Thirty Thousand Streets

Thursday, July 05, 2007


I sometimes notice homeless people on the streets seem to have their individual outfits which (for quite obvious reasons) they wear again and again. There's the grizzled old red faced man, who sits swilling super strength cider from a can, on the steps of the solicitors opposit Camberwell Green. He's always wearing his trademark filthy Bench beanie hat.

By bringing this up I'm not trying to pen a Vice fashion article. I just think there's something quite poignant about this, these clothes that the homeless quite literally live in. Sometimes I'll see an old gent, wearing a suit shiney with filth, augmented with a palimpsest of burns, tears and stains, and wonder: Is that the last thing you put on before things fell, utterly, apart? The last suit in your wardrobe you put on the day your landord changed the locks on you; the suit you were wearing the day you parked your car up by the sea and kept on walking. Perhaps not. But it sometimes seems to me that as a second skin, each rip is a scar that marks successive bumps down the crooked staircase to hell.

Last weekend I went out in the morning to buy some bread from Sophocles Bakers. On my way back I spied two girls and a man outside Paul's Olive Shop. I say girls – they were in their late 20s or early 30s. They were gobbling water melon and spraying pips at the ground, alternately swigging at glasses of rose wine. At first I took them for people wallowing in the aftermath of a nights clubbing, but there was something really odd about the tableaux.. as I turned to watch them stumble across the road in the direction of The Flying Fish I realised that they were obscenely drunk, completely shitfaced, slurring, bumping into one another in a kind of spastic dance. In terms of dress they were quite presentable however, and I couldn't quite work out whether they were just hardcore boozers, or people toasting a deeper troth with alcohol, taking the first tentative steps on a path infinitely longer and more folorn than that to the off-license.

I found this thought unsettling. You see the same faces on the streets drinking away the pain, but once they've slipped off the bottom rung it seems hard to track orders of magnitude in the arc of their terminal decline, as all niceties, nuances and graces are ground away by the bitter friction of the street, to be discarded like old cans. As someone moderately obsessed with appearances, this reflexive slump seems like the ultimate gesture of despair, and to see someone swaying at the crossroads leading there is not a happy sight.

Alcoholism seems like a ruinous disease, which is hard to pick out in the fuzzy penumbra of our boozy national culture, but then many addictions, left unchecked, are witheringly degrading. Yesterday a smack-head (I suppose) came into the carriage I was in on a train begging. She was truly a pitiful sight: face a map of scabs, arms visible beneath tracksuit sleeves garlanded with trackmarks. She looked somewhere between 18 and 40. She came as a supplicant, tremulous voice wavering for cash. "sorry love" I said, uncomfortably. The business-man opposite me sat watching, blanky. She swiftly moved to repeat her pitch in the next carriage, but after a short pursuit was apprehended by the ticket inspector, and bounced off at the next stop into the not-so-welcoming arms of the British Transport Police.

I read on t'internet the other day that Heroin is, in itself, not that harmful to the human body. Far more damaging is the shit it's cut with, or sharing needles, or simply the fact that when you're into Heroin, you're not into very much else.. such as eating, washing yourself etc. There's a bit I remember from The Naked Luch, where William Burroughs talks about being off his face on smack, content to stare in rapture at the end of his foot for hours. Heroin it would seem, is not a thing to do if you want to do things; lest they be things related to the feverish topping up of your pay as you go contract with the brown stuff.

Against this yardstick many addictions seem relatively benign. My personal fetish for 12 inch circles of black plastic has waned somewhat recently, but even so only caused mild structural damage to the floors of my parents house in its sheer vinyl tonnage. Having said that I read that the hip hop producer Marco Polo goes digging for records wearing a surgical mask, in case a crate should be booby-trapped with asbestos, but that seems more an occupational hazard than anything else.

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