So I'm walking along Graham Avenue the other afternoon, and as I reached the bus stop at Darwin's Corner, I'm stopped by one of the usual suspects who asked me if I could spare some change.
Now, I've been coming downtown virtually every day since I was eleven years old (that's just over twenty-five years, for those of you playing along at home) and as such have learned how to deal with the drunks and panhandlers one encounters while downtown. To me, they're a part of the flora and/or fauna (dependant on whether or not they're conscious), part of the experience if you will, and virtually unavoidable.
I admit that in the past, I've been less than polite with some of them (downright rude on occasion) and can be rather abrupt when I'm in a foul mood, but over the last ten years or so I've tried to be as civil as I can be, which (Lord help me) can be a rather onerous task when dealing with some of the more aggressive panhandlers.
Over the course of this civility, I've gotten to know a couple of the "usual suspects" who seem to haunt my haunts, and am on a first name basis (or rather nickname basis) with a couple more. The neat part of this is that they'll occasionally come up to me just to chat, with no talk of a "donation" at all. The downside is becoming friendly with certain individuals, only to see them passed out drunk (or high) in a back lane, bus shelter, or planter the next day.
So, as I'm walking toward my bus stop the other afternoon, my "buddy" "Steve" sees me, calls out "CJ!" and trots over.
"Hey bro!" he says to me, "can you help me out with some change? I'm trying to get to Kildonan Place."
"Yeah, I think I have some," I say, reaching into my pocket, "I have a twonie you're welcome to..."
"Awww, thanks bro!" he smiled, "That's another one I owe you!", then ran up Graham towards Vaughan, completely oblivious to the fact the Kildonan Place bus was waiting directly beside him... which amused me to no end.
I laughed and shook my head. Good ol' "Steve".
Witnessing the whole scene was the only other individual at the stop with us - a dour looking guy in (probably) his early fifties.
"Why did you give him money?" he demanded of me, "It just encourages them, and he's probably buying drugs right now!"
Now, my first instinct was to belt him one in the face and scream, "Don't you ever fucking question me again!", but ultimately decided it'd be more fun to talk down to him.
"I don't usually give them money," I explained, "but he caught me in a good mood."
"Humph. Really?" he scoffed.
"It's absolutely true." I said.
"I normally just tell them to fuck off," he sneered, "and to get a job!"
This guy's really pissing me off, and I want to hit him, but I switch tactics and try my best "Live and Let Live" act.
"And you know, mate?", I said, "I used to think the same way. There were times I'd get bugged for money twice by the same guy - on the same block within a couple of minutes! My record was getting asked for change nine times in three blocks!" - (which is true, by the way)
"Fuuuuuck!" came his witty response.
"Exactly," I added, humouring him, "It used to annoy the shit outta me."
"And it doesn't now?" he asked suspiciously.
"Not really," I answered nonchalantly
"Oh, bullshit," he again scoffed.
"Seriously, mate", I said seriously.
"Well what changed?" he inquired skeptically.
"I remembered an old saying, 'Never judge a man 'til you've walked a mile in his moccasins.'" I replied.
"Yeah uh-huh," came another brilliant remark.
"I'm serious," I calmly explained, "It's only due to the choices I've made in life that I'm where I am now, and not stuck begging for change on a streetcorner."
"Hmm," he said.
"If things had gone horribly wrong," I continued calmly, "that could easily have been me. So I try to look at things from that perspective. I mean, how would I feel about having to ask someone for a handout, to eat my dinners at a mission or soup kitchen, or worse yet, a dumpster? To rely on the ever-dwindling generosity of strangers in these cynical times, just to buy something to eat, or to feed an addiction that's ruined my life?"
His features softened a little.
I continued, "We often forget there's a very human, very personal cost to this sort of abject poverty. I mean, I'm a proud man, and I'd have to be at rock bottom to even consider begging for change. Do you have any idea how long it would take me to work up the nerve to ask a complete stranger for change that first time? Knowing that that first person may very well be an ignorant, judgemental cocksucker at a time when my self-esteem is already very low?"
He seemed to understand, his face showing a bit of humanity.
"I never thought of it like that..." he said softly.
"Well, it's a sad reality," I explained, "but over time, they develop a sort-of sixth sense about who's cool and who's the ignorant, judgemental cocksucker!"
"Heh," he laughed, "Do you think..?"
"Absolutely!" I said, flashing an evil grin, "Case in point: There are two people standing at this bus stop. Which one of us did he ask?"
It took him a couple of seconds to catch on. When he did, the look on his face was priceless.
Some days, it's all too easy - like shooting fish in a barrel.