Suddenly a Ghost Town

By Mariann B, Big Issue Australia vendor

Wednesday, 25 March, 3pm. Melbourne Central Station’s food hall chairs are cordoned off with black-and-yellow plastic tape as no-go areas.

There isn’t a soul about, and all the stores are closed. The cavernous shopping centre is darker than usual and echoes with emptiness. I feel hollow. The Shot Tower and giant chiming clock remind me of an abandoned movie set. A uniformed cleaner sprints to my side with a spray can of disinfectant. He wields it like a handgun, but the invisible assassins are not contained behind enemy lines. They can assault you from anywhere.

I am standing at my pitch near the Elizabeth Street entrance of the station. A young man who is homeless sits on the pavement with his dog. The suits who normally rush past without glancing at him now stop for a chat. A woman sprays a $10 note with sanitiser before passing it to the young man with a smile. Someone bends down and gives him a super-sized pizza. The dog wags his tail.

The few people who walk past look as if they’re carrying the world on their shoulders. Are any of us ever going to feel carefree and frivolous again?

Nobody is anywhere near my pitch. The only noise you can hear is the moving escalators; I can forget about selling magazines today. But wait – here comes one of my regulars.

“I wouldn’t miss The Big Issue for anything!” she shouts from a social distance. We both say “Consider yourself hugged” simultaneously and laugh.

The Big Issue Australia's first edition since halting sales on the street.

The Bourke Street Mall is totally empty. Both major department stores are having a mid-season sale without a customer in sight. The Melbourne visitor booth sports a giant advertising sign saying: “Feel the City”.

Three ladies with a microphone are doing a public Bible reading without an audience in front of the State Library. They stop me and ask whether I believe in God. One really feels the end is nigh.

The next morning, I go to a St Kilda supermarket and just miss Seniors’ Hour. The panic-buying has stopped. A woman aged about 90 stands in front of the fridge staring wistfully at the top shelf. Deep wrinkles criss-cross her face. She looks worn out by the constant media barrage about how a person her age is doomed if she catches the coronavirus. She is coiled within herself.

A young man approaches her asking “Are you alright love? Can I help you?” He takes down a tub of yoghurt at her request. The woman unfolds like origami and momentarily looks 20 years younger. The man hovers over her protectively. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

A stooped elder takes baby steps towards the cash register, clutching his meagre purchases to his chest. A couple of eateries in Acland Street offer takeaway meals and coffee, strictly no cash accepted. Money will soon lose much of its value, but we shall win this war because the currency of kindness is sure to prevail.

Find out how you can help vendors of your local street paper during the coronavirus pandemic here.