Lazlo is a new magazine. They asked me to write a piece for them that would tie into the theme of ‘dwelling’. I wrote an anti-dwelling piece about a group of homeless guys, and one in particular who was keeping a diary.
This text comes from a bundle of old diaries my girlfriend found when she was moving out of her apartment. They were under her sink in a plastic shopping bag. She’s nosey, and it was her place after all, so she had to look inside. Even though they were badly damaged we could still make out the incredible tale of a man’s life. This is an excerpt.
Friday Dec 1
Blue skies. I’ve fallen in with a gang who I don’t trust for even a minute. There’s four of them. Grizzly street men. Their smell reminds me – as if I needed reminding – that if I don’t turn my fortunes around fast, I’ll be so far removed from the real world that they’ll never allow me back. They spotted me begging in Defiled Square*. I’m a good beggar. It’s because I’m recently on the streets and I’m young and I guess people imagine a few cents here and there might save me, so they’re generous. The other guys are so much a part of the streets that people just walk past them. They might as well have plaques at their feet instead of cups. Anyway they came over all aggressive at first so I offered them some of my takings. They liked that and it’s then they started talking about heading south. They’re leaving on Monday they told me. If I didn’t want to freeze to death during Polish winter I should join them. I have nothing to loose. I’m in.
*Defiled Square is probably a reference to Defilad Place in Central Warsaw
Saturday Dec 2
I worked especially hard today hitting up the chapels and the offices for weekend workers. I’m lucky. I still don’t look so bad that I scare people. The other guys couldn’t get within two feet of a ‘donor’ without them screaming. I made more money today than the rest of the men combined. They invited me for dinner – bought for with my money – but I’m happy for the company, even though they look like the meanest, nastiest men I’ve ever set my eyes on. One of the gang showed me a scar that followed his spine right down to his ass. One long stretch of red. It looked like he’d been run over by a truck. I asked him and he said, no, he’d been run over by a train.
Sunday Dec 3
Jesus Christ this goddamn rain, won’t someone put me on a train. Preparations. Pavel is the friendliest guy in the group. He brought me lifting today. We’re going to need good sleeping bags and boots for the trip, so we hit the market. Pavel could steal the teeth out of your head. It’s mine, he says, then walks right over and takes it. Jesus, he has some stones. He started a fight with a trader. He told him that the record player on his stall was originally his, and he was going to take it back. The trader got into a big fuss and half of the market congregated to see the face off. In the middle of the madness, I slipped between legs and tables and stole a fine pair of hiking boots. I was so scared I nearly shit myself. I didn’t stick around long enough to see but Pavel told me he spat in the guy’s face then walked away. I believe him. Pavel isn’t scared of anything. The boots are too small, but Pavel fixed that when he sliced out the tongues with his hunting knife.
Monday Dec 4
We took the train this morning at 6am. When you sleep rough, you always wake up early so it was no big deal. We sat between carriages and passed time seeing how far along the aisle we could roll a penny. It was just an excuse to crawl around on the floor looking up the skirts of passengers. We had sardines two days ago. I still get the taste every time I burp… The oldest guy explained our trip like this – because so many homeless men die every winter in Poland, the rail authorities don’t check for tickets if you want to head south somewhere warmer, and survive. In this way, Poland exports its problems and we get a free road trip right into the heart of Czechoslovakia *. We arrived into Prague and marched straight out of town in a hurry. Keep your head pointed at the ground and don’t look up until you see suburb, they said to me. My gang are all big men. Sure they’re withered and broken from years on the street but their shoulders were made working ploughs and factories. Still, they were so scared of running into Czech bums that we spent less time in that capital than the sun does in winter. As we walked the gang traded stories of hapless tramps getting their legs set on fire and dangerous bastards only too happy to chew off an ear to prove a point. I listened and didn’t miss Prague for a second.
*This actually still happens today in Poland. It’s been an unofficial arrangement since the winter of 1977 when temperatures in Poland dropped to minus 40 and almost two hundred homeless men died. Also, our author’s reference to Czechoslovakia suggests that the trip was made pre-1993.
Wednesday Dec 6
We made it to Vienna yesterday but we lost one. The old guy. No one seemed to care that much. As much as we’re a gang, it’s pretty evident that everyone would rather cut loose on their own. We’re together for safety and to pool money, but after that no one gives a shit about each other. It all happened because we split up to hitch into Austria. We spread out along the motorway. I got a lift pretty quickly with a truck driver who only took me because I spoke German. He’d passed the other guys, he told me, because the last thing he needed in his cab was some mute he couldn’t chinwag with. He was a decent skin and even fed me some of his packed lunch. Sausage and potato salad… (text missing)* When we met up again in Vienna, Pavel told me that the old guy had got himself arrested for vagrancy. The Czech Police had grabbed him before he could dive into the bushes on the edge of the motorway. They laughed about the rough time he’d have in the Czech prison. We slept in a park in full view of the city. The boys aren’t worried about Austrian bums. Diluted Germans, is what they call them. No Slav could ever be scared of that.
* This page was badly damaged with water stains. There are about six lines that are completely indecipherable. I can only assume that he described the sausage and potato salad at length, and hope that it was good.
Wednesday Dec 6
I have two new holes in my socks. They look like cheese. Man is Vienna ever rich. It’s been decided that we’ll stay here till Friday to clean up. Soon as we hit Hungary we won’t get a penny and the best way to see Serbia, they say, is quickly. They told me this morning that the plan was to make Athens early next week. It’s strange, since I set off I didn’t know where we were going, I just knew that we were getting away from a winter that might kill us. Now that I know we’re going to Greece, I’m excited. Austrians don’t have too many bums to contend with so it’s a lot like taking candy from a baby. Pavel stole a scooter. He just walked up to the bike, ripped the plastic off the ignition and had it hot-wired in a minute. We bombed around Vienna like clowns. Whenever we ran out of petrol, we’d just pull up beside another car, Pavel would pop the petrol cap and make me suck and spit the gas from the car into the bike. Every time a drop managed to squeeze past my tongue I’d wrench and Pavel would laugh at me. Next time you can steal the bike and I’ll get the gas, he joked. It was only when he crashed the bike into a lamppost and were both running away, I realised we hadn’t even been wearing any helmets. Pavel’s the luckiest hobo I’ve ever met.
Friday Dec 8
(text missing)* I’ve got a black eye all of a sudden. We had to sleep in a bus station. It was miserable. The other lads were mad. One of them had got a head butt and his nose wouldn’t stop bleeding. Pavel told him to go fuck himself and another fight started. We stopped them by telling them it was too cold to fight. Then the police came and we legged it. I was so tired that I wanted to give myself up, but they’d probably just send me back north again and I wanted to see Greece more than anything. It was a miserable day. It snowed and I’ve no sleeping bag anymore since the mess in the hostel. We got refused from nearly every supermarket in town and the lads were dying for booze. Eventually we had to ask this scumbag to pick us up a few bottles. He said he would but for a price. We paid, got the beer, then the gang followed him round a corner and rolled him. They kicked him until he stopped moving. As the trip goes on everyone’s becoming that bit nastier. I’ve decided I’m going to spend one more night with them than take off on my own.
*The top of this page and the page before were ripped out. Something happened in Vienna. Either they were set upon by another gang, got roughed up by the police or maybe even just fought amongst each other.
Saturday Dec 9
One of the men robbed a commuter this morning so we’re travelling by bus through Hungary to Serbia and I suppose I’m still with this gang. It’s a six-hour trip. I saw an angel on the bus. She was travelling Vienna to Budapest. I patted my hands on my laps for about half an hour before getting up the nerve to sit beside her. What are you reading, I asked. It was a book of religious poems by an Austrian nun *. It was part of her studies. I asked if I could share a page and we both sat there reading couplets about John the Baptist and the Last Judgment as the bus flung its way through corners and over hills and deep into the Hungarian countryside. At one stage I tried to hold her hand. Damn I was so close. I thought it was my chance to skip this crazy gang. I started fishing. I’ve never been to Budapest, I told her. You should come visit, she said. It was teed up. She gave me an address. Then Pavel came rolling up the aisle and grabbed me by the shoulder. We share everything, remember, he whispered in my ear then leaned across my lap and introduced himself. My Hungarian sweetheart had never felt anything close to as rough or dirty as that handshake. She skipped off the bus as it pulled into Budapest station without so much as looking back at me. When I checked the address I realised she hadn’t even put a street number down. I’ve as much chance of finding her as I do of finding a real angel.
* Ava was an Austrian poet who was also a nun. It’s not impossible that the ‘angel’ was in fact on her way to join a Catholic monastery in Budapest.
Monday Dec 11
Oh man, what a couple of days. First we all got quizzed at the Serbian border by these military hard asses. Pavel and I were the only ones who got through the net as we had passports rather than state ID. The rest of them were told to go home. Pavel laughed. Then we started hitching and got a lift into Belgrade. We were rich on the Serbian Dinar and had huge plates of kebab meat and salad, washed down with cokes and cigarettes and ice cream. We paid then Pavel got in a fight with the guy at the counter. It was ridiculous. Pavel could barely count so how would he have a clue if he was being short changed. Anyway we left but then the guy came running out of the shop and made a dive at Pavel with a cleaver. Jesus, we didn’t know what was happening. The knife tore all the way from the top of Pavel’s plaid shirt to the bottom. It fell open like a boat’s sail. We ran giggling all the way to the train station. When we eventually stopped we were both dripping in sweat and shaking. We didn’t have time to talk as a huge freighter was pulling out of the yards going south. We ran after it and climbed onto the bearings pulling ourselves high into a compartment between a passenger and cargo carriage. We had to glue ourselves tight to the metal girders or else we’d slip under. That evening we made Macedonia and it was only while we were bedding down on the banks of a river and Pavel was taking off the two parts of his shirt, we remembered the kebab shop attack.
Tuesday Dec 12
The Greeks have no love for the Macedonians apparently and it was almost impossible to get any lifts going south. That wasn’t so bad. Today for the first time in weeks we felt warm air and lay around on park benches idling in the sun. At around 4pm Pavel decided that we’d been moving too fast and running too many risks. We’re pushing the flow too much, he said mystically, we need to allow it to take us. So I bought a bag of black olives and spat the pips into the river *. The current took them out along and towards the Adriatic. Pavel approved. I’m excited about Greece now. We decided to spend the night and slept on the steps of a mosque beside the canal. Pavel told me he was Muslim. The only Muslim Pole, he said. The next morning he went to prayer and wrangled us a lift to the Greek border with another believer. He gave me a wink which meant he was no more Muslim than me. Pavel was born conning. The Greek border guards were half asleep at their posts accepting passports and IDs in tiny smoke-filled booths. We were through and only a short drive and a boat trip away from Athens.
* The reference to a river and a mosque, and considering how they arrived in Macedonia, lead us to believe that they’re probably in Skopje.
Fri Dec 15
Maybe it was the sun or the endless possibilities presented by the clear blue waters stretching out to Turkey but something down in Greece made Pavel bid farewell to his last drop of decency. We were at the port of Thessaloniki about to sneak on a ferry to Athens when he flipped. We were caught and should have walked away but instead he knocked the guy on the ground and jumped on his face till the narrow gangway was soaked in blood. Jesus, did we run and when he stopped for a breath I kept going. I ran practically all the way back across the country and must have skipped right through Albania as I’m writing this on a freighter bound for Italy. Luigi’s beside me. He’s just bought an Albanian motorbike. It would have cost him to bring a vehicle on to the ship so he dismantled the bike in the harbour and brought it on in pieces as hand luggage. He’s assembling it as I write. It looks like sculpture. We land in Italy in the morning, and after all that I’ve been no more than one long hot day in Greece. Luigi’s plan is to go to Palermo. I asked him for a lift. He said sure if I covered the petrol. I told him if he got me a long tube and a bucket, I’d find him enough petrol to drive to Africa.
It’s impossible to tell if the author made it to Palermo or not. The following pages are just a collection of shopping lists, doodles and phone numbers. They continue for almost twenty pages and then his next adventure begins.