I´ll have to hurry. I´m in the library and I only have the one hour to start this. Bear with me, would you. This isn´t easy. It´s not something I´m proud of. but there you go. Permit me to introduce myself: I´m Ralphie and I´m a street bum. NO bullshit. Two things to keep in mind: 1. everything in italics is happening now. 2. normal script is happening in the past. Stick with me, people and you might learn something about gritting your teeth, never giving up hope, survival, love and death. And so much more.
If my writing is a bit erratic at times, tough luck, take it or leave it. I said bum, but I prefer the term hobo. I read it a while ago in Elisabeth Gilbert´s book ´Eat, pray, love´(great book, read it.). Apparently it means homeward bound. I´ve no home to return to, just disgrace and debts. No home at the minute, but maybe one nice day I´ll find one, to share with my street family. Now my home is where I lay my hat.
Six months ago, going on seven now, I was puking all over the place. I had the runs and the shakes like you wouldn´t believe. I said to myself: right! this is it, I´m stopping with the alcohol. I want to sort my life out. I´m getting too old for this shit. In fact, I am too old for this shit, period. My joints and my back are aching and I´m getting nowhere fast. So I stopped and you know what? It wasn´t all that difficult, physically that is. Mentally was another kettle of fish. I woke up from a very long slumber and asked myself: where am I? Where have the past six years disappeared to? Difficult to answer that. Anyway, my mind is made up: I´m going to make it out of this shit, one way or another.
First I had to acclimatise though. I´ve always liked reading, so I started reading even more than usual. Just waiting for the dust to settle in my brain. People I knew, street people, kept coming up wanting to have a chat, a natter. I just wanted to be left in peace. Why would I want to listen to some drunken fool. Right, I had been exactly the same just a few days ago. But I wanted to change. I needed to change, not merely to survive, but to start to live again.
Why am I still here when so many of my friends and even my beloved Paqui have already gone on to a hopefully better place? I took it one day at a time, as you do. Sitting on my throne(backpack), in front of a tobacconist in the south of Spain. Master of all I surveyed, or was I? Waiting for my people to pay their taxes to me, in my little begging bowl on my left. I know, I´m just a fool, but it helps to fantasize. As Brian used to sing: always look on the bright side… Hey, I´m sleeping in a million star hotel every day!
Then one day this German reporter shows up and asks me, if I know any cheap apartments in town. Do I really look like an estate agent? I can just imagine all the home owners in the greater Don Simona area queuing up to give me their particulars, on the off-chance that some German prat will ask me about cheap accommodation. I told him I knew of a park bench that was unoccupied, but that was about it. He just kept going on and on and on. He even told me he had a cunning plan. I asked him if it involved a turnip. It didn´t. He said: “Why don´t you write instead of reading all the time, you might even earn some money that way?!” Interesting that. I´d never written in my life. But I had read an awful lot and why not give it a go?
I´d been wrestling with the notion, the concept of God a lot at that time, so I made a deal with him: If You make me famous and rich, I´ll do the writing and spread around the wealth with my family and friends. And as many poor people as I can safely help without landing up on the street again. Deal?? Let´s see what happens. Come to think of it, the town hall should really pay me a salary. The number of times that people have come up to me asking things you would normally ask tourist information is endless. And I know certain things that even they don´t know about. Or are too embarrassed to tell the touries.
I´d like you all to remember one thing: the next time you see someone sitting on the street, begging, don´t judge a book by it´s cover. Where you might just see a pathetic heap of misery, there´s actually a person under there with aspirations, hopes and dreams. And always think: There but for the grace of God, go I.
The logistics were a bit daunting. I only had a change of clothes, a pair of trekking boots and a sketch pad. No computer, no house, no work, no nothing. And most importantly, no paperwork. Some Rumanian cunt had robbed me in Barcelona three years ago. First order of the day: get my papers sorted out. Because I was no longer drinking, I was able to save up a couple of Euros every day and finally sorted it out.
With that I could get a library card and could go online for one hour every day. Actually two, I´d wait for the shifts to change and go a second time. They never seem to notice. And if I can scrape together fifty spare cents, after food, coffee and fags, I get another hour in an internet café. I started with the Holly Bbibble (which I have discontinued) and Tittbits but that doesn´t seem to attract much attention. I´ll go on with it, though. I´m having fun with it.
How on earth did I end up here? That´s a long story and it´ll take a long time to tell you all about it. Hopefully you´ll have the patience and the interest to keep on reading. My hour is almost up. I´ll leave you with this much. It´s bleedin´wet out there. It´s raining cats and dogs. Not a good thing to get wet on the street. Well, can´t be helped. Love you and leave you, babes!
I thought somebody had stolen my begging bowl. After leaving the library and having a coffee in the Ark Christian Fellowship, I got back to my begging spot and it was gone. No big deal. There was probably only forty cents in it and the bowl itself was worthless. But still, just the idea of someone nicking it made me angry. I saw the manager of the store later though and he told me the wind had picked it up and had blown it away. I looked for it but nada. Another riddle solved. Don´t I lead an interesting life?
Where to begin with this story? I´ll have to weave back and forth. First of all, what with all the drinking, I don´t remember half of it. And secondly, it would be too boring otherwise. That´s always been my biggest enemy in life: boredom. I´d notified everyone that I might aswell go and wallow in misery in sunny Spain than at home. Steve, my mate, had woman trouble and decided to come with me. He said if I don´t come, I´ll kill the bitch and he might have. Anyway, it´s safer with two and he´s good company. We landed in Paris without too much bother.
We´d hitched a ride from the border: Steve, Muttley and me. Muttley was a puppy with big paws. Probably grew up to be a monster. We sold him later, too difficult to travel with in Spain. But that´s for later. This French guy picked us up and delivered us safely to the center of Paris. As thanks, we got him(and ourselves) drunk. We fell asleep under a tree, next to the road. A clochard (French bum) woke me up and asked if I´d eaten. I told him no. He gave me a loaf of bread, a whole cake and three Euros. Then left without a word. I showed it to Steve and he asked why I´d taken the money. We had money then.
I can´t even remember the feeling of having money in my pocket. I answered that I´d been speechless and before I knew it, he was gone. That was our first introduction to the Brotherhood of the Street. Man, but Paris was cold. We arrived on the eleventh of August 2004. We wrapped ourselves in newspapers and bin liners. We hadn´t really brought what we needed. We didn´t have sleeping bags or anything like that. What were we thinking? We slept near the railway station.
The cops came to greet us in the morning and asked if we were alright. That surprised me. Between us we had about a thousand Euros on us. Four days later it was gone. And we didn´t do anything special. I mean, we slept rough and didn´t go to any sex shows or anything. We only went to a restaurant once in all that time. Where did it go? Paris must be the most expensive city in Europe. So there we were in a strange city and broke.
What now? Steve was feeling poorly. Probably from all the boozing. I found a lovely park and we stayed there for a couple of days. It´s called ´le parque de Bercy´, if you´re ever in Paris, go and have a visit. It´s worth it. There I had my first valuable lesson of things never to forget when you´re living on the street. Never forget to take toilet paper with you. I won´t go into details, because the outcome was too embarrassing.
I met this Arab guy who had three things going for him, from my point of view, that is. He drank which is unusual, what with their religion forbidding it. He loved dogs, as do I. And he had money, which he was willing to share, lovely guy! He bought food for the dog and me, which I shared with Steve of course(not the dog´s food, no). And I generously offered to help him empty his two bottles of wine, which he appreciated.
After asking Ali for his advice, we decided to jump the train in the ´gare d´Austerlitz´. He told us not to take the TGV(high-speed train) because it had too much security. But to take a regular one. We did and it took us all the way down to the south of France,west of Perpignan.
We met some interesting characters there. There was Paco, a Portuguese mime, who introduced us to calimucho. That´s wine mixed with coca-cola(or another soft drink or juice). We certainly grew to love that. We met the local gypsies and partied with them. I´ve always gotten along with them. Maybe it´s because of the wanderlust in me. One night we couldn´t sleep and went for a walk. We heard this beautiful Flamenco music and went to investigate. There they were, five of them, having a party. We sat down a respectable distance away and listened. One came over and asked if we had any pot. We didn´t but he invited us over anyway. We got drunk on whisky and had a lovely night. We met them again, a number of times.
And last but not least, we met old Auguste. He was half Spanish and lived on the street with us for a while. One night we were sleeping next to a supermarket called Galerie Lafayette and I was woken up by a nice french chick called Claudette. She was pissed and offered me wine. I accepted. Then she squatted between two cars, pulled down her trousers and started pissing. No shame, no embarrassment. I´d never seen anything like it. I invited her under my blanket but she declined. Pity! I found out that this part of France we were in, used to be a part of Catalonia. Which is the north-eastern region of Spain, of which Barcelona is the capital.
Both Steve and myself are artists, so we sketched for a living. We didn´t make a lot, but enough to survive on. Paco took us on a tour of the surrounding villages. We enjoyed watching him work. He was dressed all in white, with make-up and just stood still. He made good money aswell. He left us eventually because he had to go to Toulouse to get treatment for his liver. He asked me for my golden earring as a memento. I hesitated because it was a gift from a friend but gave it to him in the end.
On the subject of ex legionnaires, I met one here the other day. A German who´d served in the French foreign legion. He told us he was the driver for a colonel. One day, as he not-so-proudly admits, he and the colonel were driving around in the Sahara desert. As he didn´t have a compass, he decided to follow the sun. Which makes you turn around in circles. They did this for three days. Apparently the legion´s standards have dropped somewhat since the days of old. I mean, everybody knows the sun rises in the east?! Well…, he is thick, but strong.
We stayed in a halfway house for the homeless in Céret for a couple of weeks. Céret is at the foot of the Pyrenees, lovely country. There we met a character: Pappie, ex Legionnaire, all of them are for some reason. He had a mean dog you had to watch out for. I slept in his room for a while. He´d been there since the dinosaurs.
We were painting with bister in the town center, when a young woman showed up with a bottle of vodka. She offered us some and we accepted. She said she´d been on the streets for years, but was back home with her parents now. Then she told me something I couldn´t understand. She said she just couldn´t get adjusted to a normal life anymore. Weird, isn´t it? By the way I sold one of my paintings to one of the people in charge of the halfway house for ten Euros. We tried to get social security there, but it would have taken too long and we decided to travel on to Spain by way of Perpignan.
Monsieur Auguste paid for our tickets to Port Bou, which is the first stop over the French border. I´d also met a woman who looked like Daisy in the series ´Keeping up appearances´and she traveled with us. I asked if a shag was out of the question and she said it was. Struck out again. I started keeping a diary but it got robbed somewhere along with everything else that I owned. That´s happened to us a lot. You have two times nothing and still some assholes rob you. Can´t they steal off of rich people. At least they can afford it.
We never stole. No, I tell a lie. I stole a couple of tomatoes from a garden in Céret once. And one time we took some grapes from a vineyard. But that´s peanuts, isn´t it? Hunger is a horrible feeling. I hope you never really get to know it.
Today I had a laugh, of sorts. I know this wonderful Swiss lady who´s helped me out a number of times already. She came over and gave me some food and some hot green tea in a plastic bottle. When I used to drink, I would often put my calimucho in a plastic bottle to throw off the cops, but they caught on to that after a while. Now, I´m on my way over to the library, with my green tea which looks red(strange that). Two local cops who know me, told me:”Ralphie, it´s forbidden to drink alcohol in public.”
You have to understand that members of the Don Simona police force have never won the Nobel prize for anything and never will. The tea was almost finished, so rather than start a futile conversation with them, I poured the rest out. It had gone cold by then anyway. Things do go pear-shaped sometimes.
This reminds me of a day, when I was doing a butt-run. This means I was looking for cigarette butts, because I had no money to buy rolling tobacco. I went into the indoor market and looked in the ashtrays. I had just picked up a couple, when the security guard came up and told me to unhand those dog ends. Like he was going to arrest me for grand theft cigarette butt, right?!
We ended up in Port Bou, a little fishing village looking to attract tourists and failing miserably. We even met the local mayor, who was looking to turn this place into a second Marbella. Good luck to him. He didn´t give any money, though. He said if you´re hungry there´s enough food to be found everywhere. I wonder if he was inciting us to thieve? A-ny-way, we met another soldier who was adrift. This one used to work for the peace keeping forces of the UN. He was sick of the killing and suffering he´d seen. He showed us how to take someones eye out with one finger. Useful thing to know this. One day some admittedly good-looking guy came from the marina stark bollocks naked. I thought this was illegal. Didn´t seem to bother him though. I remember thinking of asking him to bring his girlfriend next time.
They have a funny custom over there. There were some big blocks of stone, I think they were cement mixed with chips of marble, which they used to mark the border between the promenade and the concrete bit of the beach where small fishing boats had been pulled ashore. One morning a big lorry came and started loading up all these blocks of stone. What for, only God knows. Maybe they were putting them in a warehouse for the winter? But why not just leave them there? This must have been around October, I think.
Muttley couldn´t get used to the water, I mean, he wouldn´t go in. We tried to entice him gently, but finally we ended up just throwing him in. He could swim like a fish, but still didn´t like it. Steve has some property back home. I´m as poor as Job, like the rest of my family. He´d asked his brother Mario, my best friend, to sell off his stuff piecemeal and put the proceeds into his bank account. This allowed us to survive. In the end he sold Muttley to Antonio, the owner of the beach bar there for seventy Euros and two pints of lager. This was because it´s practically impossible to travel with a dog in Spain. You can´t take them on a train or a bus. So we would have had to make our way everywhere on foot. Hitchhiking is hopeless in Spain. Especially two scruffy looking guys with backpacks and a dog. No other choice. We missed him for a long time. He did go to a very good home, that helped.
Some days it´s really tough to blag up enough money for food and stuff. Thank God for my regulars. People who´ve known me sitting there for a long time. Not something to be proud about, I know. Hey, the number of people who have offered me a job and then, when I showed up at the appointed time and place, weren´t there, I´ve forgotten to count. Or some of them really want to help but are waiting for this accursed crisis to lift. This town was dead in winter. I kept expecting tumbleweeds to roll down the street. Luckily, I saw two tourists getting off the bus today. They can say hello to that stray cat that´s left here. And I almost forgot that three-legged dog. The one I have to fight over scraps all the time.
If you ask me, this crisis has been artificially created by the big guys, just to be able to make even more money. If I had a business, the people working for me would be my prime concern. Those big companies, they just fire workers when their dividends are a bit lower than the year before. Idiots! Without your workers, what are you? Oh, there´s always more where they came from, huhh? Well, what about the accumulated knowledge that is wasted when you ´make them redundant´? And more unemployed means fewer people with capital, to buy your crap to begin with. There, now you can call me ´ralphie, the macro economist´aswell. Somebody had to tell them.
Next stop was ´bugger, I´ve forgotten!´ It will come to me. We were only there for two days. We inquired if we could rent a car with any of our credit cards. They wisely declined us. Pity that! We´d hitched a ride with some hippies. Thank god for hippies. They’re the good guys and girls, in my book. Especially the girls. Yummy, yummy! There wasn´t a lot to see there. Just some shit hole. Steve was able to frummle some money out of the wall and paid our tickets to Barcelona. ´To frummle´is a new verb that Steve came up with, out of the blue. Barcelona is where the next chapter will start.
First I´d like to tell you some more about Steve. He has a golden heart, but whatever you do, don´t piss him off! He used to collect bombs, when he was a kid. Ones that the bomb disposal teams had overlooked from World War Two, and One aswell most likely. One day his father, who was a copper of all things, found his stash. The old man almost got a heart attack. The whole street was cordoned off while the bomb guys did their thing.
Then there was the time a biker took him on the back of his rod and started feeling him up. He jerked away so violently the bike fell and caught the guy under it. It was leaking gasoline. Steve took out his lighter and tried to set him on fire. The damned thing didn´t work. He went into the bar opposite, where everybody had been watching and asked for the use of a lighter. The landlord called the police and Steve went on an extended holiday.
Another time, he was in a bar and somebody slapped him around. He´s not a fighter. He asked them to wait. He wouldn´t be a minute. When he came back, he had a shotgun with him and shot a hole in the ceiling. The cops came and , after confiscating the gun, asked if he had any other weapons on him. He pulled a sawn-off one from between his shoulder blades and handed it over. Another holiday, free of charge.
But when Max, a friend´s dog got sick, he paid for the operation and never asked for a penny back. He was a recluse for about seven years. Staying in and just smoking pot. I´d never even met him since about a couple of months before we left together and I´d known Mario, his brother, for decades. His Dutch girlfriend has an IQ of 180 and he most have 140, more or less like me. When she started to fool around with other guys, it was better we left, for the other guys´sake, that is.