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I assume he’s homeless. I assume he’s needy. I assume he’s broken.
All these blades of assumption I use to carve the man crouching in the sun, a cardboard litre of Minute Maid Orange juice on the sidewalk at his feet. He leans his thin back against the bricks that house the liquor store and the neighbouring bank. The Canucks ball cap he holds out and open in hopes of receiving, shakes slightly in his pale fingers.
I watch him from my car. A voyeur to a pathetic soul. He keeps his eyes low as people go about their lives, trying to ignore the squatting sidewalk blight on their otherwise shiny Saturday morning. I lift my travel mug out of the holder and rummage through the change I never think about.
I pull out a total of six bucks in loonies. Coins I pilfered from my husband’s stash weeks ago with the intention to wash my long-suffering car. In the few steps it takes me to get to this man I ask myself: what is your intention? Alleviation of guilt or love for another human? We often dress one up as the other.
There is a fat hesitation in what to say when a man such as this acts like I am a demi-god. I feel ashamed. I have something and he doesn’t. Can we navigate that tension without condescension? I tell myself I know the roles could be reversed in an instant, but I don’t know that. I have no concept of that. That is the worst sort of lie—the kind we tell ourselves.
I smile as I approach and have the gall to put the money in his hat instead of his hand. The sting of separation and arrogance is an immediate burn. I want to fish the coins out, correct my ignorance. I say something useless like “here you go,” or “have a good day” and the inevitable “oh you’re welcome” to his pleading thank you. There is always a pivoting in my legs even as I drop the change—an urge to get away as fast as possible—in case it’s not enough. Not enough connection. Not enough cellular respect. Not enough love. It is a cramping mantra that feeds on all of us—not enough.
I do my balletic spin of shame and begin to walk away, already thinking about the 5,000 dollar cheque I need to deposit to an account to avoid penalties.
“Ma’am? Excuse me, miss?” I hear his quiet voice from behind me. The sound of it sends the awful message charging through my brain: you want more?
Turning back to him, I notice his eyes match the day’s bright blue sky. His mouth is collapsed with no teeth to hold it strong. I also see a simplicity all over his face. I know he has been taken advantage of in this life.
It’s amazing and heartrending what we see when we truly look.
“Miss,” he says holding out the loonies I bestowed up him, “I really appreciate this but…” He smiles and I am met with enough openness to flood the universe. “What I could really use is a bag of dog food.” He extends his stick-thin arm and attempts to drop the coins back into my hand… he would never dream of dropping them into my hat.
His dilemma is a swift army boot to my gut.
“You have a dog?” I manage to ask.
His reply undoes me.
“Actually, I live in a group home just over there,” he points to a place I know is not well sought after, “and one of the guys I live with has two dogs and they could really use some food.”
I drop my gaze to the pavement, blinking and swallowing what threatens to erupt. The conversation I had with the universe just that morning as I walked the woods comes flooding in. Show me something amazing today. Give me jaw-dropping!
I swipe my eyes and nose in front of the dog food selections of the grocery store. And when I return to the brick wall of the liquor store, he tries again to give me back the paltry loonies.
On the two-minute car ride to his house, I find out he’s lost 40 pounds, then gained 20. He only drinks beer every once in a while. He has to take medication for arthritis. And his mum is dead but was a hairdresser before that.
I enter his yard through a gate held on a single hinge and I deposit onto his doorstep the biggest bag of dog food I could carry. He rushes over to several boxes of apples and lemons and potatoes squatting on the weedy lawn.
“I got them for free! Take as much as you want!”
He loads my arms with local produce and throw-aways from the grocer. I walk back to my car, juggling apples and potatoes, not wanting to see the dogs who now have food for the month. I fear the rent in my heart will split completely, leaving me a yowling mess on the busy street if I see their all-knowing canine eyes.
He chats along happily behind me, and I think about how warm the sun is on my shoulders. Until I realise it’s him.
As I drive home, I thank and cry, and thank again. I wondered how many jaw-droppers we miss in a day, how much sunny openness we block, how many truly selfless souls we ignore in favor of our assumptions.