Cast of characters
- Joe is 62. He lives by himself in a council flat. When he isn't bargain hunting to stretch his pension budget, he remakes things in his bedroom workshop. Like planter boxes and model airplanes.
It’s one of the places where everybody seems to be on the move. Here at Kingswood train station on the outskirts of Sydney. Where country life meets corporate life.
Commuters spill out of the waves of trains and rush to the street to catch a ride from their significant others. Or they take off their coats on this warm spring evening and walk out the back into the Park & Ride to drive off for dinner with the family.
Joe goes against the flow of people. He comes here to the Park & Ride for the open air soup kitchen on Thursday nights to grab a free dinner and a food hamper for the week.
He aims to be here by 6 o’clock at the latest. “If you’re late you might miss out on the food hampers. The lower numbers get the hampers,” he explains as we queue up behind 20-odd other people to grab a ticket.
Joe lives just up the road from the soup kitchen in a one-bedroom flat. It’s owned by the government and he got it through his doctor when he was recovering from a work accident. “The waiting times for a place like this are a few years. But the doctor knew somebody in the system who knew somebody. And I got the place quick enough when I got on the disability pension.”
The soup kitchen is laid out in the middle of the parking space with room to wander from interaction to interaction - from the hamper handouts to the barbecue grill and across to the buffet and seating area. At each station, volunteers mingle and guests like Joe stop by to take away a cuppa or food.
"[The soup kitchen] helps with keeping life on an even keel."
Joe first came to the soup kitchen when it started a few years ago. “It helps with keeping life on an even keel. Like now when I got another week till pension day.”
Every now and then he nods to familiar faces. A quick “Hey, how yer going? Alright? That’s good.” And moves on. Past the mobile barbeque where two volunteers banter like old mates while they flip rows of sausages and piles of onions in sync. As we walk past, they greet Joe: “How you going boss?” – “Not bad,” replies Joe and keeps walking.
Joe gets to the other queue on the other side. 30-odd people are already standing in front of us. Joe is surprised by the length of the queue. “Light summer evenings usually bring out the people. On a dark night like tonight people don’t bother about getting the freebies."
Then the food gets served out of metal buffet trays. They’re loaded with leftovers from the day trade of restaurants in the area. Meats, pasta and other hearty food dominate the trays. Tonight the only vegetables are pumpkin soup as the entree. And potatoes and the fried onions hot off the barbeque for the main.
Types of group conversations
Joe’s favourite spot is to the far side of the space. It's shielded by a trailer from the rest of the tables. He likes sitting with the same group of people. The conversation ebbs and flows around common interests. At one point a sort of pub quiz gets going when one friend starts to rattle down trivia about his favourite actor, Michael Caine.
And when another guy points out a jet plane in the night sky, he and Joe debate for a good 10 minutes airplane technology, and the politics that prevent them from going to the model airplane club down in Emu Plains – about 10km down the road.
Meanwhile the volunteer-to-volunteer conversations flow from the women chatting about how their kids are doing in school and plans for the weekend. To the dads standing together bonding over sports and engaging in friendly banter.
Volunteer and people conversations don’t go much further than asking about food preferences and a quick -“How you been? Good? – “Yeah, not too bad.” Even when Joe knows people by name the conversation stops at this small talk level.
- “How you been? Good? – “Yeah, not too bad."
After the meal, Joe joins the crowd who secured a ticket for a food hamper. The hampers are made up of food donations from supermarkets and corporate donors.
Joe’s got diabetes. And his doctor told him to avoid fats. But he wouldn’t say anything negative about the the hamper. “They’re free after all. It’s a lucky dip. You get whatever food they got donated. And equal opportunity. Everybody gets the same.” He says with a wry smile.
“White bread, corn flakes, muesli bars and full cream milk is half the hamper. I can’t have it.", he says in his stoic voice and turns around to me. “Do you want to swap it for some diet coke?”
Each night of the week there are street dinners like tonight happening, Sunday included. And all in a 10km radius. As Joe points out “There’s enough food to go around. Nobody’s got to go hungry.”
When its time to stretch his money that bit further, Joe knows where to find a free dinner. Food vans from charities circle car parks and underpasses across Western Sydney till far past midnight. Joe knows the closest stops and waits for them in good time.
While his usual days finish with a late night meal they start early. “I like to get up with the birds and get going.”
There are a few fixtures in Joe’s days. $730 - the fortnightly pension payments sets his cash budget and in turn influences what he can do. Over breakfast he browses brochures with this week’s specials and mixes and matches his days to go bargain hunting. On foot, bus or train.
His favourite places stop by are the discount shops to look for bargains. And be browsing the work wear and DIY shops. During the day, he lives on cans of diet coke, what the food hamper delivered, and a gallon of tap water until street dinner time.
The fortnightly pension days are special days. On pension day he looks forward to be able to use his mobile phone again. again. “I check my balance on the ATM [Automated Teller Machine] first thing in the morning. When it’s in the black I get some cash out and put credit on my mobile and call old mates till it runs out again.”
“I try to make the most of the day. I get up early, get the chores done, and then start wandering around and go bargain hunting.”
Without savings to draw from, Joe relies on the payment to come through on time. If it doesn’t then Joe can scratch his plans for the day. “Like last Thursday the payment didn’t show up in my account. So I spent the day going back and forth between my bank and Centrelink [benefits agency], waiting in lines and trying to sort it out. In the end I had to go 5 days without money. That was a bit of a hiccup, but what else can you do?” he shrugs.
In between the odd chance encounters, Joe wanders the streets of nearby towns. “When I rush it I get out of breath quickly. So steady does it for me. I need to keep my days on an even keel.” Joe pulls out a big bottle of water and sits down on a bus stop “to replenish.”
Every fortnight Joe skips the soup kitchen and goes home for dinner. That’s when the $730 disability pension money is meant to hit his bank account and he resets his fortnightly rhythm.
Then he cooks spaghetti marinara for dinner with a pack of his favourite frozen seafood. And a recipe he got from the cooking section of his local newspaper.
When he’s finished with dinner, he puts the rest of the marinara in old yoghurt containers. “I don’t know anyone who’d come over for dinner. But I just love it. ” So he freezes the portions for the next dinner for one.
For dessert Joe likes to build his latest model plane. In his bedroom he used scrap timber from recycling collections and built a collapsible work bench that folds into the cupboard. Complete with drawers for tools like a glue gun and a soldering iron.
When he doesn’t have the budget to buy a complete kit, Joe works from library books with images of historic planes. And cuts out fuselages and wings from Styrofoam boards to match the photos. Until he gets too tired to think properly, folds up the work bench, and goes to sleep in the early morning hours.
He first started with small scale model planes when he was recovering from his work accident a few years back. Now he’s working on more intricate larger scale models with remote control motors and more realistic but also more complex features.
As he looks at the half-finished Focke-Wulf model he says , “When you know what you’re doing then you get good at it. And then you get your confidence up. It reinforces itself.“
“When you know what you’re doing then you get good at it. And then you get your confidence up. It reinforces itself.“
Joe also remakes things. He likes constructing planter boxes from recycled wood and put them around the area. “You see the flowers at zebra crossings and in green spaces. But all those roses aren’t made for our hot climate. And you see them struggle by the first days of summer.”
So he collects seeds from native plants and propagates them on his balcony. And built a model with irrigation from recycled materials. With a big coke bottle as water tank glued to cutoffs from drainage pipes that construction workers give him from their building sites.
“It’s the same with seedlings as it is with the materials. It’s all around you if you only know what to look for. It’s all down to your imagination and a little help from people you know.” Is how Joe describes his method of making something out of nothing new.
But not everything Joe likes doing starts from scraps and cutoffs. He’s also been singing since he was a boy in the school choir in the city. He admires "smooth crooners like Tom Jones."
In those rare moments, when he isn’t busy trying to keep things on an even keel’ in bargain shops and at soup kitchens, he does karaoke sessions at one of the local pubs.
He got into karaoke by chance as he walked past a pub after dinner one night. “I walked down Station Street on my way home one night past the Tattersall [Hotel]. And there it was! The music. The lights. The stage. Everything.”
Joe’s been to a few karaoke night at the local pubs and can tell a good one from a bad one.
Good interactions, according to Joe:
- With the compere:
As Joe walks in, the compere acknowledges him with a thumbs up and points to the stage. Then he walks over to Joe, “Good to see you again, mate. You smashed it last week. Do you know already what you’re gonna sing today?” Joe laughs, “Yeah, you sweet talker! Last week I came for a couple of songs and ended up singing ten. Well, put my name down for an easy one to start with. Cash - Folsom Prison Blues”.
- With the venue staff:
Joe gets a free glass of ice water from the bar girl. She smiles and hands him the glass: “Hey Mister Country & Western! That’ll be one song – thank you very much!” And points to the stage.
- With other guests:
When it’s Joe turn to sing, other guests clap and turn around with a smile and the usual hand gesture – thumbs up, index finger pointing to the stage. As Joe is walking off the stage people clap and strike up conversations with him.
- With the system on the stage:
“First time round, pick a slow and easy song - one you know by heart. Maybe something country & western. Don’t go straight for the Bee Gees falsetto,”Joe explains his how he learns song by song. “Each karaoke system is slightly different. The types of mics, the tempo, the monitor...first get used to the system and to the positive peer pressure, and then take it from there.”
“I just love it." Joe comes off the stage and grabs the song book to put his name down for another performance.
“You push each other on in a good way. Your first song might be a Country & Western one. Over time you become a pro. And sing John Farnham like the compère does it.
Like John Farnham, Joe’s been thinking about coming out of retirement and staging a comeback. He's been toying with a business idea. “This mate of mine, he got into ebay consignments. Buying and selling kids stuff for people. Toys, prams, all sorts of things for young families. But you need to have a strategy, a plan. You see, I’d focus on used quality baby prams. They’re a status symbol these days. People around here want the good quality, branded ones with the big wheels. But they can’t afford them. New they’re 500 to 1,000 bucks, easy. So what you do you get them from op-shops or off Gumtree for the right price and sell them on. But you need to know what you can sell them for to make your margin. You need to know what you’re doing.”
But when I ask him to tell me more about his plans to turn the idea into a live business, Joe demurs. “Nah, I wouldn’t do it. I'd need to keep it above board and I can't risk my pension. I know people rort the system and work for cash. But I’m not a [welfare] cheat. They even tap your phone to check up on you...I need to keep things on an even keel. The system gives me enough drama as it is.”
"I need to keep things on an even keel. The system gives me enough drama as it is."
“Hey, look!" Joe pulls two lottery tickets out of his wallet. “I get a couple of tickets every now and then if I got some change. But if I were to hit the jackpot I wouldn’t know what to do with all that money…I’d probably buy a kayak though and quality camping gear. Catch the train and get into the bush up in the Blue Mountains somewhere, away from all the drama down here.”
Thin – Thick Descriptions
Joe gives, what anthropologists call, thick descriptions with lots of salient features of the people and things around him. He keeps track of the sequence of events, people's responses, their facial expressions, and their interpretations.
- Why is it that Joe's is able to give such a thick description of his environment? Whereas many people and services don't? Maybe because he learns to and makes intricate things like model airplanes?
- How could services use Joe's 'thick descriptions' of service experiences and move beyond their 'thin descriptions' of concepts like soup kitchens, benefits, and even of clients. How might this level of data help them to re-think the interactions that make up the soup kitchen, the receipt of benefits, or the professional-client relationship?
Needs – Capacities Segmentation
- Why is it that services segment people like Joe by their needs and diseases? And (inadvertently) disable him from honing his capabilities? Why not segment him by his resources or capacities, or his aspirations? How could services see what he's already doing? And what he might be capable of doing in the future? So that he could have a validated and supported second act?
Taking away - Catalysing
- Joe likes to fix things, and help others where he can. Why then expect the volunteer-run soup to serve him night after night? Particularly when Joe would much rather make and return favors within his natural network, "cause that's what you do where I'm from." Instead of pointing him to free food, and turning eating into a transaction, how could the welfare system use food as a connector and a more developmental catalyst?