Tales from the Frontier - No. 3

This is the age of oddities let loose. – Lord Byron

It seems that weird, eccentric, unwashed itinerants are particularly drawn to the border areas.

In old movies you sometimes see an Apache medicine man dancing around the corpses of a tribe massacred by the Seventh Cavalry. This bouncing traditional one-step is often accompanied by a rhythmic wailing. I’ve never been to the American plains but I’ve seen an identical performance here in front of the shopping centre. The dancer was no Indian brave in tasselled buckskin although his grubby jacket was leather as were his trousers and greasy shapeless cap. It must have been a regular performance; the Rottweiler lying beside the blanket and the bulging backpack barely flicked an eye in his master’s direction. The lean and hungry dog concentrated his wistful glances at passing toddlers which was disconcerting since he licked his chops at the same time and showed rows of glistening fangs.

The dancing, if the stomping circulation could be called dancing, was not for public consumption. I had believed otherwise because there was a brown cardboard mug sitting on the pavement in front of the gyrating dog-owner and I thought it was meant for the offerings of sympathetic passers-by. This was clearly not the case as a do-gooder tossed a twenty cent coin into the mug as they swept by and a column of coffee splashed upwards. Both the dog and man looked at the resulting puddle and the man gave a belated, “Oi,” at the retreating defiler of his refreshment.

A wide assortment of beggars do hope for the odd tossed contribution into their bowls, mugs, hats or instrument cases. I lived in Berlin shortly after the wall came down and there were dozens of wonderful former Soviet musicians busking in the U-bahn. Here the level of musical aptitude is more ex-kindergarten than ex-philharmonic. Not that there are many buskers. Most of the indigents are women colourlessly bundled like extras in a Mexican cowboy movie or as peasants from a Spanish civil war epic – metres of shapeless cloth: scarves, shawls, headdresses or ankle-length black skirts. These poor damsels at least look as if they need money which is more than can be said for the men who slouch on a precinct corner with a can of lager, a cigarette, and the obligatory mongrel, and hope for contributions to their off-licence, filter tip, and tin of Pedigree Chum funds.

There seems to be far fewer young females than young men. Maybe the qualifying conditions for the fairer sex are difficult to fulfil. From observation it seems that certain traits are vital for successful indigence; feminine allure is not one of them. You have heard the expression, ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’ concerning a rather wild hair arrangement but here this seems to be a literal description of the complete package. Add the facial ironware, piercings, colourful tattoos and Gothic application of eye made-up and you have a fair idea of the female denizens of our border street corners. I have seen primly-attired matrons cross over the road rather than pass within coin-tossing distance of these zombie film extras and their begging bowls.

Do not be fooled. In my limited experience these ‘ladies’ are by no means as ghastly as they look. I had a very pleasant conversation with one who sounded as if she had attended the Sorbonne or a Swiss finishing school by the scope of her knowledge and the cadences of her refined accent. She resembled the formerly mentioned Indian brave since she had a Mohican haircut but she was quite charming. I donated fifty cents towards her tonsorial and sartorial outgoings.

As with most western societies there is a lack of social funding here; more mentally-challenged folk are appearing on the streets. I have sat beside them on benches as they rip newspaper into squares before tucking them in a pocket and continuing with another sheet of Das Bild. (They might merely have read the paper – I’ve often felt the impulse). I’ve seen middle-aged men fill a carrier bag from a rubbish bin before hurrying on to the next one and emptying the bag again. I don’t know what to do to help them. I did try last week. I saw a long-haired girl in jeans and tee shirt. The jeans had rips, not only in the knees but in the thighs and rear. She was muttering to herself and walking round in tight circles occasionally waving her arms. I had to act when she headed towards the busy road still mumbling. I put out a saving arm. She pushed me away, flicked back her hair revealing her mobile phone earpiece, and jumped into her parked open-top Mercedes with the words, “Sorry, love, just been accosted by a tramp. This town is full of crazies.”