It’s around 8 PM. I have just turned the corner at the top of Shoreditch’s Great Eastern Street in London. I am walking past the fashionable Bird & Ballard coffee house when I am approached by a stockily-built stranger wearing a scruffy duffle coat with the hood up. I think he wants to know the time. I am wrong.
“I’m trying to get to Homerton Hospital because I’ve just fallen off my bike,” he says in a distinctive east London accent. “Could you spare some money so I could catch a bus?” As he speaks, he rolls up the left sleeve of his jacket and reveals an open wound on his forearm. It looks nasty.
I then realise that I have met this man before. It was about six years ago at exactly the same spot. The memories come flooding back. It was exactly the same wound on the same arm. It was exactly the same form of words.
The penny drops. He is using a theatrical prop for the “I’ve-fallen-off-my-bike” wound. It’s very convincing though. I think to myself: although I fell for it then, I won’t this time. “I know you,” I say. “You pulled the same stunt on me a while ago.” The man, who I guess is in his mid or late 30s, looks taken aback but doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he replies, “but I’m homeless and I need some money to buy some food.”
This reply puts me in a dilemma. I have no idea whether he is homeless or not, or whether he is hungry. On the other hand, I’m impressed by his delivery.
In these sorts of urban micro-encounters a quick decision on my part is required. I decide that even if it’s a double scam, it’s a very good double scam. Looked at another way it’s high-level performance art played out on the street. He is the performer, and I am the audience.
I put my hand into my jacket pocket, and hand over a pound. “Thanks very much, guv’nor,” he says and disappears into the night.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton and a Centre for London Associate
A version of this article has appeared on the anthropologyworks blog
* Published in print edition on 3 May 2013