A homeless man is tormenting me. He is enormous, strangely formless, a begrimed golem forever trudging up and Gedimino Avenue. He has a towering shock of matted hair and fiery beard and root-like hands. He is not so much a man as a miasma bound and bundled together in thick, dirt-stitched layers of clothing. He oozes around from morning to night along the same few streets. Sometimes I see him three or four times a day.
At first we were on nodding terms. It was only natural, our paths regularly crossed while promenading. I was impressed by his proud smirk, his arrogant bearing. I would usually see him on Gedimino Avenue, defiantly tramping along, lugging his bagged belongings with him, up and down the most prestigious and well-maintained street in Vilnius (they were pruning the already nicely groomed trees just the other day).
I became intensely curious about the man. Who was he? How had he ended up living on the streets? Inevitably, I made the mistake of romanticising him; I became convinced that his homelessness was not the fault of misfortune or a measure of madness but a conscious choice to reject the intramural cell of domestic existence. He was a larger-than-life figure haunting the political heart of the country. Gedimino Avenue is home to nearly all the major ministries of government; it is bookended by the cathedral at one extreme and the parliament at the other. This man seemed to be deliberately trudging from one end of the street to the other in some very personal, very intense form of protest. He was, I suspected, deliberately proclaiming his poverty to the world while airing his philosophical indifference to it.
Soon I began giving him money and buying him cigarettes and coffee (usually from a kiosk). One day I even took him to a fashionable café in the Old Town where we sat outside and sipped espresso. Everyone looked at us. I liked it. I thought stupidly, deludedly: I am a good person. But then I saw too much of him, too often. He was always there, steadily advancing towards me, with his lumbering gait, his accusing eyes, his rooty hands reaching out.
My mother had an irrational fear of becoming homeless. Perhaps it was because she grew up in poverty. Perhaps it was the abstract feeling of guilt instilled in her from years of attending a strict Catholic school. I sometimes imagine that I will end up homeless too: but the prospect does not fill me with terror. It would, I fear, be a logical outcome to my life.
Homelessness has always exerted a profound fascination over me; it even called out to me as a vocation one tearful, rainy evening in Marylebone. In/out. Are you in or out? Two teeny little prepositions that supposedly denote our physical relationship to society. In; a flimsy statistical notion of shelter. In; a laughably leaky idea of protection from the elemental forces at work in our lives. I have slept on a few benches and in a few doorways myself so I am not wholly without knowledge of what it feels like to be homeless. I once knew a Japanese girl (we drunkenly, accidentally set our flat ablaze) who would regularly punish her imaginary sins by sleeping on a bench. It made perfect sense to me. Once upon a time I slept in a cardboard box on a rainy night in the middle of nowhere in Spain. I’m not saying I would like to do that every night (I love my creature comforts) but I can honestly say that I felt more at home in that box than I have ever felt in any of the many hotels in which I have pernoctated. I do not romanticise homelessness but believe it would be a sure-fire way of exorcising the source of all my woes: my vanity.
The man began angrily pointing at his mouth whenever we met. He opened it wide to reveal the source of his suffering. His gums were violently inflamed. His teeth were falling out. He wobbled an incisor in front of me just to make sure I understood. I nodded hard, I nodded harder. When I saw his shifting bulk in the distance (it was instantly recognisable), I began fixedly staring at the pavement or even crossed the street to avoid him. He was plaguing my conscience. He was always there, advancing towards me, flaunting his degradation, parading his wretchedness.
He is not stupid – I feel it (I heard tale he was a maths teacher). Nor is he insane – I sense it. But he grew aggressive in his demands for money. He cupped his thick rooty digits and thrust them at me. When I solemnly shook my head, he scowled and shuffled away. It disturbed me to discover that he was on the make just like everyone else. I felt aggrieved that he perceived me solely as a walking cash dispenser. I would like to believe that if I was homeless and destitute I would sooner live off scraps of trash than ask anyone for money. It is easy to say that; horribly, ridiculously, meaninglessly easy. God only knows what depths I would stoop to just to survive, to keep my pathetic hopes and dreams alive.
Everyone knows who I am talking about whenever I mention him. “Oh, you mean the big beardy bum,” they say. They make him sound like a quaint comic character. He certainly plays his walk-on role in city life with aplomb. By providing a perfect pictorial definition of homelessness. Children ask their mother, “Why is that man so dirty and smelly?” Their mothers reply in a slightly strained voice, “He’s like that because he’s homeless.” No cause – only brutal effect. Some people glibly remark that homelessness is his “choice” or even his “lifestyle”. Nothing infuriates me more.
Many ignorantly conceive of poverty, in all its manifestations, as a sign of laziness, weakness or stupidity. Others attribute a metaphysical, even mystical rationale to it. There is little empathy for the casino-like odds that predetermine it for vast numbers of people. There is scant acknowledgement of the systematic, institutionalized culture of greed that engenders it. What makes this man such a conundrum for me is that, outwardly at least, he seems to be living the dream. He is probably homeless out of choice but he does not live like that to make easy money (as some claim). He does not sit in a carefully selected spot all day long (lots of foot traffic), advertising his abjection (oodles of guilt), cap in hand (tons of tourists). He does not return home after a hard day’s panhandling to a comfortable apartment (as some claim) but sleeps curled up on a bench near the parliament. The temperature is set to fall to as low as -24°C over the next few days. In such temperatures I would do anything to be in rather than out. But year after year, he somehow survives. Like my conscience, he is seemingly indestructible. When spring comes around, and most people are scouring the muddy ground for snowdrops and narcissi, I’m looking around Gedimino Avenue to see if he has made it through yet another long, brutal, miserable winter. Oh, shit, look, there he is, still going strong…
The enormous, strangely formless man torments my conscious and haunts my complacency. I dread it when I see him advancing, step by grinding step, in my direction. I can imagine what homelessness is. It is a bloated brain. It is the dragging of dead weight around. It is a mephitic cloud around you that repels all humanity. It is the perpetual hunt for the next cigarette butt. The man survives the freezing winters, the scorching summers. He loses his teeth but still keeps going. He walks all day long but goes nowhere. Why isn’t he out of his mind yet? Who is this golem of Gedimino Avenue? Who is this proud, pitiful, terrifyingly resilient creature that shadows me everywhere?