Life can be a series of events that to the complacent mind appear mundane and trivial. We all tend to fall into routines and slide down our paths blindly, missing the small things that if examined, may be life altering. I myself, with all of my past experiences of homelessness, fall into this trap. Now that I’m off the streets and have a successful career and loving family, I tend to walk with blinders on. Life’s hustle and bustle tends to occupy our days with trying to pay the bills, meet deadlines, get further ahead, and fit in. The harder we try, the further we fall.
Let me explain by sharing a couple of events I was blessed with.
A few years ago I was driving home from work. It was a beautiful sunny December afternoon in the North York area of Toronto. It was getting close to Christmas. As I pulled up to a red light, in the left hand turn lane of Weston Road and Finch, I noticed a panhandler stemming for money, coffee cup in hand. “Dam it, this guys going to put the pinch on me.” This was an annoyance I didn’t want, nor need. I had no coin and just wanted to cash my freaking pay cheque, go shopping and treat myself. Hell I had a bitch of a week and simply wanted to be left alone. Cold hearted, but that was my right.
Well sure enough I didn’t get my window rolled up quick enough! All of a sudden this disheveled looking bum was waving his paper coffee cup in my face. Son of a bitch, caught! “Sorry pal, all I got is this pay cheque”. “I’m busted till I get to the bank. Can’t even get coffee for myself. Sorry”. Well that was done. No, I was about to be taught a lesson that I needed.
Before I could roll out, this bum reached into his filthy jacket pocket and pulled out a “Toonie”. Now for you non Canadian readers a “Toonie” is the Canadian two dollar coin. He extended the coin through my window and smiled as he said,” here let me buy you a coffee”. I was shocked! ” Thanks, but hang on to your cash. You need it more than I do. Once I get to the bank I’m fine ” This fella just smiled and placed the “Toonie in my hand and stated, ” anyone who works deserves a coffee on the trip home”.
The light had changed and the car behind me was pushing forward. I, in a choked voice ,thanked my benefactor and headed down Weston Road. I was so touched by this mans simple act of kindness I was in tears. I kept thinking that I did not deserve such compassion as I had none when I was annoyed at seeing this stemmer. Stemmer by the way is street for panhandler.
What I realised was that I had turned into the same cold hearted type of person that many years ago treated me like social garbage. I had lost touch with my roots and took for granted all that God had given me.
I had forgotten that the marginalized in our so called civilised world are human. They have feelings, consciences, hearts, dreams and needs. Just like me!
I had lost touch with reality and succumbed to the materialistic and success oriented world we live in. I was reminded that we must never allow the pressures of life to turn us cold. An ounce of love can cure a ton of heartache.
It took a Bum to remind me of this. No, that’s wrong. It took an Angel. I believe this rough looking guy was an Angel, as I have often returned to that corner and have never seen him again. May sound silly to some of you but trust me when I say it warms me to the core.
I often reflect on that day. When I can I try to drop some coin into the many coffee cups in this city. I can’t always afford to but then I can’t really afford not to. You never know when an angel is about to show you the way.
My next event is about park benches. I know, what in the world is so special about a park bench? Sure you can sit on one, feed the birds, or whatever. Its just a bench, or is it.
It was Christmas Eve and I wanted to go home and be with family. I had just got back to Toronto from a long cold hitch hike from Calgary. For the homeless Christmas is a heart wrenching, spirit killing time of year that is the cruelest of all holidays.
I had phoned my folks and told them I was in Toronto and wanted to visit. Well that went over as well as a pick pockets chance of getting rich in a nudest colony. In no uncertain terms I was told that I was not “going to stay here”. I was offered a brief visit on Christmas day. Christmas is not for the homeless. Never has been and most likely never will be.
Well my only option was to head downtown and try and get a bed at the Fred Victor Mission or Sally Anne. Feeling rejected and hurt I made my way.
I had to walk until I could bum enough to get on the TTC, our transit system here in Toronto. It was late and the system was on restricted holiday service. Eventually I made it. The thing I remember most is the lack of Christmas spirit. None of the lights or Christmas decorations meant anything to me. I remember wishing I could somehow recapture that warm feeling but knew it was out of reach. That my dear reader, in my opinion, is why suicides are at their peak during Christmas.
Upon reaching the Fred Victor I was informed that all the beds were occupied. The Sally Anne was filled to capacity as well as all the shelters. I was in a fix, and might I say, pretty darn cold. I began walking north on Yonge Street trying to find a place to warm up. I needed to stem up enough cash so I could go to Frans restaurant and get a coffee. Back then refills were free and we all spent many nights sitting at the counter. It was better than a park bench in December.
Sadly it took about an hour to raise enough for coffee. It was late yet there were still lots of folks out. Some with bags and boxes of presents. The majority just walked by saying nothing. A few suggested I get a job. Finally I headed to Frans. My feet were so frozen I could barely walk and the shivers had complete control.
Now daylight was many hours away and I was completely exhausted. When you are homeless you learn the tricks of the trade. I had enough coin for two coffees so I could pay my bill, leave and return. My plan was simple. I paid my bill and headed downstairs to the washroom. I took one of the two stalls and sat down on the crapper. The trick here is that you must lower your pants so that it appears you are doing a nature call. I leaned my head against the wall and fell into the sleep of the streets.
This is a semi consciousness that allows for rest yet leaves you alert enough to the dangers associated with living homeless. There are many things to worry about such as cops, robbers, beatings etc. These are real and have killed many. Not every atrocity makes the news.
Now as lady luck would have it I got caught about two hours into my recuperations. Thank God it wasn’t a cop. Cherry Beach is a bitch in the winter time. I will cover this in another time. All I will say is if you were homeless in Toronto during the seventies and eighties you probably took that ride in the yellow cop car and feared Cherry Beach.
The management simply kicked my sorry ass out onto College Street. So there I was, sort of rested, yet stuck outside at around 3am Christmas morning. Now what the hell was I supposed to do? I decided to head back to my folks neighborhood and find a place to lay down until morning. I used my last coffee money to hop on the all nighter Bloor bus.
Once I got back to Kinsdale and Parklawn I sat on a park bench that was on the edge of a school yard, across from the four story apartment building that housed my family. I was tired, hungry and freaking frozen. Dad had put some lights around the window and I could see the family tree from where I sat and shivered. I knew that inside the tree was fully decorated and there would be presents galore. The Bennett’s always did Christmas to the max.
I decided to stretch out on the bench and sleep until daylight. I had a bedroll and used this to cover up. One of the design flaws in park benches is the sitting area is made from slats of wood, thus the cold winter winds get you from below. You really have to wrap yourself up or sleep is impossible. It is also prudent to cover your head as the majority of body heat is lost via the noggin.
The only way to totally protect oneself from freezing is to get into a fetal position so you are completely covered. Next you need to tuck your chin deep down into your collar so that you can breath down towards your chest. Your warm breath helps to keep you warm. Finally you must stick both your hands down your pants and cup the warmest parts. These few tricks will keep you from freezing to death, most of the time.
Luckily I didn’t turn into a statistic. Eventually Mom let me in. Finally warmth. Well warmth from the furnace anyhow. Even though I was inside with the family I felt as an outsider. My sisters where just finishing unwrapping presents and heading off to their rooms to do what ever. No real welcome there. I think they said hello but not much else.
Have you ever felt alone in a crowd? Well you can also feel alone with family. I did get fed before I was told it was time to leave. No presents under the tree, offers of staying over night. I was given enough for a bus ticket back downtown, a Merry Christmas, followed by the sound of a door being closed. Heartbreaking to say the least.
I didn’t stick around for New Years. Seemed kind of pointless. I ended leaving Toronto via the thumb and highway 427. As I walked up the ramp to the highway, at Eglinton and Martingrove I had to stop. Martingrove Collegiate, my old school, stood on the corner. I remembered what a teacher had said to me a few years previous to this night. ” Mr. Bennett, you will never amount to much.” This night I believed him. I continued walking up the ramp.
Now you may be wondering what this has to do with not seeing the small things, so let me explain.
That coffee cup in the panhandlers hand is the only thing keeping him from the park bench. Forget the reasons or self righteous stereotypical assumptions. Help if you can, someday it may be you or one of your loved ones.
Do you remember seeing someone sleeping in a fetal position, in a doorway or on a grate? He or she is in that position trying to capture as much heat as possible. To you he or she is of little significance, to be avoided. In reality this is a person suffering and alone.
The park bench is much more than wood and screws. During its lifespan from tree to bench, it has accomplished more than you may know. As a tree it provided the comfort of shade. Helped supply the oxygen you breathed. Then the tree housed birds that you enjoyed listening to. Next it supplied food and lodging to the person who was paid to cut it down, the trucker who delivered it to the mill. It helped feed the employees of the mill, the factory workers who made the tree into a bench. It also helped feed and house the salesperson who sold it to the city and finally the workers who set it up in the park.
My point is simple. Even the smallest, most inconsequential things we come across are not as inconsequential as they seem. The homeless and marginalized are the same. They have value, purpose and meaning. They are not to be ignored or lost to our busy lifestyle. They should be a part of our lives. By passing them by believing they are someone else’s problem we become inconsequential, simply the status quo, not changing anything. Stuck in our blind passage through a world desperately needing a new direction.
An ounce of love cures a ton of heartache. Peace.