Any spare change Sir?

I had had a long day.  I was tired and just wanting the day to be over.

Getting up and setting off early I was intent on travelling from Oldham to Whitley Bay via Newcastle.  For those of you not knowing northern England, Oldham is about 10 miles north of Manchester in northwestern England and Whitley Bay is up high on the north east coast near to Newcastle Upon Tyne.  The journey was to consist of a bus, a train and a metro train and then the same in reverse.  Total travel time? Toss a coin and try to guess.  At least three to three and half hours!  I was travelling during rush hour in both directions the first trying to get in to Manchester to the train station from the satellite town of Oldham for 9am, not a pretty or an attractive idea.  The last journey home was battling with and on full trains between one big city and another and passing through other big cities such as Durham, York and Leeds.  So, although travel is not a physical exercise per se, it is or can be stressful and tiring because we naturally tighten up our muscles when travelling, sitting in uncomfortable seating, cramped and pressed and we are always focussed and paying attention to others around us.  The recompense for me on these journeys is in people watching because watching people whilst the train/bus is moving can be a fascinating pastime and when passing through rail stations or queuing for buses again, watching people on platforms and in the streets provides very interesting diversions for the mind and eyes.

My day was nearly done and I was approaching the final leg of the journey.  Getting off the train at Manchester Piccadilly and walking along the platform I was struck as to how many people were still drifting and milling around.  Echoes of footsteps, the murmur of muted voices.  It was 10.30pm on a Thursday evening so not even the usual Friday or weekend busy time.  The shops in the station were all closed and shuttered up, nothing to distract people from their intentions to get home.  The air felt very cold and damp, much colder and damper than it had been this morning or even compared to where I had been all day.  Train travel cossets you and protects you from the vagaries of the weather and temperatures and its only when the doors open at stations to allow people off and on the train do you get an idea of what its like outside.  Now though, I felt the cold chills penetrate me as I walked along the concourse towards the city centre where I would catch the bus to Oldham.

Milling people of all different shapes and sizes, all intent on their own purpose, texting through their cell phones, staring at tiny screens, faces lit up and dancing with colour, others listening to music, each individual a self contained unit completely separate from their environment and other human beings.  They live within their own microcosms, their own bubbles of existence.  It’s a strange situation these days isn’t it?  I had travelled on this particular train journey and had experienced the same sights and sounds as in other cities in other parts of the world; on the underground in Moscow or St Petersburg, the metro in Munich, the metro in Porto, the train near Paris or Milan, the airports in Europe, North / South and Latin America, seeing people young and old all isolated from each other, occupied within their own worlds with earplug earphones, tappety hushed music, faces cut off from reality, eyes vacant and spare, unseeing.  I am constantly struck by the lack of connection now between people and how when even a simple “good morning” to a stranger brings a startled or surprised expression.  Walking the concourse, avoiding the bump and trip of those either ambivalent of others or ignorant of others or of those disregarding others.

The cold outside in the night air seemed colder again and the fine drizzle wafting on the airs in seeming sheets of voile material which were illuminated through the orange street lighting.  Cold mists billow at every persons mouth or nose so cold and chill it was.

The first one I had seen from some distance.  A young man, looking a bit dishevelled sitting on his haunches with an empty paper coffee cup just in front of him.  “Any spare change Sir?  Thank you, have a nice evening”.  It was his mantra, his drone.  No matter if he got a donation or not the same words skipped and tripped out of his mouth.

Before getting off the train I had checked my wallet and had taken a five pound note and ten pence in change and put it in my shirt pocket for ease of access for when getting on the bus (for my bus fare) so I knew I had change in my wallet.  But I chose, at this juncture, to look at the young man, smile (sardonically I suppose I don’t know) and shake my head ‘No”.  “Any spare change Sir?  Thank you, have a nice evening”. I could hear his impeachment as others walked by him behind me.

On down the concourse and two other young men, one looking even slightly more pathetic, “Any spare change Sir?  Thank you, have a nice evening”.  Again, the smile and the slight shake of the head but each time I did look and make the connection even if it was with the refusal to help.

In years gone by I had worked in many big cities in the UK as a Covert Op’s Officer with the Police to infiltrate drug and other crime groups. I used to position myself as a street beggar and so knew this life intimately.  I had been shocked back then as I had been spat upon by businessmen AND women in London, who walked out of the Tube stations in their £1000 suits, Italian leather shoes, full grain leather briefcases, etc, etc, going to or coming from work.  Spat upon!  Can you believe it?  Total strangers having such disdain for another human being?  Assumptions can and do lead us in to dangerous territory, in to dangerous temptation.  Assumptions that all street beggars, all homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts, each wanting “Any spare change Sir?  Thank you, have a nice evening” to fund their habits.  Wrong!!!  Not all no, some yes, but not all.

So, in my knowing, why did I choose to walk by?  Even now, I suppose, writing this, I try to justify myself by saying that I can’t give to everyone and I suppose that’s right but …

Entering Piccadilly Square I was walking briskly trying to push out the cold and damp from my body, walking through the billowing mist of puffs from my mouth.  Another beggar but this time a young woman.  A young blonde woman in her early twenties, “Any spare change Sir?  Thank you, have a nice evening”.  The same echoed mantra.  A thought had occurred to me that these people had either been coached as to what to say or had gotten together and discussed and decided the best approach.  “Any spare change Sir?  Thank you, have a nice evening”.  But as I approach I look at her, smile again and slowly shake my head, but I did and do make eye contact.  “Thank you Sir for acknowledging me” she called out purposely to me.  She was smiling, not sarcastically but something … meaningful.

I stumbled but something caught me.  Ten paces and I hear her words, “Thank you Sir for acknowledging me.”  Twenty paces and memories flood back, memories of my working the streets of my infiltrating these groups of “human beings”.  “Thank you Sir for acknowledging me.”

Fifty paces, a hundred paces and tears have started to roll, tears in remembrance of my experiences of being treated not as a human being but as something to be wiped off the shoes before entering the house.  Two hundred paces and my feet becoming leaden.  Should I have given, what was so different?  “Thank you Sir for acknowledging me.”  This was what was different.  I knew her feeling.  I knew her emotion as a human being, being denied existence in the eyes and demeanour of those walking by.  Her loneliness in the sea of souls.

I stopped.  There, in Piccadilly Square in the centre of Manchester.  Tears still rolling.  I took out my wallet and looked back towards the rail station.  I couldn’t see her because she was sat hunched by the side of an electrical junction box to shelter from the cold rushing airs.  All I had was the bus fare in my shirt pocket and 2 pound coins.  I took out the two pound coins and started walking back, still remembering, still asking myself why?

As I approached her she saw me, and smiled.  Not a victorious smile but a knowing smile.  “  Thank you Sir, I just wanted to say thank you for acknowledging me when you walked past, I thought it was lovely so thank you again.”

“I’m sorry” is whispered.  This is all I have on me”.

“Thank you Sir.  Thank you for looking and seeing me, thanks for this.  Have a nice evening.”

I turned and walked away hearing her voice, again asking other passersby for another donation.

I knew and know.  I have experienced those emotions.  Emotions can be sustaining or soul destroying.  How I wish that more people could experience what these people are living.  What might be achieved if we all tried to help each other a little more, if we understood more.

Written by; Michael Boase

EQ Consultant and Author

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