A man called Bill

I was a little aggrieved by an incident in the supermarket yesterday, whilst I was purchasing two bottles of sparkling mineral water.

A few places down from me in the queue was a scruffy fellow with screwed-up face, wearing raggedy clothes. He was immediately noticeable, though, not because of how he looked but because of how he smelled. Which is to say terrible. It was a sickly melange of week-old sweat, booze and fags. He was evidently a hobo, and I watched on pittyingly as he rummaged around in his grubby jacket to find a few coins with which to purchase a carton of juice.

I am afraid that I am the only one that looked on pityingly. All the others in the queue looked on with disdain. The smartly-dressed man just in front of me muttered something unpleasant in Italian (which I chose to ignore, simply fixing him with an icy stare) and proceeded to wave his paper in front of him, in wide and angry sweeps, chasing the foul-smelling odour out of the door.

Once the hobo had gone – hobbling out into the cold and cruel Turin twilight – the smartly-dressed man with the paper let forth a torrent of abuse about this man to anyone who would listen. No one was listening, though, for they were also talking to their neighbours about the horrors of the smell that had just departed their presence. I felt that I was the only one in the queue – and I probably was – that looked upon the hobbling old man with compassion rather than as a sub-human entity that played havoc with the nostrils. I was absolutely astonished with the universal contempt that everyone in the supermarket, including the cashiers, displayed for this man.

I am told, though, that this is a fairly normal attitude in most Italian cities; it is a level of disdain, so blatantly broadcast, that one does not usually see in England.

I have noticed that there are a lot of tramps in Turin. We met one on the bus over the weekend, who was screaching an impossibly out-of-tune Italian song at the top of his lungs, intermingled with devout praise for the Lord. Violetta thought he might have been acting so crazy to avoid paying the busfare, since we saw him a little later engaged in what appeared to be a serious conversation with a friend of his.

A stocky gnome-like tramp. with long matted grey beard, has taken up residence on the streets just round the corner from where we live. I pass him almost every day – on the way to the station or to the shops. He is often hunched in a lonely doorway, sometimes asleep, wrapped in filthy blankets, or else puffing away on a sorrowful dog end. He never asks me for money. He seems too afraid to look at anyone. I’ve decided to call him Bill, though I have never spoken to him and don’t know his real name. I’m not quite sure why Bill – probably because it sounds so very un-Italian, and also conjures up images of a Charles Dicken’s story.

I have decided that my ambition is to learn Italian well enough to sit down next to him and have a chat with him, without frightening the poor guy. Perhaps share a cigarette or can of larger.  I’m curious about the stories of people like Bill. I’m sure that they have a lot to tell, if only people will listen. There may even be a book in it.

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One Response to “A man called Bill”

  1. Homeless in Den Haag « Blake Evans-Pritchard’s Weblog Says:

    […] all of this reminded me of an incident some months ago in Italy, where the snobbyness of people in the supermarket, where the attritude shown towards the homeless […]

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