Wherever Ken Sitters goes, Coco follows, and wherever Coco goes, she always draws a crowd.
Sitters says living with the staffy-cross-fox terrier is like living with a celebrity. Almost as soon as the words leave his lips, a young woman at the next table spots Coco through a line of bodies. The woman is blonde with a doll-fringe and wears a coat with a faux fur-lined collar. The fingers of one hand cradle a cigarette while those on the other reach for Coco’s chin.
Just like that, Sitters has six new friends.
“Sometimes I get jealous,” Sitters says, ruffling Coco’s ears. “She gets more pats than me. I should charge by the pat. Two dollars a pat. Ten a photo.”
Sitters walks with a limp and has a line for everything. He’s got a light five o’clock stubble around his chin and a jacket on his shoulders to guard against the cold. The weather report says there’ll be rain and hail and wind sometime in the next 12 hours, but so far this Saturday night has been dry.
Sitting outside The Little Pub on Hindley Street, Sitters nurses a bourbon and coke. He’s an alcoholic, he says, but takes a drink when offered. It gives him something to do, and so long as he keeps it by his side, he can lock down a table at least for an hour or two.
Coco sits in his lap and barely moves as the woman scratches her around the head. Sitters met Coco while working up in Brisbane 10 years ago. He says her previous owner was abusive. He read about it in the paper. That same day, he drove for two hours out to the shelter in Ipswich to adopt her.
Ever since, he’s taken care of Coco and she’s taken care of him.
“People tell me I should have her on a leash,” Sitters says. “I say to them, ‘I should put you on a leash’.”
Together they have travelled the country from the northeast, right down through the east coast and over the border into South Australia when, eight weeks ago, Sitters climbed into his car and left his hometown in Echuca on the New South Wales border to look for work. He has his certificates in everything from construction trades and landscaping to slinging lattes, but the job search ended when doctors found seven blood clots in his system.
Thick blood, Sitters says, runs in the family.
“Factor five blood,” he says. “Both my sisters passed away from blood clots.”
Ever since the diagnosis, he’s been living out of his car, which he has parked over on Rundle Street. Since turning up in Adelaide, the cops have done him three times for driving unregistered at a rate of $1930 each fine. They even took his plates when they defected his car.
Across South Australia, 60,660 households live below the poverty line according to the South Australian Council of Social Services. That’s nearly one in 10. According to Adelaide City Council figures, there used to be only 40 rough sleepers in August 2009. Now there are 148, and Sitters is one of them.
That ain’t the least of his worries, though. The doctors have him on blood thinners and say they want to do surgery as soon as possible. There’s a clot in his kidney they’re worried about and want to get at before it causes any trouble. When they explained to Sitters it would mean staying a couple of nights in hospital, he turned them down flat.
“Coco’ll fret without me,” Sitters says. “There’s no one I could leave her with. She gets anxious without me. She won’t sleep. She won’t eat.”
Instead, the hospital is trying to arrange it so they can treat him as an outpatient. It would mean staying just a single night in hospital. He doesn’t know how he feels about it, and would rather not, but says when he gets it sorted it’ll mean he can start putting himself back together again. Down the track, he’s thinking he’ll try find work as a taxi driver and, eventually, a place of his own.
One of the guys tells the group standing around Sitters that he wants to move on. The order comes to finish their drinks, so the young woman sets fire to her last cigarette. She moves around to Sitter’s side of the table and reaches for Coco to give her one last scratch behind the ears.
“What about me?” Sitters asks as he tilts his head to the right.
She scratches him behind the ear too and Sitters lets out a low, pleased growl.
As they leave, Sitters cracks a smile.
“I may be down and out, but I gotta have fun too,” he says.