A Smile For Free

Thursday, 23 April 2009

I've seen K a few times around the city. A woman who I presume is somewhere in her 50s, she is at Flagstaff station on a Thursday night when I catch my train. I've stopped a few times, and walked past averting my gaze more. Those days I walk past steeling myself, unable to deal that day with the sufferings of others and feeling guilty for all that.

I saw her two Thursdays ago. Maybe it was a God thing because I'd seen the man the day before, the lovely man with the blue eyes and the gentle voice and the undefined mental illness. I had stopped to say hi to him, slipped him a few bucks. The week before I had watched some reality TV at Andrea's place, a show called Filthy Rich and Homeless which put a few well-to-do people onto the streets for a fortnight to see how they fared. One of the young blokes I saw was visibly affected by his experience, his views radically altered from his original stance that homeless people needed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I was profoundly affected by that TV show and made a resolution that I would stop and say hi to those people I saw on the streets about me, that I would try and go the extra mile instead of averting my gaze because I felt guilty that they were homeless and I was not.

So I saw K last Thursday and stopped to chat this time. She was surrounded by some drawings she had done. She said she hadn't realised that she could draw. I purchased this rather fetching geometric design off her for 20 bucks.

It was pretty exciting seeing this aptitude she had discovered in herself. Sort of a bit of a pet thing of mine, the fostering of creativity in people who have stifled its voice for whatever reason. I asked K shyly if there was something I could get her. Pencils, pens, paper? She could do with some coloured pencils. She didn't have many there with her and the ones she had were crap.

I took great pleasure in buying a set of 12 Derwents for her yesterday before work. Such delicious colours encased in those pencils. I felt a momentary tinge of stupidity. Why was I buying a homeless woman pencils when what she was struggling for was a meal and an occasional bed?* It felt silly, but also felt like a compulsion, and I can never quite tell what is what and so you just have to go with it and hope you're doing something good. I hoped that I wasn't going to be buying her some pencils that could have been better spent in a meal.

Or a bed. She was having a bad week she said tonight, when I saw her. A bit of a cold. Was picked up by the cops the Friday previously and interrogated for over four hours, treating her with disrespect and refusing to believe she wasn't up to no good and a smack freak. She was stressed.

"I suppose that's hard to believe, that I can be stressed," she commented. Which is a funny sort of a statement considering the basic fact that living homeless must be almost continually stressful.

People glare at her. Offer her 5 bucks for a blowjob. A new inhabitant in the park where she sleeps with a few friends, an owl, disturbed her sleep the night before, ripping the throat out of a local possum before banging into a tree and dropping its still-alive prey on one of her sleeping partners. And yet for all of that, she said one of the hardest thing is the people who all avert their gazes from her.

"It's not that hard to smile," she said. "I don't expect things from people, but a smile costs nothing."

Which was an interesting summation. Because I've been guilty plenty of times of being too broke to give K or anyone else any money, and so I too avert my gaze, guilty. Guilty about what I have. I have two bedrooms in my house with only one of me living here.

And yet it is that very guilt that keeps me from giving a smile for free when I have nothing else to give. I was very pleased to see, while K was happy at her gift of pencils after a hard week, that the bloke in the shop nearby came out with food. She didn't get enough money for a room for the night, but I guess at least I know that she wasn't hungry.

* K told me this evening that the cheapest room a night she can get is a $35 room, that the $15 rooms advertised near Spencer Street are only applicable when you book for two weeks or more. I did not ask K why she does not stay in hostels. Presumably there is so much demand that it is a pointless enterprise. Who knows why? Maybe I'll ask her next time.


  1. I am glad you ran into K...it does sound like a God thing.

  2. I love this post, Sue. You treated K. with dignity & saw her worth, not only as a person, but as an artist. I know that feeling - "momentary tinge of stupidity". Acts of kindness are usually a little out of the ordinary, but cost so little.

  3. Barbara - I'm glad I ran into her too. It was interesting hearing what she had to say about guilt and smiles and stuff. Sort of made me realise how my own guilt keeps me away.

    Sherry - thank you, and thanks for visiting. Maybe acts of kindness always carry with them tinges of stupidity, seeing they make us feel vulnerable.

    Urbanmonk - ta. After your talking about squats the other day I was interested to know how many there K knew of in the city. Her response was that there are quite a few, but most of them contain asbestos, and she didn't think it would be very handy dragging her oxygen tank around as a homeless woman after she's contracted mesothelioma, hehe. She's got a bit of pluck, this one :)

  4. You shame us all, dear Sue. You have such a good heart.

  5. That was a terribly inappropriate reply. Thanks, Barbara! :)

  6. Beautiful, Susie. I struggle so much with this...and my friends at the Bridge would be embarrassed to know how much I try to avoid these types. They feel unsafe to me...and I know people who would laugh at that comment and think me selfish and unenlightened. Logically, intellectually, I know that's not true, but somehow my irrational fraidy-cat seems to rule over me.

    You are just a lovely lovely lady for seeing beyond it all. I take a lesson from you.

  7. Barbara - I meant my first original reply to you was terribly inappropriate, not that yours to me was inappropriate, geddit?

    Erin - yeah, of course they feel unsafe. I don't think that is a strange comment at all. That's often why I walk past and don't talk to them myself. But I just think the more we can sit with that discomfort of mistrust and realise we're not that far away in a lot of ways from each other, then it's maybe easier.

    I guess i just feel like there are thought bridges we can cross from us to the people that feel unsafe to us, somehow. But yeah, it's bloody hard, isn't it.

  8. i think a packet of colour pencils is more important than the other stuff

    you gave her the ability to imagine, create, dream

    yay you!


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