Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What will happen to "fundraiser" Hippety-Hop?

Fundraisers (why say beggars? Same thing.) around Riga's Central Station are nothing new. You get to know them by sight after a while. There is the cat and dog colony kept by one or more bums at the entrance to what I call the “Stockmann tunnel” (which leads from the Central Station square to the Stockmann department store and the Forum Cinemas multiplex). Also on the steps are an old woman sitting impassively and another woman who suffers from some neuromuscular disorder. Standing by Riga's and some say, northern Europe's busiest pedestrian crossing are a number of amputees, one with a crutch, the others double amputees in wheelchairs. There have been a number of “bum fights” between the man with the crutch and at least one of the guys in a wheelchair. Apparently there are territorial issues. The shouting during the fights is in Russian.
One of the most intriguing characters is a relatively young man (20s) on crutches with a a below-the-knee amputation, who I will call Hippety-Hop, because, until recently, he was a very forward and aggressive fundraiser, actually going out in traffic and hopping up to stopped cars to solicit alms. He also spends hours standing at one or the other of his favored positions (one is at the steps leading down to the Stockmann tunnel). Hippety-Hop can be there for hours, standing. Street-level fundraising is a full time job for him, as it is for many of the others. But given Hippety-Hop's stamina and vigor (until recently), one wonders what exactly happened to the man and why he is doing what he does – hopping around and plaintively fund-raising in Russian (or so I suppose). I saw him last summer when he was almost exclusively working the traffic lights and stopped cars.
Losing part of a leg is a major trauma, but it cannot compare to the disfigurement and degradation of the double amputees or the alcohol-ravaged bums. Why was Hippety-Hop, whatever his level of education, not offered some kind of rehabilitation and work? If the dude can stand for hours or hop around on his crutches, why not do factory work, if not in Latvia, then Ireland or the UK? Most European countries have programs to put the lightly (and in some cases, even the most severely physically handicapped) to work. In a call center, no one knows how many legs you have.
I don't think Hippety Hop has the language skills for this kind of work. Lately, it seems, he is on the downslope. His face shows signs of what I suspect is drug abuse. My guess is heroin, I have seen him in what seems to be a “nod”, eyes closed, impassive, face looking more ravaged than ever before. Last summer, when fundraising among the cars waiting for then lights to change there was even a vigor to his hop-step and an earnest look on his face as he almost demanded something from the drivers. Now it looks like the dude is down and out.
It looks like there may never have been a chance for Hippety-Hop to get back into a normal life after losing part of his leg, neither through the efforts of Latvia's rock-bottom impoverished social welfare system, nor through assistance from charities or non-governmental organizations. Of course, I don't know the full story, or, for that matter, any story about Hippety-Hop. For all I know, his injury may have been the result of recklessness, part of a stupid, risk-taking lifestyle.
Certainly heroin is not a good choice. Latvia doesn't, as far as I know, have open, non-judgmental needle exchange or methadone programs (I don't know because I don't hang around with any junkies). So every time Hippety-Hop snorts or shoots up, he risks overdosing, or, if using the needle , HIV or hepatitis.
Will Hippety-Hop last out the summer? Who knows? Ironically, he may go down before his fellow fundraisers, the bums wallowing in the dog and cat colony, the old lady, the woman with the neuromuscular thing, even the double amputees and bumfighters. I know almost nothing about social work, but at least some months ago, it may possibly have pulled Hippety-Hop off the street and out of this particular form of fundraising.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Urban cattle and swooping bikes are back!

It's spring and they are back, or have been back for a while – the urban cattle and bike-riders. The former are clogging the sidewalks again, shambling along in small bunches, wandering into traffic, gathering in pedestrian bottleneck and making them worse, or creating bottlenecks where there were none before.
The bike-riders are out in great numbers, often a danger to the urban cattle (they swerve around them), to other pedestrians (zooming by at high speed, no warning) and to themselves (few helmets, bells, reflectors or lights after dark)
Don't get me wrong, I understand the need to ride a bike – it is cheaper than public transport, much cheaper than driving, good for physical fitness, the (urban) environment, etc.etc. All that is correct and I have friends and workmates who ride bikes. But I also see bike-riders in Riga as a hazard. There is no bike-riding culture, one could almost say that Latvia lacks both the infrastructure (bike paths) and the level of civilization to have the same level of urban biking as in Copehagen or Stockholm. Maybe in 25 or 50 years, but not now.
As for urban cattle, they are everywhere, almost a universal phenomenon. There were some in London, shambling along as one tries to purposefully go somewhere. In Stockholm, as I may have written before, the local urban cattle specialize in what I call “ stand and stare” – gathering where others want to pass and simply staring into space or at some signage that normal, conscious people can read in seconds and move on. Tourists are often behaviorally indistinguishable from the local urban cattle, but then again, being a tourist is being – urban cattle in foreign city, moving about in small herds, aimlessly, though not always wandering into traffic or boorishly blocking the movement of those walking with purpose as the local cattle do.
I bear no ill will toward bike-riders as a whole, though I sometimes wish a evil fate on those who narrowly miss me at high speed. There is no reason to zoom down a sidewalk at 40 Kph. However, it seems few urban riders are injured or worse. Most fatal bike accidents occur in the countryside, it seems – shitfaced motorist takes out equally shit-face bike rider, riding as if in the middle of a wartime blackout (no lights, no reflectors, no helmet).
So one faces another summer of trying to walk from point A to point B, getting past or through clumps of urban cattle heading for a point best designated by an imaginary number, and glancing over one's shoulder to see if any bikes are swooping down. Enjoy, I suppose...