A blog of endless curiosity
I met George (not his real name) at the bus stop in my suburb, which is just far enough away from the city to become a melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities. He asked me what bus I was waiting for, and at first I thought he wanted directions. He sounded Vietnamese, late thirties or older. I waited for him to ask me if the bus he was waiting on is often late. I opened my mouth to tell him how unreliable the buses here can be sometimes when he started in on a different tangent. He began to talk about the disconnectedness between people, about the gadgets in the shops, and how if he offered assistance to someone whose car had broken down by the side of the road they would decline, thinking he wanted to be paid for it. The way he spoke, joining several ideas together at one time, was kind of disjointed, but I could hear the same concern beneath all his patter. He was worried about the changes in his social world that he had experienced in the last twenty years. He seemed to have recently experienced a degree of racism he had not encountered in his youth.
He was also having some difficulties with supporting himself. He said he used to work in factories, and pointed off to the giant fig tree that blocked our view of the city, but these are closed now, or when he goes back they won’t hire him anymore. He says he lived somewhere else for a while, to see if the job situation was any better there, but he ended up coming back to the suburb where he had tried but failed to complete high school. I asked him where he worked now. He was wearing a pair of stained but fastidiously laundered workers overalls, the kind mechanics wear, with a newspaper and a tattered A4 envelope in one hand. I figured he was on his way to work. He said he worked at a farm further out of town, just a few days a week, but the people he worked for are no good and won’t give him more work.
He wandered away for a while, searching for his bus. I watched the pigeons trying to find footholds on the gothic church across the four lane main road, and waited for him to return and chat, as I knew he would. He did.
George seemed particularly worried about the fact that if you had a car accident with someone and didn’t have insurance that you would have to pay unthinkable sums of money to the other car owner, even if it wasn’t your fault. And who had money for a lawyer? he said, did I? I told him I didn’t. He seemed to think the police should do something about this.
It’s difficult, I said, particularly when some people couldn’t afford insurance, or lawyers but needed a car to get to their employment. George nodded enthusiastically. He needed my agreement. I thought of asking him if this was his predicament, but he had changed the subject already, and it seemed pretty clear to me the answer would be yes.
It also became clear as we spoke that George was distressed. About particulars, certainly, but also in general, with the world and his place in it. He also spoke about writing letters to the Prime Minister about his troubles, and though once he had been certain of a reply (he told me someone at his high school just down the road from our stop had assured him he would get one) he no longer was. He said that before, the government had focused on pulling people up, pulling their situation up, but he didn’t think they did that anymore. He intimated he was on his way to a community centre to get his case worker’s help in writing a new letter to the PM, and asked me if he thought he’d get a reply. I should have told him I hoped so, but I said instead I didn’t know and that I thought there were too many people in a nation for one government’s jurisdiction to be fair. George again agreed enthusiastically.
The fact was that George clearly had some mental health problems, as well as his financial difficulties. He was very social, knew when to listen, for the most part was very articulate and knew how to invite someone into a conversation. And it was obvious there wasn’t a lot of support for him, or that he didn’t know how to go about getting it. I wondered how many people live in my city whose mental health is hugely affected by their perception of their place in their society, by their ability to provide for themselves, and their disadvantaged situation in terms of their rights in society and how to use them. George was articulating his frustration at being helpless in the face of structural inequalities of society, and the experience of being unheard amongst a sea of voices. I wondered whether that frustration could grind on long enough to break a person. I thought it could.
George wandered away again, and left me to my pigeon staring. He shouted a goodbye and have a good day as he got on his bus. You too mate! I said, hoping he could hear I was sincere. The other people at the bus stop looked away.
George, I hope the PM writes you back and that it’s the answer you hoped for.
– Yours, DS