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If begging then must be your fate,
Ask only at the largest gate.
– Arabian Proverb
I gave her a toonie. Should I have given her more? Less? Nothing? Should I have reported her to someone? After all, she was begging in the lobby of an upscale hotel in downtown Toronto, where I was staying for the film festival.
Should I have ignored her? Made no eye contact? Said nothing? Should silent dismissal deliver me from my discomfort?
Secure with my latte, newspaper and a soft chair in the opulent foyer, I had not noticed the woman’s surreptitious approach until she stood beside me, hand extended. She was there a moment before I sensed her presence. God have mercy on me, my first reaction was to resent her.
I glanced up. She looked needy enough. Poorly dressed for the cold and damp outside. Thin body, a middle-aged, forlorn face, worn to an age beyond her years, I think. Dishevelled hair and clothes, as if she had made an attempt at propriety but wasn’t quite up to it.
She spoke softly, scarcely louder than a raindrop falling on a leaf. Yet I heard her clearly above the background clamour: “Any change, please?” was all she said.
Could I pretend I could ever know her? Could I escape the easy and reflexive judgments that come to mind? Could I, did I want to, cross the chasm that existed between us? The distance between my middle-class-professional life and her street existence seemed beyond measure.
A bit old for drugs, I thought. Doesn’t seem down-and-out enough for booze. Not agitated or aggressive. She’s only quiet and rather sad-looking. Mental illness maybe? Or had she just fallen between the cracks, between the many layers of social, economic and psychological reality that keep us separate?
I wondered what her story was. Did I have any right to ask? Should a toonie buy me that much? Or would that be intrusive? I was half-tempted to follow her. To a back-alley fix? To a liquor store? To a shopping cart parked on the curb? Why did I care? I wasn’t making an investment here, with interest to be paid at some later date. Why couldn’t I simply see someone in need?
Why was she here? She was so out of place. Bad choices? Bad luck? Doomed by circumstances beyond her control? All of these, or none? Maybe she was where she wanted to be, or as close as any of us ever gets, and my judgments should stop. Maybe she didn’t know where she was at all. In time, I realized it was pointless to go beyond the obvious: Here was where the money was.
We seemed to exist in different worlds, so distant as to be incapable of mutual recognition: one burdened by too much, the other by too little.
But I think we were really separated by only the thinnest veneer of chance, the randomness of genes, and the entirely haphazard arrangement of circumstance. This used to be called fate, but I don’t think that’s allowed any more. Someone, something, must always be held accountable, responsible, blameworthy. And perhaps that is better. Maybe then change is possible.
I am Catholic. The guilt I wasn’t born with I learned along the way. It has become a reflex, a habit I am unable to shed. Should it form the basis of my interaction with this human being? I am also educated, reasonable to a fault, and by most standards wealthy far beyond what I need – yet not beyond what I want. I critically examine problems and am most uncomfortable when they don’t conform to my preconceived notions. But then I think, this isn’t about me. Maybe I always make it just about me, and therein lies the fault?
An aimless parade of thoughts marched into my consciousness: The poor you will always have with you; to live by imploring is perhaps the oldest profession; give up everything and follow me, Jesus said. Who was she following? Is there a virtue I do not see in poverty?
What difference would my toonie make? Far more to me than to her, as it turned out. But the cost of asking so much must be very high. Must I suffer for her privation and my wealth?
Enough! I willed myself back to the moment and shifted uncomfortably in the plush leather of my chair.
The whole interaction lasted an eternity of a few seconds. I didn’t know what to do. Paralysis by analysis is an affliction of the materially affluent and morally wanting. Throw money at a problem and it will probably go away, at least for a while. Throw logic and it may stay away forever.
This simple scenario evoked so many questions, but brought me no closer to even a few answers.
I never did speak to her. A smile and a toonie was all I gave. I’m sure she knew how little a toonie would buy, but she said nothing but thank you, and moved on.
I wondered if she knew how easily I was bought, and how low was the price I paid for not having to think about her any more.
It seems a bargain that didn’t work. She lingers in the chambers of my memory. Her voice awakens me. I think that in a perfect world she wouldn’t need to exist. But then, neither would I.
Larry Kramer lives in Brantford, Ont.