Thursday, October 06, 2005

Lose a digit, save a dollar

A couple of weeks ago in Sydney, a man lost his thumb after trying to flee from transit officers who were chasing him for fare evasion. He jumped on to the train tracks but lost his right thumb when the train pulled away from the station.

Would you be prepared to lose a digit just to save a few bucks on a train ticket? Quite a sacrifice for approximately $5 for an all-day zone one ticket, isn’t it? Of course, when I first read that news item, my immediate response was, “Oh, I’d never do a thing like that; I despise tight arses.” A few moments later found me musing over some of the money-saving things I had done in the past…..

A thousand years ago whilst working in London, it was a rude shock to discover that we got paid monthly instead of fortnightly. How was a 23 year old Aussie girl – over there for the main purposes of fun, frivolity and travel – supposed to make her money last for 31 days? By the middle of week three, I was relieved to have paid my rent but was normally down to about ten pounds for essentials such as cider, socialising and food. In that order of preference.

Week four found me resorting to all kinds of pathetic measures to save a penny and yet maintain a frenetic social life. The bank I worked at provided a generously subsidized 50p hot lunch. It wasn’t particularly good, but it was only 50p – that was the most important thing. The menu had the usual healthy pommy fare such as macaroni cheese and chips, spaghetti and chips, pork sausages and chips and onion bhajis and chips. Fattening but filling and it meant that a tin of baked beans – sold over there in six packs – would do me just nicely for dinner, after I’d got home from work/the pub/the wine bar/movies/friends place/nightclub. If there was some bread left in my bar-fridge freezer, I’d place a slice on top of my bar heater to toast it just firm enough to slide under the beans. This was a rather delicate operation and more than once my smoke-alarm-free room was shrouded in a burnt toast fog that had me leaning out of my bedroom window, coughing. As a two-year-visa holder, I wasn’t about to waste my hard-earned money on a mere toaster or for having to pay rent to live in anything larger than one room for that matter.

My bed-sit was known as the dog box, for many reasons – me, the smell and its size. If I was of a mind, I come home, open the door and immediately fall like a starfish directly on to my bed and have the convenience of being able to access all of my room’s facilities from where I lay. From there, I could reach over to the right and switch on the kettle, find some tea and milk and flick on the black and white TV I'd found in the mini-skip a few months earlier. With my left hand I could take off my bank shoes and put them on the ledge to de-pong and fill up my hand basin with enough water to soak a weeks’ worth of undies in.

Apart from the bed, the only furniture in the room was a wardrobe crammed to the gills, a cupboard that held my paltry pantry provisions and a bar fridge that had a kettle and one hot plate on the top. My chests of drawers were plastic shopping bags under the bed – one for socks, one for underwear, a couple for t-shirts…..

There were four dog boxes on my floor and we shared the one bathroom. At least, I think we did – I never heard or saw anyone else near the place and it certainly made the old cliché “I felt drier than a pommy’s bath towel” seem quite appropriate. The bath was a massive claw-footed monster that I could fill up to the brim with unlimited hot water (available to us all as a rent inclusion). It was the best part of living in that place and was deep enough for me to do a somersault in. Yes, you read it right and yes, I actually tried and successfully did do one. Thank all that's good in this world that I didn’t get stuck half way through and have to call out for help with my naked bum sticking up in the air….

In addition to the luxurious bathing opportunities, it was also my laundry. I’d fill up the tub, chuck in all my clothes, swish them around for a bit, go and watch ‘Eastenders’ and come back to drain, refill, rinse and drain again. Then there was the arduous process of wringing out each item which I then hung on spindly old metal dry cleaning coat hangers all around my room. Socks were draped over my bed-head, shirts hung on hangers over the door hooks and wardrobe doors, skirts and jeans hung from any nail that I could find on the wall; the window catch or the ridge of the mirror above the sink. Underwear hung under the sink’s S-bend. Every fortnight though, I unwillingly took my sheets, towels etc to the Laundromat and parted with a couple of pounds to get them all clean and dried.

On the way back, I’d lug my Santa sack of washing around the corner past the nearest McDonald’s. It’s hard to believe I used to do this, but I’d swagger in there, walk up to the counter, grab a huge handful of paper serviettes and leave – my reasoning at the time was that I’d spent enough money in there over the years so the least they could do was shout me enough paper towels to save me buying a bog roll in the last week before payday.

The worst thing about my dog box (you mean the above wasn’t bad enough?) was that it had a coin-operated electric meter. The previous tenant was a failed actor who decided to chuck it all in and head back up north to Scunthorpe. In his poverty-stricken state, he had been desperate enough to pry open the meter with a crow bar and then use the same one pound coin, over and over when the meter ran out. When the real estate lady was showing me this room, she mentioned that she’d get the in-house maintenance man to get it fixed as soon as possible – probably the next time he cleaned the bathroom. The so-called ‘maintenance man’ was 80 if he was a day; lived three floors up and reeked of gin every time I saw him. He showed about as much inclination to fix my meter as he did to clean the bathroom, so I enjoyed nearly a year of being able to recycle my own one pound coin during that time. It seemed a very small price to pay for a bathroom that I had to clean myself…..

Here’s the worst one though – fare evasion. Whilst I was never unfortunate enough to be caught by transit police or escape and get my thumb run over by a train, I did my darnedest to avoid paying for a monthly zone four fare. Instead, I’d buy the zone one card (at a quarter of the price) and feign total ignorance if my ticket was checked. Using the broadest ‘strine, I’d reply: “Oh crikey, doesn’t this ticket go out to Barnet? Strewth, this is what the guy in Moorgate sold me when I arrived here to start work last week, mate…..”

One day though, I could see the same inspector walking along the corridor of the carriage before mine, and knew that he’d not tolerate my ‘just off the plane’ routine four days later. At the next stop, I leapt out of the doors the moment they opened and then ducked low under the windows, half-walking half-crawling along the platform two carriages down where I knew he’d already checked. At the time it felt exhilarating and economically essential but now it just seems tight arsed and not something I want to tell my six year old Sapphire about.

And yet……those two years of being responsible for no-one but my own cider-soaked, friend-filled, much-traveled self were indeed wonderful. For every money-grubbing, grotty and pathetic incident there were alternatively great adventures, friendships, sights and experiences. And yes, the fare-dodging helped make those two years the fantastic times that they were: it was worth it, after all.

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