This is a photo taken in London. I was working as a reporter and a volunteer in a shelter called The Simon Community, named for Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross for Jesus on his way to the crucifixion.
The shelter was different in that we accepted anyone, even if they were high or drunk. The idea was for the volunteers to share the poverty of the people we were helping. I lived in that shelter for 2 months, sleeping on the floor with a heavy chain necklace around my neck (don’t ask, martyr nonsense).
We’d go out on night runs, break up fights, bring people back to the shelter, give out blankets, food, tea. The shelter was down the block from Kings Cross station, a rough neighborhood.
In that photo above, I’m on the far right — it was taken in a notorious, violent, dangerous homeless encampment called The Bullring where few civilians or even homeless advocates went. The man in the plaid shirt later on in some delusionary state or because of drugs and alcohol or an accident while he was talking about how he used to be a boxer punched me in the face. I played it off.
After a few moments he took my head in both his hands, says he’s sorry if he hurt me and starts screaming: “Go your own way, never listen to anyone, never let these wankers get to you, fight them …. I don’t give a fuck if I was shot dead right now, I don’t care if I die …. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve been down here 14 years, listen to me.” I tell him that I will, that I appreciate his advice, and he reaches his arms around me in an awkward hug and kisses my neck.
Then there was Kevin Carson 27 years old, a diabetic and on-again,off-again junkie who sometimes carried a syringe behind his ear. He still came to Simon once a week to pull night duty and steal small household supplies. He carried around a tin filled with tobacco and chunks of hash which he would usually smoke before his shift. He hated Simon, mocked the idea of charity and would spend his nights writing critical commentary in the shelter’s log book, slagging off the “caring sharing Simons.” He had alienated or intimidated most of the Simon workers and was contemptuous of those who used the shelter.
Yet he kept coming back. At 3 a.m. he’d say for the hundredth time, “Brown [heroin], mate .. .I’m bored, mate,” telling me he wanted to shoot up again. I’d say stick to the hash and we’d talk and talk to keep him distracted. It was a constant effort to keep him occupied, to keep him from ridiculing your efforts or your concern. He was too smart for the clichés, too sensitive to solicit help from an indifferent system, and too proud to become just another homeless man, so he opted for being a bastard.
I’d tolerate his sarcasm, his steady ironic patter, his playing with my head and his initial hatred of yet another volunteer who was supposed to be able to help him. He gave me countless opportunities to not like him, ordering me to make him cup after cup of tea, demanding more and more of me until I refused and then he’d say, “I thought you’re supposed to care about the homeless, mate,” his “mate” sounding very much like an epithet.
When another resident locked himself in the Simon bathroom for a long period of time, Kevin suddenly became the responsible, concerned citizen, asking what I was going to do: “He might be dying in there of an overdose.” But if I banged on the door (I did), then I was the oppressive system and Kevin would be the first to call me on it. Kevin himself did nothing. He’d sit back and watch you fail.
At one point, much later in our relationship, I asked about taking photos of him for this article. “So what, you want a picture of me banging [shooting] up?” he asked, playing the appeal of a dramatic photo against the ethics of me condoning his heroin use. And he was right.
When I last saw him he told me he was going to steal a van and seek out a community of witches in Wales and eventually fix up a derelict cottage to live in. Before I left England I gave him my poncho and a tartan overshirt and we exchanged addresses. Less then a month later he died in his flat of a drug overdose. He lay there for three weeks, his dog barking inside the apartment, before his body was discovered.
Those were probably the best two month of my life — Kevin and Charlie who always carried around a can of glue he he huffed, Frankie Doyle drunk and singing (and he could sing) Irish ballads; older guys Johnny and Steve who I hung with in doorways taking courtesy sips of the can of alcohol they were passing around, Johnny reciting Shakespeare. I’d give them blanket after blanket that they kept on losing. We were good with each other; they always called me Chaz for some reason. Like in the morning when Johnny would wake up shaking uncontrollably and ask “Chaz, do us a favor…” I’d run down to the store and by him a can of strong cheap alcohol which he would guzzle and get right. There was cool ass young Lee messing with some Italian girl slumming on the streets; we’d beg together, he taught me scams, prison, weapons. There were the beautiful boys who slept on the church steps and were so good to me — so alcoholic they drank pharmacy alcohol and spit up blood. There was the man I took to detox who told me explicitly what it was going to be like to withdraw from alcohol addiction (liquid diazepam and “think of the thing you fear most, you’ll be there”).
There was a knife fight I broke up; a man who stopped breathing who I resusciated; the very dirty homeless man whose shoes I took off for him; I myself got sick and passed out and was nursed back to health by a volunteer. And there was another volunteer, Marina Bowder. The other volunteers hated her because she was too posh. But I swear to you, this girl was the closest I’ve seen to Maria in the Sound of Music (she even had a guitar she played). She was the most well read person I’ve ever met, she was about Thomas Merton, Church of England and said “Well found, Laurent” when Laurent found a pot we had been looking for. I laughed because I loved the way she talked. And I loved her good heart. She later went to Bosnia/Croatia to work with refugees. I lost contact with her because her e-mails were so deep and intense and I can barely answer e-mails from an editor asking how it’s going without silly ass trauma. And there was young decent earnest humble Andy from Alaska. I think he became a pilot and is studying to be a doctor.
It was also the best article I ever wrote and will probably ever write. Marina, I loved you girl; you were too good for me, but I hope you’re well and loved.
Here’s the link to the whole story: