“Why, if I had a brain, I could — (begins singing)
I could while away the hours,
Conferrin' with the flowers,
Consultin' with the rain.
And my head I'd be scratchin'
While my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.”
- The Scarecrow, Wizard of Oz -
A hundred quid in the bank. No door left to knock in town. No home. No bed to sleep in. No love. No hate. No immediate ambitions. Nada. Just a little voice in the back of your head that sings ‘We gotta get out of this place’ at every given chance. In the words of total need: Wouldn’t you? Yes, you would. And so, yes I did. With a rucksack containing five novels, a toothbrush and its partner, three pairs of clothes and other miscellany, I went to Cardiff coach station and bought a one-way ticket to London (100-17=£83).
The word ‘homeless’ seems to convey the fairer observation of a person having less of a home. The observation is understandably virtuous and tolerant because it is indeed very possible for a man to survive in places other than a Home. The linguistic complaint is only to do with being houseless. There is no lesser denomination because, quite simply, a lesser square root would project that a homeless man is a hopeless man. This is not and has never been the case. Man has been known to survive in caves, trees, jungles, huts, cells, boats, ships, annexes, underwater, above sky and in space. The only square inch in the world that matters is the one where a person’s thinks or to put it better as Milton did: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.’ And so I took it upon myself to make a heaven out of the hell of London’s streets.
As soon as the coach dropped me at Victoria station, I became more aware of my personal geography. It had a sense of purposeful ruin that I wanted to indulge in and understand. All through my life I have walked with people who want to improve themselves and hope for better tomorrows. This is nothing but mental and spiritual masturbation. It is so easy to set goals and achieve them and give yourself a pat on the back and bask in the knowledge that you have finished the chores that your petty mind asked you to do. And how do we define these people? – Confident, assured, driven, self-sufficient. Rubbish. The only word that comes to my mind is cocksure and it’s surely not because of the sure bit. My interest has always been more in the Pauper rather than the Prince; more in the tramps of the world than the Donald Trumps. I was quite wrong before the following experience in labelling my thoughts for the homeless as sympathy. But becoming homeless myself; this sympathy soon turned into an investigated empathy as I was not only in the creature’s natural environment but the creature itself.
That first night, the first night I ever spent in the streets, I was still naïve. I was unsure of the whole expedition and what it would amount up to. There were random notions and predictions in my head of getting robbed, mugged, stabbed, arrested and abused. I had scenarios set in the theatre of my brain where I lay bleeding after being attacked by football hooligans and as I asked for help, a junkie would come and rob my dying self of the hundred quid I had and leave me in an alley to be wolfed by a stray cat. All of these notions and prophecies added up to exactly what they add to in the real world: nothing. They were the fears of a street-virgin and never haunted me after that first night. I roamed the whole first evening in Soho and Oxford Street and came back to where I planned to sleep that night: Piccadilly Circus. I had earlier bought a giant bottle of cider (-2.69=£80.31) to inaugurate my homeless trail and sat down with it on the steps of the memorial fountain.
There people of several nationalities and interests around me. The tourists clicked pictures and posed, the sketchers calmly drafted the full streets into their blank sheets, the lovers held hands, the buskers played songs and the policemen monitored all of them like bloodhounds. In the middle of it all, there sat me, reading The Dharma bums by Jack Kerouac and sipping Strongbow, which I must say, was rather strong, for, after finishing it my fears seemed to have sunk in the 2.5 litre capacity. I was instantly merry. I smoked cigarettes and bought a slice of pizza (-1=£79.31) from Leicester square, finishing which, I went for a stroll around Trafalgar square and then by the London Embankment. It was a pleasant stroll and it was elating to introduce my face to the crisp and cool breeze of Thames. When I got back to Piccadilly Circus at around three in the morning, the show was over and the clowns had all gone to bed. Only the sweepers hung around to clean the pleasures of the citizens and soon they were gone too. Using my rucksack as a pillow, I went to sleep on the inviting entrance of the world-famous Criterion theatre, ordering my head to dream of unicorns and Keira Knightley as opposed to the police.
Next morning, I woke up quite early which is not surprising given the chill of the morning setting on me. I cursed myself for not bringing my sleeping bag around and went to McDonald’s. I found a table from which a woman was leaving and taking her place I pretended like the cup of coffee before me was filled, and I continued to pretend for four hours while reading a book. The customer is always right when he is apparently paying so no one asked me to leave. After this, I went to the Leicester square public toilets and changed up; ready for a new day. I had made plans of a shower every two days at the King’s Cross tube station and as such, the luxury of a shower would be mine the next day. For now, I walked around Oxford Circus and window-shopped. Soon my imaginary bags were full with imaginary products and to relax for a while, I went to the Borders bookstore where I sat down and read magazines and books. This kept me delightfully busy for quite some time and I would have stayed there longer if it hadn’t been for the belly of the Beast. Buffet was the magic word and opened the sesame of Pizza Hut (-4.99=£74.32). Four hours of mindless pizza munching followed and as I did the math while they get the Pizza, I came to the conclusion that I must have eaten more than what most Ethiopians do in a month; plenty of value. I had also downed three litres of coke for the sake of value and because it was unlimited. God bless buffets. I don’t know much about God being an atheist (actually more like a nihilist) but I know that the concept of buffets had to be the child of some higher Being. I didn’t feel hungry for the rest of the day.
I went into an internet café to while away time (-1=£73.32) and on eBay I came across a listing for a Hyde Park Festival ticket. Pink Floyd and the Who were headlining alongside Starsailor, Texas, Primal Scream and Razorlight. It would be on the 1st of July, which was two days away. I bought the ticket and told the moaning angel on my side to go fuck himself. I don’t want to do a lot of things before I die but one thing I had always wanted to do was watch Pink Floyd live and I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass just because it wasn’t the ‘right’ thing to do financially. I told the bidder that I would pick the ticket the next day provided he left me a phone-number to reach on. Then I went out again to Piccadilly and buying a beer (-1=£72.32), sat down to think. The fifty-pound ticket didn’t leave me much to live on for the next fortnight but then again, when I thought about it, it seemed almost a favourable investment to think of me telling my rebellious kid or whatever in the future that I had been to see Pink Floyd a.k.a. the Gods of Rock. That would show the little bastard. So, confident of my decision, I went to sleep soundly amidst all the sound.
The next morning I woke up a little later on account of it being a more pleasant morning and went through with the same McDonald’s routine at another franchise. I was rather good at the pretending bit; have always been. This morning I stayed longer before walking to King’s Cross station and getting a ticket for a shower. The attendant at the public-toilet handed me a giant beach-towel and opened a shower-booth for me. One hour of cleansing followed and I took great pleasure in the warm shower. I walked out a different person. Another trip to the internet café (-1=£71.32) showed me a message from the ticket-seller and his phone-number. It also helped me locate an all-you-can-eat curry place in Islington that was serving for a mere three quid.
Calling the seller on his landline (-30p=£71.2) I learnt that he was near Islington and would be waiting for me at his workplace. So I bought an all day bus pass (-3.50=£67.50 [gave 2p to a busker because he was playing ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’]) and watched the city pass from the bus. On account of me being tired, I slept on the bus, only to wake up at the last stop which was far from Islington. Shaking my head in disbelief, I boarded another bus and this time forced to keep my eyes open and pretended that I was a subject of the ‘Ludovico treatment’. It worked and forty-five minutes later I was in Islington. I thought it better to go get the tickets first because there was no telling how much I could go on eating to get value.
The seller was younger than I had imagined him to be and was working in an office-furniture shop. We had a brief discussion about Pink Floyd and their later albums before I gave him his money (-50=£17.50) and went to attack the buffet. The restaurant was a hidden haven in Islington’s Chapel market surrounded by fishmongers, Rasta CD stalls and dodgy hotchpotch. I paid my dues (-3=£14.50) and sat down to face my enemy. It was me vs. twenty-seven dishes and I was well up for the challenge. My secret weapon was literature which I brought out from my bag in the form of The dharma bums. A word of advice from me to any single traveller going to a buffet would be to do the same. Bringing a book along makes it look like you have other interests than gluttony and one can easily hide behind the same. I kept reading and eating, eating and reading, burping, reading and eating, eating and reading, burping…until I was shocked out of the mundane routine by the screams of a German group of tourists running outside waving their flag. I remembered that Germany were playing Argentina that day and couldn’t believe that I forgotten to watch the match. A post-mortem revealed that Germany had won over penalty shoot-out. Miserable with the result, I ate some more and walked out of the restaurant.
I fancied a hair-cut but couldn’t afford looking neat. However, sloppiness was inexpensive so I chose to go to Zone 1 and buying some cans of cider. I finished these cans sitting under the memorial fountain and sat there drunk and observing London. The thing about London is that it never lies, even when it is lying. Things always have the same pace but with the right kind of eyes you can see the subtle changes and the shifts and bends. I saw that the whole town was nothing but a maddened climax where everything was eventually going to burn and somewhat disturbed by this conclusion, I walked to Charing Cross road and sat at a bus-stop seat. A guy from Ghana approached me and asked me if I had a Rizla paper or cigarettes. Asking him why, he told me that he wanted to roll a spliff and would share his goods with me. To help in the noble cause, I went to a nearby shop and bought a pack (-70=£13.80). He was delighted by my contribution and we went to Soho square where we sat and smoked the good old green. Sometimes I fell like the drugs like me more than I like them. They follow me no matter which city or village I end up in. We exchanged life stories under a flickering street-light and spoke of our ambitions. He said he wanted to get a good job, save up and start his own hotel. I told him that I wanted to write a ‘heartbreaking work of staggering genius’ and laughed. He didn’t get it. Truth be told, neither did I. Must be the weed. Anyway, after his bag was dried up, we shook hands and parted. While he were doing so, I said, ‘See you around’, which I always say to strangers. It seems strange to say to a stranger you met just ten minutes back and whom you will, in all probability, will never meet again but I say it anyway. It removes the strange bit from strangers. I slept under the Criterion again.
The next morning, it was rise and shine and ‘wait a minute…what the…’ There was no traffic on Piccadilly Circus and the giant clock before said it was ten. I had overslept but only because of the lack of traffic. Then I remembered. London was hosting a gay parade on this Saturday. All round me gay Gay people ran up and down with beer and ice-cream. Slightly unnerved by the revelation I went through my daily morning routine. The Hyde Park Calling festival would open its gates at two in the afternoon and I planned to get drunk before I got in because I couldn’t really afford the expensive stupor inside the arena. After killing some time walking around and watching the pink floats pass by. The city was more colourful than usual and there is no pun intended here. I kept my eyes open for hot lesbian couples as there is nothing better than two women sharing love.
There was the booze-shopping to do so I went to a nearby Tesco and bought two litres of vodka and two packs of cigarettes (-11=£2.80) and walked to Hyde Park between the thousands of ‘the only gay in the village’. I wanted to get really close to the stage if I had sacrificed everything I had to get into the arena. I mixed the vodka in four bottles of coke and hid it in my rucksack. The security guard checked my bag but seeing only Coca-cola bottles, let me pass. I was overjoyed.
(to be continued...)