Monday, November 12, 2007

Homeless On The Streets of Edinburgh

Tramps fascinate me. Not so much in a ‘Ooh, fascinating! Let’s a don an old jacket, grow a beard, grab a bottle of White Lightning and join their tribe in order to learn their ancient and mystic noble traditions’ kind of way, more in a ‘What the hell…?’ kind of way, where the blank can be filled with such phrases as ‘is he drinking?’, ‘is he doing?’ and ‘is he saying?’.

Outside Bedlam Theatre there is a bench that is dedicated to the memory of a student who died a few years ago. This bench is set in concrete and raised about two feet from street level on an extended wall that runs around the front of the theatre. If you sit on it you get a beautiful view all the way up George IV bridge, with the striking dome of New College in the distance. It really is a lovely bench, the perfect kind where you can sit comfortably, relax and watch life happen around you.

In tramp circles it is known as The Bench (emphasis entirely necessary). When tramps arrange to meet up and achieve whatever goal they have set themselves, they meet at The Bench. It is a beacon, a focal point which pulls any tramp within range inexorably towards itself. Fair enough, it is a lovely spot especially for those whose lifestyle means they spend a lot of time outdoors, and it adds a nice effect to the name Bedlam. This is why at any hour of the day The Bench can be found draped in tramps whose goals today seem to be the same as yesterday.

Given that I spend a lot of time at Bedlam I regularly come into contact with these folk. They’re all harmless enough, they stick to themselves, drink and occasionally stumble into the building whilst looking for some kind of mysterious object. Divining anything more about their habits is a challenge due to the lack of the most useful human skill: communication. When a flaky, bleary-eyed, reeking (sorry but they do have a certain fragrance about them) individual lurches towards me and garbles a few sounds, sniffs a bit, rinses and repeats, I normally respond with a few half-hearted ‘Yeah mate’ replies while smiling vaguely, until one of us sort of wonders off. It’s not exactly a melting pot for stimulating conversation.

Now I’ll admit to not being the most natural at making conversation with people I don’t know, but I think of much of the communication problem lies with the gallon per hour intake of White Lightning that your average sized tramp will get through. That much booze can’t be good for you…

It’s not uncommon for those of us who may occasionally and responsibly enjoy getting pissed to be struck with a mind-numbingly brilliant thought that everyone else must hear. In your head you’re coherent, urbane, insightful but for some reason your audience don't agree and start wondering why exactly they’re friends with you. Thankfully you get a good night’s rest and the next day brings the terrifying eye of sobriety and past mistakes are swiftly rectified or ignored.

Not so for the tramps. A constant intake of alcohol means that they never break out of that drunken state. It must be confusing for them. Inside their own heads they are a sparkling font of witticisms but for some reason no one will listen to them, and I can’t help but feel that might be a little frustrating for them. But that’s not really a problem because they pretty soon forget it all anyway.

Memory loss is huge when you’ve drunken that much alcohol. I worry that these tramps are like Guy Pearce in Memento, without any ability to formulate new memories. The last thing they can remember is leaving the house, saying ‘I’m just heading out for a quick drink.’ As far as they’re concerned they’re still on that same bender, any chalk that falls onto the slate that passes for their memories is wiped clean with a healthy dose of alcohol every 12 hours. They go to sleep and wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed, looking forward to that day off work they promised themselves ‘yesterday’. Of course, after a while they must cotton on. Become aware at the back of their head that they’ve been living the same day for a while now, they've met all these tramps before and their clothes are getting a tad scruffy. That’s when the switch flicks and they embrace the psychosis induced by their ethanol-rotted brains.

Possibly. I don’t know. I’m probably insulting some group of people when I imply that all tramps are insane preachers of some drunken gospel. This is not my intention. There is of course a veritable rainbow of folk who make the homeless community such a vibrant place, from the smiling Big Issue seller trying to get their life back on track right through to the hard to identify mass in the gutter. And the alcoholic tramps probably have sad stories and they should be sympathised with, not mocked by some arrogant cock who’s never had to worry about spending a night on the streets or being dependent on alcohol to such a horrible extent.

Fair point, but I still find the insane lifestyle of the tramp an enjoyable curiosity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just a point on what you said about most people having a drunken night then waking up and being coherent again...

isn't that how alcoholic tramps used to be - it sometimes worries me how slippery the slope is.... then the alcohol is their new life and to not have it would be to realise what state they've got themselves in. If I were them I'd be permanently drunk too!!