Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ A Token of Charity

A Token of Charity

Whenever I am in Toronto, I try to avoid taking public transit. Although the Toronto Transit Commission (or TTC, as it is popularly known) is probably not very happy with my decision, I find that it is more enjoyable to walk halfway across Toronto (from St. George Street to Islington station) than it is to take the 25 minute subway ride down. Being a non-driver from the suburbs of Mississauga, I appreciate Toronto's density; it's feasible to get from one place to another on foot, because people aren't expected to drive everywhere they go, so there aren't quite so many parking lots scarring the landscape. It's kind of sad. Toronto was planned back before cars became commonplace; I doubt any city planner today would bother making living spaces so pedestrian friendly.

So whenever I have the time to spare (and sometimes when I don't) I walk down Bloor street to get some exercise and marvel at the diversity of this cross-section of the city. Sometimes I will linger in High Park to read the newspaper or listen to the people and the squirrels and the birds. When I am lucky the night summer wind blows through my hair, brushing away the sweat from my cheeks. I notice the number of Coffee Time Donut franchises I see along Bloor, but always forget to count how many there are. I see lots of normal people doing their normal people things, trying to lead their normal lives. But I see the misery of this city, too -- the homeless sleeping on benches, a man picking through the garbage looking for scraps to eat while ten feet away people enjoy their evenings on a restaurant patio, a puddle of vomit somebody had donated to the sidewalk. Whenever I'm feeling too smug, a walk down Bloor is usually enough to cure me of my complacency.

I walk so frequently now that I often don't bother carrying TTC tokens around with me anymore. As I am learning, that's kind of stupid and kind of risky. For one thing, it puts me at risk of getting caught in the rain with no easy transportation home. And as I learned last night, you never know when the fare might come in handy.

Originally, I tried to justify my walks using economic arguments, telling myself that I was saving the subway fare. That never ends up being the case, though; I usually end up buying a falafel or some ice cream or a slice of pizza along the way, and I end up donating some money to panhandlers.

I'm going to be honest: Like our provincial government, I dislike seeing panhandlers on the street, just like I dislike seeing people sleeping on the ground or on park benches, just like I dislike seeing squeegee kids and punky-looking runaway teens and their bandana-wrapped dogs. Unlike the provincial government, I do not think that an effective way to rid ourselves of these sights is to chase panhandlers and the homeless and squeegee kids and runaways with their bandana-wrapped dogs away so that we can't see them anymore. I dislike seeing poverty because I cannot understand why it is necessary in such a wasteful, rich society as ours. They dislike seeing poverty because it is an eyesore. So while our government encourages the police to harass the poor, I hand out quarters to panhandlers.

Yes. You are correct. Some panhandlers are lazy. Some panhandlers are drunkards who will take every cent I give them and spend it on booze. But I believe that some panhandlers beg for money so they can eat, and because I am a snobbish, bigoted hypocrite who i doesn't care about the poor enough to distinguish those who panhandle for need from those who panhandle to feed their sloth or addictions, I pass out quarters freely. Why quarters? Because a quarter can get you a fruit, and eight quarters can get you a meal, and because I am too lazy and too shy to buy these people food myself and get into conversations with them and learn their stories, and because I can (barely) afford to give away quarters to people, and because a quarter is enough money to appease my overwhelming sense of guilt while not being enough money to buy anything practical. That's why.

I admit that I am judgemental -- often I will not give money to those who are drunk or who are rude to me or who can earn enough to feed a nicotine habit, and sometimes I will give people more than a quarter if they convince me they deserve it. Granted, being judgemental defeats the purpose of the exercise, for then begging becomes just another economic game in which those who market themselves best get the cash. If I ever grow up a little and become more responsible and less judgemental, I will give freely, and I will give people something that they can use -- a meal, perhaps. Instead, I continue to give people quarters.

Ron wanted more than a quarter. Ron was the middle-aged man sporting three days grizzle, a baseball cap and alcohol on his breath, sitting on a concrete ledge across the street from the Dundas West subway station. In retrospect, he reminded me a little of a painting of Ed Gein I had seen when researching serial killers a few weeks ago.

"All I got on me are my keys," said Ron, "could you give me a ticket? A token?" He told me that there was a man "about two blocks back, walking around the playground." Ron told me that this man had been giving him a hard time, that Ron was going to give him a punch in the head soon.

I assumed Ron was too drunk to notice that he had just attempted to blackmail me. In fact, I had no TTC token with me -- but I had two loonies, which would pay bus fare just as effectively.

I knew Ron had been drinking. He admitted as much himself. Later, I saw that he could not stand without swaying, that he could not walk without staggering. But he told me that he wanted to get home, that he had no transit fare. So I gave him the two dollars. Life a naif, I asked how much transit fare was, and I held out the two loonies for him. He saw them, said "Yeah, yeah, all I need is a..." I thought he was going to tell me that he needed only a dollar, but he changed his mind and transfered the money out of my hand into his pocket.

A smart person does not offer a drunken man two dollars for bus fare. Later I realized -- for all my wisdom is learned in retrospect -- that I shouldn't have offered Ron money. If I had been smart, I would have walked Ron to the subway station across the street. I would have paid his transit fare and sent him on his way, since that is what he claimed he wanted. But I did not realize this until it was far too late.

Once he had the money, Ron wanted to give me some advice. "Sit down," he offered, patting the concrete beside him. I refused. I did not want to spend my time talking with a drunken man, especially since I had to be at Islington before the Mississauga Transit buses stopped running. But Ron was insistent. "Are you one of those Muslims?" he asked. People ask me that question a lot.

I told Ron that I was not Muslim, that I did not know very much about the Islamic religion. Ron then asked me if I believed in Our Saviour, Jesus Christ. I admitted that I didn't know, that I was as yet undecided. "What's preventing you from believing?" Ron wanted to know. "I know that I have been drinking a little tonight, but let me tell you -- I have a direct connection to God."

Ron stood up to talk face-to-face. Because he could not stand straight, every so often he would move closer to me. Every time I could smell the liquor on his breath, I would decide that he was invading my personal space, and I would move back.

Ron told me that his name was Ron. He told me that he had three children, that a fourth was on the way, that he was not living with his wife, that he learned to love God because of his children, that his children would run amok but that he would pray to God to have mercy on them. He told me that God had already claimed victory over the world, and he scoffed at those trying to "make a buck" off the prophesies of Nostradamus. One part of me wondered what brought him to the streets tonight, why he had gotten drunk on a Thursday, and why he wasn't living with his wife. Another aspect of me pitied this sad, helpless man, on the street begging for subway fare. And a third half of me wanted to shake this fool to his senses. What was he doing drunk on the streets when he had three children and a fourth on the way? Maybe if he showed more responsibility to his children, he wouldn't have to worry so much about his kids running away. Other fractured bits of me wished that he wouldn't insist on breathing on me, and that if I did not get away soon I would miss my bus.

Was I afraid of him? To a degree, I was. Drunk people are as unpredictable as small yappy dogs and children; you never know what they will do next. I did not fear him any more than I fear anybody on the streets of Toronto -- I have enough bravado to walk down Bloor Street at night, partially because I know that Toronto is not New York City or Washington DC (At least, not yet), and partially because my life is forfeit anyway. I did not think that Ron would pull a gun out of his pocket and shoot me dead, but I was afraid of him nonetheless. When he asked me whether he was scary, I responded in the affirmative. "What can I do to make myself less scary?" he asked. I was going to advise that he stop drinking, but I didn't have the courage.

I decided that I needed to leave. There was only one other thing I wanted to tell Ron: That if he ever got the opportunity, he was now obligated to repay the favour I had just paid him. I never got the chance, though. Ron saw two people coming down the street and he excused himself. He half-walked, half-staggered to the people and asked them whether they had a ticket or a token so that he could take the bus.

I had been snookered. Perhaps Ron had forgotten that I gave him two dollars. Perhaps he didn't realize that I meant the two dollars to be transit fare so he could get to wherever he was going. If I had been brave, I would have reminded Ron -- loudly enough so that the other people he had approached could hear -- that I had already given him his bus fare, so he didn't need to beg. I wasn't brave. I left.

Somehow I doubt that you will ever read this entry, Ron, but if you do, I want you to know that you did wrong. I did not tell you that two dollars represents a much bigger fraction of my paycheque than it does for most people. I trusted that you would use that money to get yourself home. Somehow, I doubt that you did. That two dollars is probably long gone, two dollars worth of your favourite alcoholic drink washed down your gullet. But I want you to know that I will not let you teach me my lesson. The next time I see somebody in need -- whether it be for food or a quarter or TTC fare -- I will not remember you and turn them down. Two dollars -- or two hundred dollars -- is a small price to pay for a clean conscience. But from now on, I think I will carry around a TTC token or two regardless of whether I plan to take the subway that day.