caught in it with nowhere to go for shelter.  A girl who was seated reached out and gave him something.  A man gave him the remaining third of his bottle of water.  As the train pulled into Homerton and I left the train, he was negotiating with another for a muesli bar.

It is easy to be cynical about this encounter, and probably just as easy to be romantic.  I have no doubt that the Daily Mail would have hated him.  I felt that his appeal and what he told us about his circumstances was genuine.  I was suddenly struck by how difficult it would to be live life homeless in London with the slow, unpredictable, minutes ticking by, and what it might take to get onto a train of strangers, awkward in being passengers with each other, never mind responding to unsolicited requests from homeless people intruding and asking for money and food.  Could you be that person?  I imagine it takes courage brought on only by a certain level of desperation.

His approach – polite, modest and apologetic – at least brought him some reward and I was as impressed by the human response to him as much as the way he asked.

As is usual with my blogging exploits, I’m not entirely sure where this leaves us. However, being snapped out of a relatively cosy existence – with my concerns over a slightly inadequate jacket for a short walk through a passing rainy day and my consumption of a book that’s marginally too clever for me – into the far deeper troubles of another, if only fleetingly, is enough to make me think more widely for a moment, and this in itself feels like a good enough reason to share it with you.

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