He’s there again. Squatting against the wall. His eyes half closed. A blue nylon sleeping bag draped over his knees. I wrestle my pound coin out of the trolley with a wry smile. A couple of miles across town the supermarket trolleys don’t need to be locked down like this. Tesco’s know their demographic. I pocket the pound and turn my attention to Sid. His eyelids flicker. His face is lined. Hollow-cheeked. Fading and yellowing like an ancient parchment.
We must stop meeting like this.
He opens his eyes and struggles to focus. I persist.
How are you doing?
Oh … I’m OK. You know. Happy days.
He gives a whole new meaning to the concept of OK. And happy. Nonetheless he drags himself awake. We chat about the community café where I work. He’s a regular customer. Cheese and onion sandwich on white, a hunk of bread pudding and a nice cup of tea. He puts a few pence in the pot once in a while, if life’s been kinder than usual to him. He says he wants to marry the bread pudding. May be best not to let on that I make it.
Have you got a place to stay?
To be honest, that sleeping bag’s a bit of a giveaway. Not that it looks as if it would keep much weather out.
I lost my keys.
That’s one way to describe being evicted from his seedy bedsit.
I’m sleeping at the church.
We had The Conversation about me giving him money a few months ago. Today he’s got a craving for doughnuts. Make a nice change from Special Brew, I should think. They’re BOGOF at the moment, so I pick up two bags from the bakery counter. One custard. One jam. There’s change from the pound because of the offer, so I stretch a point and give it him. He bites into a jam doughnut. Offers me the bag, but I’ve not long eaten. He’ll need all the calories he can get tonight. I don’t like the look of that sky.
Sid and I inhabit very different universes. It’s not so long since I wouldn’t even have seen him there, much less chatted and bought doughnuts. It’s amazing how effective my blinkers used to be. I lived in a different box back then. It was a nice box. It was small. But I liked it. In fact I clung to it for dear life. To tell the truth, it wasn’t all that great a box, but it was comfy. In a squished-up, myopic kind of way. After all, I was normal, wasn’t I? I did what people expected of me. I lived the Right Way.
Life began to prise the lid off my box quite gently at first. I closed my eyes. Scrunched myself into a corner. Life became more insistent. It took me to new places. Introduced me to people who didn’t expect the same things of me. Eventually, it grew impatient with my fears. It smashed what remained of the original box to smithereens.
I had two choices then. I could have built a stronger box and retreated into it, licking my wounds and muttering. It’s not fair. What did I ever do to deserve this? To this day I don’t know why or how I didn’t. Instead I decided to step out of the debris. To stumble away, squinting and blinking in the light. A line from a Chris Rea song springs to mind. Newborn eyes always cry with pain, first look at the morning sun. It was the most painful decision of my life. But also the best I could have made.
I’d love to be able to tell you I’ve never looked back. If you know me at all, you’d know I was lying though. In fact I’ve become adept at box-building. I once spent two years without a home to call my own. I managed to construct a box for myself wherever I laid my head. No matter how cramped and uncomfortable. I suppose we all need boxes. They keep us safe. Help us to make sense of the world. When we start to compare our box with others. That’s when the trouble begins. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and one of my favourite spiritual teachers, puts it this way. We compare, we copy, we compete, we conflict, we conspire, we condemn and we crucify.
A lot of us want to crucify Sid. He’s a soft target. Especially for politicians. He doesn’t know what day it is most of the time, so he’s never going to vote. Besides, he makes the place look untidy. He reminds us that the world isn’t actually a cosy, all-inclusive consumerist dream. Now they want to take away his benefits if he refuses to go to rehab. An interesting idea. Sid would love to go to rehab. He’s had enough of the addiction box. But there isn’t any funding.
I consider it a privilege to have seen a box similar to Sid’s from the inside. It didn’t feel much of a privilege at the time, mind. Anything but. Seeing Charlie drink himself to death, taking down everything in his path as he went, gave me a terrifying insight into the power of addiction. The walls of my boxes have always been built of fear. For people living with addiction, that fear is multiplied beyond my wildest nightmares. Addiction so often has its roots in trauma, yet we choose to treat it as a crime. We punish the adult victims of child abuse. Physical. Emotional. Sexual. We cut their compensation when they fail to step up. When their attempts to numb the pain get out of hand we shame them. Vilify them. Threaten them. Imprison them. All because their box doesn’t look as good as ours. We never take the time to look inside. Perish the thought. After all, we might discover what’s actually in the box is nothing but a terrified child, still hiding under the bedclothes, waiting for the footsteps on the stairs. Then where would all our one-up-personship be?
I don’t know the half of Sid’s story. I haven’t been able to find out the name of the man who died in Calais this week. I’ve never met the family from Duma whose eighteen-month-old child was burned to death by Israeli settlers, touting their own special little box. Perhaps there’d have been an international outcry if the dead child’s name had been Cecil instead of Ali Saad Dawabsheh. What I do know is that not one of those human beings is worth more nor less than any of the rest of us. They’re unique, extraordinary people. All living out their lives in different boxes. Different means different. Not better. Not worse. Each one the entire ocean in a drop. If we’d only break out of our own boxes. Even peek outside from time to time. Then maybe we’d begin to change the world.