He walked up to me as I sat on the bench, enjoying the sun and the people watching. He was a thin man — “all bones” mom would say — wearing loose, well-worn clothes, dirty sneakers and a baseball cap. His movements were jerky, like those of a marionette’s puppet, and they accentuated his angular frame and the flows of unused material. He smiled. Hello, he said, going travelling? I said no, deciding against explaining the baggage sitting next to me. The packsack and suitcase belonged to a friend. She was the one travelling but had run an errand while I watched over her gear. Oh, he said, coming home then. No, I replied, returning the smile. My expression kept his hopes up, he said: Vancouver sure is a beautiful city. Yes, I said, it is.
Despite my monosyllabic answers an internal debate was raging in my head. I knew, or assumed I knew, who and what he was: a panhandler who, needing a fix, wanted money; but I also saw, or tried to see him as a person deserving of respect, polite conversation and human connection. I didn’t want to lead him on, that is, I didn’t want him to expect money at the end but I also wanted him to know that I saw and heard him.
He asked if I was from Vancouver. Yes, and you? No, Saskatchewan. Lots of people here from the prairies, I said, better winters. His toothless smile broadened, eagerness barely hiding his anxiety.
The debate within me got heated. What was I doing? Why was I giving this man monetary aspirations when I was only going to disappoint him? I felt like a cat teasing the mouse, sadistically playing with his emotions. No, I rebutted, you are treating him like any other person you enter into conversation with, just pretend he came over because he thought you were interesting, pretty, or perhaps, lonely.
Lots of culture here, he said. Hmmm, I murmured, thought there was more on the prairies… I’ve heard Saskatoon is quite the place for the arts. No, he corrected, I mean cultures, you know, multi-cultures. Oh, yes, I agreed, we are a port city, more cultures here.
He looked over his shoulder, gums biting his lips. His eyes traversed the streets and came back to mine, making a decision. Don’t suppose you have a loonie or something you could give me? Sorry, I said, shaking my head, I have some food though, some nuts. I held out the leftovers in the bag I had. He declined and pointed to his mouth, reminding me he had no teeth. You could give me money for food, he said, the last word wavering on hope. Shaking my head, I once more apologized. Fifty cents even? No, I can’t.
He closed his eyes for two, maybe three seconds, overcame a slight grimace, nodded and moved on. I took a deep breath, looked down at my bag of nuts and reflected on what just happened. I felt bad as if I had misled him somehow, made him work and then denied him wages. My guilt bade me to lift my head and call him back but he had disappeared into the crowds.
I don’t have a set rule regarding who and when I give money. Sometimes it’s on a whim; other times because of the pathos involved, the panhandler has creative methods or makes me laugh. I try to smile and greet whoever asks for money and usually I get a smile back but it is not easy being poor; even harder if you have an addiction. One could counter that it is not my fault he needed a fix and not my fault he lives on the street but I question whether blame is where we should focus our queries. Yes, we should all do our part in helping alleviate poverty but maybe it is also a question about what we value. If I value smiles and conversation between strangers, perhaps that would be given more worth by the person, however destitute, that I encounter. Just maybe, if the internal debate was not raging within me, I would have been more present and more able to join in a moment of true connection. Maybe, just maybe then, he too could have, at least momentarily, forgot about his needs and joined me in a human dance that holds more value than money could ever buy.
Jo-Ann Svensson teaches “Creative Codependence” and is a Certified ARC Health Practitioner.