All contents © 2008 Philip Semanchuk, with a nod to Simons & Marks who wrote the song..
Drottninggatan (say drott-ning-GAH-tahn; or Queen Street if you prefer) is Stockholm's main drag, running from the must-see Old Town north through the city center. It's mostly pedestrian-only or so choked with people that cars just don't bother. It's the locus of the city's life and I spent a lot of time there coming and going through the river of shoppers teenyboppers moms pickpockets politicians punks models cigarette smoke riffraff tourists happy children Rumanian flim flam card players ice cream sunshine music me. On perfect summer days I heard the jazz quartet from St. Petersburg playing for tips and, for my undying gratitude, All Of Me. It was here just out of earshot of the trumpet playing "How can I/Get along without you?" that I saw him just once: a one-off.
He stands smiling in a shallow alcove, a man just a little older than I. His boom box plays unexceptional 50s rock and roll from a tape of exceptionally bad fidelity. He offers music to all on Drottninggatan regardless of their creed, the color of their skin or the content of their character. His anxious face begs not for money or food, just eye contact. He sings, now and then, wordlessly and aimlessly but tunefully, however never the same tune as the music, beginning and ending unpredictably.
She, by contrast, I see often. She has stringy gray hair and unkempt eyes. Wearing a glossy white sandwich board handlettered in blue Hebrew, she frequents Fridhemsplan and T-Centralen subway stations. I never see her elsewhere. Fridhemsplan, cavernous and deep, makes me feel swallowed, like Jonah. But while I feel muted by all the space, it has the opposite effect on her. She becomes disinhibited. Her voice knifes silence in the back and stands on its bleeding corpse, demanding our attention. It works. I have no idea what she says, but I pay attention. She speaks with a conviction that belies her doughy complexion and shuffle, and when she sings she transcends confused and grows taller and taller until she reaches the cardboard crown she wears, rising into it from below.
A different one-off: A cold afternoon is fast becoming a bitter dusk and I hurry home. He has graying temples and kneels on the concrete while scrabbling at a rusty, locked grate at the base of a building. He won't talk to me except in mumbles, but I learn that he is focused on getting inside so he can get his briefcase. He rolls around on the sidewalk in tattered clothes; he doesn't smell bad but he doesn't look good either and I wonder how long it has been since he has owned a briefcase.
Irregular: He is fat, hirsute and stripped to his jeans or boxers; I call him Dancing Naked Guy. Sweden is not a prudish country, but it is a cold one. He dances, sort of, really just jumping up and down, celebrating his accomplishment. His attention-seeking irritates me a little, although I can't fathom why I begrudge him this.
* * *
About ten or twelve years ago Sweden cut back on its public mental health program and it is then that the homeless and the publicly mentally ill started to appear. Or so I'm told -- I have no statistics to back this up. Were there really no homeless people in Stockholm a decade ago? It might be true. I cite the only evidence I have: Stockholmers gawk at the homeless. Unlike the cities of my country, in Sweden human beings asleep on sidewalks are not yet standard, anonymous urban infrastructure like fireplugs and telephone poles. This alone is enough to recommend the country to me.
* * *
One off: I find her sitting dishevelled on a curb near my flat in the wee wee hours of the
morning. She wears dirty spangled boots and her body's composition suggests she fell asleep waiting for
a ride that never came.
"Hej," I say, waking her. "Hur mår du?" (Hi, how are you feeling?) She lifts her head to reveal eyes wild and jerky.
"Ssssuuuuuuuuuper," she replies, and I believe her.
Regular: He is never without his soccer ball and beer and the boom box with the garbled Bob Marley tape. He plays non-stop, with the ball or with people. I'm fairly sure it was his ball that broke that huge window in Kulturhuset. I don't think he broke it for spite or vandalism's sake, but simply because he was shooting so enthusiastically. The enthusiasm was probably nudged to recklessness by Pripps Blå, which is a popular lager that's like sex in a canoe, if you know that joke. Under such circumstances, a broken window was bound to happen eventually and is bound to happen again, which, I guess, is why he seemed suddenly allergic to the police last time I saw him. He favors open public spaces and his soccer ball turns them into vast pinball games, absent only flippers. He kicks the ball in high arcs that evoke a high school physics quiz: If the ball B travels in a parabola defined by y = 6.4x2, at what speed must unwitting pedestrian P walk to avoid being hit and spoiling his new Armani suit S with hot coffee C which he has just purchased from the four cute tjejer T that work behind the counter at Sergel Bagariet? Every few minutes someone stops and kicks around a little with him, a short game, and then the high arcs resume. I am not sure he is crazy; he is perhaps just drunk and aimless. I might sound as if I don't like him, but I do. I like his disregard for everyone's safety, including his own. I'll feel differently once I've been hit by the ball.
Regular: He always sports a close, neat haircut and goatee and wraparound Oakley-knockoff mirror sunglasses that suit his handsome face well. In the summer he wears shorts and muted pastel T-shirts. He is lithe and quick and neat -- he takes the time to close the lids of the trashcans he opens. And then bip on to the next one, collecting aluminum cans into a ripped, bulging gray trashbag, scoring one or three, or none at all. He was an occupational mystery to me until one day when I saw him standing in the eddy of human traffic on Drottninggatan. He was not just focused but transfixed, staring and gesturing toward some unshared glory in the sky, a faint hope, maybe. He stopped gesturing once in a while, perhaps arguing silently with himself about whether or not the apparition was really there. I watched him for ten or fifteen minutes and he just couldn't decide. Later in the week I saw him again, and, as every time before and since, he was willful and effective and his eyes were mirrored.
* * *
We digress: how much would you pay for an empty can of soda? Sweden's deposit laws value them at fifty öre, which is one half krona, which is about a nickel. A liter of organic milk at Hemköp is cheap at eight kronor or sixteen cans, the same price as a first class stamp to the USA. A full soda also costs sixteen empties, but you end up one can closer to your next goal. Coffee in a café will run you forty cans. A delicious vegetarian sandwich in Hötorgshallen, fifty-six cans cheap. Eighty-eight for good beer in a bad bar, two hundred for a dormitory bed in the youth hostel, six hundred fifty six for a liter of Absolut vodka in the state-run booze boutique, one thousand for a one-month subway pass. And while I'm living in the USA, I rent out my functional, centrally-located, 34m2 Stockholm flat for 13 000 cans per month, or about 427 per day.
* * *
At another time and place my friend Tatyana wept inconsolably after a wrinkled woman in a kerchief thanked us warmly, genuinely, spasibo-ing over and over for the gift of our empty beer bottles as we sat drinking lukewarm Baltika in a park in St. Petersburg. The woman's effusiveness I found embarassing because I suspect a bottle there is worth about the same as a Stockholm can -- a mouthful of milk, or seven minutes of shelter. Even more embarassing to me were Tatyana's apt tears: it is an inescapable fate of being human. I'm not referring to begging for refuse in a park, but weeping for those who do. And I wonder where that leaves me, Mr. Mortgages-On-Two-Continents, who charges 427 cans per day for 370 square feet of Sweden, who looked on with savage dry cheeks while a bottle changed hands.
* * *
Irregular: He sleeps sitting, bent crescent and pillowed by arms folded across the outdoor wooden tables at the Chinese restaurant near my flat. I wonder when he wakes, where he sleeps on the nights when he is not there, if the restaurant owners ever catch him sleeping there, if they ignore him. Resting in his pocket is a fortune cookie, unopened.