Jim plays harmonica and can make $100 a day busking. Elias sings poetry but can’t read or write. Both live in Melbourne, both are homeless.
A block away from Melbourne’s Queen Victoria market, outside a 7-11 on the corner of Elizabeth and Franklin streets, I walked past a shabby busker hammering out some blues harmonica. He was playing into a microphone which ran into a little Roland amplifier which sat on the ground at his feet. I found a tree diagonally across from him on the footpath and watched, sipping my coffee.
I watched people go by. Most people didn’t notice or ignored the busker, a couple of dudes and someone else I can’t remember gave some loose change, and one guy pulled out his earphone, smiled, and kept walking. I didn’t want to interrupt in the middle of a song, but with no break in play seemingly forthcoming, I knew the time had come to ask if I could interview him.
I wrote ‘can I buy you lunch?’ on my notepad, crouched down next to him and held it at the edge of his line of vision in the most polite way possible. My heart fluttered when he stopped playing, started reading, and then grabbed the notepad and read it aloud. I went with the flow. He was relaxed and responded with “yeah!” in the most Aussie accent possible, scrabbling to his feet. I nervously introduced myself and he told me his name was Jim.
He stopped busking immediately and sat across from a Subway in one of those cramped little dining set ups that they provide. He told me he wanted a cottage pie and a cappuccino. I doubled back at a streetlight, moving back through the city’s constant stream of weekend pedestrians to ask him if he wanted milk (stupidly) and sugar. He wanted three sugars.
Five minutes later I was on my way back to the sorrowful table with the cappuccino and Pie Face’s messy amalgamation of a meat pie and mashed potato, which I thought Jim would be pretty pleased about (he said “what’s this?!” when I gave it to him but was happy enough to eat it). By this time there were now two other guys sitting with him. One was a fresh faced, well dressed young man sitting at the next table, the other was older and a bit rough like Jim. I said hello to him — clad in a black full length wool coat, leather jacket, and a rainbow speckled grey beanie to combat the mild Melbourne winter — but didn’t say anything to the younger guy.
With my back to the glass fencing the small dining section, I felt apprehensive about being boxed in. I was conscious that I appeared better off than Jim and his peer, although thoughts of an organised robbery at the hands of this motley duo were only fleeting.
I introduced myself properly to Jim, said I wrote for Vagabond Journey and that I wanted to interview him about busking on the street in Melbourne. He was quite talkative. The other guy said he was Jim’s friend and introduced himself as Elias. He asked me for some money but Jim told him we had business.
Jim told me he could be found in Melbourne really often, any time time in the last seven or eight years for two to even six months at a time. He told me that he also busks in North Melbourne.
I asked Jim what he did with the rest of his time. I thought he was just a rough alcoholic or something. He told me he goes prospecting in Castlemaine (a small city in the goldfields region of Victoria, about 120 km northwest of Melbourne) and was involved in high grade field exploration. I had no real knowledge of this business so got a very quick and very confusing crash course, my naivety in the mineral game and Jim’s haphazard pattern of discussing the subject made it difficult to ascertain what was real and what was nonsense. Jim was into volcanics, “original stuff,” and said he has achieved good results.
I turned the conversation back to music and asked him what kind he was into.
“Blues, boogie,” said Jim.
I couldn’t get any influences out of him. He likes the harmonica, or mouth harp as he referred to it, because it is not too dear (expensive). He’s been playing it for forty years.
I asked him about busking in Melbourne.
“If you got a bit of go in ya, you can get somewhere,”, said Jim.
Jim said he likes the blues because it’s very relaxing and said no one’s doing it. “People can rely on you and they start to like the blues. Even if a truck goes through the shop front next to you, you won’t change, you’ll still be there,” he said.
Then Jim told me what I should have realized before: he is homeless, he lives in an alley, outside. Later in the day it was pointed out to me how cold it has been at night lately, the apparent temperature went as low as 2.0°Celsius/35.6° Fahrenheit in the early hours of the morning a few days after I spoke to him. According to Homelessness Australia, on any given night one in 200 people throughout the country are homeless. I asked Jim about being homeless and he said it’s OK if you can keep good spirits and said that he likes to choof (smoke marijuana).
Jim returned to talking about volcanics at this point, a subject he was very passionate about, and once again I had to really work to follow him. He spoke of a “hammerfield” (a perfect field site) in Castlemaine, a place where he made many of his discoveries, as being a spot were original volcanics kick in. He said the whole thing is there but that he needs to find the right people. He said he’s a thousand years ahead of them and that this is a thousand years ahead of him.
Jim had pulled out a rock from his pocket briefly and, upon seeing it, I asked him if that was one of his discoveries. The rock was called ‘Sleeping Baba’ and he’d found it a few years ago in Castlemaine and kept it ever since. He said it was a very special one and mentioned they could be found in Egypt and Turkey. I took a photo of it.
“One in a million stones” and “stuff you dream about” where other phrases Jim used to describe the rocks he had found. He also mentioned trumpeter shells as being part of his collection too.
Throughout this conversation, Jim and Elias were rolling cigarettes. I initially felt uncomfortable around Elias while I was talking to Jim — he had interrupted to ask me to pull out twenty dollars for each of them. They then started arguing in a jovial, familiar way. It wasn’t serious. Jim said they always make up.
He pointed out to Elias that I had just bought him lunch, so Elias turned to me incredulously and said “I’m trying to do him a favor!”
It was as ridiculous as it sounds but not threatening, just annoying. Though I made sure I knew where all my stuff was at regular intervals.
With Jim now pottering around having a post lunch smoke there was a break in the conversation, and as the young guy had left I found myself semi-isolated with Elias. He was very familiar in the way he spoke to me, leaning in to speak, happy and animated. He told me he keeps himself clean, shaves everyday (he pulled up his beanie to show me) and washes his bum. I took a picture of the two men together, which they enjoyed. Elias seemed particularly chuffed about it.
I asked Elias a few questions, both because he was now part of the story and to keep things relaxed and off the topic of money. I asked him if he’s a musician but he said he’s a poet. He sings, although he can’t read or write. He said he has been homeless for fifteen years but that he isn’t a junkie.
He sung me a song about the sun and about love right there at those shitty tables, smiling throughout, placing emphasis on each word. Even though it was a pretty average song in itself, the simplicity of it showed that Elias was uninhibited about opening himself up and sharing his feelings. When I went to high five him he took my hand, held it, and kept singing and smiling. It was one of those moments when someone else’s warmth encompasses you and you get that feeling up your spine that renders you momentarily paralyzed. It was an unusual moment.
Jim had sat back down so I returned to interviewing him, and in the midst of the conversation Elias ruffled my hair and called me his son.
Elias asked for money a few more times and when I offered him lunch or a coffee he said he was full but wanted it for later. I caved in and said I’d give him five bucks, but then remembered that I needed to take some pictures of Jim’s busking set up first, so I got up to do that and told Elias I’d get him the money afterwards.
Elias then said goodbye and moved off west down Franklin St, so I guess he forgot about the money, which was a relief. He was an alright guy but seemed to move in and out of thoughts, not incoherently, but in the sense that in a short space of time he had gone from singing me a song about all things good, to rambling about how he isn’t a junkie and how he’d kill’ em (I don’t know who) and if they tried touching him the Jewish mafia would kill them anyway. His face would change from happy, relaxed and open to serious and furrowed; his lips moving from a broad smile to a shooting trumpet.
My last conversation with Jim had me scribbling in my notepad against the jutting grey pillar separating the 7-11 and Subway on the other side of the footpath. Jim began packing up and collecting his possessions. We talked some more about busking. He told me he is getting some new stuff soon, which he’d mentioned earlier (from the pro shop in Sydney Rd, Brunswick). He’d made about $2000 in three weeks of busking and said he can make $100 a day easy.
I asked Jim what the future held. He said he will get a busking license and start doing it legally. In Melbourne, it costs $20 per year for a new busking permit, although the laws have actually made things easier after a proposed crack down by current Lord Mayor Robert Doyle who said, “I want Melbourne audiences to realize street performers and buskers are much more than a crazy, unshaven guy playing the guitar on the corner.” I asked Jim if he has a few staple riffs that he jams when he busks, and he said that he mostly just plays off the top of his head.
Asking Jim about his past, he told me that he is originally from Sydney, and had came down to Melbourne when the fruit picking work he did until he was about 25 or 30 had dried up. He told me he has dealt with injuries, he had a damaged rotator cuff for seven years from a biking accident. He said the doctors were no help and that they botched it up — wrong x-ray. He said he can now move it again. I was nervous to ask him how old he was but did so anyway. He reckoned that he was 58. His last permanent housing was in Delahey (20 kms north-west of Melbourne), which he obtained through the services of the specialized welfare company, Wintringham, who provides housing and care to elderly men and women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Then, once again, the magnitude of his prospecting discoveries resurfaced in the twilight of our conversation before he told me of another hobby: punting.
Jim left me with a final tip: “Screen Machine.”
Not being a tipster myself I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
“Screen Machine, race six.”
Jim walked off with his little amp in one hand and was swallowed up into the crowd of winter jackets. I took a few steps to see where he’d gone thinking he’d turned down an alley he might be squatting in. I walked a few more steps and realized he’d gone into the TAB, the betting house.