PERSONAL HISTORY

Conversations with Strangers

Doodle by author

I decided to shut the cafe early. The high street was deserted and a storm was brooding. I tidied the bench, then went to collect the outdoor furniture when a homeless man stumbled around the corner. He didn’t say he was homeless. But he had a trolley of blankets, matted hair and wore layers of clothes, tattered and threadbare. Actually, he didn’t say anything at all. He just sat on an outside stool and stared vacantly at the rain ricocheting off the pavement.

“Can I help you?” I said.

He craned around and opened his dirt-laden palm to reveal a handful of half-opened lollies. “Starburst?” he said.

“I’m alright, thank you.”

Avoiding eye contact, he raked the sweets with his thumb. “You can have one,” he said. “What’s your favourite colour?”

“Ahh, don’t really eat lollies.” I lied. I just don’t eat lollies half-opened and living in a homeless man’s palm.

He picked up a red Starburst with his other hand. “Red’s good. Berry flavour.” He smiled, showing a total of four crooked teeth that looked tired of hanging on. He then looked up, meeting my eyes for the first time — his were brown and bloodshot and looked vacant, like glass.

“Used to pick berries on me old man’s property. Dirty work.” His speech was stilted like he had to think long and hard about every word. “I usually keep the red ones for myself. But you can have a red.” He dangled out the Starburst.

“I couldn’t. Too full.” I rubbed my belly. But he continued to hold it out. So, finally, I accepted, holding the suspiciously wet confectionary with as little skin-to-lolly contact as possible.“Thank you,” I said, trying to sound gracious. “I’ll save it for later. Coffee?”

“Cappuccino,” he said.

“Large?”

“Yep, that’ll do.”

“Sugar?” I suspected a man with only four molars might have a sweet tooth.

“Eight.” Seeing my raised eyebrow, he added, “I need sweetening, mate.”

“Your teeth may beg to differ,” I said, giving him a grin.

“What teeth?”

“True.”

Curiously, the next day he returned. He stumbled out of a chemist two doors down, then buried an arm in a trash can. After feeling around for a minute, he pulled out the butt-end of a cigarette, then he walked back down to the cafe.

“Got a lighter,” he said. I slid one over the bench. After smoking the last straws of tobacco, he put the lighter down and, again, sat on a stool. And that’s where he stayed for over an hour, talking nonsensically, while I listened.

He divulged details about his family’s farm and where he’d travelled. He also mentioned he spent time in jail. He never said why he was sentenced, but when I pressed him to elaborate, he went quiet and stared blankly at the street. He often did that.

I didn’t mind the company, of course. Working alone in a hole-in-the-wall cafe, you learn to welcome conversations with strangers. So I was glad when he returned the next day, too. And the day after, thus establishing a ritual that lasted a month.

Over that time, he disclosed a lot of insider tips to getting by on the streets. So much so, I began to wonder if he thought I was destined for homelessness and could use the advice. On a napkin he drew a guide on how to break into public telephone booths. He even scrawled a map, detailing the best locations in the city to sleep. “And if you’re near the terrace,” he said. “There’s a back alley near Town Hall with a hidden stash of blankets. If you get cold.”

“Thanks?” I said.

During stormy nights, I’d think about him, cold and alone, nestled against a deserted alleyway wall. I wondered how two people who sleep ten kilometres apart, who spend their weekdays on the same street could live such vastly different lives, could be subjected to such different worlds. After one particularly stormy night, I asked him if he slept okay. He looked at me and smiled.

“Pretty hairy, aye,” he said.

“Did you at least wash yourself off?” I said.

“Yeah, mate. Bathed in a puddle ‘round the corner there.” He pointed up the street.

“Not naked, I hope.”

“Who bathes clothed?” he said.

I began to look forward to his arrival, especially after a morning of small talk. I’d even prep his coffee before 1 pm — when he usually rocked up — to give time for the vast quantities of sugar to dissolve into the espresso. This too became a ritual, until he stopped coming.

That he didn’t turn up after doing so every afternoon for a month didn’t necessarily mean anything sinister, I told myself. He could have forgotten to come in during a drug-induced haze or found another cafe.

But after a week, I still hadn’t seen him. And yet, as another storm brewed and the street became deserted again, I waited, remaining until 2 pm, when the cafe officially closed. Finally, I packed up the shop, closed the door and walked to my car. The wind was biting now and I looked forward to a warm shower. The rain sounded solid on the footpath.

Hi. I’m an author of one fun-sized book (Life’s a Batch), a freelance copywriter at Brew Copy, and sometimes I go on Twitter and Instagram. Oh, and I write a newsletter.

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Jayden O'Neil

Jayden O'Neil

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Fiction, humor, essays, doodles. Author (Life’s a Batch), copywriter (Brew Copy), journalist (WA Today, SMH). Perth, Australia.