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Sock Mob #4

January 13, 2017

This is a blog in a series documenting my experiences with the Sock Mob volunteer network, who travel around London once a fortnight, offering socks and various supplies to homeless people.

As I travelled forth to The Strand on the suburban rail, I got some quizzical looks in the direction of my thermos. Perhaps some people wondered why I was heading miles out for a picnic in the middle of the urban cosmopolis during rush hour, amid the steady drizzle of a winter’s night.

I met a newbie who had only just made the list, 20 minutes before the group was due to meet. She’d been on the reserves, as the MeetUp is always oversubscribed. I had to admire her dedication to come out at such short notice. She was travelling light as a result, which was probably why she elected to hold other people’s thermos flasks for them, aloft, like the Holy Grail.

She told me that the Sock Mob is such a great idea, she didn’t want to miss it. Often people are keen at first, then drop off, perhaps resurfacing a few months later. We get a steady rotation of people.

One of our first patrons of the night was Jay. He had a dog called Waggles, who gazed up at us curiously as we descended upon them laden with gifts. This week, the Sock Mob lived up to its name with a dazzling selection of lurid socks, which went down unexpectedly well. Jay liked them, and also accepted a bright orange notebook.

It’ll match the socks,” said Lynn, who was leading our group of five.

So would the pink one, or the yellow one,” he replied, examining his gloriously flamboyant socks once again. They were seasonally inappropriate, with a tropical pattern.

Lynn had received them free from a company who specialised in the style. She had attempted to bring out the least extreme examples; the most extreme were toeless and covered in sequins.

The socks didn’t appear to be advertising their own manufacturers – and if they had been, they would be pitching to an odd audience – so I wondered if the company just had a yen to see homeless people wearing colourful socks.

Jay instructed Waggles not to try to chew the pen that had come with his notebook.

She loves chewing metal, too. Anything metal.” said Jay. Thereon, Waggles acquired the nickname Chain Chomper.

While we were chatting, someone approached us and asked off if we were an official group, as she wanted to join. This happens a fair amount; people are usually intrigued and pleased. It’s the kind of thing they wanted to get involved in for some time, and not been confident enough to set anything up for themselves.

Two more notebooks and pens went to loving homes, to my slight surprise. It’s not something one often thinks about giving to the homeless. Then again, that’s probably their appeal; other groups are falling over themselves to give out tissues and satsumas, so some arts and stationary materials are a welcome novelty.

We were overstocked with hot beverages and understocked with cups, sneakily picking one up the last one on the stack at Pret, and reusing one that someone had already collected from another group. It also just happened to be his temporary empty wrapper store, so one of our number had to take the long trek in search of an elusive London bin.

While she was at it, she picked up some dog treats for Waggles, planning to circle around for a revisit on our way back. Whenever we forget to bring dog treats, someone laments it – there is rarely ever a time when you don’t encounter a dog on the streets. There’s a possibility they’re better cared for than the humans; who needs a cardboard sign asking for spare change when you have puppy-dog eyes.

A man in army trousers was being inexplicably heckled by another for being “not even from London”. Weirdly, five seconds of conversation with him told me unequivocally that he was from London. We tried to ignore the ruckus as we offered him a few things.

He was keen on some fresh underpants. I obliged, but when he examined them, we had to laugh – they were the kind of pants you might mistake for a pair of speedos designed to show off as much as possible. You take a bit of a risk when you bulk buy cheap pants from online stores.

There was a whole row of people lying in the alcoves of a large, round building. It looked like a hastily erected shanty town, built around white stone pillars.

Why are you in your pyjamas?” one of them asked me, with a cheeky smile. Indeed, I was donned in my preferred casual winter-wear of colourful, thick, pocketed pyjama bottoms, plus a hoodie and an acrylic-wool poncho.

It’s OK, no one understands my style, either,” said Lynn.

Next time, you don’t have to get them out of bed,” he said to her, obviously recognising Lynn as the leader.

To be fair, she was laden with a heavy trolley of almost every conceivable form of sustenance, and promptly sat down with near enough everyone, chatting with the kind of ease and confidence that British people can usually only dream of (she’s American).

I often wonder if it’s a bit overwhelming for the people we meet to be bombarded with offers for everything we’d rather not take back home. We’re like annoying door-to-door salespeople, forever offering new miscellaneous things after each rejection.

Someone in the group had brought beef jerky. No one seemed to want it this time, although apparently it had gone down a storm the time before. She said it was protein that you can suck, which didn’t sound all that appealing to me, but that night, there was one enthusiastic taker; a dog owner accepted several bags, and a long furry nose eagerly tried to help open them.

Speaking to the others, I noted that the dogs of the street were some of the friendliest dogs I’ve ever met, and often seem healthier than some of these bizarre pedigrees that are bred for fashion.

We met a Polish girl, and Lynn tried to practise her Polish, to not much avail. The young woman was sat on a large suitcase, perhaps having only recently arrived in the country. She was withdrawn and didn’t say much, though did consent to translate “Would you like coffee?” into Polish. I’ve already forgotten it.

It was pleasing to hear that a lot of the people we spoke to had shelter for the night, but it did mean that much of the winter wear was declined; including the single hat that was brought along.

Then again, that might be because it was a cutesy animal hat with tassels. We met three homeless women – an usually high proportion of women, as it happens – and not one of them looked very keen. Probably, the other groups went hat crazy over Christmas, as everyone was already fitted out with demure black hats.

After a quick rambling around trying to offload perishables to anyone in a sleeping bag, we departed. I had to drink several pints of my own tea on the train home. As is a risk of random chance, it had been a coffee day for the homeless of London.


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