Thursday, June 9, 2011
Memories of the homeless asking for change
Back when I was nine, I visited Toronto for the first time with my mother during the summer of 1994 and saw a Native homeless man asking for change on the street. A black man came up to him and said "Of course" and gave him some money and I was struck at how polite and gracious he was. Later on that same trip I rode the subway for the first time and saw two kids sitting opposite myself and my mother, with one of them shaping his fingers into a pistol, pointing them to everyone around him including the two of us, and going "bang bang bang".
When I was eleven and living in Winnipeg I bought a Big Gulp from a Seven-Eleven, but I couldn't drink all that soda. There was a man sitting on the curb outside of the store, and I gave the drink to him. He responded by saying "It's too big, it's too big" and my mother laughed but I was genuninely angry with how he responded - that he wasn't thankful and instead critical of getting something for free. If he was joking, I couldn't tell at the time.
When I was nineteen I drove to a beer vendor and bought a 12-pack case of PBR beer in bottles. The bottled beer didn't taste good to me but there was nowhere else to buy PBR in the city. I didn't know what to do with all the beer I'd bought. I didn't have anyone to drink it with and I couldn't bring it home. Driving through Osborne Village, downtown Winnipeg where I lived, there was someone sitting on the sidewalk asking for change; after I saw him I parked the car behind a building on the street, then brought the entire case of beer and gave it to him. I said something like "It doesn't taste that good" but he was so appreciative of it that he didn't care. I saw him a couple of days later on the street and he smiled and gave me a nod of thanks. I was always charitable, I still am.
A story of a story - back when I was a teenager, two kids I knew told me of a window-washer on the corner who had a sackful of change sitting in a bus stop. He told them that he had to keep running from thugs who would chase him with bats and steal all the change he'd received.
The homeless in Ottawa are rampant and when I was living there it felt like a parallel to Washington D.C.. A couple of years ago I came out of a Giant Tiger close to the city centre and two destitute men asked me for change. I responded by saying I didn't have any money, and they insisted that I did. So I insulted them and walked away while they came up with weak insults to fire back with. A little later on I saw a man become angry with a pedestrian because she wouldn't give him money.
A little while ago I was here in downtown Toronto walking past Union Station with a girl who'd later fight me and try to pull my hair out. We passed a homeless man sitting on the street asking for change and she looked into her purse. I told her that homeless people choose their lifestyle - there's a better way to live but they've made the choice to ask for change and live off of other people. By giving them change we only promote them to no go out and try to make a better quality of life for themselves. But I didn't try to stop her from giving him money, I only said it to give a new perspective.
There've been times where I've wanted to request a dance in exchange for the money, and the homeless man or woman and I would perform a spontaneous, perfectly choreogrpahed dance through downtown. Of course I never have.
"You can always depend on the kindness of strangers". This phrase should never become archaic. But it shouldn't justify panhandling.