I read something on LinkedIn last week that triggered a whole flood of memories….
A few years ago, I used to run a couple of shifts a week, usually over a weekend, at a volunteer night shelter in a large UK City. We would take in around 30 “guests” a night. We would feed them, give them a hot meal, made with food that was donated, and then usually sit up all night caring for a wide range of needs from people that were hurting badly in one way or another.
After everyone was fed, I liked to spend some time chatting with the regulars. Despite never having smoked, I used to buy a couple of packets of cigarettes every week, which I would share with the Ladies and Gents, who always enjoyed a smoke and the chance to talk. There were many characters, and we knew them all by the names they gave each other.
I had a genuine fondness for a couple of the regulars. One of whom was known as the “The Professor”, a quiet, well spoken man, who passed his long, lonely, homeless days keeping warm in the University Library reading anything and everything he could get his hands on. The Professor had very poor eyesight, and wore two pairs of glasses to read. The glasses he told me were the work of many months of patient scavenging from the bins of a local optician, he returned to the bins numerous times until he had salvaged a combination of lenses that together restored his ability to read…
Another regular I became friends with was Metal Mickey, a giant of a man. Everything about this Man was huge, his shoulders, his arms, his hands, his beard, and especially his heart. I spent many hours chatting with Metal Mickey, who had found himself living rough as a result of his chronic alcoholism, which was a common problem amongst the guests. What was remarkable about Metal Mickey was his ability to make people feel good. Life had been viciously cruel to Mickey, but he maintained a wonderful outlook. This was one thing I learned early on, all of our guests had stories, and key to many of those tales, was that the number of steps from “Brigadier to Bum” as one of them put it, are alarmingly small….
One particularly freezing Winter evening with the temperature well below zero I hauled a barely conscious Metal Mickey into a Mercedes Van, that had been loaned to us by a local car dealer for the purposes of moving around blankets, beds and food. I drove him through the City, stopped off at McDonalds who provided us with a stack of Burgers and Chips, and then onto the Shelter. Metal Mickey spent his final hours on Earth that night doing what he loved best. Drinking, Smoking and making everyone else feel much better about themselves.
Despite their obvious challenges, Metal Mickey and the Professor showed such remarkable generosity of spirit and humanity, that sitting here nearly thirty years later I can still remember them vividly. What is surprising is just how much I learned much about honour, dignity, and humility in an environment that was bereft of almost all of the basic requirements of human life….