I MET JOHN OUTSIDE A FISH AND CHIPS STAND AT 1AM ON A TUESDAY IN ELEPHANT AND CASTLE.
It was October in Central London and the night was cold and windy. Brown crumpled oak leaves pooled against the street vendor’s cart and a thick plume of deep-fried oil lured late-night revelers to a meal like a sharks scenting blood in water.
Question: After an office worker’s birthday party does one: a) Go straight to bed and rest up for the long workweek ahead; or b) Answer the siren call of fried food on a cold London morning?
The street vendor had just given John, a homeless man who had been living around the area of Elephant and Castle, a plate of chips. He’d doused them with malt vinegar and was happily munching away, washing back the meal with a bottle of whiskey.
When I moved to London for work I had no idea where to live in the city, or what I wanted to see in the UK or Europe.
Living in Elephant and Castle wasn’t a choice. It was the only place that I could find after a month of looking once my subsidized living situation had come to an end. I moved into a tiny flat with two Mongolians, an Aussie and the soon-to-be-discovered battalion of bed bugs. When I told friends in London where I lived, they were shocked: “What? No one lives there, mate!” I assured them that people, in fact, do. It was a tough, ethnic working class and sometimes violent neighborhood. I made it work and it was fine.
Except for the bed bugs; that was bad.
The people in Elephant and Castle fit together like a patchwork quilt and John was no exception. He wore a dark coat, dark jeans and dress shoes that were too big for him. He said hello to me as I waited for my food and offered me a swig of his whiskey, which I declined. Once it was ready, instead of stealing away to my small room to eat alone in the dark, I ate by the stand and talked to John.
He was an interesting man. He said he was divorced and had a son that he hadn’t seen in a long time. He said he enjoyed not having to pay bills or own property. He said he was happy. As we talked, I realized that I’d seen John many times before. He would beg for money from the folks passing by. He seemed surprisingly rational about his situation. An obsessed street photographer, I asked if I could go to my flat for my camera and return to take his photo. “Sure”, he said.
After coming back down to the street, I gave him a 20 pound note, which he did not ask for. Immediately, he looked uncomfortable, as if I’d given him something rotten to hold. I realized later that he was just enjoying the conversation and some company and wasn’t looking for a hand out.
After following him around for a while, taking pictures and chatting, John stopped in front of a homeless woman wrapped in a blanket. She looked like she was freezing. In front of her she had a cup with a few coins in it, earned from begging. She was not particularly friendly to us, but regardless, John gave her the money that I’d just given to him. I couldn’t believe it.
“John, what are you doing?” I asked.
“She needs it more.”
I was shocked. John had no income and lived on the street but gave up enough money for several meals because he perceived the woman as being worse off. It was something I never thought I’d see.
When you have the opportunity to travel, you can become so focused on the next tourist attraction, the next city, the next big important thing, that you fail to see the details: the small, everyday things; the interactions between people; the nuances of other’s lives.
That night with John I learned something. London is not about Big Ben, Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace. London is about John, and my engagement with him, and his photograph, and his generosity. When I’m older and settled down with kids, I probably won’t tell them about the Tower of London or the London Eye; I’ll tell them about a man I once met in Elephant and Castle over a plate fish and chips who taught me an important lesson about life: there’s always someone worse off than you; someone else who is in need.
Be attune. Watch. Listen. Give.