Scrap of hope

Lewis sells Big Issue North but also collects unwanted metal and anything else that might be of use to him or the local people he helps

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With a large blue plastic barrel balanced on a hand trolley, Lewis heads out along a back alley near his home in Preston. The trolley squeaks and rattles across the cobbles as he walks, while his dog Georgie trots along beside him. Today is a scrap metal day. It’s what Lewis does when he’s not selling Big Issue North over in Lytham.

“I have a girlfriend and a dog now. For 15 years I had no reason to get out of bed.”

His destination is a small network of garages a few streets away, where people often put scrap by for him to collect. His biggest, though not necessarily most valuable haul this morning is two car exhausts. He carefully slides them into the barrel which wobbles precariously as he manoeuvres his load around the front of a car.

Scrap collected, Lewis returns to the house to drop off what he’s gathered. He grunts as he shifts the hoard into his backyard, reacting to “a small twinge” in his back. “No pain, no gain!”

His backyard resembles a scrapyard itself. Buried within the pile of metal there is a massive steel girder, pulled from the garden of the derelict house next door. There’s a van engine, a barber’s chair, a car door and lots more besides.

Lewis will sort the metal into different types and then, when the price is right and when he is able to get there, he’ll go to the local scrapyard to cash in what he’s collected or take some of his finds to his lockup to store.

On every street there’s something to be found, something to be collected, from washing machines to car hubcaps. He’s been collecting scrap since he was in his late teens, when he “learnt the value of metal.” It shocks him what people throw out – even a can on the side of the road is worth a few pence.

Metal isn’t the only thing Lewis collects though. Upstairs in the small redbrick terraced house he rents there’s a room full of books he’s been given, and another room is full of clothes, shoes and toys. He operates a kind of drop-in for local people. If someone needs a pair of decent shoes for a job interview, they can call on him and if he has them he’ll give them away.

With upstairs dedicated to storage, Lewis and his girlfriend, Jade, live on the ground floor, with the front room of the house also acting as a bedroom. The double bed wouldn’t fit up the narrow stairs anyway, Lewis explains. He sits on the bed, with a David Attenborough DVD playing while he has a brew, photos are taken, and we chat about his life and his work.

Lewis knows this area well. He grew up here, went to school here and slept rough around here. He first became homeless following family problems. “With my mum – it’s her house, it’s her rules,” he says. If he was late home from work and missed the 10pm curfew when she bolted the door, he would have to sleep in the garden.

His mum lives a few doors down in a row of terraces behind his. They talk, he says, but it’s a stormy relationship. She once sent him a solicitor’s letter for some money he owed her for a rent deposit he’d borrowed, and Lewis can’t help but feel resentment about the years of homelessness he’s endured since he was a teenager. “It still bothers me,” he says. “It took away the best years of my life.”

He enjoyed school and says he “never missed a day” but admits he’s never had a grand plan about what to do with his life. “I used to like playing football but I never wanted to be a footballer. I wanted to be a karate instructor for about a year but then I changed my mind.” He started a catering course, but he didn’t enjoy it. “I preferred pot washing to being a chef.”

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On a cabinet is his stack of this week’s Big Issue North magazines, bought from the Preston sales office. Lewis divides his time between his scrap metal business and selling the magazine. He likes selling in Lytham, 15-odd miles away, because it’s a “relaxing environment and it’s a good pitch. There’s less footfall but they are more generous there. And it’s a nice place to work and the dog can relax and go to sleep on the floor and not be bothered.” He likes the fact that everyone in Lytham knows who he is. “They look after me there,” he says.

He likes the contrast the two jobs give him. “I enjoy selling the magazine and chatting to the customers, but I like the thrill of the chase doing scrap, finding things and selling them on. You can make a lot of money in a day if you’re lucky.”

He doesn’t claim benefits. “I just can’t be bothered with it, arguing with them about what I should and shouldn’t be doing and then waiting to see if I get anything. By doing scrap I can make the money that I need now.”

He’s also writing a biography. “I’ve had a lot of experiences. I’ve slept in all kinds of places – I’ve slept in skips and on the back of wagons, in bins and in phone boxes stood up, you know. I once walked from Stoke-on-Trent to Preston.”

As a newly homeless teenager, he got a lift to Stoke to see a girl he’d met on holiday, only to find that she still lived with her parents and they weren’t keen on her seeing him. He slept in her garden for a night and then set off on foot for home. On the way back, he also slept in a Wendy House in a large pub beer garden, waking up to find himself in the middle of a car boot sale that was taking place around him.

Lewis, 36, has been through long periods of homelessness since then, living on and off the street. “I lived in a hostel for a few months. There were 30 rooms and most of the residents were straight out of prison and doing drugs. I could taste the heroin in the air. So I took a tent and went and lived in the woods for six months. That was better.”

Has he ever used drugs? “No, they never appealed to me. I don’t even drink alcohol because I don’t like the feeling of being drunk. I don’t like being out of control.”

Behind his magazines on the cabinet are photos of Lewis and his partner, who works down at the local shopping centre. They’ve been together for a few years now, having met when he was selling the magazine in Preston, before he got his Lytham pitch. Lewis credits her with saving his life and setting him on the road to stability: “If I didn’t have Jade and the dog I wouldn’t be here now.”

Brew and photoshoot finished, it’s time to set off again. Lewis wants to show us his lockup where he stores more of his scrap, but he’s got some logs to deliver first. A tree surgeon supplies him with logs, which he chops up and bags. He then exchanges them for a hot meal or a lift to the scrapyard. Today he’s dropping a sack of logs at the door of a retired joiner who lives a few streets away and who has promised to build him some shelves in return.

As we walk, every street, every corner, has a memory and a story connected to it. We pass a large container yard that used to be a skate park. “That’s where I lost my two front teeth when I was a teenager. Never had the money to get them fixed.”

There’s a building he once helped strip out – a job so big he’d hired a group of local lads who used to hang around on the street to help him.

There’s a café where he once went asking for food because he was close to passing out, having not eaten for three days. “The woman serving let me have a cake and I was able to get to the scrapyard to sell something. I went back the next day and paid her.”

As well as the memories, there’s all that metal to be found. He spies a bike wheel in a bush and makes a note to come back and get it later. He’s always on the lookout for stuff. “All these 20ps here and 30ps there add up,” he says. “Anything productive is a bit productive, better than not productive at all.”

We turn another corner and see a pile of junk outside a terraced house and some bloke bringing more bits out. Lewis hurries to knock at the door and the bloke answers. His name is Royston and he’s helping an old lady have a clear-out.

“Take whatever you can carry,” says Royston, impressed by Lewis’s entrepreneurial spirit.

As they chat, a white van cruises up the road, slows and the window is wound down. “Can we take this metal, mate?” the driver shouts.

“This one’s already bagged it,” Royston says. The lad looks Lewis up and down and then speeds off again.

“They’ll be back as soon as I’m gone,” sighs Lewis, aware that he’ll not be able to carry everything Royston has on offer today. He relies on friends and neighbours to give him a lift to the nearest yard every few months since he can’t drive himself. He says he doesn’t like the responsibility of being behind
the wheel.

“I’m the only one in Preston left doing this scrap metal business without a van,” he says. “I’m an old-fashioned rag and bone man.”

But he likes the local fame this brings him. “People will remember me when I’m dead – they won’t remember a bloke in a white van but they will remember a bloke who walks around town with a trolley full of metal.”

We finally get to the lockup and set up some more photos. At one time, Lewis had four of these lockups in different parts of the city. He used to sleep in one of them. Then he moved everything, including himself, into one large warehouse. But that was set on fire by local kids and he lost everything and had to start all over again.

How’s life now? “I’m better, yeah. Not 100 per cent but definitely in a better place. I have a girlfriend and a dog now – that’s something. For the last 15 years I had no reason to get out of bed.”

He’s proud of the way he’s trying to get by, selling scrap and the magazines, trying his hand at creative writing and doing what he can to support people locally. He doesn’t care what others think of his life choices. He’s “doing it his way”.

And what about the future? He and Jade are engaged and there’s talk of kids. And there’s always the hope that he can take the scrap metal business to the next level one day. But he doesn’t seem in any rush.

“These days, everyone wants everything. But if you had everything, what would you get for Christmas?” he says. And what would he want for Christmas?

“A horse and cart,” he laughs. “But then again, where would I put it?”

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