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Last Thursday I was coming back to my office from the market with a boxful of fruit and vegetables. I was with another woman from the office but we had only met when we got off the tram. We were both extolling the virtues of Vic market and saying how lucky we were to be so close to it. As we crossed the road, I saw a man, well-dressed, around late 20s, taking a drink of water from the bubble tap in front of the office. He was distinctive because he seemed to be an example of mild dwarfism, standing about four and half feet tall. I beamed at him and this might have encouraged him. He said something like, excuse me, I wonder if you could help, I've lost my wallet, I haven't got any money to get home and I have to meet my wife. I fished around in my wallet. I found $4 in coins and handed it to him. He looked at the money in his hand and said something like, well, it's a start. He had to go to Ringwood and it would cost $12 to get out there. Slightly ashamed that I ddin't realise how much costs on public transport had gone up, I fished around and produced $10 more. Thanks, he said, without a lot of conviction, turned away. I said apologetically to my friend that I was a sucker for people asking for money, and she said she was too. Thinking about it later, I realise that the guy was probably scamming me. It was a race day, and he was well dressed and healthy looking. If it was me and I had no money and needed to get home I'd probably just talk to the public transport people and explain why I couldn't pay. On reflection, I should have offered to let the guy use my phone in the office to call someone to help. It would have been interesting to work out whether his story was true or not, to get him to embroider it, see if he believed it himself. But my immediate response is to produce money, because I always feel the shame of people having to ask for it. I get hit on a bit, perhaps because I look reasonably friendly. The guys with the windscreen wipers always go for me, even if I say no thanks. And I always pay. Those guys get a lot of bad press, but I find it incredible the way that most of them have incorporated a McDonalds kind of francised cheerfulness and dedication to really cleaning your windscreen whether you look as if you're going to pay or not. They can look really feral and some of them are pretty beaten-up looking, but there they are, energetically scratching at the specks on your windscreen and telling you to have a nice day. To me that's really impressive. The human windscreen wipers are a fascinating symbol of the social divisions of the future. There they are, running around on the roads, risking their lives during red light stops, serving the people in cars - sometimes for nothing - and yet the drivers are often the ones claiming to be the victims. I've watched them sometimes, off to their homes and jobs, sourly waving off the ferals, the travellers and the rif-raff. There are lots of sort-of beggars in Brunswick Street. There's the woman with stringy hair who's always asking for fags, and the guy with droopy eyes who's always asking for the taxi fare to go to St Vincents to get his medication (he can't take a tram - there's a reason, but I forget). No-one usually asks straight out for money. It's a fare home, something to eat, lost money, sales of The Big Issue. I reckon they work pretty hard for their money. Should they provide a service in exchange? They already do - they remind us that we're lucky to have homes, jobs, families, education, good luck. It's alarming to be asked. The pain of the transaction is not being asked to part with money. It's the reminder that you're affluent - and that you look it. It's the shame you feel for them that they have to ask. It's my own shame that I do sometimes weigh up the story. Is the money going to go to some dealer around the corner? Will you really spend it on your baby daughter? How well have you managed your life really? Luckily it doesn't happen often, so I can still afford to buy my way out of the hard questions.
May Lam