It doesn’t. The cold bites and I shiver, waiting for tram 96 to come rattling my way.
I see businessmen being busy, school children flirting and gossiping, a rich lady struggling to carry somewhere between ten and one hundred shopping bags (I can’t tell). Every bag has a rich lady brand name printed on the front. She is quite attractive. A busy businessman stops being busy for a moment and offers to help her onto tram 86 with her bags. She accepts gratefully.
I see a man across the street, chatting emphatically with a lamp post and hitting himself in the head with an open palm. I wonder what the lamp post has to say that he would punish himself so. To be honest, I hope he doesn’t see me. I tend to randomly attract sad and unbalanced people.
I stare at the concrete, shivering.
“Darlin’, can you help me?”
Oh dear. That voice is right in front of me. Did I mention I tend to randomly attract sad and unbalanced people? I wonder what this says about me…
I peek out from behind the scarf that has proven an ineffective fortress against the cold and people. The woman in front of me is quite large, wearing several old sweaters, rags around her hands, and tracksuit pants with a hole in one knee. It looks like miniature cars have screeched to a halt under her eyes. Smudged mascara.
“Hi. What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Darlin’, I really need help. I really need some baby formula and real bloody quickly. Will ya help me?”
I lived in Asia for six and a half years. I know this scam well. But in Australia? It’s never happened in Australia before.
I sigh. My mood is a little dark on this day. I am broke, but I do have some money in the bank. I should give it to Telstra.
I know I’m not broke like she is broke, though. I know that Telstra certainly isn't broke.
“Why do you need baby formula?” I ask.
“It’s for my granddaughter. I’m flippin’ out. I’m just freakin’ out. She really needs that formula. Can you help me, darlin’?”
I look above the smudged mascara and see it in her eyes.
Eighty percent chance she is lying.
I hesitate before saying, “Yes, okay.”
She takes a step forward. Her sad, demented eyes flash brightly for a second. She’s found a sucker.
“Thanks darlin’ – thank you so much, mate. I really need that money. I was up shit creek, ya know what I mean? You’re saving my life here.”
I thought I was supposed to be saving her granddaughter’s life.
“Do you want,” she asks, “to go up to Safeway, or…”
Or just give me cash, I say in my head.
“Or do you have money on ya?”
“How much is it?”
“About twenty five bucks. Shit, I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t get that milk.”
“Let’s go to Safeway,” I say.
“It’s a fair walk. You don’t mind?”
“No – I’ve got time.” My tram rattles past. Ch-chink ch-chink ch-chink. It sounds like rattling coins. 96 comes more often than a nympho, which is why I have time.
We walk together up the road. She tells me a story about coming back into contact with her estranged daughter. “She just turns up, knocked up,” she says. “The father buggered off, useless sack of shit.”
She doesn’t blame her daughter becoming estranged, “because I have schizophrenia.” But she takes her pills now, and “I haven’t had an episode for years.” She is glad her daughter is back. But she is clumsy. Her medication – it makes her slow. She knocked over the bloody formula and it went all over the bloody floor. “I’m so stupid – I’m freaking out.”
I look at her. I’m going to guess that fifty percent of the story is true.
I hazard another guess. She is going to start worrying out loud that they don’t have her product in stock.
“Thank god for you, darlin’. I don’t know what I woulda done. Jeez I hope they have the right brand of formula. The baby needs a special type. What’s it called again? I hope they have it.”
They won’t, I think.
We enter into the shiny, glaring world that is Safeway. The baby formula section is massive. There are at least fifteen brands. She makes a show of looking closely at labels, mumbling under her breath, putting her hand to her mouth, mumbling again.
“They don’t have it. They don’t have the right one. Bloody hell, they don’t have the right one. I’ll have to go to another supermarket.”
She looks at me deploringly. Her eyes say, Please just give me the money.
We walk out. There is an ATM, full of money ready to spew from its little ATM mouth, but only if you have the right code to make it do so. She looks at it hungrily. She doesn’t have the right code.
“I know you probably don’t really need milk,” I say. “You don’t need to lie to me. You can tell me now that you need it for food. Or alcohol. Or to pay your drug dealer or whatever. I will still give you the money.”
I mean it. I don’t love the fact she is scamming me. Getting scammed is not a favoured hobby of mine. But the act of scamming on a small scale is an act of desperation. Her life is miserable. It is obvious from the way she talks (a dollop of desperation and whiff of streetwise cunning) and the way she walks (a little too fast, manic, stooped posture). If she needs a drink to get through the day I will make it possible for her. At a guess, her estranged daughter is still estranged, and she wants to drink away memories. Or maybe she just wants the whisky to warm her up in this cold weather. Or maybe she owes money to a thug, or… I imagine dozens of scenarios.
“I’m not lyin’ to ya, love, I promise I’m not,” she says. She looks me straight in the eyes when she says it. Her face is leathery and rough from years of indulging in too much of something to make up for too little of something else.
“People have pulled this scam on me before,” I say. “Tell me the truth. I will give you money anyway.”
You won’t give me the money anyway, her eyes say.
“Nah, really, I’m telling the truth!” her mouth says.
98% chance she is lying.
I want her to know I will not judge her despite the real story. I want to prove that to her. She won’t let me.
“I really need that baby formula. How about you give me the benefit of the doubt?” she says to me.
“Okay,” I say, sighing. She turns away as I type in my pin. The ATM responds and regurgitates the money. While I’m doing this, she is looking through a glass window at novelty items on sale.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” she says, pointing at a little figurine of Hello Kitty. “I like Hello Kitty.”
I smile a little. We have something in common.
“I like Hello Kitty too,” I tell her.
She looks at me and a crooked grin, genuine, appears through the ruse.
“Here,” I say, giving her the money.
“Aw, darlin’, thank you – thank you so much! Let me give you a hug.”
She takes the money, pockets it quickly, and I am suddenly enveloped in a slightly smelly hug cushioned by numerous sweaters.
“You’re welcome,” I say. “Good luck with it.”
“Thank you darlin’,” she says. She turns and trots (almost runs) away. She has purpose. That money has purpose.
I am no hero. I know she might drink the day away, further destroying her liver. I know she might put a needle in her arm, bringing her one step closer to death. I know I’ve given her confidence to keep scamming people where she can.
I also know she is desperate. For whatever reason, she is desperate. I’m acquainted with the feeling of desperation. It’s horrible and scary.
Sometimes people are born, life throws up on them, they stick their middle finger up at life, and then they die.
I make up a story for my own peace of mind.
She takes that money and buys a plush Hello Kitty doll for her granddaughter. When her granddaughter sees it, she goes wild with excitement. Her granddaughter just loves Hello Kitty. It’s the best present she’s ever received. Grandma is awesome!
Grandma is awesome. That will do.
I toddle off to find tram 96, hiding behind my scarf.