Thursday, 19 January 2012

Snapshots of fear and uncertainty: Stefanos, supermarket trolley jockey

Standing in the metallic glare of the supermarket strip lighting, he stamps his feet to ward off the biting chill and buries his hands in the pockets off his heavy, hand-me-down jacket.

As he tries to shrink into his layers of mismatched clothes, he spots a familiar face coming out. He doesn’t know her name, but she knows his. Everyone who shops regularly at the store knows Stefanos – the friendly wreck of a man on trolley duty in the hope of a few spare coins.

He cracks a toothless smile and greets her “Good evening”, he slurs. “Hello Stefanos, how are you doing?” she replies, immediately feeling foolish for such an inane response. How is he? How does she think he is? It’s freezing cold and this poor man is standing outside the supermarket for more than 12 hours every day to preserve what scrap of dignity he can by helping shoppers with their trolleys in exchange for some spare change. At least it’s not begging.

She waves away his help but puts some coins into his raw cracked palm. “Don’t you have any gloves?” she says. “It’s freezing tonight”. Stefanos dismisses her worries and maintains his pride with the assertion that gloves bother him when he’s working. But his rheumy eyes thank her for still seeing a human being when she looks at him.

The trolleys he helps shoppers with these days are getting lighter. They carry much less meat and gourmet goodies and much more budget food like dried beans or lentils (what he wouldn’t do for a nice hot bowl of lentil soup right now – maybe they’ll have some left over at the supermarket deli when they shut up shop for the night?). The spare change too is getting lighter. People pity him and give what they can, but the austerity measures to get the country back into the international financial world’s good books are tightening purse strings to breaking point.

Most of the time, Stefanos just focuses on getting through each day… each hour… each minute.

He counts himself lucky to have a small room to return to when the day ends, to be tolerated and even protected by the supermarket staff, and that - most days - he manages to avoid a beating from the small group of neighbourhood bullies who love nothing more than to kick a man when he’s down.

But there are times when his thoughts stray to what went wrong. How did he end up here, at the age of 56 but looking more like 80 and feeling older than time itself, standing outside a supermarket in the hope of a little human kindness? Though he never expected riches, he had started out with hopes of a decent life. His parents worked hard to keep a roof over his head and that was all he wanted. But a combination of bad luck, booze and gambling debts started the downward spiral. He hasn’t seen his family for years, and whenever he thinks of them, his eyes well up with tears of shame, regret and loss.

It was his Name Day last month. Around Greece, his namesakes gathered in their homes to accept the wishes of his friends and family, and offered them a drink, a sweet, a coffee or even just a smile to mark the day. Not him. He spent St Stephen’s Day, like every other day, standing alone outside the supermarket waiting for shoppers in need of a helping hand with their groceries. 

Back home, no warm wishes or Name Day cake from loved ones awaited him – just a battered old book, a small stove on which to warm the food scavenged from the supermarket bins and a pile of worn blankets to wrap himself in.

But he can’t afford to dwell on such things. It takes all his energy to survive. There’s no state help for him and anything he gets from the supermarket is purely under the counter and written off as petty cash. His social security number failed to pack a punch long ago, and if he ever needs to go to hospital he will have to rely on the kindness of doctors willing to turn a blind eye to bureaucracy. Officially, he doesn’t exist.

All that matters, is getting through this day. And then the next.

So, he banishes self-pity, raises his gaze to the shoppers coming out of the store and offers a defeated “Hello, can I help you with your trolley?”

No comments:

Post a Comment