I cross the road walking from one bin to the next looking for food. 'It's a nasty way to live,' I murmur to myself. But then again, these notions, which worm their way into my mind, are easily swept aside by the constant demands of a hungry stomach. The streets here in the city are awash with fallen rain. My clothes are damp. I carry my large recycled Coles bag very protectively because it is full of belongings. They are all I have left in the world.
A rubbish truck passes. I know I must hurry before all the bins along Flinders Street are emptied one after the other. I come to a stop on the other side of the street a short distance away when I see what looks like a discarded half-eaten Mc Muffin. Maybe it was dropped by a Businesswoman conscious of her figure or a youngish chap late for work.
I once saw an episode on Frasier where Maris Crane bought a very expensive coffee. Then to my astonishment she bent over to breathe in its delicious aromas only to leave it untouched there on the counter and walk away. Never-mind, my empty stomach groans to the promise of succulent food. Strange isn't it, how hunger can make you remember things. In my mind, I can clearly picture the Mc Muffin hardly touched resting on some clean newspapers inside the rim of the bin below the surface.
I begin to walk a little faster then break out into what appears to be a little shuffle, which is quicker again. I move towards the bin holding my bulging bag close. Suddenly, before I can get there, another scruffy looking man emerges from inside the cavernous opening of Flinders Street Station nearby. He snatches the food greedily with both hands and gobbles it up almost in one efficient movement.
That is how it is on the streets, the hustle of life and the struggle to live with whatever semblance of dignity one can muster. It is not very much. The streets are unforgiving. Each person who braves this kind of life is coerced by unwritten rules. They govern the helpless, the powerless who wander along the pavements, the alleyways, the gutters of Melbourne. Soon, if a person spends too long on the streets he gets used to it. He forgets to live like a 'normal' man within the confines of a home of his own. The streets own us; we become accustomed to its call and forget how to escape. We become 'Street People'. A culture within a culture, somewhere deep inside the throbbing heart of Melbourne.
When I first ended up on the 'streets', I was ashamed of myself. I found it difficult to ask strangers for spare change, a little money. Sometimes, I still feel that way. But what else can I do? The pain of an empty stomach is compelling. It forces me to approach people with a smile, with pleading eyes, with a contorted face. I ask then beg for a few coins so that I can buy a small burger or a loaf of bread, a little food to quell the pain in my gut so that I can continue for another day.
The burst of energy so prevalent only a few moments ago slowly peters out. I come to a stop. I stand near the steps leading up and into Flinders Street Station. The man returns to the highest step to continue his lofty vigil like an eagle upon a rocky perch.
My mouth remains open with drying bits of saliva on my lips. My stomach hurts again and I let out a momentary groan without consciously being aware of it. I am not disappointed at the prospect of going hungry because life has conditioned my mind to expect it often, especially with every similar venture. However, the body has its own ideas about going hungry without adhering to the mind's rationale.
Life for me is a battleground, a place of fear and terrible anguish. This then perforates every fibre of my being with the realization of a failing life. The streets have taken the place of a productive life, such as going off to work to pay the bills. My name is Frank Foley and I am twenty-eight years of age. I had a nervous breakdown not so long ago. This forced me onto the streets. Now, I am just a part of a greying landscape most people tend to ignore.
It begins to rain again. I huddle against the cold and wipe the dried saliva from my mouth. I walk back across Flinders Street with the next manifestation of the green man. I pass Young and Jackson and make my way along Swanston Street towards the Bourke Street Mall. It does not take long and when I arrive, I look around carefully. I really do not want to cause anyone else any trouble, as I did yesterday.
There are many homeless people living on the streets these days. Some arrive early in the morning from all directions. They spy out spots to sit in the Bourke Street Mall and beg for the day. Yesterday, I sat outside one of the clothing stores but a larger man arrived and punched me in the face without fair warning. I had to leave. My cheek is still red and puffy today so I must be careful.
I thought he went easy on me because we are both kindred spirits. If he finds me in his place again he might decide that an additional lesson may do me some good, he said. Just to reaffirm things if I do not catch on quick enough. He did not use those particular words of course, but I should not forget that lesson.
But a punch in the face is hardly a thrashing. Still, I cannot afford to get sick. When you are hurt life on the streets can become more difficult. Perhaps a swollen face adds to the pity barometer in people's hearts and I may get a few extra dollars.
Although I sense that, every spot may belong to him. On the streets, only the strong survive my friend Jerry keeps telling me. If I do well begging, the larger man might assume a change of spots are in order and deliver another thrashing. I try to keep an eye out for trouble as the day passes slowly. That is hard to do because I tend to fall asleep. The monotony of the day makes me nod off. I guess today I am somewhat luckier then I was yesterday.
The streets of Melbourne are cold, lonely and without pity for those that reside on its doorstep. The wind sometimes blows hard and it is difficult to keep warm. During the later part of the day, I try to sleep amongst the pews of St Paul's Cathedral. Inside it is warm enough and I can nod off for a bit, pretending to pray. However, as the smell from my damp clothes attracts the attention of the residing Priest I am asked to leave. He beckons me outside and refuses help from his few acolytes. The Priest pretends to be stern but when I am not looking, he slips a ten-dollar note into my pocket.
It breaks my heart to tell you honestly, but I think its best to play along and pretend ignorance. Off I stumble heavy with sleep across the partially empty cavernous house occupied by ghosts, old women and dust. I trudge down the steps collecting my wits as I go, til I am back on busy Swanston Street.
I am writing all this down because it gives me something to do as I sit along the Bourke Street Mall outside the ANZ Bank. When I think about my life, those details which dress the daily struggle to survive, I can understand my predicament better. Thinking up short stories helps pass the time and occupies my mind. This hobby tends to mollify my spirit somewhat, and keeps the bad thoughts, the evil thoughts at bay.
Last week I ventured down into the Strike Bowling Alley at the Queen Victoria complex and saw the alley's motto hanging up on the wall. It said, 'what happens in the gutter stays in the gutter'. I really liked that saying because I reasoned that perhaps I could overcome everything that happens on the streets and someday get out. The attendants of course 'asked' me to leave but not before, I jotted down those words into my note pad. I have several and two exercise books. I use the exercise books to write down my experiences on the streets and the notebooks to capture any interesting words I might find on my wanderings.
Today, I sit on the hard concrete ground. In front, I have a squarish cardboard sign leaning up against my Coles Recycle Shopping Bag, which I managed to cut away from a discarded box. They litter the alleyways, usually behind busy restaurants. Many homeless people use them to write on. I stick to the basics when I write my message because I cannot afford any misunderstandings. Today it simply says 'please help me, I am homeless and hungry. Thank you'.
My friend Jerry and I team up sometimes to look for food. The food shops throw out all sorts of good stuff late at night or early in the morning. We do not mind looking. Jerry has been on the streets for longer, about ten years against my one. He helped me survive my new life. It was not easy at the start.
I took up writing to help adjust, to try to make sense of my new life on the streets. I write all the time. In my previous life I kept a Diary, words for me are powerful. Each one is precious and when I collect words in my notebook, I transcribe them into the exercise book to make my experiences come alive as stories. I call these 'tales from the streets' because in essence, that is what they are. Take today for instance, I write down the date and while I wait for spare change to fly onto my dirty handkerchief like manna from heaven, I write down a few of my thoughts. Thank you for listening.