It was coming up for Easter and there he was, long-haired and bearded – my own personal Jesus, thumbing a ride outside the stadium. Which could be interpreted as heavenly condemnation, but with Terry Davies doing such a brilliant job, probably more like a blessing. Now, I always make a point of picking up hitchhikers, having been one so many times myself (only one bad experience, a little Nazi on his way to WINZ, and that was more socially awkward than dangerous); Jesus was going to Purakanui, so was I.
“Hop in,” I said.
As the car climbed up the hill, the port fell away below us and with it the white oblong glow of a cruise ship. Chickens basked in the Scott memorial's sun, and my passenger began a tale of woe. His electricity had been cut off (having walked past the house he rents, this explained the sudden absence of trees), due to a misunderstanding with the provider – I couldn't grasp the gist of it, the story skidded off the road of comprehension several times, something to do with not paying the bills – so he relied on candles and an old gas cooker. Food was mostly foraged and fished-for. He was thinking of putting solar panels in. He was all set for solar, good to go, in fact, it was just the cost. Hands swooping like bombers on a coastal run, he described the trajectory of bad luck and trouble. Things had gone wrong, life had happened and the authorities were unkind, conspiring against a simple man just trying to make his way in the world.
“Sounds like you're really living off the grid,” I said, trying to make that sound cool. I had started to feel terrible. Like a rich person. Do the rich feel terrible? I'm not sure, maybe its one of those unanswerable questions like why don't the elderly pull over if they want to drive so slow and where do boyfriends go when there's dishes. Anyway, I did.
Here I was, off to my second house (no toilet, but still, real estate) a box of groceries in the back and not a worry in the world beyond the staggeringly trivial ... meanwhile, judging from the whiff, the man next to me hadn't had access to soap and hot water for a good while and was daily experiencing the sort of existence I usually only suffer while on holiday with the economist. Nevertheless, in the face of these privations, he maintained a kind of manic stoicism. “I'm not complaining,” he said, several times. Out of the corner of my eye, his chipper smile was beginning to seem a little grim, his constant everything-will-be-alright a form of self-hypnotism. In quick succession I saw (in my mind's eye, not on the road in front of me, that would be weird) John Campbell, desks without school lunches on them, recently redundant mussel workers crying with their hairnets on. Here was the very real face of New Zealand poverty, inches away from mine. I had to do something.
“There's some groceries in the back,” I said, stopping just up the road from where he lived, “Why don't you have them?”
“Do you mean you want me to get out now?” he asked.
“Sorry,” I said, taken aback for a moment. “Of course, I'll take you to your door.” Just because you're poor doesn't mean you have to be grateful, I thought. Far be it for me to impose some sort of code of conduct on the disadvantaged. We said goodbye, and there was no denying things had changed between us, or maybe it was just me. Nevertheless, driving back up the hill (after a twelve-point turn), my heart bumped with a wonderful, wholesome feeling. Like nuns must get.
Upon arrival, I gave the economist a full account of my charitable splendiferous-ness. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to warm the cockles of his heart.
“ALL the groceries?” he asked. “Even the orange juice?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I gave them to somebody much worse off.”
“So there's no orange juice, is that what you're saying?”
I had time to think, Lord only knows what will happen when he finds out about the cheese, before he gasped, “NOT the family block!?” Suffice it to say, Clare Boothe Luce was right, no good deed goes unpunished.