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Friday, 17 May 2013

The Streets of London

When I published my blog about posing in the nude - still, to date, the only post to single-handedly surpass 1000 page views - I realised that I had probably peaked too soon. At the time, I still had ten challenges to go. How on earth was I going to top getting my kit off? As the days ticked by, I was increasingly troubled by the suspicion that there actually was no way to top it. The closer I came to the end of the process, the more doubtful I became as to the perfect way to round it all up. Nothing felt impressive enough, big enough, bold enough. Despite having been absolutely adamant, my whole life, that I didn't want a tattoo, I started to seriously consider it. I was getting desperate.

Amidst this self-imposed stress, it dawned on me that I was crushing the spirit of the whole experience. It had become about ticking a box and trying to be impressive, instead of about doing challenges for their own sake. I just wanted to give up. I'd lost the magic. I was resenting the deadline, instead of looking forward to completing my amazing challenge.

Then my dad was taken in to hospital, and suddenly, well, I didn't give a fig. The return of perspective is a wonderful thing. My 31st birthday came and went and it was OK. I didn't beat myself up about missing the deadline. I let go. Which is, frankly, a pretty big achievement in itself. I'm generally not too good at letting myself off the hook. I suppose it helped that I knew that I'd sneakily completed significantly more than thirty challenges anyway.

So that was the end of that.

Just kidding. I may be 31 now, but I'm still as stubborn as ever. One more challenge is due, and one more challenge there shall be, come hell or high water.

On May 15th, after work, I cycled to a London underground station and locked up my bike. It's not a particularly charming station, and I gave the bike an affectionate parting pat on the saddle. I've been very lucky thus far, but I never leave it without the vague suspicion that it may not be there when I come back. Anyway, I digress. Having secured the bicycle, I descended into the bowels of the station, in search of some people I'd never met before.

I found them loitering by the sign for Exit 2; two young men and a selection of Bags for Life. I introduced myself, and received a high-five when I confessed that it was my first time. Ten minutes later we were joined by another young man and a second first-time female. I was feeling extremely nervous. What we were about to do was a long way outside my comfort zone. I had no idea how the evening was going to feel, how it was going to work, what I was going to experience, or where we were going to end up. What followed was a profoundly moving, saddening, and yet strangely exhilarating and uplifting experience.

I had joined a Sock Mob. The Sock Mob is a MeetUp group whose mission is simple but very special. Sock Mobbers take clean, new socks, and all sorts of other stuff too, to people living on the streets. On the surface, it's about socks, sandwiches and soap; small things that can make a difficult life just a little more comfortable. But, actually, it's about so much more than that.

So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind
Ralph McTell. Streets of London

We started at Exit 1, where a girl in her twenties was sitting cross-legged on the concrete, begging for change. The guys were already simultaneously talking to her and making her a cup of tea by the time I knelt down. The floor of the station was filthy and cold. Her hair looked fairly clean, but her fingers were crusted with dirt. There was a broken handbag wedged under her legs, mostly covered by a blanket. Someone asked her how she was doing, and tears sprang instantly to her eyes. She'd never been in trouble before, she said, but she'd been issued a court date for begging, which she had missed. She was worried that she was going to be arrested, and therefore had moved from her normal pitch, leaving behind her boyfriend, who was begging further up the road in a more profitable spot. She looked forlorn and vulnerable, and she was angry, too, with the people who had reported her for begging. Mostly, she seemed truly upset that she was in trouble. The high-fiver suggested that she could go along to the police station and explain that she'd forgotten the court date. I doubt she'll end up doing this, but she said that just talking to us had lifted a weight from her shoulders.

When signing up for the Sock Mob, I'd asked for a suggestion as to what to bring. The group organiser had suggested toiletries, as he had plenty of everything else. So I'd been to Boots (that's a drugstore, for any non-British readers) and spent, rather appropriately, a little over £30 on supplies. Here is the stash:

We offered the girl a toothbrush and she said "the pink one would be nice." It was the first but not the last time I felt my heart ache that evening. I then proffered the cans of deodorant. She deliberated for some time before choosing, and I was so happy that I'd decided to buy a variety of scents, instead of just getting the most basic product I could find. She chose, and then changed her mind, just like I've done a million times, in shops and restaurants. She asked for some chocolate and we didn't have any. My heart ached again. Next time, I thought, immediately. She gladly accepted a couple of pairs of socks (she prefers the thin ones) and asked if we had any trousers. The group leader promised her a pair that he has at home. Just as we left, I stopped and asked her name.

What happened to me on the Sock Mob happened immediately, with that first young girl. Before that moment I'd known cognitively that homeless people were human beings, just like me. But I'd managed to de-personalise them, in order to make it easier to walk on by. It's not that I'm unkind, I hope. It's just that I didn't know what to do. I never want to give homeless people money because I am afraid to contribute to any kind of habit that could be doing them greater damage, or preventing them from getting a place in a shelter. So the only thing to do was to get my head down and convince myself that I was doing enough by not doing any harm. Suddenly, homeless people became irrevocably real and individual in my mind. It was a very clear and powerful moment.

We walked for around two hours, stopping at every homeless person we met along the way. Only one person, an older man, sent us on our way without wanting to talk. Another asked us politely to stand to the side, so that the manager of the shop he was sitting outside wouldn't spy us talking to him and then ask him to move. "He thinks I'm stealing his customers" he said. I still can't work out the correlation between someone stopping to talk to a homeless person and deciding or not deciding to go into Tesco. Clearly, I am missing something.

A young man from Lithuania sat cross-legged by a set of traffic lights. He was the second person to ask for a razor.  I hadn't bought any razors. Next time, I thought. Tears came to his eyes as we sat and spoke to him. I think he was just happy to be acknowledged. I wonder if he has a harder time because of his accent. Before I could ask his name he looked into my eyes and told me what it was. I'm not putting any names here, because you never know who wants to stay lost, but there is a profound significance to the exchange of names in a circumstance like this. The Lithuanian gave me his name almost as though it was a gift, but with a desperation in his eyes that said "this is my name, this is who I am. I am real. You are seeing me."  I won't forget it.

A little further down the same road we met another young man. He had a large dog, some kind of Staffy cross by the looks of it. The dog was overjoyed by the visit, and I was rewarded for my friendliness with a high speed lick on the face and a serious drumming from his wagging tail. We handed out a selection of supplies; deodorant, crisps, sandwiches, and a cheese and onion pasty that disappeared into the dog with alarming speed. I had just finished stirring a cup of sweet tea when I looked up and really saw the guy's face. He was genuinely good looking. If he'd been clean, and well-dressed, and in the pub behind him, instead of sitting on the pavement, he would have turned more heads than just mine. It surprised me. Why did it surprise me? Why shouldn't handsome young men end up in horrible trouble just as easily as not-so-handsome young men? I'd never thought about it before.

We spent a short time with a man busily sketching grotesque - but very accomplished - heads, with pipes and tubes growing out of the skulls. He had a selection of drawings for sale; lots of his dog, and several of buildings. £15 for the dog drawings, £20 for the buildings. Apparently he'd sold two that day. He also said that he was "on the way up in the art world", and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be true.

The most intense conversation of the evening happened with a young man sitting cross-legged under a railway bridge. It wasn't yet properly dark outside, but the space under the bridge was dank and  depressing, and so was the cloud hanging over the young man's head. His left hand was swollen and grazed, where he'd "beat the s**t out of that sign." The offending sign, a large neon affair, was undamaged. When an ambulance went past, he shouted for it to "shut the f**k up." He was so angry, and seemed completely out of the reach of comfort. The story he told us was horrifying. His seven month old daughter was in intensive care, somewhere outside London. She had a serious brain haemorrhage, bought on, he alleged, by physical violence from her mother's new boyfriend. By the sounds of it, the little girl is unlikely to survive, and if she does, she will probably be permanently and heavily brain damaged. The boyfriend had been arrested, but the mother was afraid of him and refused to press charges. The guy under the bridge said that he'd been sober for six months, but that this situation was making him desperate for a drink. Naturally, he was also offering serious violence to the man who had harmed his child. "I don't care" he said, "if she don't pull though I'll kill him, I'll seriously kill him. He'd better hope I don't find him."

When we reasoned that he didn't want to end up in prison he said: "I'd rather be inside than out here." He grimaced with pain as he lit a cigarette with his injured hand. I couldn't argue. I knew that if I was forced to stay outside, in the cold and wet, full of rage and despair, I'd probably rather be in prison too. I'm not saying it's a nice place to be, but nor are the streets. At least in prison you're dry and warm, and someone puts food in front of you. There was nothing we could really do. We asked what we could bring him if we came back, and he asked for a punch bag and a pair of boxing gloves. He took some crisps and a cup of tea, but he wasn't really interested in food or clean socks. The whole thing felt utterly hopeless. When we finally left him, the high-fiver said to me: "You've picked quite a night to come out. You don't normally get stories like that. That was extreme." 

There are lots of other things I could say about my first Sock Mob:
  • It struck me as wonderful that people who are probably pretty hungry will still be picky about the contents of a sandwich. Three people turned down the ham and cheese. 
  • I was impressed by the woman with no home to go to, who nonetheless managed to maintain a pretty extraordinary and multi-coloured manicure. 
  • I love that I seem to like my tea the way the majority of homeless people like it. Super strong, dash of milk, approximately half a cup of sugar. 
  • Maybe the most interesting thing that happened was that the two hours flew, and that - despite everything - I had a really, really good time. I enjoyed myself. I think it's truly awesome that there are people doing this on a regular basis, all over London, and I was so happy to be a part of it.

So that's the end of the Thirty@30 challenge, and what a brilliant end it was. I have to thank my friend Dalia for suggesting the Sock Mob, it was an inspired idea. I'm really pleased that the final challenge ended up being so modest in scale, and yet so profound in so many ways.

I walked back to the tube station on my own, in the gathering dark, thinking about what I'd experienced. I passed lots of restaurants, and I looked in at the windows and mused on what a privileged life I lead. There was my faithful bike, still quietly locked up. I cycled home, where I dunked myself in a hot bath and ate a delicious home-cooked meal, before climbing into my clean, dry bed. I've rarely felt more thankful for those things, and for the incredible support and love of my parents, who not only taught me to make good decisions, but facilitated those decisions, and sheltered me when I messed up and made bad ones.

The next day, two things happened. One is that I told one of my colleagues about my experience, and she said that she would love to come Sock Mobbing with me next time. My mum also said she'd like to have a go. The ripples of kindness are already spreading. The second is that, on the way back from my dance class, which is in a totally different area to the one I'd walked with the Mobbers, I spied the man under the bridge, begging for change outside a supermarket. I didn't even hesitate. I crouched down and said hello, and offered to get him something to eat. He was as uninterested in food as he had been the night before, and only wanted change. I didn't give him any money, as I still wasn't confident of how he would use it, but I told him that I would always stop and offer him something to eat if I saw him. "God bless you" he said. And though I'm not entirely sure about God (and suspect he isn't either), I appreciated the sentiment. For me, the really important thing was that I'd proved to myself that I could and would treat homeless people in a different way from now on.

I recommend trying all and any of the challenges that I've experienced during this process, but if you're only going to do one, I think it should be this one. I guarantee, however awkward and upsetting you might find it at first, you will know for sure that you've done something worthwhile.

Only one more thing remains to be said:

Thirty challenges down, a lifetime still to go...

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