I hear homeless people at nights. From under the railway overpass where many of them sleep, the noises echo across the road to my apartment on Flinders Street, the busiest road in Melbourne, Australia. Whether it’s joke-telling and laughter or the mindless solitary screaming at the tail-end of a meth binge, it’s not something you notice after a while. They just become another natural part of the soundscape, like tram bells and car horns. And so it is with the knowledge of their existence. They are simply there, in the same way that streetlights and ATMs are there. Not a matter of personal concern, let alone the source of any kind of human connection. But that changed one night.
I was leaning out my window taking Snoop Dogg-sized drags on what I promised myself would be the very last fag. Everyone knows New Year’s resolutions don’t last, but this was a pinkie promise to my ego with no crossed fingers, toes or any of that schoolyard bullshit. It was the Sunday of the last week of 2012, also envisioned to be my last week as a smoker. But I had a dilemma: I had half a pack left. What was to become of the remaining cigarettes? I knew there were a few options. I could put them in the bin, just to dig them out and keep smoking first thing in the morning (which was an absolute certainty), or I could give them to a stranger I’d never see again. I decided to go with the latter. But I wasn’t about to give them away to some asshole who could afford a pack himself. No one who’s that secure in life deserves to smoke free cigarettes while I’m going through withdrawals.
So I walked out the door, crossed the road and wandered around beneath the train tracks. I was hoping to find an elderly individual or a woman—just anybody who was less likely to stab me in the face with a used syringe. In the darkest corner I saw a tent constructed out of shopping trolleys and bed sheets, but decided to look elsewhere. Nobody likes being woken up by a stranger under the tracks. Not even a bum. I kept walking, looking around, stopping and starting. It must’ve looked quite odd, because that’s when I noticed a man standing really still beside a post, staring at me.
His eyes were young, but his skin was paper thin. He could’ve been 30 or 45. It’s hard to tell when the ageing didn’t happen under the sheltered circumstances that it has with the rest of us. The man had buzz-cut black hair, and if he wasn’t so thin, he might’ve resembled someone you wouldn’t want to look at the wrong way. But it takes half a second to make all the observations. After that you have to actually say something.
“Hey man,” was what came out. He didn’t answer. I said, “Do you want these smokes? I don’t need them anymore. It’s my New Year’s resolution.” I let out an awkward fake chuckle and held the pack up to him. He didn’t hesitate and walked up to take them from my hand. He looked inside the pack.
“Lighter’s in there,” I told him.
He said, “I have a lighter.”
“Well now you’ve got two.”
He lit one up with it.
“You don’t want this one back?”
I said, “I don’t need it anymore.”
Relieved that the conversation was over, I turned around to walk home. The stiffness in my neck immediately went away when I saw my apartment. I couldn’t wait to get the fuck back.
“Got any food, man?” I heard from behind me.
“Do you have any food or money for food?”
The first thing I felt was anger. You ungrateful prick, I thought, I just gave you half a pack of cigarettes and you’ve still got something to ask for.
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” he said.
I considered his motives, the way you do when dealing with anyone you don’t trust, then came to a realisation that made me feel a bit stupid. His motive was hunger. What else could it be? He’s homeless and he’s hungry.
I said, “I don’t have any money on me.”
He said, “No worries man, thanks for the ciggies,” and gave me a thumbs up. But I checked my coin pocket before he turned away. There was a dollar in there and the 7-11 was right around the corner.
I said, “You like Mi Goreng?”
“Noodles. I’ll get you some from the 7-11. I just found a dollar in my pocket.”
The man smiled.
“Fuck yeah I like noodles, man.”
“Alright I’ll be back in a sec,” I said.
“Cool. I’ll be here.”
I don’t know why I didn’t just give him the coin and walk home. It might have been my displeasure at the thought of him not spending it on what he said he would. The justification that you don’t give pocket change to the homeless because they’ll spend it on drugs or alcohol was just as deeply engrained in my mind as anybody else’s. It’s a fair assumption to make about anybody with an honest habit. But a dollar won’t buy you a six-pack of Chicken McNuggets these days, let alone a decent hit of heroin. Not that I was thinking about that at the time. Mainly I was just pissed off that I still wasn’t home, walking under an overpass with Mi Goreng in my hand.
I handed him the packet. I said, “Enjoy,” and started walking.
“How am I gonna cook it?”
I stopped. Again. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Well fuck, I can’t boil it with my hopes and dreams.”
“Just eat it raw.”
He didn’t respond and looked at me with the same blank expression he had when I first met him. I knew that I could bring him the gas cooker I use in my own shithole studio, but I’d been drained of my sympathy at this point and there had to be a very good reason for me to do it. But I knew exactly what that was.
“Alright,” I said, “I’ll get my portable stove. But while you’re eating, I’m gonna smoke as many of those cigarettes as I can. Okay?”
He smiled. My logic must’ve amused him.
“Alright,” he said.
I looked back at my apartment.
“I’ll be back in five. Fuck.”
I returned with the stove, a pot, a fork and a bottle of water and put it all down in front of him. I took the cigarettes from his hand and lit one up. He sat down and started cooking with the enthusiasm of Jamie Oliver in his younger years. And as he ate, we talked. I told him about what I did for a living and he told me about the odd jobs he’d had as a kid. We agreed on how shit it is that most people will never be able to make a living from doing what they really love. It was a normal conversation. He told me his name was Rizza. He said it was short for his real name, Richard, but I know now that it was really because he idolized RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. When he finished the noodles, I took all my stuff back and walked home. I started writing this article. It wasn’t much of a story at the time, but something told me it could turn into one.
I didn’t see Rizza for a few weeks. Then one night I noticed him standing across the road, staring up at all the windows of my apartment building. It wasn’t like he was doing it with any real goal in mind. I guess he was just curious or bored. He looked like he was waiting, but seemed happy to do so.
It only felt natural to take the cooking utensils down to him again. It became a ritual after that and I started keeping them in a shopping bag by the door—the Mi Goreng preparation kit. Whenever I was out with friends or chatting on the phone, I started saying I had to go to bed early for work in the morning so that I could meet up with Rizza under the overpass. Eventually, I got him his own gas cooker and a plastic bowl with The Avengers printed on it. He hadn’t seen the movie, but he read comic books at this store down the road and was familiar with the characters. He hadn’t seen any movie in recent years and often asked me to describe them to him. I’m pretty sure I fucked up the story of every single one. And my retelling of The Avengers was so fragmented it sounded like Inception. But he never stopped me. Even when I could see in his eyes that he stopped following five minutes ago, he always listened intently to the end, nodding or laughing at every plot point. Silver Linings Playbook and Flight are two other films that I probably ruined for Rizza, forever.
We talked about our history too. He told me about never knowing his parents and the different father figures he’d had throughout his life. Before he chose to be homeless at 14, he lived under sexually abusive uncles and their friends. Rizza said they were all junkies and that the worst times were when they couldn’t get onto any dope. Because they had to take their insanity and rage out on somebody, and he was always right there to be their release. He told me the different things they used to call him, and that while he has no problem beating someone halfway to death, he still can’t verbalise abuse towards people because of those experiences. He said that made him feel weak. It was like the things those men called him, their opinion of that child he used to be, hurt him far more than anything they ever did to his body.
Rizza didn’t say these things with any emotion attached to the telling. He simply listed events, the way people do about the different schools they’ve attended or the suburbs they’ve lived in.
But most of the time he talked about happy memories. He showed me a polaroid of a German Shepherd. It was the dog he’d had as a kid. He told me that he used to sleep in the kennel with her instead of staying in the house at nights. I remember that conversation most vividly because I did the same thing when I was eight. My parents got sick of me imagining ghosts were in my room and running into their bedroom, crying and begging to be allowed to sleep safely in between them. It went on for way too long so they started locking their door. For about six months, I quietly snuck out of the house every night and slept with my Doberman in his kennel. I told Rizza that story and he laughed his ass off.
These conversations sound trivial, and they were, but at the same time they felt so important to me. I wasn’t sure why that was, but I knew that I couldn’t go back to the way things used to be. Suddenly it seemed like an unforgivable waste of time to spend my weeknights doing the ground work with one more girl way out of my league, listening to her talking about her own popularity so I could fuck her two months down the line.
“Oh wow. Yeah? That’s crazy. I can’t believe how many exes can’t get over you. He really said that? What a psycho. You should come over,” encapsulates the kind of verbal horse shit mixed with positive reinforcement that I’m accustomed to vending. Now it felt like a lower form of human communication and I lost the desire to continue. I stopped answering and she stopped calling. It dissipated, as it should have. Deep down I knew that I’d always lived a vain life but for the first time ever, I really didn’t want to. I didn’t have to be shallow anymore and in my friendship with Rizza, I wasn’t.
But things weren’t always good. One night I found him lying in his spot under the overpass wrapped up in a blanket, immobilised by drug sickness. Rizza told me that the stuff he had was 20% heroin at most and it wasn’t getting rid of the body aches. Also, his friend had stolen his kit, so he had nothing to inject with for the night. I knew enough about the drug to know that he could have a seizure if he didn’t get a fix for too long. I called up every needle exchange near the CBD but none of them were open that late. I asked Rizza if he could handle the aches until the next day. He said he could. In the morning I had to ring up my manager at work and call in sick. I hadn’t lied about a sick day yet, but what else could I do?
“Uh… Hey Jim, it’s Shane. I won’t be able to come in today. My mate had his syringes stolen by his other mate. Plus his shit is like twenty percent pure. I gotta get him some clean ones so he can shoot up as soon as possible. He’s got cramps all over his body, Jim. Thanks for understanding.”
I found out there was a street-based mobile syringe program in the city called Foot Patrol. I had to get my ass to wherever they were the moment they went out on their rounds. I checked up on Rizza before leaving and he didn’t look good. I’d never seen anybody looking so uncomfortable in my life. I started panicking and called the number for the syringe program. A guy picked up and told me he was sitting in front of a Telstra Store ten minutes away. After I met up with him and got the gear, I couldn’t wait for the trams back to Flinders so I ran. I didn’t care that I looked like I stole something or that my backpack was full of needles, I just kept running. Through red lights and waves of people I belted along the pavement until my lungs hurt. I honestly think if that was my 800m race in year five, I would’ve beat the school record and been glorified as a fucking champion.
After fixing, Rizza got more comfortable over the course of the day. He was even hungry enough to eat a family pack of Continental Creamy Bacon Carbonara for dinner. We’d upgraded from Mi Goreng to some serious gourmet shit at that point.
And things only got better from there. That weekend he wore my Ben Sherman loafers and a button up so we could get into a nice bar and have a piss up in dignity. We even lined up at some millionaires’ nightclub called Silk Road just for a laugh and got rejected. Rizza wanted to piss on the Maserati parked outside, but I told him it wasn’t entirely necessary. We ended up sharing a bottle of scotch by the Yarra.
He also seemed to be putting on a bit of weight from all the instant food we’d been eating at nights. And he looked happier. I knew I was happier anyway. It’s a peculiar thing to describe a relationship with another man in this way. But I really don’t think it’s that strange. Life has a way of numbing our senses with a kind of dignified despair, until the simplest things in the world seem mad or foolish. Things like friendship, which as children we understand so well. I think with time, a lot of good things are unlearned. It’s also time that takes things away from you for good, because everything with a beginning has an end. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sometimes feels that way.
Rizza hadn’t shown up across the road two nights in a row. I walked down to check up on him. I thought he might’ve been sick again, but it wasn’t that. He was just gone. He’d left all his belongings in the usual spot under a blanket in the corner. I figured he was squatting in Richmond getting high with his dealer. He did that every now and then, but he always let me know when he wouldn’t be here. I waited at my window every night for a week before I needed to find out. I wandered around under the tracks and asked anyone I could find. I even woke up the angry woman sleeping in that tent I didn’t venture into last time.
After many “I don’t know”s and a “Fuck off cunt!” I found someone who knew. At first she looked at me funny; a lady slumped against the wall. I guess she couldn’t see why I’d be interested in knowing the whereabouts of a homeless guy.
Then she stared at me straight and said, “He’s dead.”
I didn’t respond for long enough for her to lose interest and go back to whatever she was doing.
Then I said, “How’d he die?”
She said, “O.D.”
I paused to think.
She looked up at me again.
“Somewhere in Richmond.”
When I heard that, I started walking. But I wasn’t worried. With all political correctness aside, a homeless woman was not a reliable source of information. I told myself that she was probably high. Or that she was just a cruel person who wanted me to think he was dead for no reason. Of course she knew to say he died in Richmond. All these guys know each other. I told myself a hundred different things on that walk home. None of them were true.
For a few weeks I visited Rizza’s spot to check his belongings under the blanket. I think I wanted to come down to find they’d disappeared. That way I’d know he was alive. It had been long enough that he would’ve taken some of his clothes or even the stove with him, but they were never touched. I took some of the cooking utensils home with me. I bought them for him and now the fucker wasn’t putting them to good use. That was the last day that I went down there. I blocked him out of my mind and focused on working and writing another article. For a while, life returned to the way it was before I met him and it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t have to go home early all the time and wasn’t eating lethal amounts of Easy Mac anymore. But one night I decided to. I just felt like it.
When I got to the bottom of the bowl, I saw Iron Man and the Hulk looking back at me. I didn’t realise I was eating out of Rizza’s old one. He’d been dead for three weeks and I started laughing. I was remembering the way I told him the story of The Avengers. It was so bad. The funniest part was how long I talked for and how carefully he listened. But I could’ve done better. I knew it was only because I got too caught up in all the good parts, but I thought I could’ve put in a bit more effort. Why didn’t I lend him my laptop so he could watch it himself? He could’ve seen a hundred movies by now. Why did I never do that? How could I be so fucking selfish to not think of that? Now for some reason my hands were covering my face. I was crying. I broke into intermittent sobs, then sank into my seat and bawled for the longest time. I’ve never cried like that before. I’d reached the limits of doubt and no amount of petty guilt I could lay upon myself would change the fact that he was gone. The last time we hung out would truly be the last time. That kind of permanence is hard to accept.
I never wanted to sensationalise this story. Nor do I see it as a way of getting more jobs. But I believe a story about love is as worthy of telling as any other. And that was the decision I made.
I once asked Rizza if he was afraid of overdosing. He thought about it for a while, then said he wasn’t really. He said, “Everybody’s happy in heaven.” When I look back on that now, I don’t think he was talking about any religious idea of a paradise after death, but death in itself. I think for him, death meant a conclusion to the predictability of life. Not even the pain, because when I met him he was far beyond the capacity to even feel it anymore. But it was the predictability—born out of the truth—that for him, being alive always had and probably would have been devoid of happiness. I hope that if only for a speck in the timeline of his life, I was able to contribute a little bit of surprise. I think everyone longs for that.
We all share the same destination, but if there is an afterlife, I’ll most likely skip the buffet in the mansion to cook up Mi Goreng in the car park with my friend. But for now, I think I’ll keep looking. And not just in those places where we can see the beauty in the world, but in all the shadows where we can’t. Because it’s in the darkness that the smallest spark can seem like a beacon.
That might be the kind of lie we’ll be telling our kids one day. “Life is beautiful, no matter what.” But if we’re gonna believe anything, it might as well be this thing still beating in our chests.