Plugging away at my iPhone on the train, I look up for a moment and catch an intriguing tableau.
A young teenage boy is sitting sandwiched between other passengers: a pair of older gentlemen on one side, and a man in a wifebeater on the other side. The older gentlemen are quietly discussing something, with their heads close together. Wifebeater Man is slouching, knees wide apart (one of the hallmarks of the male Public Person), with long slicked-back hair and a plaid shirt tied around his waist. But this isn’t what catches my eye.
The man in the wifebeater is reaching his arm across the boy, middle finger stuck determinedly in the air. He holds his arm straight out for a good minute, pointing his fist expectantly at the pair of older gents. But the gents don’t notice, so the tableau holds like this for a long pause, while the teenage boy sits awkwardly in the middle.
Finally, Wifebeater Man bellows “OY, LOOK AT THAT,” and when the gents notice him flipping them off, they roll their eyes and ignore him. Wifebeater Man cackles long and hard.
The teenage boy, evidently a very well-mannered teenage boy, assumes (as I do) that the man is friends with the older gents. The boy says to the man, “Sorry, did you want to sit next to them,” offering to trade seats. This is how Wifebeater Man replies:
“NAAAH, NAAAH, YOU’RE ALRIGHT. YOU LISTEN TO ME, SON, YOU MARRY YOUR MISSUS, YOU BECOME A DOCTOR OR SOMETHING, AND THEN ONE DAY, YOU’LL FIND YOU’RE A GRANDDAD!” More cackling. “I’M A FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST!”
The teenage boy looks like he doesn’t know how to respond to this, and smiles politely. (I’ve noticed during many Transports of Delight that Public People tend to latch onto teenagers when looking for targets to talk to, because younger people are generally flattered by the attention and aren’t yet cynical enough to ignore the crazy person.)
Wifebeater Man continues. “YOU GOTTA MISSUS? YOU GOTTA MISSUS IN YOUR LIFE?”
The boy, speaking so quietly that he can’t be heard by the whole train carriage, responds with a negative.
“SHE BROKE UP WITH YOU?”
The boy, a little louder now, says, “Other way round, actually.”
“AARRH, WELL, YOU GOTTA GET A MISSUS. AND YOU MARRY HER. I’M FIFTY YEARS OLD, YOU LISTEN TO ME. YOU’LL DO ALRIGHT. AAARRHAHAH.”
The boy asks, “Do you have a missus?”
Wifebeater Man grins and stretches himself out contentedly, and I know from years of experience that we’re about to be treated to a Tale of Woe.
“I HAD A MISSUS, YEP I HAD A MISSUS. BUT I LOST HER, SHE KICKED ME OUT. I LIVE, I LIVE ON THE STREETS, I’M A HOMELESS PERSON ON THE STREETS.”
I’m starting to feel bad now, not just because it turns out that this guy might be homeless. I mainly feel bad because I have serious doubts that he’s homeless. How much of a cynic have I become? My response to hearing that someone is having life troubles is suspicion? But then I remember that there are different types of homelessness that don’t involve sleeping rough. He’s probably moving from mate’s house to mate’s house, until he finds a place. This makes more sense, because he doesn’t look like he’s been sleeping under bridges.
But I never get to find out what kind of homeless he is, because at that moment we pull into Claremont Station. The teenage boy stands up and farewells Wifebeater Man, who waves him off good-naturedly. The man falls into silence for the rest of the journey. I go back to my iPhone.