What would you do if you woke up one morning and, after slicing a flesh-eating banana, discovered an albino alligator lurching its way out of your toilet?
You might feel as we all did, when The Toronto Sun recently exposed what most of us have always thought of as an urban legend: those "a friend of a friend's cousin told me" stories that usually involve something grotesque lurking beneath the bland exterior of day-to-day life.
In a front-page story devoted to "Toronto's commuter beggar," the paper revealed that this notorious panhandler, alternately known as the Sticker Lady, lives in a $330,000 home outside Toronto, and drives a nice shiny car to work each day.
Journalist Brodie Fenlon reported that the Sticker Lady, who denies all allegations, is best known for roaming the Eaton Centre and allegedly offering stickers in exchange for donations to dubious foundations.
The startling exposé on the Sticker Lady is eerily and alliteratively like the strange case of the Shaky Lady, which the Sun's Mike Strobel broke in 2002. Shaky was another hustler, whose apparently lunatic palsy earned her upwards of $1,000 a day in handouts, money she would fling about her Chevy Lumina while peeling home to her Toronto-area pied-à-terre. Eventually, Shaky would be snagged for caning a doubtful passerby, and while she has been rumoured to have returned lately, the Sun, in its ceaseless quest for "bogus beggars" (including faux paraplegics who have also auditioned for Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo) has once again, prevailed.
I live in a largely impoverished neighbourhood, and, like Dorothy Parker's Mrs. Matson, have "frequently remarked that these beggars all have big bank accounts." Whenever I see a man eating from the garbage, or a woman lying unconscious on the curb, I am outraged. And if they feebly ask for change, I archly tell them to seek their caviar financing elsewhere.
No tenderhearted liberal, I do actually detest the conditions where I live, and blame both every single "Let's Make Toronto a Beautiful City!" liar in office and a certain contingent of derelicts: the al fresco sex machines, crazed addicts and genuinely frightening shriekers for "SPARE CHANGE" whose garbage, syringes, used condoms, broken bottles and park tenancy have made a walk in the streets something like a low-key episode of Fear Factor.
Those of you encased in sterile neighbourhoods have no idea, and the day you get assaulted by a crackhead while stepping on a filthy hypodermic, you can sing Hug the Homeless to me as loud as you like.
That said, Mayor David Miller, the TTC traveller and subject of Toronto Life's most recent hot-oil massage, is prepared to do something to resolve the problem of homelessness (and its many reactive tenets). As he feverishly dreams of a city in which smokers are executed at sight by bike riders, he is also in the process of implementing draconian, Giuliani-Xeroxed "zero tolerance" policies with his proposed ban on sleeping in city hall's Nathan Phillips Square.
I talked to John Clarke, an erudite organizer at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, who was familiar with the Sticker Lady story, and who compared it to the Sherlock Holmes tale, The Man with the Twisted Lip, which details the double life of a man whose secret career as a beggar nets him far more money than his day job.
Clarke observes that the idea of beggars being secret millionaires is "preposterous," and states (one would hope, redundantly) that such people are poor, and "have been made poor." As to the Sun's latest exposé of the homeless on Easy Street, he says that "this is not an honest attempt to evaluate the homeless population, but a preliminary ideological bombardment, designed to justify another round of regressive measures against homeless people."
Poverty, he observes, is "a complex sociological phenomenon," and we would be better served not to "attempt to individualize and moralize the issue and the acts of survival that flow from its existence."
While I understand a squeaky-clean metropolis's impulse to play Travis Bickle and wish for a "real rain [to]wash all the scum off the street," I also understand that this film character was a maniac; that we can wash as much as we like, but eventually, someone will be left to wring out the sponge.
Urban myths are predicated on fear.
Black people scare you? Spread a story that you were robbed in the Caribbean, and after developing your holiday snaps, photo one is that of a black man with your toothbrush up his rear. This is a persistent urban myth, as relentlessly xenophobic as most -- as well-designed as the Sun's idea that most poor people, like the well-publicized Romany Shaky Lady, are nothing but Gypsy thieves manufacturing their own discontent.
Whether you are leery of or sympathetic to panhandlers, remember that the quality of mercy, according to Shakespeare's Portia, is not strained, and should neither be scoured, in service of the erasure of grievous problems that remain hideously visible, however pretty their absence.