Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Of The Abyss

Jack London thought Spitalfields the worst of places, "a welter of rags and filth". That was a century ago, and the properties he describes with disgust have been cleared of sweat-workers and are now occupied by wealthy Bohemians, west of Brick Lane, or have been razed by the Luftwaffe and the LCC to the east, where post-war housing projects stretch out towards Stepney, populated in the main by Bangladeshi families. There are still homeless people on the streets, however. They are a filthy, curiously ageless group, mad, or alcoholic, or both. Some faces come and go, some have been here for ever, it seems. Other shopkeepers know them by name.

"Do you know Susie?" asks the woman from the picture framers. "She used to sit by the cashpoint opposite you."
"No," I tell her, "I've never noticed her."
"She's dead. Died in the street."
I feel nothing but a mild annoyance that I've had to hear this bad news. And almost immediately I wonder "What's wrong with me?"

I walk on by. I avoid eye contact. There's a big black guy, "The Maddest of the Mad" we call him, but in fact he's not as intimidating as some of his peers. I think of him as a kind of Socrates, because he doesn't ask for money, he just tries to share his confusion. "Why have you got cash?" he'll ask passing city workers. "Why am I so thirsty?" he'll wonder aloud. This morning I find him sitting on the step next to the shop when I go out for rice crackers. "I'm hungry," he moans. For once I stop and look at him. "I can't help you," I tell him, and it feels true. His eyes are wild with something other than hunger. I can't rescue him. He has fallen too far.

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