A little over two years ago, Peter Varga began a photo project that would change the course of his life. Inspired by the success of similar projects internationally, he began to walk the streets of Dublin, interviewing and photographing those he met along the way.
What he uncovered were powerful stories that hide in plain sight as we rush about our lives, too busy to notice. Posting his work on social media, Humans of Dublin soon became a phenomenon, with over 100,000 fans. In these exclusive extracts from his new book, he introduces some of his favourites. From tales of inspiration and joy to those of heartbreak and loss, all of life is present in this remarkable portrait of a diverse and vibrant city
* I was just on my way to the American sweet shop to buy some Gatorade when I saw this guy in his 30s sitting on the ledge of the bridge. I just thought, ‘Wow . . .’ I stopped and asked him if he was OK, but I knew from the look in his eyes he wasn’t, and he didn’t say anything either, but I saw tears coming from his eyes.
I pleaded with him for a while to come down and sit on the steps, and eventually he did. We sat on the sidewalk on the southside of the Liffey and talked for about 45 minutes, about what was happening to him, why was he feeling that way . . .
I couldn’t leave him there alone, but I had to go, so I was going to ring an ambulance. I told him they could help him feel better. But he was like, ‘Please, please, don’t call them, I’m fine. I just want to walk around for a while, I’m gonna be OK!’
I told him to please let me ring an ambulance, that I wouldn’t sleep knowing he was just walking around alone. So I rang it, and he was taken to St James’s Hospital. I got his number so I would know what was going on with him for a good while. . . And about three months ago, he texted me that his wife is pregnant, they’re having a boy, and they’re naming him after me. Can you believe that? They’re going to name their child after me . . .
He said in that moment that I approached him, he was just about to jump, and those few words saved his life; that they’re still ringing in his head every day: ‘Are you OK?’ I can’t really understand how these few words could save his life, but he told me, ‘Imagine if nobody ever asked you those words’.
* Without music, I wouldn’t even open the shop, I’m telling you! You know what? This morning a guy came in, he is working in the council . . . but, anyway, there was a song playing called Volare. So he went down to get his oranges and I said to him, ‘If you guess what volare means, you get your grapefruits for free!’
Then he said, ‘What do you mean? They’re two oranges!’ I said, ‘Well those things in your hands are grapefruits!’ Oh boy, you should have seen the people laughing! Then he’s looking at his grapefruits and says, ‘How would I know what volare means if I don’t even know what an orange looks like!?’ The place was in racks – you can imagine . . .
That was only about two hours ago, and there are so many conversations like that every day. This is why I’m still selling fruit here at the age of 72, and this is why my customers are still coming back – and this is something that Mr Lidl can’t beat!
* I won’t lie to you, I’ve been in prison and learnt my lessons the hard way. I lost my brother, and I’ve been in some really bad situations. But I turned my life around. I went to rehab, and I haven’t touched anything in five years now. I have a job, I work hard, and the biggest reward is the peace of mind. I have nothing to worry about!
Charity work became my new addiction. You know what I did last year? I was out dancing for a charity in Northside Shopping Centre with a bucket in my hand, on my own, for the whole Christmas week, and a guy came up to me and said whatever I made that week, he’d match it. I made €1,300 and he matched it!
In the last 18 months, I boxed together over €100k for different charities. And you know what my mother said to me a few weeks ago? She said she’s proud of me. I don’t think she ever said that to me before.
* On our flights, the alcohol is free, so sometimes people drink too much and open up to us and tell their life story. These are intercontinental flights, so they have the time for it, too. They often share things they would probably never tell to anybody, but they think they can talk to us because we’ll most likely never see each other again.
Last time a guy told me how he discovered his wife is cheating on him with his best friend. It was so sad, not only because of the story, but he was crying, so what do you do? I started to cry too . . . And it doesn’t look very professional when all the other passengers are watching you crying with a stranger . . . I often feel more like a therapist than a flight attendant after these long flights.
* A few days ago, a guy wanted to buy him. I said, ‘No, he is not for sale’, and then he took out €250 from his pocket and asked again.
I really love him, so I said no again. The next day the guy came back and said he was drunk and that he’s sorry, and gave me €50. That was the most money I ever got from someone . . .
* I’ve been on hormones for a couple of years now, and I’ve become a new person. My personality, my thoughts, the way I react to things: they’ve all completely changed. I had the opportunity to experience the difference between genders – how it is to be a boy and how it is to be a girl, and right now, pretty much what it’s like to be a pregnant woman.
And I can tell you, it’s so much harder to be a woman . . . As a boy, you tend to be more logical, and if you have any feelings bottling up, you can go to the gym, or you can work super hard, and then it’s out of your system . . . You can let things go.
As a girl, it works different. It just keeps bottling up and the feelings take over your logic, and at some point, something snaps and the whole world falls apart for two days. It’s so hard to just keep yourself in a certain mood when there are storms inside your head.
When I was in my first teenage years, as a boy, I had a very tough relationship with my mother. We lived in a small town, and she was working in the military. So she would be very strict with me, like, ‘No, you can’t wear those jeans, they’re too feminine’; ‘Don’t cry’; ‘Stop acting like a girl’.
When I was 17 or 18, I was still superfeminine and I moved up to Copenhagen. Only afterwards did our relationship get a bit better. We started to talk more, so she could understand me better. A couple of years later, she discovered her own sexuality and confessed to me that she was a lesbian.
Looking back, I can really see it . . . By that time, she had spent 12 years in the military, she always had a short haircut and had a real butch style. So when I went back to see her, she apologised to me a lot. Since then, she is my biggest idol and inspiration. She became a completely different person. Her mind is so free. She’s been living at a nudist camping beach during summers, the last few years . . .
She’s nuts, and I like to think I’m the same.
* I was walking on the beach in Co Sligo, when I reached out to hold the hand of a beautiful girl. I knew in that moment, if she took my hand, we would be together forever. This was in 1959, and we had a beautiful life together.
And I will tell you the secret to a long-lasting relationship! We grew up through our children. Growing up means becoming less selfish, less egotistical . . . And we matured through our grandchildren – maturity means to see the mystery in everything. To look at a baby and see the sheer mystery of it . . .
The secret is to make that commitment on both sides, to see the mystery in each other, and also to make the decision to love. This is hard for young people to understand, but love does happen, just like it happened to me that day . . . But to continually love after a certain time is a conscious decision. You must decide that you’re going to love. Otherwise it becomes shallow and it can disappear. Because of our decision, I know she’s still waiting for me up there, and it’s a great feeling.
* I’m 83 at the moment and still working. I worked my whole life cleaning sewerage and drains. I spent 44 years working for Dublin City Council cleaning the sewers right under us.
There’s actually a whole system down there, just like up here. Some parts could be eight feet high and 20 feet wide. There were times it was easier to find your way around down there . . . But on the streets I use this bike, which is about 90 years old now. I got it from my father-in-law, and I still use it every day.
* At a beer festival I got too drunk, and I got in a fight with someone. While we were fighting I lost my shoe, and she was the one who gave it back to me. This is how we met four years ago.
* She arrived at my house at the New Year’s party, and I was the DJ playing on the decks. She thought I was very rude because I didn’t stop playing music to say hello to everyone, but that was my thing at the time. And I thought she was very rude ‘cos she came to my party and she just sat down on my couch, without even introducing herself . . .
So we initially hated each other from the very start, but every time I went to someone’s party, she was there too. A few times we got drunk enough to start talking and found out we worked close to each other. One day we met on our lunch breaks, and since then, we’re together 10 years. We just got married a few months ago . . . Love is a weird thing.
* My auntie died of breast cancer when I was 11. I was very close to her; she was like another mum. Months after her death, I began to get sick, constantly vomiting and developing new pains and symptoms. After many visits to the doctor, I was told I just had a bug. Every few weeks I would be vomiting for at least three days and would spend a lot of my time in bed. It hurt to move, as my stomach muscles had become so sore from vomiting.
This continued for 10 years, and doctors could not understand what was wrong. Food and weight became an issue, as I was afraid to eat in case I got sick. My life stopped and everyone else’s continued. I watched family and friends grow and change from my bedside. I missed out on my teenage years.
At night, I would pray that I would die because I didn’t want to go through another day of being so sick. I remember sitting crying one day, because I got so frustrated not knowing or understanding what was wrong, that I wished I had cancer, because then I would know what it was.
A doctor in the Mater Hospital looked over my file and after many appointments and referrals, he finally found out what was wrong. When my auntie died I never cried because I didn’t want to upset anyone else. I never grieved. I bottled everything up and never accepted her death. I began CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] treatment which changed my life for the better. The hardest part of everything was changing my thinking and accepting the fact that she was gone. Those nights that I used to cry myself to sleep I held on to one thing; I held on to hope. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted the pain and sickness to go away.
Now I volunteer with The Andy Morgan Foundation Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Awareness. I’ve seen the devastating effects that suicide has on families left behind, but I also understand when someone is in so much pain, mind and body, that letting go seems like the only way things will get better. I’m grateful for my life and I wouldn’t change a thing because it made me who I am today.
To those reading this, I hope you take my story as a sign to keep going no matter how hard things seem. It gets better. I’m living proof. I held onto hope, and you can too.
Read the original article on Independent.ie