‘Living on the streets: I’ll never forget the kindness of strangers’

Aug 07, 2019
Russell spent some time living on the streets, having once been a high-flying lawyers in Sydney. Source: Stock/Getty Images

It was now dark, although streetlights made it easy to see who was coming and going. I put my overnight bag on my chosen place of accommodation and searched for my mattress. I walked up Cathedral Street and pulled strips of cardboard out of garbage bins. I soon had enough cardboard to make a comfortable mattress. Cardboard was an excellent insulator from the cold emanating from the brick pavement. I sat on the mattress and contemplated how I could access the information I needed to be able to sleep, eat and wash in Brisbane the next day. I was calm, relaxed and felt safe. I had no one hassling or pressuring me, I had no responsibilities and I was accountable to no one.

Having established my place of lodging for the night, underneath the awning at the back of the chemist’s shop, I settled in to watch people entering and leaving the grocery store across the square. Most people bought alcohol and cigarettes, a few bought groceries. They were a mix of old, young, male and female; a melting pot of the local community.

Two young women walked past me towards the store. They were very beautiful, although at my age any female younger than 30 looked beautiful.

I suddenly realised I was cold. I knew the Salvation Army provided blankets so I asked BK, who was dossing down with me that night, if the Salvos were coming.

“Have to give them a ring,” he said. Not easy when you don’t have a mobile phone.

I spotted Miss Universe and Miss World leaving the store, deep in conversation, ambling towards me. I called out, “Excuse me, girls.”

Miss Universe looked across with disdain and quickened her pace. Miss World looked at me curiously.

“I don’t want money,” I told her.

Miss World grabbed her friend’s arm and they walked towards me. I told them I had just arrived, I was sleeping on the footpath tonight, that I was cold, and I needed blankets. I told them that the Salvos would provide blankets, and would they mind giving the Salvos a ring, and ask them to come to help me?

The girls said they would make the call and sauntered away. The conversation was short and their attitude dismissive and offhand. I felt they agreed to my request to shut me up, rather than any willingness to actually intercede with the Salvos on my behalf. I told myself I would give it half an hour, and if the Salvos hadn’t come by then, I would try again.

About 15 minutes later the girls returned. The disdainful girl asked me to move off my cardboard mattress so she could put a blanket on it. I dutifully obeyed and the other girl asked me to lie down so she could cover me with other blankets. I was taken aback by the request, but sensed a warmth and kindness that was hitherto absent. I instinctively obeyed; after all I am trained to obey young women. I had daughters about the same age and when they asked me to jump, I always responded, “How high?”

I saw that the blankets were woollen and brightly coloured. I was familiar with the Salvos blankets, which were thin, brown cotton, and, while welcome, not very warm.

“Where do these come from? They’re not Salvos blankets.”

“We got them from our beds,” one of the girls said.

I was stunned by this gratuitous kindness to a complete stranger. I thought for a minute and said, “I am going to Brisbane tomorrow, where can I return them?”

She replied, “We don’t want them back, can you give them to someone else?”

I told her about the bin where all our personal property was kept. “I’ll put them in the bin tomorrow and someone who really needs them will welcome them,” I said.

The girls put the blankets on me, tucked me in, and said goodnight. Their faces glowed with compassion and care. I went to sleep with a peaceful and calm heart. I slept soundly all night.

The next morning, I carefully folded the blankets and placed them in the homeless bin. I put all the cardboard back in the street bins. I left no trace of my existence.

This is an extract from Russell Hodge’s book, The Oldest Student at the Sorbonne, a thought-provoking tale about one man’s self-reflective journey from high-flying deals, to friendships with gypsies and beggars in Paris and then to the homeless community in Sydney. Russell’s book is available for purchase on his website.

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