(tw: suicide, homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse)
On Monday, there’s a group of punks sitting by the train station, on my way back from class. I’m wearing a second hand coat that I know looks expensive. They’re wearing studded black leather vests that look shabby. There’s three of them. Two are holding cups, rattling the coins in them. One looks at me. He takes a step forward, so I focus on the next street corner. I’m busy, I have to get home, I’m important, I don’t have any coins with me. I round the corner and think about what I should make for lunch.
On Tuesday, there’s a group of punks sitting by the train station, on my way back from class. I don’t take note of what they’re wearing. They’re looking at me, and I wonder if they can read my thoughts, or see the panic on my face. I just gave money to a homeless man yesterday. I can’t feed everyone. I don’t want to think about it. I walk faster.
On Wednesday, there’s a group of punks sitting by the train station, on my way back from class. It’s cold. They must be freezing. I pull my scarf tighter. I wouldn’t want to live like that, I think. But I’m not like them. I’m nothing like them. I don’t want to think about it.
On Thursday, there’s a group of punks sitting by the train station, on my way back from class, walking with a friend. It’s late and dark. The punks call after us.
I turn around. I look at them.
There are three people sitting by the train station. One of them asks us for money. He’s got hair like me, short and brown.
“I’m all out of coins, sorry.” It sounds like a lie even though it isn’t. I bite my lip.
He grins. “But you’ve got a cool bike. Can I borrow it? I’ll just go ’round the block.”
Another one comes up behind him. “You shouldn’t give your bike to this guy if you want it back in one piece,” he says.
“No, look. I’ll bring it back. My vest’s over there. That’s worth way more than this bike.”
Something gnaws at my insides, the little beast with the teeth named fear, prejudice, worry, mistrust. I pull it’s teeth out of my gut.
“Okay. But bring it back in one piece.”
The little beast squeals. I watch my bike go, and the bite of its teeth still stings a little.
“If you don’t have any money I can lend you some,” one of the punks jokes. “Here, have a cent.” He hands me a cent.
“Oh. Cool. Thanks,” I say. “We can trade. I’ve also got one.” I fish a 1 cent coin from my jeans pocket and hand it to him. He laughs.
I ask Mohawk what his name is. He shrugs. “I’ve always wanted to be called Max. And when people guess my name, that’s what they come up with, you know? Max.”
There’s a bunch of bottle stoppers stuck to the shoulders of his jacket, and a lock on a chain around his neck. I show him the key on my necklace. We don’t check whether they fit.
“You know this song?” Max asks, starting to hum. “It’s about how mad this world is. How fucked up. But there’s some people who don’t want to play along. That’s punk. I’ve always kinda identified with that.”
“Okay, I’ll look it up.”
“I can sing it to you. I’m not a very good singer, but I’m gonna sing it.”
He sings that song for us. He looks at me. I look at my hands. I look at the ground. I look at his eyes. His eyes are blue and he doesn’t blink and the side of his head is shaved and his ears are pierced.
The other guy comes back with my bike. It’s still in one piece.
Max tells us that he’s probably not going to make it past 30. He say’s he’s 22, but that he should’ve died so many times by now. Max has been on a motorcycle in nothing but a t-shirt, and other people have died just crossing the street. Just crossing the street, can you imagine? Max isn’t sure whether he’s going to kill himself. He doesn’t know what he’s alive for. People are running around like machines, little gears turning, working, functioning. He can’t be a part of that. He’s just thinking too much. He can’t stop thinking.
It doesn’t matter. All this is going down the drain soon. World War Three. Nuclear fallout. I ask whether that’s of any comfort to him, but he looks freaked out by my words.
“You want me to feel good about all of this going to shit? The 5% of decent people in this world? The animals that don’t deserve any of it? The plants? Nature? Explain that to me, how would I ever feel good about that?”
“No, you’re right,” I admit. He’s right.
“You know, most people treat you like dirt when you’re homeless. They ignore you, they tell you to go work. They insult you. But sometimes there’s people who are kind and who stop and talk to you, like you’re doing now. Just for those 5% I wouldn’t want this to happen.”
He’s bouncing my own words back at me, and he doesn’t even know. Or maybe he knows, maybe he’s seen my eyes and thought the same thing. That he could be me. That I could be him. I blink away tears.
He’s been in therapy, he says. All these therapists, all they ever did was f***ing listen.
“I asked them if there was any answer they could give me. And they couldn’t.”
Max says he would’ve liked to become a therapist, because he knows what it’s like to be depressed, but that there are laws preventing people who’ve suffered from mental illness from becoming therapists. How crazy is that? How can you try to help people if you’ve got no idea what they’re going through? He wouldn’t be able to study anyway. His voice breaks when he talks, but it’s his eyes that are breaking me, they’re sucking me in, honest. Honest. Honest. Pretty. Real.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say. It’s all I can say. I try to think about what kind of life I’ve had. How little it would have taken for me to be where he is now. My fingers are shaking when I fumble a 10€ note from my pocket.
“I wasn’t going for that,” Max says, hurt, maybe. Offended?
“I know,” I say lamely. I know. I know. I know. “But get yourself some food. Please.” It’s not enough. Of course it’s not enough.
We keep talking. Has he got any hope? No. Nothing he likes? No… just motorcycles. No one? Not really. These guys are a pack of wolves banded together by necessity. They don’t get him. He’s not sure people would care if he died, he’s watched so many people die, just where they slept, in front of the concert hall.
“I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything. I just felt this incredible nothing. I don’t know if you know what I mean.”
“I’m happy I met you today,” I tell him, not sure if that means anything to him. And happy isn’t right. I’m not happy. I’m crying.
“I’m just one year older but I know that things can change,” I say. “They did for me. I’ve changed this year. Look. Listen. The world is crazy. The world is shit.”
I tell him all of that’s true. But that at one point, I realised I can’t keep focusing on how the rest of the world is at fault for how I turned out. I mean, that’s true, too. But it’s useless. At some point I knew that I needed to take my life into my own hands because the world will never be a place that’s easy for me.
“I can’t change all of that at once, but I can change me, and what I do, and what I think, and who I’m around. There are people who are like you. Please. Keep fighting.”
I’m saying all this because we’re the same. But at the same time I know we’re not, have never been, could never be the same. I’m rich by some standards. I know. I’ve had opportunities that he never had. I know. I’ve got a key around my neck, he’s only got a lock. And that makes everything I say sound hollow.
I don’t want this to be about me. But then again, I don’t know how to step entirely out of myself, or whether that’s even possible. I don’t want to stylise these experiences to make me seem like a good person, but I value them for what they’ve taught me, and what they’ve made me understand about my own privileges. How they’ve taught me to feel compassion for people who on the surface seem to be very different.
I think I understand now, that people end up in different situations for entirely unfair reasons. That when someone drinks nine beers and say they only wanted to drink two, but didn’t want to spoil the fun for the others, it’s both an excuse, and it’s not. That they’re not lying. That being a homeless alcoholic is an incredibly complicated thing. And I understand that you can’t save anyone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be there for people trying to save themselves. It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. That’s all I can say.
On Friday, there’s a group of people sitting by the train station. They’re a little like me. And I’m a little like them. We grin at each other. I sit down. They’ve got beer. I’ve got fritz-kola.