As many of you chaps and chapettes out there are aware I am, for the most part, what is known as a "white van man". I do a fair few jobs, all self employed, scratching around and at the moment living, basically, hand to mouth. Times are hard for all of us. Or at least for the majority of us.
I'm not one to complain, and I'm aware as I sit here tapping away on my laptop which is connected to my router and using my broadband connection, fire crackling away and telly on mute in the corner, that I should be, and indeed am, very grateful for what I have.
One thing that has held me back my whole life is the ridiculous amount of empathy I have been blessed/cursed with. I'm easily moved to something close to tears at times when I hear about or witness the distress someone is suffering. I look at beggars and wonder at what point, and why, their lives took a turn so bad that their current situation is the result. Next time you see a beggar stooping to pick up a cigarette dimp, swearing randomly under his breath and attempting not to spill his can of Special Brew just think about this.... That person was once a few months old, cradled in the arms of someone that loved them. They were bounced on a grandparents knee, they made someone smile when they first uttered the words "I love you", they had school photographs taken. Maybe they were in love once. They started the exact same way you, I and everyone else started. For that one brief moment as they took their first breath of air and began to cry they had the potential to be anything.
Maybe they lost everything because they did something bad. Maybe their families stopped caring about them after being let down repeatedly. Maybe they were rapists, child abusers or corrupt bankers. Maybe.
Most likely, and by that I mean almost certainly, they were none of the above. They were almost certainly, at least so far as their loved ones were concerned, really nice people. Once upon a time.
Towards the end of the last century there was a tramp, famous on the streets of city centre Manchester, known as Prostitute Annie. I was running a demolition team working on the Royal Exchange Theatre after the catastrophic IRA bomb that made Manchester even Greater. Every lunch time we would all sit in St. Anne's square eating our packed lunches or Gregg's pasties, smoking and enjoying the banter. Prostitute Annie would always turn up pushing her Tesco trolley filled with shoes, newspapers and general detritus. She had an aggressive demeanor and would demand cigarettes from anyone with whom she made eye contact. If she had an audience she would begin preaching about how "no one gets to Heaven if they've metal in their bodies". She would loudly advocate tearing out your fillings and giving away all your possessions to save yourself from God's wrath. She stank of piss and biscuits and ate things off the floor. She was vile.
One particular sunny afternoon a team of scaffolders, not regulars on site, were sat on the steps of some statue or other. Among their number was a new starter, a young man of about twenty years of age and with no volume control. He was attempting to fit in, and seemed to think that all builders/scaffolders/demolition workers were sweary, aggressive and shouty so was playing up to that particular stereotype. He spent the first fifteen or so minutes loudly announcing to any one in a Manchester City shirt how shit their choice of football team was. He then moved on to charming passing office girls with such delightfully whimsical chat-up lines as "Do you like jewellery/chicken? Well suck this, it's a gem/it's foul".
Just before the end of the lunch break Prostitute Annie arrived, her squeaky wheeled trolley announcing her aproach like a fanfare for vagrancy. Possibly feeling quite despondent after a fifteen minute session of being ignored by attractive young ladies wearing their office smarts the young man turned his attention to Annie. He quite clearly saw Annie as some sort of sub-human and began to hurl advice at her. His advice was spot on in a way. She would indeed feel and look better if she "used a bit of fucking soap", got "some proper fucking laces for them fucking shoes" or got "a fucking job, you lazy, scruffy, old slag" but I'm pretty sure it wasn't as easy for her to turn her life around as this young man believed.
A building site lunch gathering is generally quite a raucous affair, dozens of men chattering away like fish-wives about their wives, girlfriends, football teams and preferences in supermarket. This particular day, at this particular point, it was silent. The only one making any sound at all was the young gobshite with the inferiority complex.
After each new torrent of abuse he would turn to us, his audience, for validation. Every time he got none, just blank stares. A more switched on individual may have taken this as a signal to quieten down a bit. Not this plank, who, having failed, would refocus his attention on Annie and hurl viler and louder abuse her way.
As I mentioned earlier, Annie's trolley always contained shoes. None were ever a pair, (Not even the ones on her feet matched) and she would pick them up on her travels. (The streets of Manchester are full of lost and discarded shoes which is indicative of the extremely vibrant night life and high rate of sex-crime.) Annie was doing a good job of shouting the law of God at the young man, her face filled with aggression and venom and waving a bible, or at least a small dictionary, at him. She bumped into her trolley whilst delivering her passionate argument and a single shoe toppled from the pile and on to the pavement. Our young colleague immediately whipped off his steel toe-capped rigger boot, shouted "Here you are you fucking scruff, now you've got two shoes" and threw the boot at her. Hard.
The boot missed Annie's head by a couple of inches at most. Everyone watching gasped as it flew at her, expecting the worst. As it was the boot hit the wall behind her and dropped to Earth having done no harm whatsoever. During it's journey, however, Annie's face had changed. I was looking in her eyes as her face was transformed form that of a wicked, hateful and disgusting witch to that of a very frightened, very vulnerable, little, old lady. She was terrified. I had never in my life abused this woman, but to my shame had laughed at jokes told about her. During this particular incident I hadn't laughed, I had been shocked and disgusted at the lad's behaviour. When I saw Annie's transformation to lovely old Grannie I suddenly felt disgusted with myself for sitting idly by as it had escalated this far. I was angry at the gobshite I saw hopping across the square to retrieve his boot, but I was far angrier with myself.
Being much closer to the boot than the young gent, and being unhindered by hopping, Annie reached the boot before him, collected it and put it in her trolley.
"Oi you scruffy cunt, give me my fucking boot!" He laughed as he approached Annie.
At this point I saw my chance to be a hero, to soak up the admiration of my peers by taking a stand against this despicable chap. I saw it in my head, standing, calling out to the lad, admonishing him and maybe even knocking him the fuck out. Then I would strut in through the security gate as the crowd clapped and cheered.
What I actually did could best be described as "absolutely fuck all". I remained sat on the step I regularly sat on with my ashtray made from my empty coca-cola can by my side and feeling even more ashamed of myself.
Annie was scuttling away, her trolley squeak sounding urgent and her face still a mask of fear. The young lad hopping after her was laughing a wicked laugh. The big, old foreman who had been sat beside him stood slowly, straightened his back, strode after the lad and, if you'll pardon my French, twatted him in the back of the head, causing him to fall face first on to the paving stones. He then, clearly and concisely, informed the young lad that Annie was going to be keeping the boot, and that since you were required to be wearing two boots to gain access to his site the young scamp would be better served just fucking off home and not bothering coming back.
A ripple of applause went around the square, not just from the hairy arsed builders but from shoppers, office girls and street vendors. The man was, as far as everyone present was concerned, a hero. I say everyone, Annie spat at him, but I like to believe that was just because she lacked the social skills to deal with a knight in shining armour.
Since then I've made a point of wondering. Wondering why people are like they are. Why some people are vile, why some are evil, why some are sweet and why some are sour. No one is ever vile because they want to be vile, they're vile because we perceive them as vile. The young gobshite may very well be a lovely lad. He might treat his mam like a Queen, may have played bugle in the Boy's Brigade, may have raised money every year for Comic Relief. He might be a boy you'd be proud to call "son". Possibly, being new to building sites and scared of the new, sweary, scary, tattooed monsters he was working alongside (And only working there because he couldn't get anything better but needs to pay for his Grandmothers operation) he had made a silly error of judgement and tried to appear to be a big, hard man? Maybe. No one present knew what he was really like. He could have been as horrid as he appeared, but whether he was or not all those spectators believed him to be vile based on that day's actions.
Maybe his loss of job that day meant his mother had reached the end of her tether and cast him out, homeless on the streets. Maybe he had no where to stay except with a guy he hardly knew from work. Maybe that man was a violent alcoholic. Maybe that violent alcoholic viciously raped him. Maybe the lad now lives on the streets, pushing a shopping trolley and pretending he's not constantly frightened. Maybe he drinks white cider to numb the pain of his worthless existence. Maybe he died, sat by a train line, drunk and crying as he remembered his seventh birthday, the last one his dad was alive for, when he received the toy robot that his mother still has. The robot she clutches while she cries whenever she thinks of her wayward, absent son.
Maybe Annie was a horrible woman that had ended up on the streets after being released from prison after knocking down and killing a child whist drunk at the wheel. Maybe Annie was a widow and had a son that let her down again and again until she had to throw him out to teach him a lesson. Maybe Annie never forgave herself after he was found dead by a railway track. Maybe, under that pile of shoes in her trolley, is the treasure she protects. A broken child's toy? Maybe a toy robot?
Who knows? You don't, I don't. Someone does though. Every one is important to someone. No one is vile because they want to be vile. To someone out there you yourself are vile, but think about it... how can they think that, you're lovely. Aren't you?
Lower your expectations of people, don't judge too quickly, realise you're not everyone's cup of tea and give people a chance. Then a second chance, just in case. Wonder how, wonder why and wonder at the ability to wonder.