This is just a (not so) short post about something that happened on my commute today. So, I was on the tube, changing from the Victoria line to the Northern line at Euston station in London, and as I came onto the platform I saw a woman sitting on the bench. She was around 70 years old, and looked a little different. She had wisps of thinning hair crowning her head, was wearing somewhat eccentric but neat clothes and had a carrier bag next to her full of mugs and other household appliances. I was initially drawn to her because she reminded me of my grandma and had a tired smile that made me feel safe and drew me to her. My grandma on my dad’s side is of Indian heritage and maybe it’s because up until I moved to London I didn’t have much contact with Indian people, but older Indian women remind me of her. Anyway… slight detour there.
So, this small Indian woman that really reminded me of my grandma was just sitting there, and then suddenly a girl came up to her and gave her money, without saying anything, and walked off, and a few seconds later another girl did the same thing. I was a bit confused and didn’t quite understand what was going on. In my head, this Indian woman didn’t look homeless, she was a bit strange, yes, but she didn’t look dirty or particularly in need. Anyway, so I stood there, and was trying to figure out what was going on. How did these girls know the woman? was she homeless and always sat there? did she have a sign that I couldn’t see? Was she an artist performing a secret show that I wasn’t privy to? In hindsight Miss W feels quite ridiculous as what happened next is one of the most horrifying “ground swallow me now” moments of my life.
I was so curious I went up to the woman and said “Excuse me, why were those girls giving you money?”
The woman just stared at me. So of course I thought it was a good idea to sit next to her.
In Miss W’s head the oh shit alarms were going off, and I was just sitting there thinking, OK, so what do I say next? So I decided to ask her outright if she was homeless. Her face twisted into a painful smile but still she said nothing, so I took that as a yes and felt obliged to give her money. So I fished around in my purse for a pound coin. My purse was full of Euro from my trip to Lyon a few weeks ago and Danish Kroner from this weekend’s trip to Copenhagen (post coming on that..) and I was just thinking, I can’t give a probably homeless woman a Euro coin and tell her to spend it on her holidays or something… What am I going to do if I can’t find pounds…? Thankfully I found a pound coin, gave it to her, and then just kept sitting there. I then kind of wanted to find out why she was homeless, so I proceeded to ask the most cringe worthy question I think I have ever asked anyone ever in my entire life (except maybe when I asked a 40 year old why he was divorced when I was seven and told him I could give him advice as my parents were divorced and I knew all about it… OMG!)
I said, “So, do you come here often?”
The woman’s face kind of dropped and she just nodded a bit… and I just kept sitting there, and I’m not quite sure what I was waiting for, or expecting, but I didn’t move. The woman seemed to be running out of patience, and then suddenly she just pointed at her ears, and shrugged. Then I realised, she was deaf, and she had been lip reading me questioning what she was doing there…and why she was homeless. So clearly this woman was there often, and people in the station knew her, and she is maybe not homeless, but is disabled, and I just probably made her feel like crap. So I sort of did a hugely awkward wave and ran onto the next tube without looking back.
This was when the shame set in. I was horrified at my own assessment of what a homeless person is ‘supposed’ to look like, or the reason as to why someone is homeless. Maybe she isn’t homeless at all. What made me feel like I was entitled to find out what that woman was doing there just because other people were giving her money? Was this some kind of homeless voyeuristic show? I will never find out if she really is homeless, or not, or whatever. I felt so bad… and what is worse, I mostly felt bad for myself, embarrassed because I had put my foot in it. I had felt entitled to pry into someone else’s life because they were being given money by strangers, as if I could buy this woman’s sob story to make myself feel better. I was completely ashamed.
The other story that popped into my mind after this happened was that a few years ago I was walking down the road in Marylebone (posh area of London) and I saw a man sitting on the floor. This man was sitting on a jacket, had long grey ragged hair and ripped trousers on. He was sitting on the pavement with a paper coffee cup in front of him. In my head this image equated to one thing: homeless beggar. So as I was walking up I fished a coin out of my purse and marched up to him intending to put it into his cup. As I got to the cup I saw that it was full of coffee. The man looked at me, shook his head and said “I’m not homeless”. At this point my blood froze and instead of apologising and taking my measly pound with me I leant down and delicately placed it next to the base of his coffee. I slinked off down the street with the man shaking his head at me in amazement.
This is the same principle. Why did I assume that this man was homeless? Because he was sitting on the pavement and had a coffee in front of him; because he was unkempt and dishevelled. So this highly embarrassing post is to say that we cannot judge people by the way they look. I made a mistake and assumed I knew about someone’s situation in life just because they fitted into the preconceived idea I had of them. Sometimes our good intentions are misguided and we might be doing more harm than good, so maybe next time I will assume less and try to be less self righteous. Just because something looks a certain way it doesn’t mean it is that way.
If you feel like Miss W is a bit of a haughty idiot, then you’re probably right in this case. All of us make presumptions every day and I am telling this story because I’d like to make a few less presumptions.