Yesterday I learned my local Big Issue seller had died. A man my age, he was a familiar sight to many in the city. I would usually, not always, remember to carry some cash to give to him. If we did see each other, we would mostly stop and catch up on news. Sometimes I would think I was too busy to stop. Sometimes I didn’t.
I was upset to hear the news of his passing, but alas, I was not shocked nor surprised. Over the past difficult year, I (like many others) had watched how his health had deteriorated. I had urged him to go to the doctors. He told me he would or he was.
The last time I saw him, some two weeks before he died, was an event I had shared with friends and colleagues since. We had bumped into each other in a part of town that now has its pavements, and it has to be said roads, crowded with chairs and tables as the cafes, restaurants, and bars work to secure their businesses. One cannot walk in straight line on these streets anymore, instead one has to weave in and out whilst trying not to get in anyone’s way. Before being asked, I searched for change. There was none. No problem, I have my card machine, he said. A development I thoroughly approved of, not only for my convenience, but for the business opportunity now so few of us carry cash.
He placed his pack of magazines on an empty table so he could manage the transaction. Then came the complaint. Two diners on a table a little further along tutted and gasped at how their lunch had been spoiled by having to share the streets with beggars and I was only encouraging them. I picked up his pack, suggested we moved along, and helped him with the card machine – as he was struggling with it at that time. We chatted and I asked about his health. He told me he was off to the day shelter where he could get a shower and a shave. We agreed to walk along the road for a little while as we were going in the same general direction. He said he would go to the doctor again. I was sceptical.
The couple called over a waiter and continued their complaining.
We said goodbye. And that was it. The last time.
That event stuck with me. Being homeless or experiencing fragile housing, various addictions, or other issues, is a familiar situation for too many. It is something that enters all our lives, if we are prepared to fully engage with people in our families, friendship circles, society in general, and when walking the streets of towns and cities. It is something none of us can ignore.
Those diners need to understand these streets belong to all of us. Not just the few. Streets are our society. They are not just for those who choose to sit outside a restaurant and eat a meal on them. For some, the streets are home, it is where they spend all their day walking up and down, asking for small change or selling The Big Issue. It is where they sleep.
These busy spaces are lonely places. Over the past year or so they have been much quieter and far lonelier. There simply hasn’t been enough people around for life to carry on as it had before. Those diners most likely considered him to be invading their space. The one they temporarily occupied for an hour or two. My friend, might have considered them an intrusion into his streets. He showed no sense of why they may be complaining about the use of the table, questioning me as to why I thought we should move along. He had most probably got used to blocking out much of the unpleasant things said and done to him over the years.
Now we are coming to live with the after-effects of COVID-19, we must all do more to be tolerant and understand how we can share these spaces and our lives. We should not fall into old or bad habits. Instead, we owe it to everyone to think again about how we rebuild our society, and our streets, for the best.