A few days ago I went to collect number one child from the airport. She was returning for the Christmas holidays from university out East. I bumped into an old colleague from a previous company, and he was keen to make sure I was going to attend a get-together the next night to celebrate the arrival in town of a mutual friend who now lived with his wife in Toronto. We arranged to meet at his new place in Gastown first to have a couple of warm-up drinks before heading off for dinner. I fully expected to arrive a bit later than the arranged 6pm kick-off, but as it happened I managed to finish off my tasks at the office and was actually slightly early as I set off from the SkyTrain station to try and locate his place in Gastown.
For those of you not familiar with Vancouver, Gastown is named after “Gassy Jack” who arguably founded what became today’s Vancouver. It’s a bit of a tourist trap with its steam-powered clock (which was shrouded when I was there) and purveyors of made-in-China baubles and trinkets. It’s also home to many amazing eateries and watering holes, and borders on the less salubrious “Downtown Eastside” or DTES. This is a less touristy place which is “home” to the homeless and many of Vancouver’s less fortunate residents. Inevitably there’s a little “leakage” and it’s not uncommon to be accosted by several homeless people whilst walking in Gastown. The vast majority are polite and will wish you a good day whether or not they receive anything from an encounter. A few, as in any large town, are a little brusque, but it is a rare exception in my experience.
That said, it is patently true that most such people have issues related to substance abuse, though some are merely struggling to get back on their feet and could benefit from a decent meal and a permanent place to stay. A typical request might be “could you spare me the price of a cup of coffee/burger” or potentially the price of a Transit ticket. In my more naive days I have been known to give a ticket-less would-be transit rider the price of a ticket and watch them march directly away from the SkyTrain station. I know of several people who have offered hot food to people pan-handling “for the price of a meal” and literally had it thrown at them… presumably because it does not provide the high that they really seek.
It was with this somewhat jaundiced background that I stiffened myself as I headed through Gastown. Shuffling towards me was a shabby looking guy. As predicted, he asked me if I would buy him a coffee. I gave my knee-jerk response of “sorry mate, I don’t have any change” (which is conveniently usually true – being primarily a credit card user), I was wished a pleasant evening which is often the case in Vancouver, and I marched on without a break in my stride. It was probably 25 metres further on that my mind replayed the brief interchange. I had not – as assumed – been asked for the price of a cup of coffee, but an actual cup of coffee. My lack of willingness to support self-harm through illicit drugs, and my in-built prejudice towards “the typical homeless guy from the DTES” had blinded me to the simplest of human requests for help – a warm drink on what promised to be a rather chilly evening. Suddenly feeling sick to my stomach at the blasé manner in which I’d brushed off this gentleman, I quite literally spun on my heel. The exchange had taken place directly outside a Starbucks café (which I’d not even noticed in my determined march to my evening of conviviality). The man was nowhere to be seen, and I do not exaggerate when I felt a little shiver of cold and something of the “visitation of Christmases Past” vibe.
My reflex response to the usual request for cash had proved my self-righteous self-deceit for what it was. Pure hypocrisy. The man had asked me quite plainly for a physical cup of coffee. Something that I tell myself I would be willing to offer, but not cash, which could be used to buy less savoury substances. My judgemental expectation that he would ask for money had deafened me to a simple human request for a warm drink. Something that my comfortable existence had withheld so trivially.
I am not at peace with myself at present.