Every once in a while, we all have one of those experiences that shakes things up. Rocks your core and leaves you thinking–how am I really making a difference?
I’m a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend, so I suppose it’s a given that I have an effect on those people on a daily basis. As a “career” I do write–brochures, web copy and the odd light and fluffy health piece. People might occaisionally read these, so perhaps I’ve provided them with a Cheerio of information they’ll actually digest.
And yet, aside from giving birth to my son, I’d say my biggest contribution to the world in the last year has been a bagel and an iced tea.
Let me explain…
On Tuesday, I decided to spend the day with Noa–now almost eight months old–and run a few errands. After a trip to the local Farmer’s Market, I headed to my neighbourhood Shopper’s Drug Mart to finally get my gazillion pictures of Noa developed for the relatives who’ve been nagging me for snapshots. It’s a hot, muggy day but Noa’s been adequately hatted, UV netted and slathered in sunscreen.
As we approach the store I spot two kids, a boy and a girl, sitting next to the newspaper boxes without an inch of shade in sight. They’re maybe 15 or 16. In front of them sits a plastic tub with about $1.37 in it. As I pass, they don’t ask me for money or say anything for that matter. They just sit quietly looking at the ground as the world literally passes them by.
Now I must admit, as I’ve gotten older, my views on street people have hardened. I’ve found myself being a little less sympathetic, a little colder and a little more detached than I was in my early twenties when my brother nicknamed me “pinko girl.” Maybe it’s a survival tactic, or perhaps it’s due to that spate of tabloid-trash news reporting which revealed some Toronto pan-handlers actually have good homes in the suburbs to go back to (i.e. the notorious “shakey lady”) every night.
But when I look at these kids melting in the midday sun, something stirs in me. I resolve to pick them up a drink in the store when I’m finished with the pictures.
I go into Shopper’s and go about my business with the intention of picking up the drinks. I even go to the refridgerated section and pick out two bottles of pop. Then I realize carrying them while pushing a stroller is going to be tricky. I put them down and plan on getting them after I’ve got my photos and am ready to leave.
Long story short, I get the photos just as Noa starts fussing. He’s tired and cranky and wants out of the store pronto. Trying to avoid a screaming baby scene I leave without the drinks. “Oh well,” I think to myself. After all I thought about doing a random act of kindness. It’s more than most people. And besides that I’ve got a baby who needs to get home for his nap fast. They’re probably gone anyways.
On the last point, I’m half right. The boy is gone. But the girl is still sitting there in the blazing sun. I look down at her. She’s wearing a pair of ratty velveteen track pants and a mismatched flannel lumber jacket. FLANNEL. It’s well over 30 degrees Celsius outside.
Christ, how can I ignore this girl?
“Excuse me, would you like something to drink?” I ask.
At first, she seems uncertain who I’m talking to. When she realizes I am, in fact, asking her she weakly says,”Yes, please.”
“What would you like?”
“How about an iced tea.”
“Yes, thank you very much.”
I study her more carefully. She’s tall and lanky. She’s got slight buckteeth. Something about her–maybe her incredibly good manners and gratitude–suggest to me that she’s not from the city.
I walk with Noa in tow in the stroller to the Tim Horton’s takeout window at the side of the drugstore and order an iced tea and a bagel with cream cheese.
She could be a runaway. Most likely abused–physically, emotionally, sexually, take your pick. Maybe she’s been abandoned and then put in the Children’s Aid system where she was abused again.
I want to ask her why she’s there, begging on the street in the hot midday sun in a flannel jacket and who the boy she was with was. Her brother maybe? I want to tell her she’s got options. That she doesn’t have to end up a crack addict (she was definately not high or drunk) or a prostitute, or pregnant at 16. That there are programs that can help and people in this world you can trust. Who won’t treat her like shit. I want to ask her where the fuck her parents are and what horrible things they’ve done to her to make her think that living on the streets is safer or better than living with them. I want to take her home and give her that drawer full of clothes I know I’ll never wear again because they’re too small or I’m too old or because I had the luxury of buying something that I didn’t really need ‘just because.’ Summer clothes to replace the flannel. Clothes that might even make her feel better about herself. Make her feel less invisible to the world. I want to give her a job. Maybe do some garden work. Or I can teach her how to do filing for my business, or research on the Internet. I could give her a job so she won’t have to be on the street in 30 degree weather in a flannel jacket begging for spare change. I want to tell her I can help.
Instead I pass her the bagel and the iced tea.
“Thank you so much,” she says.
“You’re welcome,” I reply.
“Have a nice day,” she says as she, like a starving squirrel thrown a nut, frantically unwraps the bagel.
“You too,” I instinctively say.
And as I push my beautiful, loved and wanted son down the street in his stroller, the irony of my response brings tears to my eyes.