Among his souvenirs.. new shoes

To say he had a beard would be an understatement- his whole face bristled with pepper and salt whiskers so thick they looked like an uncut hedge. In one of Auckland’s coldest winter spells, he wore a coat which had seen too many winters and was at least two sizes too big for him. And then there were his shoes, or perhaps one of  them. It  remained  staunchly unflappable while  the other had  clearly given up the pretense of being a shoe,  and its uppers flopped open with every step he took.

He seemed an unlikely visitor to the newly opened, upmarket restaurant in Auckland but with a dignified demeanor he flip-flopped in and was greeted warmly by a waitress who told him to take a seat. A few minutes later she arrived with a canvas bag, and he nodded his thanks. He took it to an outside table, for he was about to forage – not for food, but for items of clothing.

Inside, the café’s diners tried not to look but he was just a few yards away and they saw him  standing over the bag as he pulled out trousers and put them to one side. Next a jersey, a raincoat, and then… the discovery of the day – a pair of loafers. Off came one and a half shoes and on went his new pair. He picked through other items, choosing carefully, then returned the bag to the waitress before returning to his table outside.

We asked her later about the man. She said they knew him and the story behind this gift of clothing. Some customers had seen his shabby state and guessed he was one of the city’s many homeless men – and so they returned to the café later, bringing the clothes and shoes. That kindness helped the old man and in a way brought some of us in the café together on the subject of the homeless –  that product of the ‘trickle down’ fable of modern economics.

Two elderly women told us that some men were homeless by choice. They said they knew of one who had a home and family, but simply preferred to live on the street.

“Why?” we asked.  “He just liked it better “they  told us.

It fitted with another story a social worker had told me the previous month: that he knew a man who also owned a house but liked to live rough. Sometimes he would be arrested, charged with minor offences and jailed. But that was fine with him because for a short period, he had a roof over his head in winter, regular meals and showers… A retired nurse chipped in and said that she used to volunteer for the St Vincent de Paul Society when it went to, among other places, the museum grounds to distribute food to the homeless.

She encountered men who slept rough but who had formed strong bonds with each other. When one was sick or unable to get to the van for food, his mate would ask if he could possibly have extra to take back to his mate. A cynic might suggest that he was probably  just  helping himself  to more. Perhaps. But if not, how ironic was this:. Out on the streets the homeless community helped each other out. By comparison  our wider society seemed selfish. That’s what we thought – until the day we saw an old tramp take gifts left for him, in an act of random kindness.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.