RIP Ben Hana, the fifty-four-year-old Wellingtonian whose death was reported early in the week. A well established "street character" around Courtenay Place, Hana was something of a local celebrity. He has his own Wikipedia entry and has featured in a documentary, an academic presentation - and a newspaper article entitled The Man Behind the Blanket.
There's a certain irony in the fact that by opting out of societal norms and shunning regularly accepted modes of living, Hana discovered for himself that most conventional contemporary phenomenon: he well and truly found his fifteen minutes of fame. Nicknamed Blanket Man in honour of the fact he wore mainly a blanket or loin cloth, he was world famous in Wellington and this week his legend has spread throughout the country.
Homelessness, of course, is not a condition to be celebrated. In is an issue with which successive governments grapple, the City Mission confronts on a daily basis and to which Statistics NZ devoted a 21-page report purely to determine its definition. There's a school of thought that says people choose homelessness for themselves, that it's a lifestyle choice like being a vegetarian or owning a boat, but that's too simplistic a view. Personal factors such as upbringing, health, education, finances, opportunities (or lack thereof) and life experience doubtless come into play.
The story of Hana has evoked memories of my own Wellington homeless man. When I was a student in the 1980s I frequently encountered our resident street character of the time. His patch was mostly Lambton Quay. He was not a tall man and he wore some sort of long brownish-grey coat but what set him apart as a bona fide eccentric was that he was never seen without his plastic laundry basket. It was usually strapped to his back and it presumably contained all his worldly goods.
It's funny how props such as these can define the homeless; perhaps they define us all to some degree. Blanket Man was named after his constant accessory as was my Laundry Basket Man. Although we passed each other on numerous occasions I don't think we ever made eye contact. Laundry Basket Man was always busily moving onwards, ever shifting and, as far as I could tell, he seldom interacted with the pedestrians with whom he shared the pavement. In hindsight I think perhaps he took care to be a benign presence on the street and not trouble anyone with his plight. Maybe he even felt threatened by the relentless conformity of the rest of us.
Twenty years on Finlay Macdonald's Listener editorial brought Laundry Basket Man back into sharp relief for me. His name was Robert Jones and he was, Macdonald wrote, "truly Chaplinesque, a genuine little tramp." In 2003 Jones died in a gutter aged 61 and was mourned by his heartbroken 85-year-old, Sydney-based mother.
These colourful street characters somehow touch us all, become a part of our collective memories. They force us to think about how we live, the choices we make and how the randomness of misfortune and tough circumstances can shape futures. Perhaps when Jones and I brushed past each other in the street his obvious vagrancy gave me inspiration to study hard, get my degree and make something of myself in order to avoid his fate.
For some reason we're inclined to romanticise the notion of homelessness, to use it to confirm our own preoccupations and prejudices. At least one opportunistic politician has used Hana's death to score political points and I wonder whether we care more about homeless people in death than in life? Some small kindnesses towards them while they were alive would surely be more meaningful than eulogising them later.
Macdonald's piece didn't mention the colour of Jones' ever-present laundry basket but I'm almost certain it was yellow. Does anyone else remember?
- HERALD ONLINE