Waiting for the doors of the tube to open and spill us out on to the platform, I caught sight of this elderly gentleman who has become an almost common feature of the London underground. He could be anyone’s father or grandfather. He was wearing the same tired looking suit which had seen better days. And the same imploring look in his eyes, begging sympathy from anyone who cared to give him the time of day.
He found it in a young man of similar ethnic background and religion. The young man was about to part with his £20 note.
As the younger Asian boarded the tube, I knew he had become the latest victim of what I shall now call the London Underground Cruiser (LUC).
As LUC pocketted his bounty, quite a bit for that time of the morning, he looked around for more victims, usually Asians, and mostly Muslims. And although I was pressed for time, I waited for him to look at me. And true enough, to him, I looked an easy and almost vulnerable target. He’d play the same religious card again. With the same begging look in his eyes.
“Assalamualaikum, I am a Muslim. I lost my ticket and need to go to Gatwick,” said LUC. I must admit, he is getting a bit better. Usually, he needed money for Heathrow but I supposed Gatwick will mean a lot more money to pocket than the normal fare for Heathrow.
LUC, if you must know, has used this line on me and many other fellow Muslims using the London underground, many times before. I supposed his memory is failing and he tends to forget who he had ‘done’ before. You can lose a ticket once, twice may be, but ten or twenty times?? That’s a tad careless, innit uncle LUC?
“Wa’alaikumsalam,” I seethed. “Didn’t you get £20.00 from that young boy? And didn’t you ask me several times before for money to Heathrow? And now Gatwick?” It was difficult trying to keep my voice down and even the usually expressionless robotlike morning commuters, were now giving me looks.
The crumpled look on his face registered recognition. After all, just two weeks ago, he got on the tube and sat beside me. Realising it was the phanthom of the London Underground, I buried my head in the Evening Standard, ignoring his rantings. He tapped the handrest several times. I made donno. He gave salam and I answered silently. But no. He was not going to get anything from me anymore.
LUC is one of a number of conmen making a lucrative living cruising the London underground this way. My husband has even approached him to ask him about his welfare. Any family? No one who knows what he is up to? He pleaded unemployment. Many people are unemployed. He looks strong enough and healthy enough to work in a grocery or a newsagent. The likelihood is that he is also receiving unemployment benefit AND at the same time earn a bit more this way.
Just last week, at another underground station – Charing Cross. The platform was packed with evening commuters rushing home. I was busy reading a text message when I heard a salam.
Looking up, I saw a smartly dressed man from what I gather must be the African continent. He was smiling. I returned his salam and was expecting him to ask me questions most tourists and visitors ask.
His name is Dr Ibrahim he said. A fellow Muslim. Also, he had lost his ticket to Gatwick.
Now, what is it about Gatwick???? Is it supposed to be a code for something? Is there something happening there that I don’t know?
As if my mailbox is not enough for the likes of Dr Ibrahim! I already have enough emails from those sons and daughters of ex-presidents or former kings who have millions and gold bars locked away and are willing to share them with me. And now they are hounding me on the London Underground platforms!
I mumbled my apologies and his smiling face turned dark with rage. I thank God that the train pulled in and I escaped. As the Bakerloo line train left the platform, I saw him approach yet another one…another fellow Muslim.
Others plying the route are mothers with sleeping toddlers in their slings. Again, they approach you with salams and sob stories about husbands and families captured in Bosnia. Usually, these are in bad handwriting on cards and papers that they carry around with them. I have stopped feeling sad for them after reading about how our contribution is funding their bungalows and expensive cars in their home country which is NOT Bosnia.
With people like these around, it is sometimes difficult to summon sympathy and recognise the genuine ones. Yesterday, on the mainline train back from Staplehurst, a smartly dressed woman said she lost her wallet and her ticket. I thought to myself, here we go again. Another woman passenger who was writing her journal all the way from Marden, continued with her task. The man in front of me opened his eyes and then continued with his sleep. Apparently, this is a genuine case but no one took any notice anymore.
On the way home, a young tired looking man shook his bucket full of coins while he made his way along the tube. On his white overcoat was sticker that says, ST BARTS RAGGING WEEK. He even had a permit to ask for donation. He announced that he was collecting donations for breast cancer, children with cancer….
He needn’t say anymore. Everyone dug deep into their pockets. I have no qualms about this one.
I shouldn't really underestimate the resourcefulness of uncle LUC. He might just turn up in a pair of blue scrubs, an old Pride oil bucket and work his way down the length of the tube.