"Got a few dollars to spare?" said the man on the bench. He held out a disposable coffee cup.
I'd been walking along the footpath keeping pace with the rest of the Brisbane rush-hour crowd. I stopped and came back to talk to him. "Are you homeless?" I said. I kept my money to myself for now.
"Yes I am," said the man. Then he added, "My name's Ralph."
Ralph had dark, weather-beaten skin. His hair was black and long; down to his shoulders. He had a full flowing beard that tapered off to a wispy tail just above his chest. His clothes were worn and filthy, and the odour of stale sweat on him was noxious.
I reached out my hand and said, "G'day Ralph. I'm Barry."
He took my hand, and offered for me to sit down; which I did. I sat as far away from him on the bench as I could without falling off.
Ralph told me that there weren't a lot of ordinary people who stop to talk to the homeless. Not just charity volunteers, but ordinary people. He said he appreciated it. I explained that homelessness is a real passion of mine; and that I'm doing my part to eliminate it. "Especially the root causes," I said. "If we can eliminate the root causes of homelessness, then the problem will be ninety-nine percent solved."
Ralph looked at me with his dark eyes. "And what are those root causes, Barry?"
I had spoken on the subject at length to community leaders and politicians; yet, the look in his eyes made my confidence wither. I said, "Lots of things Ralph, of course; but the biggest is a lack of education; and that's my background. Poor education itself has a number of root causes, including undiagnosed learning difficulties, physical and emotional abuse of children, drug and alcohol abuse of parents…"
Ralph was smiling now. I felt I'd struck a chord; perhaps even listed some of his own personal demons. Or I was talking way over his head, and the funny words didn't make sense to him.
"How did your own education go?" I asked. I wanted him to feel comfortable sharing his experiences with me. "Tell me about it."
"I graduated from my civil engineering degree with first class honours," said Ralph. "I declined an offer to complete my doctorate and went straight into industry. Now, how about a few dollars for a cup of coffee?"