Upon leaving Australia for the first time in 1987, with the aim of travelling the globe as more than a tourist, I was clear as to my overriding wish – to help others if I could – but little inclined to stay long in any one place. I basked in the freedom to follow through on the worthwhile opportunities that came my way and also to wring change when it felt right.
Within weeks of first embracing life on the road I stumbled on a newspaper advertisement calling for volunteers to reside and work with homeless people in the United Kingdom. I wrote to England and received an application form and assorted details in the mail. After completing and posting the form I was advised that everything had been forwarded to the Glasgow Simon Community. A couple of months later I was invited to join them as a full-time live-in volunteer.
The UK Simon Communities operated under the umbrella of a group known as the National Cyrenians. The symbolism was clear and it was with this ‘helping to bear the cross’ ethos in mind that the first Simon Community was established in London in the early 1960s, expressly to address the scarcity of accommodation options available to newly released prisoners.
More than twenty years later the Simon served all manner of homeless people, whether temporarily or more permanently down on their luck. The residents in Glasgow were chronic alcoholics. Among them were many committed to trying out sobriety and others not yet capable of undertaking this step.
In spite of the name the Glasgow Simon was not an ecumenical or faith community in any traditional sense of those words. Nor was the situation appreciably different in any of the Simon Communities I worked in subsequent to Glasgow. But faith, of a kind, existed. The burgeoning of intentional communities in the 1960s arguably represented nothing if not hope that all can find acceptance in this world, even those most vividly different to the norm.
In time my sights became fixed on North America, specifically its Catholic Worker Movement communities. I wrote to several addresses around the time of my arrival in the region and ultimately received an invitation to join the community in New York City. I received a warm welcome upon stepping inside the group’s multi-storey East First Street house. After putting my things aside in the second-level room where I was told I would be staying I went back downstairs to the lounge / dining area.
A couple of young American volunteers were preparing the evening meal. On hand were several of the long-term residents as well. They included a man of Scottish / Irish descent affectionately nicknamed Whiskers. Usage of this moniker had become so ubiquitous that I rarely heard anyone refer to him by his Christian name of Richard. I understood he was from Boston. A speech impediment made him difficult to comprehend and yet his sociability shone through. He took me firmly under his wing during the initial phase of my stay in the community.
To aid my settling in process he chaperoned me on walks around the Lower East Side and Bowery neighbourhoods, tendering me food and drink as we went. The house doubled as a soup kitchen four mornings a week and during the frenetic serving period Whiskers habitually manned the downstairs side door, though which those who had eaten their meals went on their way.
Though aware of the film’s reputation I would not sit down to watch Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi till many years after its 1983 release. I was amazed when I did to recognise none other than Whiskers in the homeless figure seen shuffling toward the camera near the end of a particularly elegiac sequence in the last quarter of the movie. The trademark facial hair was in place. He looked younger but decidedly worse for wear than the man I came to know. He is on screen for a matter of seconds as he shambles, pauses briefly to check the small change in his right hand and shuffles on.
Reggio’s film is a meditation upon lives out of balance, or the search for less fractious ways of living, as the translation of the Hopi Indian title into English makes clear. It warmed the heart to realise Whiskers’ life, as the pictorial evidence glaringly portrayed, was one sadly unbalanced life that regained track and equilibrium. And that this occurred all thanks to a loving, accepting community of dedicated people. Later, as I discovered from my own experience, he would demonstrate to others the love and care he received.
Homeless people, the marginalised in general, were no different to anyone else.
They could even star in movies!
Whiskers was a movie star!