Lessons from a Homeless Man

Lessons from a Homeless Man
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I kept my head down on the way back home whilst immersed in my thoughts. I walked past Daniel’s spot hoping he wouldn’t notice me, and even ignored the first few times he called my name. But when I did turn around, and he saw my face, he insisted that I sit down with him for a moment.

It was obvious that I was lying when I told him that I was fine and that everything was okay. But it didn’t take long before I told him all.

*

Having spent my entire life in a classroom, I finally graduated from university in 2015. In the final months leading up to the end of my Business Studies degree, I had decided that before I settled on a career and pursued corporate progression, I had to travel.

My life was too unbalanced. The majority of my knowledge came from lectures, textbooks, teachers and seminars. I had zero real-life experiences and jumping from a classroom straight into an office just didn’t appeal to me.

After having graduated, and having spent a few months saving, my high-school friend Imran and I eventually bought a one-way ticket to one of the four corners of the world: Australia

The high in starting a travel of this nature – with no fixed end date or no real plan other than where to go – was fuelled further by a week-long stay in Singapore, prior to heading to Australia. It was a sort of celebratory holiday before the real adventure began.

And celebrate we did. Probably a bit too much.

Landing in Sydney, our financial situation could be described as “tight”. Fast forward to Melbourne, a few weeks later, and our financial situation could most definitely be described as “broke”.

It didn’t take us long to realise that all the advice we’d received about how easy it was to find jobs in Australia was wrong. And zero prior planning, due to a blend of stupidity and naivety, resulted in the need to find one being increasingly urgent. But a combination of desperation and persistence meant that I managed to land a waitering job in Melbourne’s iconic Federation Square.

I remember bursting through the doors of the hostel we were living in, with my arms in the air shouting, “I’ve got a job!” (Not even “the job”, any job would do at that point), and Imran hugging me as we both celebrated ecstatically the change in our fortunes.

But that job turned out to be an experience I won’t forget for very different reasons. And though on the surface it was a very negative experience, it actually turned out to be the catalyst for an encounter I will always remember and value. While the job also gave us some much-needed money, it also gifted me with yet another opportunity to add to my portfolio of racist encounters.

This one, like many others, was one of a very passive aggressive nature. Nothing so direct or concrete, so it could safely fall under the category labelled “alleged”. The “alleged” villain in question being one of the supervisors.

With no hard evidence, you can’t prove anything. It’s your word against theirs. It’s a very murky area where all you have to go by is your instinct and intuition, but in the world of facts, that doesn’t count for anything.

It started on the very first day and lasted around three weeks, eventually ending with a back-and-forth row in which the supervisor claimed the real issue was that I didn’t “smile enough”. The ridiculousness was too much. I quit the job and walked out.

*

From where Imran and I were staying to Federation Square required a walk along the city’s Yarra River. On one side of it was Melbourne’s Central Business District, the enormous Crown Casino and a very impressive riverfront full of gourmet eateries, high-end retail stores and tourists from the world over.

Directly opposite to the river – around this part at least – was pretty much nothing. There were no bright lights or a melting pot of people, just the distant sound of traffic, depending on the hour, and usually silence. So more often than not, it would be my route of choice. A handful of benches were sandwiched between the water and a bridge where I would occasionally sit and admire the city’s skyline; a view I would share with the city’s homeless and junkies who took up residence under the bridge. For me, it was a great and literal representation of the divide between the rich and the poor.

It was on that bench one day, that I got called out by a voice behind me. My vision led to a short man with messy hair and stubble. Perched up against the wall, half-covered by a sleeping bag and sitting on a cardboard box, he met me with an honest smile. He proceeded to politely ask me if I happened to have a cigarette.

I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did. Well, it was probably because of the pressure Imran and I had put ourselves under, but I bluntly told him “no”.

That encounter bothered me for days after. Not just because of how I had said no, but also because I actually had a spare cigarette on me and it was very out of character to react as bluntly as I did.

The next time I saw him, I walked up to him with a cigarette in hand and reminded him of the encounter that had happened a few days ago and gave it to him. He looked at me confused, but said thank you and accepted it. From that moment on, whenever we would cross paths, we would say hello. It was not too long after that the homeless man taught me the type of lesson which marked my journey a success.

*

After I quit and left the restaurant I was full of emotion. I was angry at what had just happened but more than that, I was upset. Being racially judged and stereotyped – rightly or wrongly – is something which comes with the territory of being a Muslim in the modern world. But to effectively lose your job because of something you have absolutely no control over was so difficult to accept.

It was on this walk home that I tried to avoid Daniel, failed to do so, and ended up telling him everything.

He listened silently as I recounted the details of everything that had happened. How Imran and I had gone against most people’s advice by travelling to Australia. How we had absolutely no money, no idea where to go and how to get there, and I had just lost the only job that was supposed to support the both of us.

And what if it was my fault? What if no one was racist and it was all in my head and I was being paranoid. What if the problem actually was the fact that I just wasn’t smiling enough, which, in a customer service job, is a necessity? What if my ego was the main suspect? And what was I to do now. It was the first time I had ventured out this far from home and in that moment, it felt like all was falling apart.

To add to all of this, I was in the middle of Australia. You really have no idea how far away that country actually is, from pretty much everything, till you go there.

I let everything out. I dumped all that I had been carrying for weeks on him. And he listened. Finally, after feeling so much lighter, feeling relieved, I asked him the question which led to the answer of which I learnt so much from.

“So what’s your story man? How did you end up here?”

It had been two or three weeks since I’d had my first encounter with Daniel, but I had never asked him any questions about who he was, and why he was there. I guess I felt it was a little inappropriate as it clearly wasn’t a very happy story … you know, with him living under a bridge and all. But now I had shared with him, and it only felt right that I learnt something about him in return. Though it was not just that, I was genuinely curious.

It had always seemed a little unusual to me that he was in the situation he was in. Unlike many of the people who were homeless, at least those who lived under that particular bridge, I had never seen him under the influence of any drugs. I had never even seen any evidence like syringes, pipes or bottles even suggesting an intoxicating habit like you would find elsewhere along the underbelly of the bridge.

More often than not, when you entered that area as a visitor in passing, all of your senses were hit head-on by the realities of that world. You could smell the smoke and the burning of drugs, you could hear the sniffing and inhaling. Most of all, you could see. You could see the vice of choice in effect, in motion, taking over them.

Whenever you walked past Daniel however, all you were met with was a genuine greeting, a smile and politeness. Something Imran had noticed as well. I guess sometimes you can sense the kindness in a person.

*

Daniel came from somewhere in New South Wales. At thirty-five years of age, he found himself in Melbourne because the city was the birthplace of his wife. Before, he had made a good living for himself by learning a specialised skill and becoming a cabinet maker. But unfortunately for him, those hands – as well as the rest of his joints – began a painfully long losing battle against arthritis that started in his mid-twenties. Cruelly ironic for a man who earned his keep by using his hands.

But in true Australian fashion, he carried on with his life and work without making a fuss, as the arthritis adopted the same strategy, and silently went to work.

It was during this period, still in the early and manageable stages of his struggle, that he met and fell in love with his future wife, Laura. From not just what he told me, but the manner in which he conveyed it, with sincerity and genuineness, I believed him when he said he had everything he wanted. And it was because of his relationship that he had learnt to accept the disease his body was fighting against.

When he initially contracted it, after the shock of it, he was angry. To be diagnosed with such a crippling, lifelong disease at such a young age was highly difficult to handle mentally.

What helped him the most in dealing with it, was the fact that if it wasn’t for his arthritis, he never would have met Laura, who was a radiologist. As their relationship grew stronger, his body got weaker, and eventually, at Laura’s insistence, he stopped working. He was a proud man and went on working for as long as he could, but finally he knew she was right. Plus, she had a good job and a long, stable career ahead of her and earned enough to support the both of them.

He told me that it was one of the reasons why he proposed to her. He explained that in this day and age, people just don’t do that for others. So when you find someone you genuinely love, one who so clearly loves you back, you act upon it and make her the mother of your children.

They got engaged, he stopped working and she did everything she could to take care of him. Even though he was in constant pain, they were content and happy with the life they had, “Because life,” he told me, spreading his arms out to highlight where we were, “Can be a lot worse.”

Laura had analysed and studied thousands of x-rays throughout her career. She observed, in black and white, broken bones, growing tumours, and cancers of various kinds spreading throughout people’s bodies. Slowly creeping and taking over, fulfilling their purpose day by day.

The cruel irony was that this time the x-ray she was holding up was her own. Watching as the poison surged throughout. But just as Daniel had done before her, she kept it to herself for as long as she could. Still taking care of Daniel’s needs while trying to get her own “problem” taken care of with the help of her colleagues and friends in the hospital.

She tried protecting him and all of her loved ones for as long as she could. However, once it was confirmed that the cancer was malignant, she broke the news to him.

He told me that as devastating as it was for them, it sparked something in him. It had given him purpose. Now he had to take responsibility to ensure he was always there for her. To be right by her side throughout the whole process and remind her, whenever she needed it, that she was too strong as a person to give in to her cancer. That they were too strong as a couple for one of them to perish without a real fight.

You would forgive him for being angry and cursing his fate. Finding a job he loved, before having it taken away. Finding the woman he loved, and the risk of having her taken away as well. Surprisingly, he told me that although they were the hardest times of their lives, he was never bitter about what they went through.

“Something inside of me just always knew, throughout the entire time, that we would win. That she was going to live with me for a long time and that I could go back to being the one being taken care of and not the one doing the caring. Jesus, mate, at times it felt like the blind leading the blind.” Funny guy.

Even when she got scarily close to the end, and he married her, as they promised each other they would if the time came to it, he still believed. Even as she deteriorated and all one by one, began losing hope, his remained true. “I knew with absolute conviction that Laura was going to go right up to death’s door, and then come straight back to me.” Heartbreakingly, he was wrong.

*

She survived for almost two years from when she found out she was sick, till when she passed. And in that time, they spent and sacrificed everything they had in order to keep her alive. Towards the end, he sold off the house and whatever else of value they had, but all that did was land him under a bridge. He told me that Laura was mad at him when she found out that he had sold their house and she worried about what would happen to him if she were to die. “But I’m still here, mate. Still smiling.”

I’d rarely come across a person who has gone through so much yet was still so positive and grateful.

What shocked me the most was when I’d asked, he told me that she had only died six weeks ago. It meant that the first time I interacted with him, his wife had been dead for two, maybe three weeks. He broke my train of thought and the deep silence that had befallen me by telling me not to go anywhere, and that he would be back soon.

He left. I thought about everything he had just told me. His highs and lows and eventual loss. Not only had he lost the woman he loved in a long, protracted, painful and mentally draining battle. He was now broke and homeless. I thought about all of these things… and then I thought about my own “problems”.

If ever I needed another perspective to realise how lucky I am.

The one thing that stood out, and has stayed with me since, is that though he barely had anything, not the health nor the ability to live a good quality life, his attitude and spirit was one which I fail to see in the richest of people I know.

The manner with which he shared with me what had happened in his life, was the exact same way in which he had listened to mine. Barring one or two moments where you could sense his pain, his body language, expressions, tone of voice, all remained even. Consciously balanced. It made me curious. I mean, the man who only just lost his wife, sleeping under a bridge and is crippled displays not a hint of bitterness or guilt or justifiable self-pity. None. How?

When Daniel returned, he was holding a box of Domino’s pizza.

“I only had a fiver, mate, so I hope you don’t mind sharing.”

I tried saying no, but he told me that I had had a bad day and so he insisted. A homeless, heartbroken, sick man had just spent the last of his money on food to share with me because I had a bad day.

What more can I say.

*

While we were eating, I asked him about the thoughts which had been brewing in my mind. How I could not comprehend the way in which he remained so calm when re-telling his story.

His reply was, simply, acceptance.

“If I don’t accept all that has happened in my life. My past. My present. I’ll turn bitter. I’ll forget all of the amazing things I’ve had, and just focus on the bad things I’ll end up joining Laura a lot sooner than I should.”

We finished our dinner; I said goodbye and went home.

When I had left the restaurant I was hurt, confused and angry. By the time I got home though, those emotions had subsided considerably. I was mentally drained but I was a lot calmer. My sit-down with Daniel had forced me to stop and take a step back. To analyse my situation but this time with perspective. Yes, what I was going through was not ideal, but look at what he was going through … and he was still smiling.

When recounting all that had happened that day to Imran I spent most of my time talking about Daniel. I went through the confrontation, quitting and what should have been the most important topic; the financial implications. But I did so as an obligation, so that I could get to what was more important.

From time to time, I wonder where he is now and hope that he hasn’t joined Laura just yet. It’s not often someone in a position such as Daniel’s, a victim of circumstances and homeless, proves to be such an inspiration.

But then again, it’s not often we as a society give them the chance to do so.

Hasan Aga

About Hasan Aga

Hasan Aga is a traveller and a writer based in the UK. He has worked as a chef, refugee youth mentor and a teacher.

Hasan Aga is a traveller and a writer based in the UK. He has worked as a chef, refugee youth mentor and a teacher.

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