It's a cold night and a young man stops me in the street, saying he hasn't eaten. Claiming I don't have any money on me, I pass him by – but then I go back. He's thin and pale, and his hands are cracked, the nails bitten to the quick.
I take him to a café, where he orders a hamburger and a Coke. He reaches across the table and says, "I'm Barry, by the way."
"I'm Tracey," I say, and shake his hand. Tracey is my real name. Barry is his, as far as I know. His hand feels like anybody else's hand.
We sit there in the café, and I wonder what to say: Are you on EI? Do you have friends you can go to? Do you have any work prospects? I notice I'm assuming he has a problem that I can help him solve. It's hard to let go of the fantasy that people on the street have earned it somehow, this blinding lie with its comfortable corollary: You and I are safe, protected.
My husband and I have an average-nice house with a ridiculous mortgage, but we're managing. We can even take an occasional holiday. Our worries about money are not on the same scale as the worries of this kid sitting in front of me. Barry's torn hands clench each other.
"Fallen on hard times?" I ask, kicking myself for the ridiculous phrase, like a 1950s slogan: Buck up, son! But there might be a key there, a puzzle piece that will answer my questions about poverty and sickness, misery and death. I want to find it so that I know what to do.
"Yeah," Barry says, swallowing and blinking twice. "My dad died, and my mom just fell apart. She's a mess, man. My brother and sisters, I don't know where they are." He curses quietly, for emphasis.
Cultural wisdom says that people are dangerous when they have nothing to lose. Even jail time, for some, just means a roof and a meal. Naturally, this thinking dates back to the days when there was room in our prisons for all of our displaced people.
I find this philosophy untenable in the face of the army of castoffs I run into: young adults living out of their rucksacks; Jerry, at the corner of Cassiar and Hastings, who turned yellow and disappeared; the lady on Boundary who made herself an elaborate fortress out of shopping carts and sheets of heavy plastic. I don't believe anybody who has a better option chooses this.
Barry spends most of our time together staring at the table with his head bent down to his chest. The crown of his head is covered with thick, dark hair.
Human contact is the key for most of us, I remind myself. It's not enough to throw money at him and walk away. I sit unblushing, still and watchful in my seat. I want to help. I want to understand.
"I'm so embarrassed," he says. "I can't believe this is happening to me."
He tosses his head away from me again, and sneaks a hand up to the corner of his eye. I don't see a tear. I don't know whether to be ashamed of myself, or proud. Am I insensitive or street smart? Is there a difference? At least he'll be eating.
Later, when I tell my mother about Barry, I'll be flooded by her concern – her concern for me, not for this boy who needs it so much more. My mother worries that people like Barry will somehow leap across the gap between us and do me harm.
"Do you have friends in the area?" I ask him. "Where are you from?"
He waits, and so do I. I win.
"I have a friend in Kelowna. I'm kind of trying to get up to Kelowna. He might have some work for me." He pauses.
"I just can't believe it all happened! My dad was so young, he was only …" I see him sizing me up, as he sniffs and runs his hand past his eyes again "… 39," he finishes.
He's off by several years. He must be new at this. The grief and the pain are real, but I can't decide about the story.
Barry excuses himself politely to go to the washroom, and I pay for his meal. I am embarrassed because I said that I had $10 but I really have $20.80. I don't want him to know that I told him a lie.
I leave the waitress her tip at the register, so Barry doesn't take it. Then I leave the rest of the money I have, $5 and some silver, on the table, hoping he will take it when he leaves.
When he comes back, his hands are shiny bright. We sit in silence, with me debating how I can lend him bus fare to Kelowna without supporting his habit, if he has one. As if he were the liar instead of me. But I know that junkies will say whatever they need to, and I don't really know anything about this boy.
Barry stares out the window, dampness gathering in the corner of one eye. Now I'm worried that he'll think the money on the table is the tip. I indicate the small pile of change, hard and shiny in the shadow of the cola can.
"It's all I have with me," I say, telling the truth for the first time since I said my name. I smile, carefully. "Maybe it's enough for a phone call to Kelowna." I pause, not wanting to leave without offering some kind of promise for the future. "I hope things look up for you," I say.
It may not help, but it's all I have with me.
Tracey Martinsen lives in Burnaby, B.C.
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