Sep 10, 2011

The Story Behind the Sign

Brisbane's Fortitude Valley contains any number of quirks to delight the voyeur's soul. There was the girl almost wearing an orange mini-dress, who inadvertently flashed me as she hugged a friend outside the Tempo Bar. There were the two happy drunks dancing outside New York Slice, to the strains of A-ha's Take on Me eminating from the pub opposite.

But then sometimes things jump out at you so much, that even though it's 1am and an unseasonably brisk evening, you just have to stop for a while, and listen to a story.

"I've got $5 - would it be all right to take a picture of your sign?"

The young man jumps to his feet. "Sure, as long as I'm not in it." He flashes a chirpy grin. He has a large gap where his two front teeth should be.

"Of course, no problem. I'm Natalie."

"I'm Jared."

"Nice to meet you. So... why the slogan on your sign?"

Jared's home is a stoop just near the 7-11 on the corner of Brunswick and McLaughlin streets in Fortitude Valley. He begins telling me that begging is an offence, and by having a statement offering an actual service, he has managed to beat a begging rap in the courts three times.

"Shoot, the cops..." he says, as he flicks the brown square of cardboard into the gap under the Council bins on the footpath. He rolls up his small black square of collection money material.

Three police officers in high-visibility vests have walked around the corner opposite. They're a busy street away and not interested in Jared, but he's not taking chances.

"I've been in jail three times since I was 19, and I'm 22 and a half. I'm on parole, and I don't want to go back."

Jared is a tad under six feet tall, with spiky, sandy-coloured hair and a matching goatee beard. He wears a beige polo shirt, trousers, and thongs, and smokes nervously.

Jared has substance abuse problems. He shrugs his shoulders as he talks about it; not in detail, just in general terms.

"I've been on the streets since I was 15 and a half. There were some family dramas, which I don't really want to talk about. My Mum still feels really guilty about it, even though I tell her it's not her fault. I've had more life experience than most 40, 50-year-olds. I wouldn't change a thing."

He talks virtually non-stop, seemingly happy to have company and a friendly ear. He asks why I want a photo. I'm honest, and say for my blog site. He grins, and seems to take on the role of responsible storyteller. His is a life worth reading about; he wants to provide the detail.

He gestures to his black knapsack, which has a handle poking out one side.

"Stockman's whip," he says proudly. "The cops have actually cut me some slack. I can crack that anywhere, as long as it's not a footpath or roadway. And I can make a shitload of money busking with it."

"Where on earth did you learn that?"

"Dalby Agricultural School," says Jared. "When I was 14. As soon as I've done rehab, I'm going to go to Emerald Agricultural School, because let's face it, Dalby isn't that fucking rural. Then I'm going to head west, to a cattle station."

His life on the street was dominated by drinking, drugs, and somewhat surprisingly, computer games, played in internet cafes. He cites the tactical and strategic RPG games as his favourite; but admits to jumping into a first-person shooter when really tense, just to let out his aggression. Unfortunately, his anger wasn't always restricted to the virtual world.

"I also got into a habit of picking fights with bouncers," he says, indicating the gap in his teeth by poking his tongue through it. "I'd drink a whole slab of VB then just get into it. I had a fifty-fifty chance of beating them."

His jail sentences were for assault offences. He's on parole, but just moved into a backpackers' hostel, meaning he finally has a roof over his head. He's waiting for a bed to open up in a rehab program, probably one on the Gold Coast.

"My Mum says she'll come and visit me, even though I told her she didn't have to. Honestly, I don't want to do rehab, but me feeling half-happy isn't enough for my family. They want me to do rehab. I'm happy to do it, and they say you've got to do it for yourself, but I'm also doing it for them."

Jared says his mum is an accountancy student, paying off two mortgages and a car loan. But she's already got a campervan, and he reckons she and her partner are going to be grey nomads, without doubt.

He laughs when he talks about the amazing surprise he has planned for them.

"I'm going to track their van, and use Google Earth to pinpoint where they are. Then I'm going to turn up just ahead of them, so when they arrive somewhere, they'll just see me waving. It's going to be so great!"

He tells me he's eased off on the booze now, but he still likes the wicked weed.

"I'm going to be honest, I don't ever want to give up smoking pot," he says. "When I get a job, I'm going to get up on Monday morning and roll a big, fat joint. I'm going to carry it with me through the whole week, and as soon as the bell goes on Friday afternoon, I'm going to light that sucker up. I'll stay stoned until around noon on Sunday, then let my body readjust and get a good night's sleep."

"That sounds very ...disciplined."

"Yeah, it's discipline and structure that I need. I know that I've got the intelligence and ability to do anything I want. It's just those other two things that I need."

Jared goes to throw out a Coke can he'd been sipping on, but then remembers another homeless friend over in West End had kindly given him a bud. "So I'll be needing that."

At some point I admit to him that I'm not a drinker.

"That's good though. Alcohol turns the even most upright people into vile mongrels."

He says he's something of a street artist, and shows me some of his handwriting. The flourishes on the letters extend out like tree roots. It's not easily readable, but one of the phrases seems to read "Fuck Parole". I notice the paper he's written on is some sort of official document.

"Oh," he says sheepishly, putting the paper back in his knapsack. "That's just a form I need to give to Legal Aid so I can get my original lawyer back. She's a barrister now, and it's pretty rare to show up in the Magistrates Court with a barrister! But I'm sure she'll keep her word."

The cops have long gone and I ask if I can take the photo of Jared's sign. He retrieves it from under the bins, and holds it proudly while I snap away. I ask if he ever has copped verbal abuse.

"Sometimes. You get some idiots. But mostly people have a laugh, and a lot of people give me money because they laughed."

"And I notice you have the peace sign on there?"

He exhales cigarette smoke and smiles. "Because I'm a pacifist."

I hand over five dollars, to profuse thanks from Jared. In turn, I thank him for his time and his sign. I say I'll keep an eye out for him when next in the Valley. He asks for the name of my website and I tell him. He laughs at the nickname of Girl Clumsy, and asks if I'm sure I'm not inebriated.

We part, and I wander off down Brunswick Street, huddling myself into my leather jacket and wrapping my scarf around my nose against the chill. And I think of Jared with his stockwhip, and his street art, and his sign, and his square of black material with its few specks of silver coin, and his new accommodation, and his Mum.

Five dollars for Jared's story, and that wonderful photograph.

I feel guilty.

Jared was ripped off.


  1. you could have at least coughed up a blue note :)

    great picture, but it pales in comparison to a great, and well told, story!

  2. Awesome story. Good luck to him.

  3. Makes me want to go looking for him.... Well done Nat!

  4. Great story. And very well written.

    PS: if that's what you come up with when you're lacking an idea, then watch out world when you're on fire :)

  5. Heh, you're a modern-day Mayhew! As a funny coincidence, I am reading London Labour and the London Poor at the moment, and am currently in the section on vagrants. This blog post would fit in fairly neatly, though computer technology's quite obviously improved since 1850.

    'Once, in Devonshire, me and another slept at a farm-house, and in the morning we went egg-hunting. I must have stowed three dozen of eggs about me, when a dog barked, and we were alarmed and ran away, and in getting over a gate I fell, and there I lay among the smashed eggs. I can't help laughing at it still: but I got away. I was too sharp for them. I have been twenty or thirty times in prison. I have been in for stealing bread, and a side of bacon, and cheese, and shovels, and other things; generally provisions. I generally learn something new in prison. I shall do no good while I stop in England.'

  6. Wow that was amazing thanks for telling the story Nat.

  7. Great Story. I wonder what he'll think if he reads it.

  8. Thanks Nat, There but for the grace of God go I. There is hundreds of stories out there. There is much to be said for prevention being better than cure. I had the privilege to get to hear a few stories & get to know the story tellers, when I worked nights in the CBD/Valley. Don't feel too guilty. At least you covered his share of the carbon tax!

  9. Wow. I followed a few links and ended up your page, and I love this story. Have a great day.