John Vane: Small change hustler in a red baseball cap

John Vane: Small change hustler in a red baseball cap

He jumped aboard the Number 56 by the Pembury estate, starting exactly as he would go on.

“Off at the next stop, driver,” he said sweeping past the cab without paying. He was a tall man, good posture, light grey joggers, off-white Nike top, red baseball cap. Noticeable. Distinctive. Moving down the lower deck, he got directly to the point.

“Small change? Any small change?”

I kept looking straight forward, as you do. I thought I heard a purse rattle to my rear. He didn’t get off at the next stop, but neither did he stick around for long. He disembarked on Dalston Lane, shortly after Hackney Downs station. What was I supposed to do but follow him?

It was a Tuesday evening. The light was starting to fade. A bar across the road was pretty busy. Small Change Man strode across to it and leaned in to the al fresco drinkers’ faces.

“Small change, any small change?”

Nothing doing. Within seconds he’d moved on, walking fast. He spoke to a passer-by.

“Small change, any small change?”

It was the candour of it all that struck me. The utter absence of preliminaries. No rehearsed hard luck story, no self-abasing apology like the ones that assail you on the Overground. Also, the efficiency. He didn’t waste time pleading or wheedling. He heard the body language of rejection in an instant and moved on.

“Small change, any small change?”

I kept walking in parallel with him, wondering where he was heading, speculating about what he might spend any small change he gathered on. If he spotted me, he’d also rejected me, or else simply stuck to targets who were nearer.

“Small change, any small change?”

He was gone so fast from everyone who turned him down, it was like an insult – you have money for me or you don’t exist. A shop door stood open. There were people inside. He plunged in, red cap bobbing, plunged out again, hustled on towards a busy road junction, buttonholing, getting nothing, pacing on.

What had he made so far? If he had scored on the bus, it surely wasn’t more than a pound. I had seen no cash change hands since he’d got off. I was puzzled by his stature, his apparent health and vigour. He had presence: the pale clothing standing out, the red cap making a bright contrast on top. He gave the impression of a man going places, but what type of place? Not the type I’d want to go out, I don’t think.

I had to get on board another bus at Dalston Junction – a dinner date awaited me near Islington Green. He bore restlessly down Queensbridge Road. The last I saw of him, he’d ducked into another bar or restaurant. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew what he was saying.

John Vane is a pen name used by On London publisher and editor Dave Hill. Buy his London novel Frightgeist: A Tall Tale of Fearful Times. Follow him as John on X/Twitter.

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