APRIL | I just want to catch a metro and seal up my mind for the day. Instead, I decide to trust. And to not be afraid of a question. B. is the nicest human who would deserve so much more from life. We stand close in the piercing cold, in between the unforgiving wind, glass walls, evening city void. “I want to go somewhere warm. Italy.” Time has stopped, and we’re not strangers anymore.
B. studied English Communication and International Relations in Budapest, speaks four languages, is smart and courageous. He has a dream and a guitar, and is always looking for solutions. But there’s a “problem”: he’s Roma. As he jokes himself, he’s also homeless, obviously dark skinned, diabetic with insuline issues, fat. “Very loud” is how he describes his snoring. He would so love to get rid of just one of these things.
B. went to the border between Ukraine and Hungary to translate for Roma refugees fleeing the war. After years of living between Budapest and Vienna, in shelters and on the streets, he left Budapest cause he didn’t feel safe there. Now he’s leaving Vienna too. The main train station where he just came from towers a block behind him, he shivers when he tells me the story. Of how he almost ran into the man who not long ago in the shelter called him “faggot” and “gipsy”, launching into a pepper stray attack when B. went up to him to show that he wasn’t afraid of him and his insults. “You need to speak up”, B. says. And I silently agree in awe. The man is permanently drunk, aggressive, racist, and there’s more. In the end, we come to the conclusion that social workers are probably too afraid of him – or they’re professionally unprepared or don’t care – to ban him from the shelter forever.
“I’m too normal”, B. says. “So the other one comes first. But how do they think I’ll make it on my own? Why do they need to wait before something bad happens, do they want to see blood or what, before they act?” B. had to leave. The memories flood back.
B. had his own room in this shelter in the Viennese pampa, he was building terrariums with beautiful plants for a company. A flow of gesticulations shows me the company in an office building across the square and I squint into the semi-darkness, intrigued. “It was such a beautiful room.” But he can’t go back there. Italy, then Spain, yes, a lot of maybe’s. At the train station, a Ukrainian child had the saddest eyes he’d ever seen. It brings back my own memories and it hurts, it hurts, the train station is meters away. We talk about Ukraine. He cares. When you meet a person who cares, you just feel it.
B. tells me of his dream, a bike camper. Independence. Protection from rain, snow, cold. Simple things. He tells about tents. Tents are good, sometimes they’re set fire to (crazy world). And did you know that in the USA they started giving tiny houses to homeless people? One of the last nights he slept outside, a dad and daughter woke him up. They brought food. “I was so ashamed. Usually I hide well during the night, but I was so tired.” B. owns a summer-sleeping bag. I swallow, and with that i swallow the only words that I could have said. Time expands. It feels like we’ve been here for hours. There’s more, much more, but stories are just limited containers of reality. And stories are forgotten, but the big smiles of people are not.
He tells me I’m the only one who stopped to talk today. Who made him feel like he’s worth it. But I just borrowed time, isn’t that what we always do when we care. And I’m close to crying, that’s reality. Between talking personal stories, and class inequalities, money, racism. Imagine yourself simply unable to afford a roof above your head. In between pointed fingers, I meet a Viennese geography invisible to me. At some point, I contribute to his bus ticket. In the end, we go separate ways. I don’t know what will happen to B. I wish him the life that he deserves, and I wish you to care. And to just remember, how many B.s might be out there. How many.
B. stands for Bálint. You deserved a name, though I usually just do initials to protect identities.
I walk away, into the privilege of warmth and at least towards the constructed illusion of home, with many questions, a certain anger and fresh awareness of social injustices and challenges – that I can’t solve, but I hope someone else will. First, we need to see. We need to dare to have those conversations that we’re afraid of.
Cause they might change us.
Cause we care.
That’s what makes us human, doesn’t it?