Most days around this neighbourhood I am faced with the reality of my white middle class privilege. A nearby homeless shelter and our proximity to the city centre, means many of life’s less fortunate gather in the local shopping strip.
Being one of those disorganised daily food shoppers, I’ve worn a path from my front door to the supermarket meat fridge; with a regular bottle shop detour. On one of these recent hunt and gather expeditions, I passed a group of homeless men sitting on a bench outside the local TAB. They were passing a drink can between them and soaking up the last amber rays of a mild January day.
They all looked up as I approached and one of them greeted me, “Gidday luv, how’r ya goin’?”
“I’m good thanks!” I replied, a little louder and cheerier than was strictly necessary.
A second one echoed with, “Hi luv, ya good?”
“Yep, I’m great thanks. How are you?”
I congratulated myself for participating in this civilised exchange.
Wasn’t that nice? Pleasantries with poor people? I feel so good about myself now.
As I crossed the road it occured to me that I needed to buy something for these friendly but disadvantaged gentlemen.
I needed to buy them potato chips.
Radiating bonhomie I swanned into the small supermarket and perused the snack food aisle. How happy these poor men will be when I bequeath my salty offerings.
I was less certain about these charity hor d’oeuvres when I found myself standing around the corner from the hapless homeless.
What on earth was I thinking? Chips? Even if they were ridiculously flavoured gourmet jobs, they were chips for god’s sake!
I sprinted back up the street clutching two shopping bags and silently cursing my idiocy. Half way up I stopped again and continued the inner monologue.
Ok, so perhaps chips are not an adequate demonstration of my empathy. Oh God, they are going to be so offended! I’m such a patronising person! I’ll just take them home. I’ll just walk in the other direction and go home with them. Done. Good. But hang on, everyone likes chips. Surely chips won’t offend? Who in the history of the world has taken offence to a chip? No one, that’s who. Right then, I’ll just take these bad boys back to them and hand them over. What’s the worst that could happen?
Striving for insouciance, I headed back around the corner and approached my own personal charity case.
Hang on, one of them could stab me…Oh come on, will you shut up! Look at them, just four blokes sharing a tinny and chewing the fat.
Shoving a bag towards the friendliest looking of them, and in the loud unrecognisable voice I reserve for all awkward situations, I boomed, “I thought you might like some CHIPS.”
After a stunned silence he took the bag and thanked me, “That’s real nice of ya, luv. Happy new year!”
He shook my hand and nodded encouragingly to his mates.
I took out a second bag and thrust it towards the man beside him. My arm remained raised in an uncomfortable salute, the chip bag dangling, as he stared at me.
With a bilious smile, I pivoted around, my arm outstretched, and piffed the pack into the next guy’s lap.
“I thought you chaps might enjoy some chips out here in the sun…with your drinks…and stuff…”
Like they’re enjoying the sunset on a beach in Seminyak…SUCH AN IDIOT!
There was some stilted banter about one of them coming home with me which I countered with my wish to empty out the nest. Then an exchange about the age of my resident daughter and a quip that she was way too young for them, resulted in some rib digging hilarity.
“You heard her mate, she’s too young for ya!”
“Nah, mate, I didn’t mean that. I was just innerested, that’s all.”
I beetled off leaving him calling up the street after me , “Just joking luv! No offense, ok?”
When I got to the traffic light, they all chorused , “Thanks luv!”
I remembered D2 and her work with a youth mission when she was at school. Volunteers would man a coffee van for the homeless outside Flinders Street Station. My daughter realised though, that the greater contribution was conversation. These men and women could have gone for several days without speaking to a soul. Isolated in a crowd and often desperate for human interaction, the greatest gift was as prosaic as smalltalk.
I felt terrible. I had fixated on delivering junk food in the least offensive manner and became paralysed by my own discomfort.
There is an organisation one of my friends and her partner volunteer with that rescues unwanted food and prepares it into healthy, nutritious meals for the homeless. A small but tangibly useful effort that I suspect is appreciated slightly more than potato chips.
I think it may be the right time to commit to something greater than buying The Big Issue.