Earlier in February on a cold Saturday morning I was sitting in the food court in the downtown shopping centre, eating a Bacon & Egger (registered trademark of A & W), waiting for my wife and daughter when I was approached by a homeless man.
I had decided to treat myself to the Bacon & Egger (and hashbrown patty) because I had gotten up early to shovel a ridiculous amount of snow off the driveway so I could take my daughter downtown for a manicure. She had been in a camp at the beauty academy in the mall this past summer. She loved it! She’s 11 and really starting to realize now that she owns her body. My wife registered her for the camp because she’s not the type of mom who wears makeup or regularly does her hair and nails – all the things our daughter is desperately interested in. Letting the professionals teach her how to do all this stuff seemed like a great idea.
The girls, and it was all girls in the camp, had spent the first four days talking about self-esteem and girl power and learning how to apply makeup and curl their hair. The last day of camp was going to be manicure day. This is the day our girl had been looking forward to most of all.
That July morning though, on our long drive in from the suburbs, the beauty academy called – the Bluetooth hands free option in our late-model Nissan SUV is very handy. There had been a fire in the elevator shaft over night. No one was hurt and the property damage was relatively minor but the mall was going to be closed for the entire day but they’d finish the camp on Saturday if we were available. We were and I started looking forward to spending some time downtown shopping by myself.
The mall did not reopen on Saturday. The academy promised to try to reschedule the camp for another day, but in the end they just sent out vouchers for a free service to all the disappointed campers, and yes, we are bad parents for taking so long to redeem it.
So here we find ourselves in the middle of winter in the downtown mall. My wife hanging with the girl and me sitting in the food court with a Bacon & Egger. That’s when I’m approached by a homeless man. Did you notice I just referred to him as homeless for the second time? I did. That’s what I thought when I saw him. Actually, I didn’t think it. I just accepted without thinking that I knew he was homeless.
For a number of years early in my career the office I worked in was in a downtown highrise. Being approached for money was something that happened more than once a day. This was back in the early 2000’s when physical currency was still common. You needed coins for parking meters. Coffee Shops preferred cash. I always had change in my pockets and quite often gave it away when asked. A decade and a half later, everything has changed.
And here is where my privilege starts to really show, to flash in giant neon letters, when I say that I don’t remember the last time I was asked for change. Wouldn’t it be great to sat that it was because we’re winning the fight against poverty?
So here I am assuming this hungry man is homeless and stammering that I don’t have any change. How many ways can we let our vulnerable neighbours down? Yes, my wife and I donate to a number of charities. But the tax receipt we get doesn’t mean shit to the hungry man in the downtown food court. He’s obviously heard my response many, many times because before I’m halfway through my sentence, my explanation, my excuse, he’s moved on.
I sat there kicking myself, running through what else I could have done. I could have given him my half-finished Bacon & Egger. I’m ashamed I even had that thought. I could have taken him up to a kiosk and bought him some food. How humiliating would that have been?
Tell me, what picture did you form while reading this? Did you picture a certain identity, age, amount of facial hair. I didn’t give you a physical description of this man. I didn’t describe his mannerisms, posture, wardrobe or describe how he asked for change using a combination of sign language and half-muttered words. I didn’t give you any of these details because, for this story, those details don’t matter.
What does matter is the fact that I’m a middle-aged, slightly paunchy white male. What does matter is that to get my attention the man had to wave his hand in front of my face because I was wearing expensive wireless over-the-ear headphones, listening to music on my less-than-a-year old iPhone 7 while writing in a hand-made journal – with a fucking fountain pen of all things!
This early weekend morning I am struck by the absolute absurdity of the world we’ve created. The cruel disparity those of us on the privileged end of the equation rarely notice. So I’m going to add spare change to the bag I carry every with me, with my camera and notebooks and fancy pens. That way, if someone askes me for some money, I can give them some, dammit!
Something to think about.