“Life is hard.”
“I have no idea what’s going on.”
“I am hoping to get out of it.”
“I applied for a house and I am waiting.”
Those statements were uttered by three vagrants I had a conversation with earlier this week. Reality and some delusion? Maybe.
I have known one of them for many years. Before the streets of Georgetown became his home, he was said to be suffering from mental illness. He was a brilliant man, who had lived overseas, but at some point he became ill.
There were strange moments during the conversation. With a smile exposing teeth that looked like they had not been cleaned in years, he spoke of a spirit that changed his life. Many people convince themselves that their misfortunes originate from something paranormal. I know a few stories when it was said that someone “wuk” on a person and made them mentally ill. I don’t know whether these stories are true, false or a mixture of the two, but at some point the vagrant convinced himself that it was something supernatural that changed the course of his life. I was surprised when he said that he was still hoping to escape the streets, having been on them for at least ten years. He had applied for a house, he said. I could not help thinking that that was part of the delusion for he also said that he did not know what was going on in our country or who the president is.
One of the others, who I labelled the ‘part-time vagrant,’ related that he roamed the streets from Monday to Friday. On weekends, he said, he would return to a place out of town where he had a room. He would wash his clothes and then return to the city, where he would once again seek to implore the pity of strangers. Compared with the others, his clothes were clean though he carried a bag with what appeared to be junk. Lack of funds kept him on the streets, he said. He could not afford the bus fare to travel every day. He would sleep wherever night found him. His family had accused him of being a drug addict, but he denied it. There were missing pieces in the story he told, but I did not want to judge and conclude that indeed drugs had played a part in his adversity.
And then there was the one I dubbed ‘Mr. Sugar,’ out of his desperately need to get access to a pound of sugar as he claimed he had not eaten since the day had dawned and wanted tea. Like the man I knew before, I got a sense that perhaps mental illness was part of the circumstances that led to his present reality. There were times when he slipped into strange mutterings before asking for sugar again.
I noticed people passing and looking as I engaged in conversation with the vagrants, two of whom, from the looks of it, probably only felt water on their skin when it rained. The people were probably questioning why I was there or if there was something wrong with me. But after hearing about the murder of a vagrant in Bourda Market just over a week ago, I felt compelled to reach out because though many people may notice vagrants, they pay them no mind. I wanted to hear what some of their thoughts were, if they felt endangered by being on the streets and how they were surviving.
Many vagrants are nameless to strangers and forgotten or ignored by relatives. When some of them die, no one mourns. My familiarity with the one I knew before made it easy to approach them and there was no uneasiness while chatting with them.
But the experience reminded me about fears that I have harboured in my mind from time to time. The unpredictability of life can be frightening. The unknown leaves many wondering. Many of us have had those dreams where we were falling into darkness and the only thing that saved us was waking. Or those dreams where we were lost and only found our direction and our freedom again upon waking.
But what would happen if we couldn’t wake? What would happen if we were trapped, our path obscure and all we could do was wander aimlessly? Is this the actual reality for some people – like the vagrants? Are they not trapped – some in their minds and some by their circumstances?
I have often imagined what my life might be like if I had not been born with the purpose of sharing and creating through writing. Every time I have thought about it, the only thing I see is a void. And if I were less fortunate, how would I feel if every day I struggled for the basic needs of a decent life? I have looked at folks begging, living on the streets and those mentally ill, but I could never fully comprehend their reality. I could never understand why many innocent people are forced to live a hellish existence while many of the worst human beings seem to thrive.
Life is a mystery that makes one wonder if every situation serves a purpose; if there is a lesson in every tragedy. I am sure no one plans to live the life of a vagrant. It looks to be a lonely and uncomfortable journey fraught with danger. Many vagrants are disheveled and reeking and many scorn them. But it could also mean freedom – with no thoughts about bills or deadlines or relationships with other people, a vagrant may have the kind of freedom that many of us only can dream of.
They are men and women who remind us, those who are more fortunate, that though we are made equal, our circumstances shape our lives in many ways. Life does not give us all an equal share of fortune and misfortune. Some people are born into terrible circumstances, while others are born into ideal ones. Some live a life of glory, while some lose everything or never really gain anything.
Vagrants serve to remind us that we must be cognisant of the choices we make and be mindful about how we manage our resources. They serve to remind us that we need to help each other and that life is much more than having material and monetary possessions. The poorest man can live the richest life because of knowledge of self and how he creates balance in his life, while the richest man with no knowledge of self can perish.
The three men I spoke with acknowledged that their lives are hard, with each of them kept going only by the mercy of strangers who see it fit to give them some food or a small amount of money. Each wanted an escape. That spoke to the fact that most of us, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, are always hoping for a better day. For many of the people who have to call the streets their homes, that day will never come.