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Mr Excuse MeHe’s become a well-known fig­ure around Cour­tenay Place, Mr Excuse Me. He’s not quite up there with Blanket­man, but in our hood Mr Excuse Me is a like­able vagabond.

He’s the guy milling out­side the Fix con­veni­ence store ask­ing for coins. He waits until you’re with­in arm’s length before shuff­ling into your path, lock­ing eyes and chirp­ing, “’Scuse me, ’scuse me, got any change?” Same every time. And it works for him. He gets coins. Some­times he gets cof­fee. You’ll see him clutch­ing the cup, sit­ting on the bench out­side the shop, wrapped up in his old parka. Some­times his wife is sit­ting there too, smil­ing and chat­ting away to him. That’s the only time he doesn’t ask for coins — when he’s listen­ing to her stories.

When he’s dis­trac­ted, I’m dis­ap­poin­ted, because my hus­band and I have got a great joke going with Mr Excuse Me. For weeks we’ve been find­ing it hil­ari­ous to upend his punch line before he gets to it.

’Scuse me, ’scuse me. Got…”

No change!” the hus­band and I chor­us sim­ul­tan­eously, then beam our pleas­ure at Mr Excuse Me without even break­ing our stride. Yeah, it’s not a great joke, but he always smiles. I like the guy.

I’ve even got a soft spot for the slightly passive–aggressive lady who verbally assaults pass­ersby on Lamb­ton Quay. She’s the one with the trol­ley bag who climbs inside a giant hooded yel­low plastic bag if it’s rain­ing. Just as you pass she’ll throw a “Got two dol­lars?” in your gen­er­al dir­ec­tion, and before you’ve even had the chance to whip your head around, she’s one-two’d you with an “Only ask­ing”. She anti­cip­ates your rejec­tion before you even get a chance to respond. And with me, she’s judging it well.

I am tight-fis­ted. At the sight of someone beg­ging, I instantly run my mind through all the things I really, really need my coins for. The bus. The vend­ing machine. Mak­ing a decision. The only decision I can make without a coin is the decision not to hand over a coin.

Not everyone’s as parsi­mo­ni­ous as I am, obvi­ously. This beg­ging busi­ness looks luc­rat­ive. They’re pop­ping up every­where, these beg­gars. It’s got the slippered cur­mudgeons around the elec­tric heat­ers cur­mudgeon­ing. They’re an eye­sore, they’re intim­id­at­ing, there’s enough wel­fare, they say.

Auckland’s cur­mudgeons moved first. From now on, any beg­gar who causes a nuis­ance up there will be ban­ished. Forth­with. Before you even think about it Wel­ling­ton, please don’t. The streets are for all of us. Ban­ish­ing a prob­lem doesn’t make it dis­ap­pear. More selfishly, I like see­ing the same char­ac­ters every day. I like the pre­dict­ab­il­ity. I like the occa­sion­al sur­prise. Like the time Mr Excuse Me finally turned the joke on us.

We spot­ted him in the usu­al place. He spot­ted us walk­ing towards him. We arrived at quick-draw dis­tance and he moved first.

’Scuse me, ’scuse me. Got…”

And just as we opened our mouths to say “No change”, he beat us to it with “Got the time?”

I gave him a coin.

Heather du Plessis-Allan

Heather is a Jafa who's called Wellington home for seven years and counitng. The wind still drives her crazy, but the bucket fountain still makes her smile. She's running around Oriental Bay and learning to surf Lyall Bay. Her day job is reporting for TVNZ's Seven Sharp.

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