In the early 200’s I was living on a traveller site and making my living from the Big Issue. I learnt a lot about evasiveness and manipulation there. I leant why it was necessary and I learnt how to do it.
There was a grave yard a few miles away where a water tap was provided for relatives to tend the flowers on the graves. Of course, we collected our drinking water there.
There must have been a few complaints because, by my time, there was a notice was pinned up saying “This water is provided for the users of graveyard- NOT for tramps!”
Because of this, we used the after tap less frequently and more circumspectly. We could probably have stopped using it altogether and driven a little further for water but people would have complained at that place too.
The logic of the situation encouraged us to tan the fuck out of any goodwill and then keep pushing the envelope long after the goodwill had dried up. Far, far beyond the point that a townie would have shrugged and moved on.
The majority of times, I would pull up in the lane, hop out with the water butt, fill it and be in my van before anyone could notice.
But when someone did show up, I would fix them with a cheery smile and say “Sorry! I know it’s a bit cheeky, but my radiators busted. I need to keep putting water in till I can get it fixed.”
I would watch people’s faces relax from suspicion to relief because I had given him something they could relate to.
As far as I was concerned, drinking water was a more immediate and legitimate need than water for a vehicle. But I learnt that objective need doesn’t necessarily bring sympathy. And from then on, if I needed to ask permission or forgiveness (the latter is easier by the way) I was sure to translate it into terms that might be easily understood. I didn’t think it was lying exactly.
Another time, I was selling the Big Issue. I’d taken a break from selling to get a bit of shopping in and had returned to the pitch with the bags. A friend came by and warned me against doing the same thing again. If people can see you’ve been shopping and are still trying to sell Big Issues they will think you’re taking the piss, he explained. He was right of course, and from this, I learned to be relatable not only to what people know but also to what they think they do.
They don’t want to buy a magazine from someone who is a little bit skint but able to get by with help of an outside organisation. Someone, like myself, who might be in work fairly often but still need a little stand by. They want to feel like they’ve rescued you. They want you to be absolutely on your knees but they also want their causal £1.50 gesture to be the decisive turning point in your life. And they want to feel this way even when they’re 5p short of the cover price.
What they want is an impossible fantasy. I learned to play up to it.
Later on, I was living in a really large squat in London. 20 of us the one time I counted and more when I had given up trying to count. One or two of us had medical problems. One very young girl with quite severe mental health problems and a woman with a chronic stomach problem. There was only one doctor who would see us, this homeless doctor in Kings Cross
I went there quite often with the mentally unwell girl, to act as moral support. It was an extremely grim place. I was in there once and a guy started having alcohol withdrawal seizures right there in the waiting room. While the staff were rushing to ring an ambulance, someone from the Kings Cross Regeneration Agency came in and tried to get them to fill out a survey. At a glance, you could see that she had reached the point in her own downward spiral where she had almost, but not yet, lost her job. She was wearing business clothes, but a little grubby and not ironed. She seemed strung out. She asked to use the toilet and returned a few minutes later looking happier and more energetic. I thought “My God, if the regeneration people are crack heads…this area really is fucked”
It’s unrecognisable now of course. They regenerated it, crack head employees notwithstanding.
The staff there would occasionally ask if I wanted to register and I would always refuse. I was volunteering with the CAB at that point and I knew a little about how public sector funding worked. I knew that no one had sat down in Kings Cross, thought about the desperate junkies and homeless prostitutes and written a funding application that said “We want to provide a primary care service for crusty- squatters in Hoxton”
Like the graveyard water butt- we were taking something that wasn’t designed for us. There was going to be limited good will and, as a collective, we might have to lean on it more than was reasonable. I wasn’t going to wear it out sooner than necessary on the off chance I might get an ear infection.
It was at the CAB that I first sat on the other side of the desk and learned to see myself as a professional and not a service user. It was first place I heard a service user described as “manipulative”. I recognised this immediately as a word to describe how I had learned to get by.
Translating your needs into something understandable, playing up to expectations, taking from services meant for somebody else.
I didn’t have a problem with “manipulative” clients. I understood what they were trying to do and why it was necessary.
In fact, my secret agenda there was to learn more and better manipulation. I thought the CAB could teach me some trick to get a council flat and stop the jobcentre from hassling me. Disappointingly, no such trick exists. Eventually I squatted their office long enough that they put me on the payroll and all those problems sort of melted away. That had been the trick all along.
I’m very privileged these days, not to need evasiveness and manipulation. Not because I'm self sufficent and never need help, thats not true of anyone. I'm privileged that pretty much all of my wants and needs are readily understood by mainstream society. And often sympathised with.
No-one will think I’m taking the piss if I go to the doctors. They won’t cock their head and say “She’s just trying to get painkillers and a sick note.” If I need to, I can walk in and explicitly ask for painkillers and a sick note.
Even so, I employed quite elaborate manipulation, in the most respectable period of my life, to make a social services investigation go away. You can read about it here. The social worker won’t have thought of me as one of her “manipulative clients”. I can confidently tell her, all her clients are manipulative. Some more obviously than others. Manipulation is what everyone does when faced with someone more powerful that they need something from.
Every so often, I get the opportunity to pay it forward. Someone will come and try to beg money from me, visibly distressed and with a story that doesn’t quite add up. And I’ll pay. I know it isn’t what they just said. But it will be something. A real need, translated into something else. And it isn’t my place to know.