In 2007, I wrote a year end message about how I have always found it difficult dealing with homeless or impoverished people asking for cash. I talked about walking right by a young girl sitting on a Vancouver sidewalk in pouring rain at +3 degrees and then feeling totally humbled when someone else jumped out of her vehicle, stopping traffic on West Broadway, giving her money, a scarf and a kiss on the head. Embarrassed, I, too, gave her what money I had and promised myself that I would face these situations with greater courage and aplomb.
Ten years later, I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve taken much ground here. I still give some money, but more from guilt than from an open heart. And I still feel awkward about it – not really sure why.
So it was with this as deep background, that I went into Calgary a few weeks ago to get some groceries. Hopping out of my truck in the Superstore parking lot, I spotted a young man sitting against a pillar near the store. Head down, rough clothes, rough look, requisite cardboard sign, a ball cap on the ground with a few coins in it, and my same old reaction of just wanting him not to be there. Went in, got the goods, came out, dropped the stuff off in the truck, came back over and put a few loonies in the cap. He looked up at me and nodded. My mind was telling me to walk away quickly, but my gut was telling me something else.
Now, I have to tell you that my wife Debbie has the most keenly honed intuition I’ve ever encountered in a human being. She’s saved us in more life situations than I can recall, and I’ve learned to trust her insight. But I haven’t yet learned to trust my own, and this time it was telling me to try something different. I asked him if I could get him something to eat from the store. He looked up again and said, “Thank you very much, but I’ve already eaten”. OK, I can handle rejection from a homeless guy. Can’t I?
So, with difficulty, I tried something different. I sat down beside him. I half expected him to get pissed off at me and run me off his turf, but he just glanced at me and put his head back down. The next several minutes were so freaky I couldn’t even tell Debbie about it until a few days ago. We sat there as people walked by looking at the two us with disdain, pity, disgust, dismissiveness, you name it. I pulled my hat down lower as someone I recognized went into the store, too worried about suffering even more shame than I already felt.
The world looks very different from down there. Below knee level we might as well have been insect pests. My first realization was that my ass was rapidly getting cold. The second was that it doesn’t take long for hope to sublimate into despair as people walk on by, judging, assessing but rarely doing anything to help. It was so awful I couldn’t stay there very long. I got up, rubbed some circulation back into my butt, dug into my wallet, knelt down and put twenty bucks into his hat. We looked at each other, nodded silently, twin sons of different mothers, each having made decisions and faced fortunes that could have easily seen us in reverse roles.
Elizabeth Renzetti, the pull-no-punches writer for the Globe and Mail, called 2016 a kitty litter box. Too many people died violently and too many people suffered needlessly and, in general, it seems that tolerance for one another as human beings is perilously low. That may or may not be true, but I for one now know that it’s possible to forestall despair, even briefly, with a moment of kindness.
I feel so very proud to have been able to serve you all for the past eleven years and to continue to move forward with you in creating an association that punches way above its weight in this world.
Let’s have an amazing 2017, OK?