I really didn’t know what he was saying when I turned the corner on to Smith’s Street. He was standing just outside Domino’s – very thin, tight patterned brown trousers, straggly beard, filthy bare feet. He was yelling something at a nearby couple who were waiting to cross the road. He was yelling in that way that does not actually engage, where it is clear that the person yelling is addressing their own demons, or the demons of society generally, rather than the conspicuous faults of particular individuals.
Initially, however, there is the experience of being directly addressed. The complexity and ambiguity of the situation relates to this double awareness of being targeted and yet not convincingly addressed. There is only the most general context for interaction (we are all people on the street, we are in public proximity) and the words are uttered without any expectation of reply. Perhaps this explains the tendency for street people to voice insults and imprecations. They broach barbed contact, but require no reciprocal interaction. Our silence, our pretence that nothing is happening and nothing is being said, provides perhaps the most eloquent and damaging reply. It underlines the yelling person’s utter alienation from sociality. Their flow of misdirected insults are treated as simple noise, of no consequence whatsoever.
And yet I couldn’t help eventually hearing what he said, because I walked past him and he followed me down the street. I’m not sure who he was speaking to – me? other passerby? – but he kept saying, “Jesus told me the Germans are invading your crotch – maybe you’re a natural.”
I found myself listening carefully, making sure I was hearing right. Then I stopped and wrote down what he said as a note on my phone, because I had no faith that I would remember his words. I feared I would forget them because they seemed so strange – linking Jesus, German invasion, my crotch and the potential of being “a natural”. What interested me was that the statement had an insulting aspect – and was uttered in a well rehearsed insulting tone – and yet made no clear sense. It was sufficiently vague and imprecise to innocent itself – to partially withdraw from any capacity to cause literal offence. It broached rude social interaction and then suspended it. In this manner it seemed to suspend the social altogether, demonstrating its fragile scaffolding and assumptions.