Monthly Archives: September 2012
At the end of a long week, I dragged my tired high-heeled boots to the subway, eager to get home and kick them off. I hadn’t felt like myself, particularly on this day, and had had to make an effort to smile and make polite conversation at the office. When I arrived at the subway platform it was unusually crowded, only feeding my self-pity as I added this to the list of inconveniences that I felt that I had suffered already. I waited for three trains before I finally squeezed into a subway car, which, albeit crowded, was manageable.
My feet hurt enough without having to make things worse by standing all the way home on the subway. I noticed an empty seat, occupied only by a large knapsack. While no one appeared to be attempting to ask the backpack’s owner, a young man sitting quietly with his face mostly concealed by his hood in the corner, to possibly move the knapsack over so that they may sit down, I was not going to pass up the opportunity to do so myself.
I offered to only take up part of the seat so that the young man would not be forced to sit with his knapsack on his lap. A strong scent of beer permeated the air around him. “No worries, I’m used to that. Do you mind sitting next to a drunk alcoholic?” I noticed that he was holding a cup, discreetly concealed behind his knapsack.
“Not at all,” I laughed ironically, “I’m used to that.” I sat down and sighed heavily.
“Tough day?” he asked.
I hesitated. “Yes,” I responded after a moment.
“Yeah, working sucks, I imagine. I don’t do it myself. Can’t stand the hours or the bureaucratic BS. Huh, of course I don’t have rent to pay – no place to live except my tent just off the highway.”
I found myself feeling concerned for this person, wondering how he would survive a night on the street where the temperature was set to exceed all-time record lows. “Would you consider going to a homeless shelter tonight? I saw on the news that an extreme cold alert has been issued.”
The young man chuckled. “That doesn’t bother me. I’ve got my trustee sleeping bag. It keeps me warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. I have everything I need right here.” He patted his knapsack. “Besides, there are too many rules in the shelters.” He shook his head. “Not for me.” I hoped that he kept a close eye on his belongings, everything he owned, everything he had for survival, right there in that knapsack that had brought us to this chance meeting.
I talked with this stranger all the way home, mostly just listening to him talk about how he did basically whatever he wanted. As far as he was concerned, he was taking advantage of the so-called system as best he could and living life, modest as it was, by his own rules. Certainly our lives were worlds apart, but I thought he had some good points all the same. When I thought of the stack of bills I had to pay, I wondered, momentarily, if his life was somehow simpler. I knew that I could never survive the type of life this person led, nor did I envy him his admitted alcoholism, but my conversation with him took me away from my own trivial problems of the day and gave me a look into a window of a person clearly less fortunate than I, his light-hearted attitude about it notwithstanding.
At the end of the ride he thanked me for talking to him. “It was nice meeting you,” he looked me straight in the eye without the shield of the hooded sweatshirt he wore. “I don’t get a chance to talk to a lot of nice people.” He knew I didn’t judge him and he appreciated it. I in turn was grateful that I didn’t get on those previous trains that day, happy that I had ended up sitting next to this person. We might not ever see each other again but he was the only person who really made me laugh that day and I would not soon forget him. Whatever the brief connection was between us, it somehow made my journey home more pleasant that evening and I hope it did the same for him. “Thank you; it was nice meeting you.” I smiled, for real for the first time that day.
As I turned and prepared to wade through the masses to get to the door, my new friend, who so far had remained relatively quiet, yelled out. “Hey! Everybody stand back and let this girl through!” As I observed the startled looks on people’s faces, I stopped in my tracks and laughed out loud. Soon the people around me were laughing too, some visibly relieved, and gladly parted the way for me to exit. Before I did I took one last look behind me. The young man had put his hood back on and his knapsack back on the seat next to him. He gave me the thumbs up.
“Party on Girl.”
RON BULL/TORONTO STAR
The proposed ban on panhandling in Toronto is just another way of marginalizing our city’s poor and homeless. If the police have the audacity to give tickets to our society’s less fortunate, many of whom do not even have a place to live or sleep at night, I would like to see a panhandler respond by saying, “Sure, go ahead, fine me $1,000 — tell you what, why don’t you make it $1 million?” That’s how ridiculous the notion is of giving fines to people who are literally penniless, obviously unable to pay a fine or anything else for that matter.
Do politicians and others who willingly jump on the bandwagon and agree that panhandling should be made illegal think that panhandlers enjoy doing what they do? In throwing their hats down to beg for spare change, panhandlers are also surrendering their dignity and self-respect. Most of them do so because they are desperate for money. It could be argued that some panhandlers use their daily profits to buy drugs or alcohol, but how many among us who are legitimately employed do the same with our paycheques? Who has the right to judge what anyone does with their money?
People fall upon hard times. Circumstances often lead people into homelessness and panhandling. Some panhandlers do feel badly, at least when they get started, about for having to put aside their pride and ask people they know look down on them for money.
Certainly, it can be off-putting to finish a long day at work only to come outside and be asked for money by someone we think sat around all day while we were working. That may be so. But if that person was sitting around, they were doing so on the sidewalk, on sometimes damp, cold pavement. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trade my chair at my desk for one of those spots on the dirty sidewalk for a few coins. I venture to say that many who solicit for just a little spare change once had jobs of their own. Perhaps they, too, wish they could make themselves presentable enough to be able to go to a job interview.
As for panhandlers harassing pedestrians, for the most part, that is a gross exaggeration. I believe the general phrase panhandlers use is, “Can you spare a little change?” They are merely asking if you can afford to part with a small amount of change. How anyone make something like that illegal? Panhandling may bother some people or make others uncomfortable, but surely that’s not enough to make it a crime. The mere thought of putting one of these people in jail is nothing short of cruel, not to mention pointless. Trying to enforce yet another nonsensical law and pretending homelessness and poverty in our city don’t exist won’t make them go away.
We may not be able to spare a little change, but we can certainly spare someone who is so badly off that they have to beg for money on the street from facing more unnecessary stress in their lives. Talk about being harassed. Besides having to deal with police, fines and the risk of being thrown in jail, they face being tossed aside by society, just so people won’t have to look at them.
The next time you see someone panhandling and feel unwilling or unable to offer any change, rather than getting angry, just try to remember that the panhandler is still a human being. At the very least, it costs nothing to offer a smile — that is, if you can spare it.
Andrea Freedman is a Toronto writer.
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