A Christmas Carol on the grey mile for a homeless Dubliner

Ghost of Christmas Present: If he’s like to die, he better do it and decrease the surplus population.

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol

 

It’s quiet on the corner of Luke and Poolbeg street on the weekday nights. That’s the main reason I like it. Not much competition or trouble. Another plus.  It’s the best place to spend Christmas this year.

I’m normally hunkered down sometime between last orders in O’Reilly’s behind me and the rumbling of the final DART above me at around midnight. Thankfully tonight is quieter though, most people have cleared away to the warmth of their homes. The wind is crisp and chilly. The mercury in my body tells me the temperature will drop close to zero by the witching hour, so sleep will be awhile in the coming tonight.

My sleeping bag, a gift from SVP, is relatively warm and new. A bit tattered from being dragged around the city all day every day. It’s in constant use really. My bed, my sofa, my armchair and my dinner table.

The back of O’Reilly’s is lined with empty beer barrels and I’ve positioned myself at the far end of them, my back wedged between the wall and a barrel. It offers anonymity from any floating cops that might be roaming down the one-way street in a squad car.

It’s difficult to keep track of time out here but I reckon I must be at least 18 months and probably closer to two years homeless.  Those first few weeks were roughest and I can remember them vividly. Adapting to my new lifestyle.

I still occasionally get robbed when I’m asleep, or kicked in the head or torso, but nothing like as bad as those first weeks on the grey mile. All told no permanent damage so far. Touch wood.

It’s only fair to point out I have often woken up to a welcome cup of takeaway coffee left by a passing good Samaritan too.

The big learning curve was to recognise the variety and complexity of the different problems that street folk carry around with them. There are numerous drug addicts and junkies amongst my brethren. A compulsory life-skill to acquire quickly on the streets is the ability to tell the difference. Quickly.

Junkies will get themselves killed to get that next hit. So imagine how much value they place on my life if they think there is a 1% chance I have a tenner stashed somewhere on my person.

Still though, when my life isn’t in imminent danger from them – they have most of my sympathy. They need assistance the most and are in the least position to help themselves. The least able to defend themselves from the elements too. More and more I am noticing that children are a growing part of the homeless family. Were they always there and I somehow didn’t notice them?

When I arrived, I was one of the few out here that wasn’t a full blown alcoholic or drug addict in the first instance. In more recent times this too has changed. A lot of different types of people are ending up on the streets.

The shock isn’t that I found my way here.

The shock is how many of you are now my companions.

Two bad decisions, an unfortunate set of circumstances, an underlying assumption it couldn’t happen  – and Abracadabra welcome to a life on the pavement. Seems to be the new norm.

Not that I’m particularly deserving of sympathy mind you.

Of course the above is not to say I don’t have major problems myself  –  I have a few mental issues I’ll admit (under duress). Maybe major ones. Whatever they are,  I learned in those first few weeks sleeping rough, they weren’t compatible with heavy drink or drug binges. It’s not a cocktail likely to keep me alive for long.

I had a life of sorts once upon a time. On blustery, wintry nights like tonight – my mind can clear long enough to reminiscence about bits of it. I had a job, a girl, an apartment, a friend or two. The raw materials of a life. A decent life some might say.

I guess my mind struggled to adapt to the confines of it.

I should concede at this point, that at least 10 times a week I stand up and confess to being an alcoholic. Alcoholics Anonymous is a key to my street survival. An unlimited supply of sugary tea and biscuits. An unlimited supply of flawed humanity to listen to. A flawed humanity that admits to being flawed. My favorite kind of humans.

AA meetings are dotted all around the inner city. On wet days I might take in two meetings, and just enjoy the warm room and temporary reprieve from the elements. I enjoy listening to other people talking about their problems. It’s a distraction from how little I seem to be able to talk about mine.

I don’t chat much at the meetings, keeping my eyes glued on the custard creams while marveling at the loquacity gifted to some folk. At times like this I will reflect that I find it far more comforting to have conversations in my head. Great, big conversations in my head. At some level I know this comfort is a sickness. Probably an accelerating one. One that has accelerated me onto the streets.

I walked out on my life before it walked out on me. At the point that everything disappeared – I could have asked for help but chose not to – I have no idea why I didn’t and I am not even sure I am sorry that I didn’t.

And so here I am now this yuletide, my skin weather-beaten yet defiant, lying half asleep and half alert on Poolbeg Street. Relaxation never comes easy on the crazy paving , but I take some satisfaction that I’ve learned to survive. Funnily enough, in ways, much more so than my previous life.

On a normal day, the first trains into Tara Street rumble overhead at a little after 5 am and I am usually up and moving. Death by freezing is far more likely than Death by Starving this time of year. I’ll cross the Liffey and spend a portion of time waiting for one of the soup kitchens to open. You’ll often find outreach volunteers out and about early delivering clothing and food around the city in some of the homeless hotspots.

I’m not too proud to beg. But the competition is fierce. Often drug peddlers run the corners with favoured, coerced homeless. Begging is a business and different parts of the city have different gangs. My eyes are attuned to it now and I can still find cracks in the systems to sustain myself.

I rarely beg during the day. My attention is focused on the nightlife crowd. People are more giving when they are drunk. More than once a reveller has slipped me a twenty.

At the weekends I usually focus on the corners of St. Stephens Green. Near Hardcourt Street is a favorite if I can get away with it. In better times I used to frequent many of the nightclubs that are within walking distance. Between 11:00pm and 1:00am on a given weekend night a few thousand people might pass thru my office. I usually have competition but my companions are often not in the best of shape.

I’ll usually lay out my sleeping bag and lie against a railing. Hawked eyed for trouble and footfall. Cops or security guards from nearby establishments. Marauding thugs too.  The risks are usually worth it. If there is a run of good weather and the mood takes me I have a tin whistle to call in as a party piece. It’s my only real possession from before.

I can play the Marino Waltz and a couple of other trad tunes. I’ve been know to blast out the theme tune from the Sunday Game, if there’s a big GAA match on, and the city is filled with country people. It’s a big auld hit on the whistle.

As I recount this, I’m reminded that my girlfriend’s last act was to throw it at me. I saw her once crossing the street on this stretch of the grey mile not long ago – if I was a normal human being it would have affected me more. If I’d paid heed to her begging I might not be doing it myself now – some independent observers from Stokes, Kennedy and Crowley might say.

In any event, I played the Lonesome Boatman for 15 minutes, shut up shop for the night and let bygones be bygones.

I must stop calling her my girlfriend too. Even to myself. Especially to myself.

Obviously I’ve been robbed a few times. But the last year my senses are keener for trouble. I have a couple of friends now. We look out for each other, passing on information about whats brewing and where in our square mile of the inner city. It works for now.

Mostly though I avoid my fellow street people. Sadly, most don’t last too long. Arrest is common. Hospitalization is frequent. It’s easy to break the law when you’re homeless and no shortage of people queueing up to serve justice. Easy pickings but protesting is fruitless.

I never saw heroin until I became homeless. Heroin addicts have no chance on the streets. It’s that simple. Hospital, Jail or Dead.  I don’t know how many times I have seen people inject that liquid shit in to their veins. Screaming in agony searching for an undamaged vein. Success is usually loss of all bodily function, exposed entirely to the place, people and elements of where they have fallen into the liquid trance.

My only nightmare is that someone will inject me when I am asleep. Another ready-made addict for the various gangs that control the city. Whatever befalls me I hope it isn’t that.

I look down Poolbeg street and I am not sure how long I have been sitting here thinking. The familiar, approaching shuffle of one of my friends has disturbed me out of reverie. I can tell he’s drunk and I wonder if he’ll see me. I am reminded that I haven’t spoken a word in over 24 hours.

He see’s me and a gives me the big salute, while demonstrating that the flagon bottle is empty by upending it. I reach in my pocket for the answer to the question that’s coming.

” Get up out of that and come across to the IFSC with me and sleep in style for Christmas. We’ll get no trouble from no-one tonight….”

I grip his hand in greeting and slip him a banknote, I shake my head sadly in the negative. And exercise my voicebox for the first time in a day.

” I can’t. I used to work there. Fuck it I used to live up there for awhile…… ”

Before I can continue any further he starts moving and says.

” Ahhhh You’re goosed ya fucker..You’re drunk again…stay where ya are so……stay where ya are….I’ll drink your good health though my friend….Merry Christmas!!!”

He slips off behind me, pocketing the crumpled fiver, to turn left up Luke Street and out and away towards the Quays.

I settle my arse back on the concrete and curl up for some shut-eye that is now finally fast approaching.

” Merry Christmas ” I whisper…..to no-one in particular.

 

 

 

 

 

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