Monday, 7 March 2011

The significance of a ham salad sarnie

Friday afternoon was sunlit and sharp – a good afternoon for legwork. We set out at 2pm with Ben from The Big Issue office on an outreach walk, checking in with the vendors in Manchester city centre. Our plan was to show our faces to the vendors, many of whom hadn’t met us, and to try making a little impromptu work with them.

Ben was lean-faced, young and kindly – and he walked like the clappers, despite his habitual roll-ups. So we brisked down through the Northern Quarter and to the main bustle, where we met P our first vendor. He gave us a warm hello and chatted for 10 minutes about the site, the people who pass him and about his own past. Little fragments of a hard history: ‘That barbed wire reminds me of prison.’ Because the vendors work when at their pitches, we could only take a little of his time and intermittent attention.

Other stops led to other conversations, outside the big landmark stores and edifices in town. Vendors wear a dayglo bib while they’re selling, so that they stand out for the outreach workers to see – the bibs double as a traffic safety extra. (R wryly observed of this badging: ‘All the women, everyone’s after people wearing a Big Issue bib cos we’ve got a lot of prospects. I’m personally overwhelmed with offers.’)

The idea of the outreach is to make sure people are alright, working – and eluding the ever-present ghost ‘trouble’ however it next materialises. The pressures of the life are huge, often coming from deep-set behaviours and peer pressure. Breaking out of this mould can be a long and terrifying job. ‘I’ve been homeless two year no ID no benefit so I was stuck in a circle couldn’t get anywhere to live cos everyone wanted ID and wanted to know you was on benefits. Plus I was a bad smackhead. This time last year - my head did go Fred West quite a bit - but I couldn’t even tell people I was a heroin addict cos I was embarrassed.

Our idea was simply to ask people about their day - the best part of it – and for them to document the moment of our conversation by taking a quick photograph. I jotted down the words, Lois gave people whatever help they needed as they took the pictures.

I have good moments. Someone brought me a ham salad sarnie today. Or they all bring me a cuppa in the middle of winter and you end up with nine cups. I never refuse it. When they do little things like that that’s a nice touch.

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