I spend too much time at a café where the coffee isn’t that good but neither is it £2.99 a cup. Porto’s has been here for nearly 30 years and has hardly changed in all that time. In a sea of gentrification it is an island of stability and perhaps because of that a number of its regulars are people with pretty full-on mental health issues.
Joseph is a regular. Today he gave the women behind the counter a 5p tip (no one tips in Porto’s) and talked succinctly about the purposeful destruction of self-esteem.
“You know that man who gave me £20? Straight after that the other man gave me 5p. If he’d given me the 5p before the £20 or way after I’d know he was doing it out of goodness and I’d be grateful, but he was doing it out of wickedness. Do you understand me?”
“I see it with girls too, they see a beautiful woman and they say “You look so tired, are you OK?” and they know what they’re doing, they just can’t stand anyone having something they think they haven’t got.”
Joseph, like so many people who can’t fit comfortably into the world, sees things all too clearly and cannot endure it. He’s homeless and so sees people as we do not like to see ourselves, in ways that social scientists have described very well. We see someone getting something, we believe they do not deserve it and we become aggressive. A man saw a mentally ill homeless person get £20 and was so infuriated that he felt the need to punish someone. He didn’t confront the giver. He didn’t confront Joseph directly. Instead, he instinctively did something immensely sophisticated. He destroyed Joseph’s feelings of warmth, pleasure and thankfulness by giving him more money.
Joseph knew precisely what had happened. He explained it to me more accurately than many of my colleagues can manage. Articulate, whip smart, incredibly empathic, and teetering at the edge of his endurance all day long.
The man who gave him the 5p is a respectable family man, a Hard Working Tax Payer; being another Porto’s regular I know him well. Suave, expensively dressed, edgy if he thinks he’s been insulted, and he often feels insulted. He once required service at Porto’s before a woman who was there before him and when she quietly corrected him he was dumbstruck. 5 minutes later he showily approached the woman to tell her to be more polite next time. When she reared up into his face, copying his behaviour of bashing a coin on the marble counter to get the staff’s attention he was sufficiently cowed to back off but his face showed simmering hatred.
In truth, I doubt he had even been aware of the woman; he wasn’t being intentionally rude it’s just that she wasn’t important enough to him to be visible. But when she became visible, popping into existence to censure him, his – what? shock? fear? certainly an adrenaline response - led him into a situation where he has made an enemy and been shown not to be as urbane as he’d like to be. The woman later told me that she’d purposefully brought her husband to Porto’s the next day because she felt that this man functioned at a level where he would feel compelled to make her submissive unless he could see that she had a male owner who might object to his property being damaged.
How tiresome all of this is, what a soap opera. The research across cultures and across species repeatedly demonstrates that our relational interactions seem little more than hormonally-driven survival behaviours, somewhat developed in childhood. Doing more than that is fantastically difficult, tiring work, something that other animals don’t seem to have much interest in. How much instinct or desire to care for individuals who are not in a family or social group do meercats, owls or chimps have? And yet that desire to do better is what has made modern civilisation possible. We watch the results of survival-driven behaviours all day long, all our lifetimes and throughout history, but the genuinely sophisticated leaps forward have been when slavery was abolished or workers are given better pay and conditions, when healthcare free at the point of need was established and universal education legislated for.
There’s no doubt that national wealth would be better served by making children work, by slavery, by very low wages and long working hours and by disabled and elderly people dying as soon as they need support. We instinctively incline towards that. Over the entirety of the Second World War 67,100 UK civilians were killed. In the last 8 years the BMJ estimates that 120,000 deaths can be attributed to austerity.
One of the reasons I go to Porto’s so often is for a break from bleakness, human contact mediated by financial and social tropes that keep us comfortably together, comfortably apart, knowing our own and everyone else’s place in a familiar dance. It’s very like the therapeutic relationship. I find Porto’s more comfortable than the much more polite, much more mannered and much more expensive cafes in the area. I like Porto's honesty of interaction.
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