So… I’m sitting in a bar having a quiet ale, as one does. Through the door steps an older man and immediately I transform. Goodbye, “Isn’t it great to take a break on a Friday night”; hello, Mister Crankypants.
“Pourqui?” my French readers ask. “What is it about this sweet looking, little old fellow that raises your ire? Is it his short, grey hair and neatly trimmed moustache? His conservative clothes? Or perhaps it’s the cap he’s holding in his hand as he goes begging from table to table?”
Yep, it’s the last one.
Now, those of you who know me even moderately well would affirm I’m not completely without compassion. Surely the man with cap in hand distresses me because it’s a sign of society’s indifference which reduces an older man to such desperate measures?
Not so. You see, the cap is part of this man’s uniform, his Salvation Army uniform.
I wonder what goes through the mind of the average, beer drinking Aussie’s mind when fronted by the man from the Salvos? “Would you like to make a donation, my friend?” (I kid you not: “my friend”.)
Watching this fellow work the room, I am struck by the generosity with which he is received; lots of people fish out coins or notes and drop them in the proffered cap. “Why?” I wonder.
Perhaps people give generously for no other reason than they are generous. Perhaps if a bloke in a gorilla suit came in collecting for Wife Beaters Australia they would just as readily dip their hands in their pockets. Or not.
Perhaps they give because it’s the Salvos and everybody knows the Salvos do good work. Except, of course, the Salvos don’t do any better work than anybody else. Yes, they run charity shops and provide blankets to the homeless but so do the Catholic Church, the Anglicans and the Baptists and innumerable other organisations.
Perhaps people give to the Salvos because they did extraordinary things during the Second World War. How amazing that they turned up on the Kokoda Track during the Australian Army’s retreat, offering food, blankets and fags! No matter this took place seventy years ago; the Sallies have a rep so why not trade on it?
Perhaps – and I really hope this is not the case – they give because the sight of a God-fearing man entering a den of iniquity induces guilt and off-loading a couple of spare bucks eases their consciences.
Whichever of these it may be, or even some other reason I haven’t yet thought of, somehow I find it distasteful, bordering on deceitful that a religious organisation plunders the pubs in this manner. I suspect, however, that it may just be me being Mister Crankypants.
After the poor, confused chap has backed away from my table, something else disconcerting takes place. Crowded establishment; do I mind sharing my table with a young couple? Of course not. Perhaps I’m trying to redeem myself for having bitten the quite-possibly-innocent beggar.
Chit chat ensues. No, I haven’t eaten so I can’t comment on the quality of the food. He heads for the bar with menu in hand, and I begin preparing to make my exit. For benefit of the girl I make one of my typically not-humorous attempts at humour: “Is it safe to leave you on your own?”
Mistaking my meaning, “Oh, yes. He’s my boyfriend. We’ve been together for ages.” Cue a conversation about relationships, which somehow or other descends rapidly to, “He’s changing. He says he’s going somewhere and it turns out he’s gone somewhere else. He’s staying out later and he’s started smoking more and drinking more.”
I’m not a counsellor. I can recognise an accident just waiting to happen, but I’m not the man you want in an emergency. What can I possibly say or do in this situation? I hope and pray my fumbling attempts at guiding her towards communicating with this bloke about her fears don’t make things worse for them.
For crying out loud: it’s a pub on a Friday night! I’m not Jesus. I’m not at ease with people in pain, nor am I gracious with people who make me uncomfortable.
Does this mean I have to come back next Friday night?