Somehow or other I was on Blacktown Station at half past midnight, in the cold. A man was lying on one of the seats, asleep or in a coma. A security guard came and roused him, and organised him into a train standing on the other side of the platform, and drew my attention to it too. Thank God for the security guards to give us some assistance; there is no one else to do so on our stations at night. Without him I’d have missed the last train which comes in from Seven Hills, but this time it was apparently waiting at Blacktown. There was quite a collection of people already settled in the upstairs compartment, where I betook myself, glad to be able to wait inside.
A young woman, Westie-looking, that is, check flannelette shirt, tracksuit pants, a bit scruffy, came along the aisle and accosted me. Could I give her $2 for a taxi home from the station?
“That won’t get you far, will it?” I queried, forking out. But some other people had given her money too, she said, and some food, a sausage roll and chips. They were so kind, she added, making me feel somewhat deficient in generosity, which perhaps was her intention, her technique. I left it at that.
She moved away, but when the train started she returned and sat in the seat in front of me (actually behind, we were facing backwards), and engaged me in conversation, then appeared to go to sleep. She was seven months pregnant, she told me, and was getting off at Windsor, but had to get to a caravan park at PittTown, some ten kilometres away. As I get off at Windsor, I pretty much accepted my fate then and there, that I would be driving her home. Nevertheless, when we alighted at Windsor I maintained the fiction that she might get a taxi, and there actually was one waiting on the forecourt.
“Go and ask what it costs,” I said.
“Twelve dollars,” the driver told her. She said she had four, and he was non-committal.
“Come on,” I said, “I’ll drive you home.” I then remembered that I was very low on petrol, and hoped that it would see me through the twenty kilometres or so needed to get me there and back.
“You’d have thought he’d take me,” she said of the taxi driver, with modest righteousness, “seeing I’m pregnant.”
In the course of the train trip, the short walk to the car, and the drive to PittTown, the details of her story were laid one on another, creating an ever more involved picture of disorder. As she looked in her late teens (she was in fact 23), I’d assumed this was her first pregnancy, which made my attitude to her more protective than it might have been if I’d known it was her fifth. She’d had her first child, a daughter, at fourteen, and this child lived with her mother (the child’s grandmother) in a caravan at PittTown, where she was now going. Her husband and three other children were living in public housing in Balmain, where she too had lived until four months ago when her husband threw her out. She didn’t offer any explanation as to why he threw her out, neither did she express any resentment or blame. After that she’d lived on the streets for several months, down Liverpool or Campbelltown way, where, I gathered, she’d been visiting that day; but she had recently joined her mother in the PittTown caravan. I wondered privately who was looking after the other children while their father was at work; but it turned out that he was unemployed, solving that problem.
She brought up the hardship, the cold, of living on the streets. As she was receiving my help I thought I had a right to give some advice and told her that she should have used her dole money to buy a sleeping bag. When travelling in my youth, often hitch-hiking, I did plenty of sleeping in odd places, and was always reasonably comfortable with a sleeping bag. Indeed, even now I feel rather nervous travelling without one, just in case I get stranded somewhere. However, I didn’t tell her all this, but I said that she should get organized and share a house. Rooms in a shared house are as cheap as $70 a week around Windsor, although as she was so pregnant it might be difficult to get one now. People sharing probably don’t want to take on a new baby, at least before they know the mother well. She should have done it earlier.
As we’d walked to the car in Brabyn Street, she’d told me that she thought she might go to one of the churches in Windsor. ‘Yes,’ I thought cynically, ‘they’ll feel an obligation to serve you free, unlike the taxi driver.’ I suggested she try a very vigorous evangelical sect, whose meeting place was in the next block, as likely to be an enthusiastic resource. She believed in God, she told me, although people said it was superstitious. She thought that people needed to believe in God in order to do the right thing, which, put baldly, the experience of the last thirty years has made pretty much my own view.
It later emerged that not only were her mother and daughter living in the caravan at Pitt Town, but also her sister and sister’s partner, all for $170 a week. Both the latter were unemployed too. I suggested that with all that welfare money coming in (about $900 a week for the lot of them), surely they could rent a house rather than a caravan. Three-bedroom houses rent for as little as $180 a week in this area.
As this shows, I have taken, advisedly, to giving advice to mendicant recipients of my bounty, mainly so as to make it a human rather than a mechanical exchange, and also so that, as the receivers, they can’t feel, inappropriately, that they have entirely controlled the encounter. When visiting the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the vicinity of the Town Hall, I am often accosted by beggars, sometimes two or three times in a day. A woman who pushes a small child in a stroller both there and near Redfern Station, has singled me out several times. I’ve seen her over a number of years and the child never seems to get any older. She asks for money “for food”. Once I advised her to buy potatoes for maximum food value for money, but I don’t really suppose she cooks. When young people ask me for a fare, I sometimes suggest they repay it to someone else some day.
My companion could easily, I felt, have held down a service job if she had improved her clothes a little. Throughout our encounter she was nicely spoken, with a good accent, a pleasant intonation, no bad language. But her skills were, instead, exercised in getting free goods and services by throwing herself on the tender mercies of others. Why should she be coming home so late at night, with no money? If she could organize her day and her money to go out, could she not also do it for her return? But by coming home so late she greatly increased her chances of cadging a free lift – at an earlier hour she wouldn’t have stood out so clearly as needing assistance. And twice she had neatly expressed her expectations of charity.
She did, however, keep up the decencies. When it turned out that I would drive her she offered me my $2 back. I said, “Don’t worry.” We drove into the caravan park, on the far side of PittTown, down on the Bottoms, along a long, dark drive to a turning circle among the caravans, where I stopped. “This is an old car,” she remarked as she got out, then added, “God bless you.”