Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Bin bags and a chai

No news yet about yesterday's stalker story, but in this case I really think no news is good news.

To focus on the fact that not all people are freaks and that someactually have good sides too; let's think about something else. For instance Starbucks.
Feeling hungry? Or just guilty...

I love Starbucks. But that's not the point of this story as that neither makes me a good person nor proves that I'm not a freak.

So, last Friday. I was frequenting the rather poshly located Starbucks near where J lives, and was sitting in one of the comfy seats near the window.

He was only about 10 minutes away as I arrived at the tube station, so normally I would have just waited outside, but it was really one of those bitterly cold February evenings where you see no stray dogs in the streets because even animals realise it's too awful outside to want to run away.

The area thinks itself rather too posh to allow companies to rent waste containers, so Starbucks had just heaped their blue waste bags on the pavement to await their removal, most likely by some underpaid foreigner in the dead of night.

I had my chai, I had the Private Eye, I was about to see J, and was generally thinking life ain't so bad after all.

Until I saw Her.

An old woman, dressed in a long skirt and shawl, with her show white hair sticking out from under it, hunched over said binbags, apparently looking for food.

Now I have a soft spot for homeless people anyway, maybe because they're the ultimate underdog in a way, or maybe because I like to think I'm middle class and with that I think must come some kind of social conscience.

But she wasn't just any old drunk; she managed to look quite dignified while going through the bags, she was dressed in worn but clean-looking clothes and was not visibly dirty or drugged.

My heart sank, and I started thinking of what better things I could have done with the £5 I'd just spent on a drink and a magazine.

But as people tend to do in these situations, I did nothing. I was sort of frozen in my seat, feeling ridiculously bad for her, wondering if I should buy her some food, but not actually doing it.

Suddenly, someone behind me said very loudly and in a heavily foreign accent: "I can't look at this any longer." One of the staff members at Starbucks came to my rescue.

She bagged a muffin from the counter and went outside, and through the window I could see a strange pantomime of the woman refusing the bag and the Starbucks girl imploring her to take it. Which in the end, she did.

The girl came back inside, and the woman calmly kept searching the rest of the bags, kindly tying each one back up as she was done, and putting a few bits and bobs in a crumpled Sainsbury's plastic bag she was carrying.

I kept staring at her, I couldn't help it, and we exchanged smiles.

Now judging by the area where this happened, it is fully possible that the woman is not actually poor or starving, but some filthy rich but stingy and eccentric person living nearby, who refuses to wash up (paper cups seemed to be the main target of her search).

But this isn't the point. The point is that so many people were sitting in Starbucks where I was sitting, their SUVs and Jaguars parked outside, with a front row view and not doing anything about the old woman who was out in the cold.

Except the member of staff, who probably earns £6.50 an hour if she's lucky and shares a lower ground flat in Elephant and Castle with at least four other people from Poland (she seemed to be Eastern European).

Before I left, I thanked her and said how bad I'd felt at not doing anything. "I couldn't just watch," she said.

There is no deep moral to this story, except "I wish more people were like her".

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