The Great Divide

”I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

That quote has been attributed to many people from Mae West to Gertrude Stein. It sounds like a no-brainer. Of course it’s better to be rich than poor. I’ve been dirt poor and I’ve been…..um…less dirt poor.

I have yet to experience what it is to be RICH in a financial sense. What the hell is the bench mark here, anyway? What is the test you must pass to be considered rich or poor? I’ve been hungry-poor, no-roof-over-my-head-poor but the closest I’ve come to being rich is getting a facial at a fancy beauty salon and slapping some Chanel No. 5 behind my ears. Both gifted to me. I am what could be considered comfortable and yet the foundations are shaky enough to warrant vigilance.

Last week I decided to go Gonzo journalist and give the extremes a good going-over. I signed up for the CEO Sleep-out for Vinnies, an annual event to spotlight awareness on homelessness. I had been invited to tell my story to the participants, as part of the presentation preceding a night of sleeping rough on the wintry city streets. I have slept in a tent with my children and bathed them in a bucket of kettle-warmed water. I’ve lined up for food parcels from Vinnie’s in the deep, dark past and it was my time to give back and say ”thank-you, I couldn’t have made it without you.”

Melbourne in winter is COLD. It is miserably cold. It is London-grey and squally. I grew up on the sunshiny Gold Coast. I don’t like bluster and frigidity. I also like my queen-sized, focaccia-like mattress and duck-down doona. I’ve done my time in the trenches of discomfort and starvation and now I’m running madly toward being rich … although it mostly feels like I’m on a comical treadmill.

I want to be rich but I chose to be a writer???? Cue clown squeezing a bicycle-horn.

So…I decided to do decadent ‘rich’ for a day, followed by desolate ‘poverty’ for a day. This would take place in the city of Melbourne.

Melbourne, like most cities, it is a place, a space, where designer shoes click past grimy, bare feet matted with chilblains, on most sidewalks. A woman in a camel-coloured mohair overcoat can blithely walk by a woman in a shop alcove, lying rolled up in a scabies-infested sleeping bag sans zipper. These people all share a post-code, human DNA and dreams, regrets, sorrows and passions. Too often we stride through our days automatically assuming a great cultural divide between these extremes. It isn’t necessarily something we spend time thinking about. We just don’t really identify with either – the one percenters in the mohair, or the derros in the mountain of scabby debris.

Day 1.

I sit in the Qantas lounge sipping my almond-milk latte and spoon my tasty quinoa and roasted veggie soup into my gullet as I watch planes coasting along the runway. I flick through a magazine, looking at the beautiful, skeletal people taunting me and decide to read a book, one without pictures. The flight to Melbourne from Sydney is comfortable and I quickly sweep myself into a waiting taxi to take me to my inner-city digs for the night – The Windsor – an historic pile of bricks that has put up the likes of Harry Houdini, Meryl Streep and that guy who plays Harry Potter not to mention various Prime Ministers and Princes.

A man in a top hat and tails who looks like a medieval town-crier opens the taxi door and takes my bags, ushering me into the warm embrace of the chandeliered foyer that smells like a wad of money and aged oak. My room is smug and confident, the linen sharp, the leather chair in the corner begging me to sit down for a fat cigar. Of course there is no smoking in the rooms and cigars taste like dried corpse so I settle for a glass of champagne instead. I cruise the net on my smart-phone, kick off my shoes, order in a take-away curry, flick on the television and crawl between the sheets. The champagne goes down nicely. The curry challenges my taste-buds and the bed feels cosy. Before sleep, I soak in a bath surrounded by wafts of minted green tea bubbles and walls of shimmering marble. I sleep well in the bed that may or may not have embraced Ellie Goulding and Kylie Minogue but presumably not at the same time!

The next day, I partake of really, really good coffee, sourdough toast, marmalade and an enormous goat-cheese omelette with a side of creamed rice, rhubarb and pistachio nuts. Classical music plays softly, crystal and silver-ware tinkle, and the spires of a church glower in at me through the dining room window.

I wander the streets of the city, passing countless homeless people. I stop sharing coins after the fourth because there are just so many. I sit in a cafe and have another famous Melbourne coffee while listening to street jazz. I window shop. I wander over the river, taking touristy pics. I meet up with two of my fabulously talented and interesting author-friends over lunch at a snazzy eatery. I chow down on a burger but it isn’t your run-of-the-mill McPatty. It’s Angus beef with caramelized beetroot or some such, with wilted flowers of the heart of a still-beating zucchini here and there. One friend signs her novel for my daughter. The other takes me to the art gallery and we stride about for a while admiring the ART DARLING and giggle at the sillier twaddle that calls itself ART but is really just stuff arranged somewhat interestingly.

VERDICT: ”Rich” is very, very comfortable and tastes good.  ( I wonder if Meryl Steep slept in the same bed as me. I decide ‘probably’. I take it as a good omen that I will one day win an Academy Award or seven.)

DAY 2.

I walk through the city streets with my heavy bag over my arthritic shoulder and finally turn up for a shift on the soup van run. I am given a visibility vest in chic fluorescent orange with velcro tabs. I meet a varied group of people who have spent hours donating their time to stock the vans with sandwiches, make huge vats of veggie soup, fill the hot chocolate and tea containers and pile sleeping bags, sanitary products, beanies and scarves into the trucks.

I’ve always thought of ‘volunteers’ as kind-hearted, retired people. That night I meet ex-school principals, a PhD student, a budding psychologist, ex-homeless people, young uni kids, mums, dads and everything in between. There is no stereotypical ‘volunteer’.

We hit the streets.

It is cold. Dark. The city is closed except for those who live in her shadows. They come out to meet the vans and stay for soup and conversation. I meet another varied group of people and I learn pretty fast that there is no stereotypical ‘homeless person’ either. I meet a man who spends his days in the city libraries reading everything that interests him. He was once an engineer and gives me a book tip. It’s a good one I plan to follow up and put on my TBR list. I meet a woman who has turned her life around in less than a year from struggling beneath a meth habit to being excited about her first pay-cheque. One man has a toothache so bad he is hitting his head on a wall, another man tells me things I did not know about the chemical make-up of air fresheners. I meet people who are living in crisis centres, boarding houses, community apartments and cardboard boxes on the street. Some have children, some have dogs, some are all alone.

I have a Styrofoam cup of street soup and you know what? It’s better than the one I had the day before in the Qantas terminal. It’s good. Very good. I laugh with the people I meet who seem to be much quicker to share a smile and a joke than most of the army of designer suits I passed on the street during daylight hours. There is the pervading perfume of mental illness but it isn’t as scary as I had feared. It is sad.

There is the problem of housing, for sure. Rents have become inaccessible to so many. But I talked with a team leader on the soup van run and he explained that the roof-over-the-head is just the tip of the iceberg in tackling this problem. A holistic approach is needed which addresses the individual needs – mental, physical, cultural, emotional, social, spiritual. The problem is that the funding just isn’t there. The problem is huge. The solution is complicated. The amount of interest in really getting things addressed is minimal and thus it falls to charities like Vinnies to muster what they can, to give help on the ground, where it is needed critically RIGHT NOW!

And then I turn up to the underground car-park at the Melbourne University for the Sleep-out. The place was the setting for a scene in the movie Mad Max and it does have an apocalyptic atmosphere; a subterranean concrete cavern with pulses of eerie light the colour of developing bruises.

Moving, gut-wrenchingly-moving speeches are delivered from key members of the Vinnies community and by the time I have to speak I am choked with emotion. I tell my story. It seems so insignificant in the face of the problems I have seen that night. My story is ancient history. I survived. I am now back in the seat of privilege. I stayed at The Windsor the night before…in Meryl Streep’s bed!

I eat soup again, without a price tag this time. I drink industrial-strength coffee. I am given a standard-issue sleeping bag and a pillow that does little to cushion my head from the concrete beneath. My mattress is a sheet of brown cardboard. I sleep in this bunker with 240 others, all trying to raise money, to do their little bit, to spend a night out of their comfort zones. It is cold and it is uncomfortable but nothing can prepare me for ….THE SNORING! Imagine many, many people snoring like hippopotamii with sinus problems…in a subterranean cavern with killer acoustics. It is a philharmonic symphony of epiglottal horror. THERE IS NO ESCAPE.

I suffer from Lupus. I ache all over. I am asthmatic. I am no spring chicken. I cope with the cold and concrete. But the snoring nearly kills me. Not one moment of sleep is had. To get me through the long horrible, torturous night, I focus on something one of the homeless women told me. She said it was safer to stay with the others in the light than to skulk off to the privacy of the shadows where bad things happen. So many women on the streets are assaulted. They feel safer under the streetlights with all the others, with the snores and groans and warmth of bodies. I spend the night fighting the urge to skulk into a far-flung dark corner of the car-park to get some quiet, private moments of sleep but in the real world, on the real streets, that is never a good idea. And so I lie, inwardly screaming for those motherf@#$&ing snorers to choke on their own tongues while I imagine rolling about in the sheets at the Windsor, playing with bubbles in the marble bath. I am dying a slow death-by-snore-torture in the dare-I-say-it Thunderdome!!!

It is hell. I have to use a porta-loo. Jeebus. In The Windsor you have people in starched uniforms cleaning your shit-stains off the porcelain bowl. I can only cringe at the thought of how women on the street manage. It is really unthinkable.

I go straight to the airport the next morning, shell-shocked. I smell bad. I look even worse and I am too embarrassed to ask for my flight to be changed to an earlier one because I know that I look like someone who has spent the night on some kind of debauched hen’s night pub crawl and I am afraid I’ll be judged or strip-searched.

And I guess in those long hours of waiting, I kind of understand why it is so hard to access any self-esteem after a night of sleeping rough. You feel like absolute crap.

Sure, being rich is better. There’s no doubt about it. But the crystal chandelier existence really is lacking something and that is 20/20 vision. It’s easy to walk the streets in good shoes and coats (something Melbourne is famous for) and feel a glimmer of displeasure at the homeless unwashed because THEY make you feel bad, begrudgingly guilty and you resent that, so you narrow your eyes or look away and try to think about something else.

The CEO Sleep-out is just one night where the ‘haves’ do it rough. It won’t change the world. It will raise some well-needed funds but it makes me ill to see politicians turn up to this event in cities around the country and don sleeping bags and smiles for the newspapers and then go straight back to cutting funding where it is needed most.

We were not faced with the dangers that many homeless confront. We had security. We had sleeping bags and shelter. Many don’t. We knew it was just for one night. There was light at the end of our little, snoring Mad Max tunnel. For many there is just relentless darkness.

It was a humbling experience for me… dare I say it… life-changing.

I have been reassessing priorities and examining myself and my life-view through a clearer, sharper and more discomforting lens.

We all need to do more. The first step is to open our eyes.

 

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4 comments

  1. I was very interested to read your very thought provoking and sometimes challenging essay. It is a topic I have often contemplated, drawing partly on some of my own experiences as you have done so wonderfully on yours.

    Since my student days when the odd tin of cold baked beans was a bit of a luxury – just like all my fellow students – I had spent many years in relative prosperity. “Rich” might be an extravagent description, but having a reasonably well paid job, a husband with a quite high income, a nice house we owned, overseas travel available and being able to provide our children with some of the privileges of life, were my experiences for many years.

    Then it all, suddenly, came to an end. A return to Australia from an overseas posting with only a very small amount of my last salary plus a little holiday pay from a job in a London, no house, no job, no income, no assets was what I encountered quite late in life. I had a need to find a new job very quickly and this was, initially, a very stressful situation. I had partially dependent student children and suddenly could no longer help them and instead relied on them to some extent. I was not without a roof over my head but some of the roofs made me quite sad.

    Fortunately I was able to get a job within a couple months and a permanent one within six months but even then the initial difficulties, without any funds at all, of finding somewhere to live, filling the car provided for the job with petrol (dribbling it in a few litres at a time) and paying debts was hard. At this time I found the cheapest lunch was a cup of coffee with two free doughnuts. Cold baked beans needed a tin opener and a spoon!

    I worked and saved and saved. Now, retired on the pension, I even have a little extra to pay for such necessities as insurance.

    But my happiness level, once I had an income of any sort and now as a pensioner, is certainly equal or even higher at times than it was when we were “rich” and could shop at DJs or Harrods.

    I found the cut off point was that of insecurity. The point where one does not know how one will manage the next day. “Things” themselves were irrelevant. Once one can manage, at even a basic level, happiness is not impacted.

    I value the experiences I had when I was “rich”, the places I saw. But much more than that, when things went bad, I treasure the memory of old friends who dropped in with pizzas to share, with relatives who shared a bedroom as a comfort gesture, with those who extended a helping hand or merely shared their good cheer and confidence in us all. That is happiness.

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    1. Thanks Anne. Yes. I agree that the level of security is the thing that drives ‘happiness’. The terror of not knowing what the next day will bring….the bills that seem insurmountable….and the empty petrol tank can cause so much anxiety….once you are safe in the knowledge that you’ll have enough to get to the next pay cheque, the happiness begins to feel safe enough to peek out from the shadows again and once the security starts settling in, you can relax into a comfortable sense of calm again. For me though, it took many years of paranoid vigilance before I could really accept that everything was going to be alright. The small pleasures during those hard times (like the friends who dropped in to share pizzas, as you say) seem magnified now, Treasured memories. Thanks so much for responding with your story. xxxx

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  2. Loved reading your article nikki. I think about the people less fortunate a lot especially in the winter time. It would be so hard for them at the best of times let alone people with colds and flu or arthritis back problems respiratory problems, throw any of these on top and your in for hellish times. I wished and hoped they would turn the old southport hospital site into homeless accommodations as southport is one of the worst places. Sometimes all that some of these people need is a kick start help to get them going again. I admire you and love reading your adventures. 😊

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