A lawyer for almost 30 years, Russell Hodge has authored a book about his struggle with mental illness which led him to life on the streets.
Russell Hodge is a natural decision maker. The ability to think swiftly and execute quickly guided him through more than 27 years in law, many of those as a sole practitioner. It landed him in Paris, age 66, to study philosophy at the Sorbonne with creditaverage beginner’s French in a class crammed with undergraduates. It also saw him leave his wallet, phone and all forms of identification on the seat of his car with a note to his wife, saying he was going to live on the street.
On a less life-altering note, it makes him an easy dining companion.
Russell is early for our weekday lunch at LoveFish Barangaroo and has decided on his meal before I even begin the process of dithering over the entrée choices.
“I was and am a risk taker,” he says, although as the lunchtime sun dapples over the ferry wharf, perhaps oysters and smoked trout are less calculated gamble and more sensible choice.
After practising as a solicitor for more than 20 years, specialising in aviation law, he became a director and shareholder of Pel-Air Aviation, which operated medical evacuation flights and freight. There were often difficult days, including a crash over Norfolk Island where the pilot and passen-gers were lucky to survive.
“I loved being a lawyer. It was never work for me. There was not a day when I woke up and dreaded the day ahead,” he says.
“I was very fortunate to have a job that was useful and one I found intellectually very challenging.
“I spent a life setting and achieving goals.”
Professional achievements masked some of his darkest days, and the episodes of anxiety and depression that reared during his earlier life began to resurface as he approached retirement.
A side interest studying French led to an application to live in Paris for six months and attend one of the city’s prestigious universities. He left his wife, Josie, children and grandchildren and comfortable daily café breakfasts near his Sutherland Shire home to share a small flat with an abrupt Parisian who spoke only English to him.
Struggling with assessments and lessons in a room full of teenagers, he attempted to practise French by striking up conversations with locals sleeping rough on the Parisian streets.
“The safety and security I felt in their company probably had a big influence on what happened next,” he says.
Upon returning to Australia, the space which had been filled by a daily struggle to communicate in another language was gone and, in its place, resurrected doubt and depression.
“When I had been overseas, even though my wife and I spoke all the time, she had been managing everything without me. No one needed me for anything,” he says.
Three months after his return, he placed the note for Josie on the front seat of their car.
“I have no home – to go somewhere else will only change the residence of my unhappiness. I will live on the street – I hope I can achieve something for others. I have no identification or credit cards and have adopted a new name. I will be okay. Love Russell.” Using cardboard for insulation, as well as blankets from the Salvation Army, he made a makeshift home on Cathedral St in Woolloomooloo.
Every morning he would go to the State Library and read The Sydney Morning Herald, then go to McDonald’s George St for a weak cappuccino. The afternoons were often spent in the Royal Botanic Gardens or on a walk in The Rocks.
I loved being a lawyer. It was never work for me. There was not a day when I woke up and dreaded the day ahead.
By late afternoon, he would return to his spot outside a chemist, his possessions having been stored for the day inside a skip bin that another rough sleeper kept guarded with a key. He would rely on strangers at the laundromat to allow him to use their wash cycle to clean his clothes.
“I said nothing about my background and no-one ever asked,” he says.
“The homeless community accepted everyone as they came – no-one cared about where you had come from.”
He picked up tips on how to be resourceful – without a watch or a phone, another rough sleeper advised him he could learn the time by check-ing the parking meters on the busy city street.
The safety he felt spending time with Paris’s homeless population did not last in Sydney and he was assaulted by a rough sleeper following a dispute over the placement of a street sign.
He asked the chemist to call Josie, who collected him and took him to hospital.
“I told her I wasn’t coming home and had only contacted her because I had been bashed and needed medical treatment. I was oblivious to her distress,” he says.
For the next year, he lived on-and-off with friends, his daughter, travelling down the South Coast and staying briefly in a Kings Cross studio.
“It was only after this extended period of having no place to call home that I sought the proper psychological help I needed, including in-patient treatment” he says.
“I recognised that recovery would be an ongoing story. My treatment has cost over $100,000 and, for people sleeping rough without private hospital cover, sorely needed treatment is completely inaccessible. Something needs to be done about that.
“No-one who is on the street is choosing to be there.”
Hodge is now back home, spending time with his family and once again enjoying a weak cappuccino, which he chooses to finish off our meal with.
He has turned his keen eye for attention to detail, so beneficial in a career in law, to writing a newly released memoir, The Oldest Student at the Sorbonne.
“I left my material possessions behind [on the car seat], but I never lost my family and my friends, despite the anguish I put them through,” he says. “For that I am so grateful.”
Pacific oysters, smoked whole trout, garfish fillets and flash fried brussel sprouts.