HOBART, LIKE other Australian capital cities, has its fair share of the homeless, the hungry and the poor. The city, though, has a fair sprinkling of citizens who make it their business to alleviate the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves.
This public spirit manifests itself in many ways, most noticeably in Len’s Van that plies the Hobart streets after dark delivering food to people in need of a meal. Rain, hail or snow: nothing stops Len’s Van on its mission each night.
Len of the van started his charity long ago, prompted by his own experience of finding himself on the streets during a time of turmoil in his youth. He never revealed the details, only to say it all happened in Sydney where, as he put it, the pavements were particularly hard. After making a modest fortune in the furniture trade in New South Wales, Len retired to Hobart and, with time and a little money on his hands, he decided to put something back into the Australian community at large. Money was donated to a Sydney homeless shelter and in Hobart a mobile soup kitchen inaugurated.
Len in his short retirement in the Tasmanian capital had made important contacts at his sailing and golf clubs, old family and old money contacts that were to share the financial burden of buying and then insuring the van, and meeting its annual running costs. The principle behind Len’s Van was a simple one. The volunteers who manned it each evening on 364 days a year (on Christmas Day when a turkey lunch was provided in a church hall) visited various eating establishments in the city and collected food that had not been sold. In the past such items of food, after being offered to the staff, were merely put out as garbage and ended up on the city rubbish tip. Len had come up with the idea of collecting this food and then handing it out in the evenings at various points in the city, where the homeless and the poor gathered.
The supply of food was not always consistent, however. Sometimes the shops had busy days when they sold all their sandwiches and pies and scones and so to make up for any shortfall the volunteers on Len’s Van also handed out bowls of soup and rolls, and cups of tea.
There was no shortage of volunteers for the service. Over the years it had become the done thing to do among Hobart’s elite, mainly the trendy types who lived in the fashionable areas of Battery Point and Sandy Bay. You were no one in Hobart society unless you had helped out on Len’s Van, and helped the less fortunate.
The importance of Len’s Van to the worts-and-all life of Hobart, the acknowledgment that individual citizens could make a difference to the life of others less fortunate than themselves, was recognised by the Chronicle newspaper, the voice of the Hobart establishment. Several members of a Chronicle board mainly comprised of the family that owned the newspaper. the Davidsons, had served on Len’s Van in one capacity or another: the capacities being driver, kitchen-hand or server. So important was it to be seen serving from Len’s Van that the editor of the Chronicle, Sam Adams, following the example of the Davidson family, had made a point of doing his duty. The editor had spread the word through his office that it was important for other members of the journalist staff to also offer their time for such a worthy cause, but at the same time he let it been known that it he saw such a commitment as a executive duty, he didn’t want mere junior reporters serving on Len’s Van.
The editor, knowing the town as he did, appreciated that over the years Len’s Van had achieved an inverted status of its own, even if he frowned on the advertising manager’s keenness to be recruited for the rounds. The editor suspected the advertising manager saw the van as merely a means to make new contacts, such was the high profile of the van’s volunteers, and amid the leftover sandwiches and quiches and sausage rolls there might be some advertising to be had for the Chronicle, to say nothing of invitations to some of Hobart’s top social events. Len’s Van, according to Editor Adams, was not about business, it about altruism and good works at the behest Hobart’s old families and its professional community, and could the advertising manager be termed a professional?
“Commitment, commitment,” Editor Adams had said on the day he first floated the idea of his senior staff contributing their time to Len’s Van. “This is not a businessan’s club, this is your chance to directly do good in the community, taking a step beyond writing about inequality, exposing social inequality in the hope that someone else will take up the baton.”
Thomas Butler, a senior Chronicle journalist who was a committed, if lapsed, Christian who had once trained for the Anglican ministry, agreed with the editor’s every word. He, too, seeing Len’s Van plying the streets each night when he was on his way to or from the Chronicle’s watering hole, Mahoney’s, had thought it a worthy cause, even though he too suspected the motives of many of those volunteering their services.
As the Chronicle’s editor had so wisely pointed out, many journalists tended to leave their concern and conscience behind when they left the Chronicle building at night, especially if they were heading for Mahoney’s. When Butler had brought up the subject of serving on Len’s Van, after seeing it sail past the pub one evening, a chuckle had rippled through the assembled journalists, with suggestions that Butler might be wanting to climb up a rung of the editorial ladder with his extra-curricular service to be noted by not just the editor but members of the Davidson family.
The sports editor, Peter Mirowski, had not laughed, however. He was known to have a strong social conscience, unlike many of the journalists present whom Mirowski criticised for merely paying lip-service to their social commitment, seeing “the story” and its byline as being bigger than what it represented. Mirowski had another unusual quality for a sports journalist. He actually participated in sport, instead of merely just writing about it. He played soccer in winter and was a jogger. More to the point, he was a keen participant in fun runs, gaining great satisfaction from not only taking part and publishing his own name and time in the newspaper, but seeing his entry fee go to charity.
“I’ve taken part in plenty of fun runs, for cancer, diabetics, for the Heart Foundation, you name it, but never run a fun run for the hungry, homeless and unwashed,” Mirowski said to himself one evning as he walked through the Hobart bus mall, turning into Liverpool Street where Len’s Van made its first stop. There was always a huddle of people there, waiting for the van.
It was just a matter of time before Butler and Mirowski joined forces to volunteer their services for the charity. There was a waiting list for recruits, such was the popularity of doing service on the van, but all the same volunteers could participate for just one evening initially on a trail run. On this they would receive some basic training; mainly getting used to driving the van and becoming familiar with the eateries from which food was picked up in the late afternoon.
The eateries represented Hobart’s finest, there was nothing second-rate about the food being offered from Len’s Van, even if some cynics might describe it was second hand. There were Mediterranean pide bread sandwiches from the Turkish Oven in Macquarie Street, date scones made with fresh cream from the Metropol in the Elizabeth Bus Mall, the finest pizza slices made with Italian imported olive oil from Luigi’s in Battery Point, and tuna sushi with a soy source coming all the way of Hokkiado, from the Mount Fuji sushi bar. As if to reflect Tasmania’s reputation for supplying the finest fresh produce, the menu of Len’s Van, if you call it such, varied from season to season. There was apple pie in the autumn made from the latest crop from the Geeveston orchards in the far south of the island, lamb kebabs in spring and Huon mushrooms on toast in summer.
Butler and Mirowski completed their trail run with flying colours - even if Mirowski insisted on sampling some of the food - and eagerly awaited their turn on the van. It came rather unexpectedly, only a week after their orientation. An outbreak of a rather potent strain of influenza - “Launceston flu”, because it appeared to come from the north - had affected the normal rosters of volunteers and Butler and Mirowski were thrown into the fray.
They had both been enjoying a good lunch on their day off, it was Mirowski’s birthday, and it was appropriate that their first run should fall on this day. As Butler said, into his second bottle of pinot noir, it would add some meaning to the whole experience.
Mirowski had said perhaps they should go easy on the alcohol, seeing they were driving Len’s Van that evening, and so they had limited themselves to just one bottle of pinot instead of their usual two or three.
At 4.30pm sharp they had set off for the suburb of Moonah where the van was parked and returned to town for the collection run of eateries. It was winter, freezing rain had washed across the city all afternoon, and there was much food to be gathered. The bad weather had deterred shoppers from coming into the city, and workers from going out to lunch. What was the food shops’ loss was the poors’ gain.
“Every cloud has a silver lining,’’ Butler had noted at his first port of call, the Metropol, where a whole tray of date scones was gathered, together with a giant lasagna with only one slice taken out of it. ``The storm clouds carrying snow and sleet have brought a windfall of fine food for the people on the streets.’‘
Butler was known to recite poetry and become lyrical on occasions, when he was happy and full of good spirit for his fellow man. Mirowski had heard the poems before, and the lyrical prose, and maintained a silence as he concentrated on the job at hand, and the road ahead.
Butler and Mirowski made good progress around the town and they had time to kill before setting up shop and putting on the water heaters to make the beef and vegetable soup. This used a prepared broth base and fresh vegetables cut by a team of eager female volunteers earlier in the day.
Such were high spirits of Butler and Mirowski, and seeing that they had about an hour to kill before going to three designated points to deliver the food, that they decided to park Len’s Van outside Mahoney’s and venture in for a drink. This was an important step, they reasoned. Not only would it show people leaving the Chronicle they were serious in their endeavours - even if the van was parked outside the office pub - it would also show the patrons of the pub itself that there was more to life than propping up the bar and talking shop.
Doing the rounds of the eateries, picking up the van and the vegetables for the soup, had given both men a thirst and soon a second Boag’s drought followed the first that had been thrown down hurriedly on entering the pub. The journalists were exited about what the evening held for them. Mirowski remarked that he had once been in the Boy Scouts, and he had not felt such a sensation, of anticipation and excitement, since he had gone out on Bob-a-Job outings, as they were called then, and he did odds jobs for people to earn money for charity.
``I did similar things for our church,’’ Butler had said. ``Going out and helping old ladies with their lawns, all that sort of thing. Felt good afterwards, humanity needs that feeling.’’ Butler wore a smug, satisfied countenance and he ordered another beer for himself and Mirowski.
``Do you think you should be drinking?’’ one of the journalists in the bar, who was not a party to Len’s Van outing, cautioned, and his concern was promptly dismissed by Butler.
``Three beers never did anyone any harm,’’ he said.
``And anyway,’’ added Mirowski, ``We’re only driving around town, really slow in Len’s Van so we don’t spill the soup.’‘
``And anyway,’’ said Butler, ``We’ll be OK with the police. They’re not likely to pull up Len’s Van, I ask you.’‘
Armed with this vital knowledge, Butler and Mirowski thought it appropriate that they have one more drink, and in the process buy a round for the other journalists who had gathered.
What the journalists were doing, in fact, was launching the Len’s Van recruits on their way, this voyage into not exactly the unknown but this voyage into unchartered waters, the waters of the homeless and the poor. Buying a round of drinks in Mahoney’s however came with a hazard. The people who were bought drinks felt it heir duty to recriprocate and were likely to take umbrage if this gesture was rejected. The worst slight you can lay on a journalist, beyond allegations that they might be inventing stories or making up facts, his that they do not shout a round in the pub, they are ``bar dippers’’ who arrive at the pub when someone is buying and always make an excuse to leave when it is their turn.
The one or two drinks that Butler and Mirowski were to have in the pub turned into three or four, and then five or six, they both soon lost count. Butler was talking loudly as he always did when he had had a little too much to drink. He even started to recite poetry, something he definitely did when he had had too much to drink, and with the lines of poetry came the realisation to his Len’s Van teammate, Mirowski, that they had been in the bar too long.
“Thomas we’ve got to be off, Look at the time,’’ Mirowski said, pointing to the clock. It was now 7pm, half an hour after they were supposed to be at their first assembly point.
``The winos, the poor and the dispossessed will be going hungry,’’ said the landlady of Mahoney’s sarcastically, annoyed that the project was taking away Butler and Mirowski from the bar and her profits. She hoped it would not become a regular occurrence. ``Christ.’‘, said Butler, ``We’ve got to be off.’‘
They hurried out into the street, Butler tripping down the shallow step that cushioned the wooden pub door from the pavement outside. Mirowski in turn tripped over Butler and they both fell across the pavement. They lay there, trying to get to their feet, laughing at first then expressing concern that the poor and the hungry were out there somewhere, waiting for their food.
Butler and Mirowski reached the van parked just a few metres from the pub and Butler fumbled for the keys to open the door. Then he struggled to put the key in the ignition before remembering that Len had told him when he picked up the van that the catch on the inside of the passenger side was broken and it could only be opened with the key from the outside.
``For Christ’s sake, hurry up Thomas,’’ shouted Mirowski from the other side of the car. ``The poor and hungry are getting hungrier. We’ve still got to heat up the soup, and shove the vegetables in it. For Christ’s sake hurry up. Throw the key over, Thomas, I got to open the door from this side. Remember what Len said.’’
Butler took the key out of the ignition and raised himself from the driver’s seat. He held up his arm outside the van and tossed the key across the roof. It slid across the shiny surface and Mirowski lunged to catch it, but he missed and he watched as the key continued its slide, gathering speed as the slope of the roof increased in angle. The key was now flying through the air, dropping towards the pavement and there was a clunk and a clink as it hit a manhole cover alongside the kerb of the pavement, bouncing once in the air and then vanishing between the wide slots in the drain. The clunk and the clink were followed by a plop as the key vanished into a muddy pool in the reservoir of the drain.
``Christ,’’ Mirowski shouted out. ``You’ve fucking thrown the key into the drain.’’
``No, you fucking missed it,’’ shouted Butler who had now emerged from the van, unable to see Mirowski who was bending over the manhole. Butler came round the front of the vehicle to see Mirowski tugging at the drain cover, his fingers in the slots.
``I just can’t budge it,’’ he was shouting.
``Give me a try,’’ said Butler. He tugged hard and fell forwards, his forehead butting Mirowski in the face. Blood started to trickle from the sports editor’s nose.
``Fucking idiot,’’ he shouted.
``Now, that’s a fine attitude. That’s not being very Christian.’‘
``Fucking idiot,’’ Mirowski kept shouting.
Faces had gathered at the window of Mahoney’s and laughter could be heard spilling from the bar. One of the journalists came outside and offered Mirowski his handkerchief, to stem the flow of blood from his nose.
``Now you boys come back into the bar,’’ the journalist said. He was worried that the editor might be leaving the Chronicle building over the road and see the commotion surrounding Len’s Van. ``Anyway, you’re both too pissed to drive. Are you mad?’’ he said. ``Come inside the pub before this whole situation gets worse.’‘
Butler and Mirowski, blood still truckling from Mirowski’s nose, followed him into Mahoney’s. There was nothing for it but to take the trays of food into the pub and offer them to the patrons, so they would not go to waste.
The food, along with the Boags draught ale, went down very well with the regulars, even if the date scones from the Metropol were by now just a tad stale.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 13 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … his musings appear regularly grouped under the CategoryDon Knowler