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Mark Stringer's Blog

Angel of Death

I was coming out of the Royal Festival Hall when I saw him. I'd just come from drinks at a bar in the National Film Theatre, heaving with people, heaving with life. Filled with attractive you women and smart young men.

He was selling the Big Issue, but selling the Big Issue in the worst possible way, lurching around with a greasy tattered copy. I'm broke right? So I decided that I wasn't going to buy from him. But I decided that I was going to look him in the eye as I told him that I wouldn't buy his magazine. And that's how he got me. He started talking, and I suppose it's the experience of endless rejection that teaches them how to talk so that you can't get a word in. First I gave him 8 pounds, then he got me to write down his address - how could he have an address if he was homeless? He was very careful that I write the address down correctly. But I didn't want to contact him. I didn't want to increase my relationship with him. I looked over at Waterloo station. I wanted to be there. Away. In the tube. Home. Home. Safe at home.

I haven't mentioned that this man was in the worst state that I've ever seen any human being in my entire life. Yes, OK, his skin under the sodium lights was hospital green and his hair was straggly as if he hadn't washed for weeks. But that was nothing to when he rolled up his sleeves. He had running, weeping gashes all over his body. MRSA he said. On his arms, on his legs. He was waiting to go into hospital to have his arms amputated.

I gave him another 20 pounds so that I could get away. But instead of letting me go, he asked me if I would walk him to the Subway and buy him something to eat. As we turned the corner through the tunnel the thought occurred to me that maybe this was some kind of set up, this was an alley just of a street with a row of shops, but it was dark and there weren't many people about. Maybe he was going to lead me to a bunch of very healthy toughs who were going to take all my money (I don't really know why I was worried because he now had most of the money I had in the world). But that didn't happen. Instead he told me about his life about his parents not loving him and putting him in the car on Christmas day while his brothers and sisters opened their presents (what could possibly be the actual truth behind a story like that). And because he couldn't deal with the way he'd been brought up he'd taken to using heroin and crack cocaine. But he hated the life of always having to be theiving to feed his habit. Before he decided to get clean, he caught MRSA while in hospital. Perhaps realising that his only chance to fight it was to be clean he went cold turkey while suffering from the MRSA.

The pain he said, was unbearable. The only pain killer that really works is morphine, and if he were to take that, he'd be just straight back onto smack. The doctors told him not to do it. But every now and then, when the pain gets too much he takes a fistful of Ibuprofen - which will ruin his liver - which is infected with Hepatitis C. But when he does that, the pain goes away for a while.

We'd reached a cross roads. We were out of the dark alley, I hadn't been mugged. I could see my escape route to Waterloo again. He was pointing out how far we had to go - about another 50 yards to subway. I gave him another 10 pounds and told him to get his own sandwich. And left him there. His name was Nicholas.

In the end I gave him 38 pounds. 38 pounds that at the moment I can ill-afford to lose. Part of me is thinking that I was conned, that what this teaches me is that I shouldn't look Big Issue sellers in the eye. Part of me is very ashamed for thinking this.

I have a friend who's a management consultant. When I told him another story about befriending a Big Issue seller he said "He played you! He sold you!". Is this what happened here? I'm an atheist (though I say I'm an agnostic because most Atheists are more piously annoying than the religious people). I don't have a notion of Christian charity. From what I know of Jesus, he would probably say - "When you meet somebody in the worst state that you've ever seen in your life, you should treat him as you would me, you saviour. That's where I'm going to be. Not in the fancy palaces. Not in the fancy bars."

I just read a book called "Learned Optimism" by Martin Seligman that ends with a very clear message on the reasons why you should do charitable work: it's for your own good. The feeling that you can do something in situations which are apparently hopeless, is part of the optimistic outlook. For your own psychological health, in situation where things appear hopeless, you should keep trying.

The last thing I need at the moment is to take on something else that doesn't pay. But I've decided (I've actually been thinking about this for a long while) to get involved in helping some kind of organisation that helps the homeless (and by giving time, not giving money, so there's no point pestering me for donations). If anybody has any experience of doing this kind of work and has had a positive experience of working with some charity for the homeless, please let me know.

For further information, contact (07736 807 604)

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Blogger C├ęsar said...

Thank you for sharing this story. Best of luck with the choices in front of you. If you have a spare moment, you may also relate to the last two posts on my personal blog: "Starting a non-profit" and "Hierarchy of Human Needs"

September 11, 2009 5:36 AM  

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