Friday, October 12, 2012

Bernie the Polite Girl's Big Issue experience

Spending this morning's rush hour wearing the yellow Big-Issue vest and selling the Big Issue magazine was a fascinating experience, and a true lesson in human behaviour and character. I had wanted to sell the Big Issue to feel what that would be like. I felt that a Big Issue experience would enable me to relate better to homeless and other disadvantaged people, because I would come a little bit closer to knowing what it is like to be them in a world where the majority of people is not homeless or otherwise disadvantaged, but where people often take others on face value and judge what they see while all they see is the outside. Grant supported this idea of mine and generously gave me his yellow vest to wear and his magazines to sell during morning rush hour, which is the best time to sell the mags. Quite an eye opener it has been...

There was an icy wind, and it was cold for the time of year. As a matter of fact, today it snowed in Queensland. Perhaps it was the weather or the early hour, or perhaps it was me in a yellow vest and holding up the Big Issue in front of them, but many people had on their cranky faces. Standing there and trying to make eye contact in order to hopefully make a sale that was the first thing I noticed this morning: a lot of cranky faces. I am not generally the labelling kind, but the people who passed me that morning at Post Office Square could be divided in a number of categories:

1.       People who walked there alone, and consciously avoided to make eye contact.

2.       People who walked in packs crossing the street, and consciously avoided eye contact as well. All it took for the pack to split into two was me standing there in the middle of the footpath and holding up the Big Issue: the pack passed me in a wide half-circle on the left and on the right. A lot of dividing power given to me there!

3.       People who looked at me scared and reluctantly mumbled “Good morning” back when I made eye contact and greeted them in an upbeat manner.

4.       People who smiled and said good morning but did not buy a magazine.

5.       People who smiled and came right up to me with the money in their hand to buy a Big Issue, one of whom did not want any change back.

6.       People who smiled and did not buy a magazine but gave me a donation (there were two).

7.       Two individuals who asked directions but bought nothing. One girl walked up to me in a rather determined manner, so I thought happily that she was going to buy a magazine off me. Unfortunately she was not, and she answered my question with an embarrassed “No”. All she wanted was ask me where the Information Centre was. The other individual, an elderly lady, wanted to know where she could catch a taxi and so I pointed her towards the taxi rank across the street.

8.       One guy in a city council uniform who walked past and uttered under his breath “Get a real job!” I was stunned for a moment, then said “You too!” Grant walked up to me and told me it was a set-up. He had wanted me to experience a mild form of the nastiness Big Issue vendors encounter on an average working day. The guy came back and we had a laugh and a very nice chat.

Now, how did the Big-Issue experience make me feel… The majority of people avoided eye contact and, thus, any other kind of contact. It felt like they sent me the message they were unapproachable to me. I was surrounded by them many of times as, like I said, it was rush hour, and Working Brisbane went to work. Of course it helped that I was not really homeless or disadvantaged, and that Grant was standing just a few meters away; I was not completely alone. However, I could feel the crushing impact of people looking away, declining to acknowledge that I even existed, behaving as if I was not really standing there, in the middle of the footpath, as if I was not a human being like them, and avoiding me by walking in a big half-circle around me, scared perhaps that I would start to talk to them.

And if I could feel all these things simply from people walking past the way they did over the span of a few hours, how much worse must it be for homeless people who are without shelter on this cold day, relying on their magazine sales for their next meal, and already having self-esteem and other issues due to homelessness, and experiencing this type of disengagement day in day out…

To the people who bought my magazine and also to those who did not buy but who did smile and say good morning I would like to say Thank You, you truly made my day, recognizing the human being in me. To the people who walked past cranky-faced, avoiding eye contact, I also like to say Thank you, because you made me feel what being a Big Issue vendor and a homeless person can be like, or IS like much of the time. Without you, I would not have learned as much, and I would not have wondered if I am a cranky-faced person myself sometimes.

Someone said to me, wearing the yellow Big-Issue vest you are already pre-judged as someone of lesser value than others and, with my fresh experience, I can confirm that. I find my yellow-vest experience priceless, because I know how wrong that prejudice is. There is no value that can be placed on a life experience that made me adhere to my own ideas even more: the ideas that tell me that everyone has value, purely because they are human beings. The way they are human beings in the world earns them my respect, but it takes a little time to get to know. Of course it is easier to judge people on what they do for a living, on where they live, on what they wear, on their academic degrees, because that information is instantly available to us. However, it is only outside stuff, it says nothing about how someone truly is, how someone’s heart is wired, how someone relates to the world on a human level and these things, to me, are the only things that matter and that earn respect.

Written by Bernie the Polite Girl 

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