Dear Old Dude on a Bike:
I recognise that you face many challenges every day. And I am sorry that you have faced circumstances that have brought you to this place: riding a bicycle through the downtown core looking for cans and bottles to cash in for money. I am not making any value judgements when I say that I suspect you battle mental illness, and possibly because of that, poverty and inadequate living conditions. I also know that the social systems out there intended to protect you and to help you have gradually been chipped away and have, over the last 20 years, become woefully inadequate.
You don’t know this, of course, but I give money to many charities whose missions it is to help folks in similar situations. I also give pocket change to pretty much anyone who asks. There are times, however, when I simply don’t have any change in my pockets. And yes, I do feel bad when I have to say, “no, I’m sorry, I haven’t any change today.”
Like I said, you don’t know any of this about me. Our chance encounter this morning on the corner downtown didn’t allow us time to get to talk to one another, and even if we’d have had the chance to sit down for coffee, I doubt I’d have mentioned any of it. Really, it doesn’t help you at all.
All of this being said, when you asked me for change and I said “no, I’m sorry, I haven’t any”, I wasn’t *expecting* you to retort with “I didn’t think so”. It didn’t really surprise me. I just wasn’t expecting it. When you went on to spit at me and yell “all you fucking people got no fucking brains”, I smiled. Not because I was uncomfortable; I wasn’t uncomfortable. I smiled because even though you were cross, and I probably ruined your day, I admired your passion.
Later, I thought, if you didn’t think I had any change, why did you ask? And, on the heels of that, what do brains have to do with it anyway? Calling in to question my intelligence really doesn’t make money suddenly appear in my pockets, and it certainly wouldn’t endear you to me if I had been with-holding four dollars in coins. I realised that if I had said any of those things to you, you just would have got more upset.
And all of this has made me think of the people who say things like “pan-handling should be illegal” and who say that folks in your situation should just go out and get jobs and work for a living like the rest of us. The rest of us who will probably, at one point in our lives, battle mental illness, and who will, I should hope, be able to get the help we need to learn how to deal with it, if not recover from it. The rest of us who probably don’t have to decide whether to pay the rent or eat this week. The rest of us who get hired because our clothes are clean and we don’t say inappropriate things or act weird…well…not *too* weird.
It made me think of the people who say, “there are systems in place to deal with people like that.” And that has always bothered me. People like that. People like you and me who, were the cards to fall just a little differently, might be riding a bike through the downtown core collecting bottles and cans, or we might be carrying all the stuffed animals we own because they protect us, or we might be lying in a doorway, trying to get out of the wind and the cold because we can’t stop drinking. There are systems in place to help all of us. Some of us are more capable than others of asking for, finding, and receiving that help. And it certainly doesn’t do any of us any good to *punish* people (socially, economically, physically, emotionally, or otherwise) who have more challenges than we have.
I know, I know. Business owners don’t want people outside harassing their customers and clients. It’s “bad for business”. But on the other hand, when that teenager out there asking passers-by for cigarettes finishes school and gets a job and has the money to *be* one of your customers, do you think she’s going to remember your charity or your harsh words? And yes, some people don’t ever get better.
But I’m going to say it again: it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. And I hear an awful lot of cursing, and it’s still pretty dark out there.