He’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.
About 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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