Lightness to dark: begging on the London Underground

The Northern Line train pulled into Old Street underground station, where a handful of people got on and a handful off. The carriage seats were mostly occupied and two black lads, of cheerful disposition and medium build, dressed in casual clothes, were sat on the seats nearest to the door at the back of the carriage. Playfully they exchanged jokes and conversation, but this dried up, momentarily, at the sight of a thin pair of legs, covered in tatty looking jeans, supported by two unsteady feet entombed in battered white trainers.

‘See you later’ said the new arrival, whose body was twisted so he was facing the platform, as the train alarm pulsed to signify the doors closing. As the man’s torso straightened, swinging his face in the direction of the front of the carriage, passengers looked up to see the state of the trainers were reflected in the man’s, gaunt, skewiff, grazed and dentally problematic physiognomy.

Finding an unusual interest in their own feet, commuters knew what was coming, a piece of theatre, a monologue, a plea, skillfully crafted, clearly delivered, pitched with the kind of professionalism that you might expect in an interview for a city job. They knew they’d be recipients of a political speech which gives the sense of a man on the mend, a man who is looking to make a new start, a healthy start,

Hello everyone, sorry for interrupting you, I know it’s the end of the working day and you don’t really need this especially on a winter’s day like today, I wont take up too much of your time. I’m looking to collect enough money to get a hostel for the end of the night, I don’t mean to intimidate or annoy anyone, but anything you could spare, if its food or any small amount of money, would be greatly appreciated, if you could imagine if everyone gave just a few coppers or a five pence piece, thank-you very much.

By the time the man had gotten to the end of his speech everyone was looking into their newspapers or were sat like zombies penetrating the walls of the underground tunnel with a thousand yard stare, their eyes, relaxed, buoyed by the undulations of the train on the underground track. The commuters, affecting nonchalance, knew the man would shuffle his way through the isle, with a cap in hand, collecting whatever people might find in their hearts and minds to give, a couple of quid, some food, for which he would earnestly say, ‘Thank-you madam’, ‘Bless you’. Failing any charitable act, he would, having worked his way to the end of the isle empty-handed, stop in the space next to the double doors, separating one set of seats from another, and compose himself to deliver the speech once more.

Only this didn’t happen.

There was no shuffling down the isle. Instead, after a brief silence, a different tone of voice could be heard, a deeply vengeful aggressive tone, filtered through deep-seated phlegm, ‘You think I’m scum, you think we’re scum!’

This turn of events raised a few eyebrows.

Eyes and heads cautiously looked upwards, to ascertain the object of his diatribe, to see who could have provoked this invective.  It quickly became apparent that it was the general apathy of the passengers, which had piqued him. This man who had moments before beseeched people not to feel intimidated, launched into a tirade, threatening to ‘fuck up’ someone in the carriage if they didn’t give him something. He threatened to find out where people lived and smash their children.

Eyes quickly turned to newspapers and laps, darting nervously every now and then just to see where the man was stood, just to monitor as to whether a bit of flight or fight might be called for.

A needlessly and unwitting comical touch was added by the fact that whilst he was spewing vitriol at the greed and selfishness of the congregation, he was also trying to eat a piece of shortcake, bits of which seemed to be flying off into the air, like the shrapnel of a grenade, powered by the momentum of his invective. I wiped a piece off my trousers as his venom spewed forth.

The train eased to a stop for a breather at Moorgate. The rumble of the engine came to a stop, allowing the man’s words to be heard more clearly, his rant and threats continued, ‘You wait, I’ll fucking find you on the street, I’ll fucking get one of you, I’ll come at you and fuck you up, and take your coat off you, this is the fourth Christmas that I’ve had to do this, you selfish fucking dirty cunts’ at which he stepped off the tube.

A collective sigh of relief could be felt if not heard.

As the tube had come to a stop, one of the black lads, had, rather provocatively, started sniggering, as the man delivered his parting lines, and once the man had vanished, he and his friend broke out into a fit of giggling. ‘He’s your man’ said his friend ‘he’s coming for you, he’s going to take your coat’.

The guy chuckled, recounting how he had initially felt a little sorry for the man and had, moments before the man broke off into a rant, been routing around in his pockets for a bit of loose change.


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