Panhandlers and Jerks, or Set'em Up and Knock 'em Down!

So I'm walking along Graham Avenue the other afternoon, and as I reached the bus stop at Darwin's Corner, I'm stopped by one of the usual suspects who asked me if I could spare some change.

Now, I've been coming downtown virtually every day since I was eleven years old (that's just over twenty-five years, for those of you playing along at home) and as such have learned how to deal with the drunks and panhandlers one encounters while downtown. To me, they're a part of the flora and/or fauna (dependant on whether or not they're conscious), part of the experience if you will, and virtually unavoidable.

I admit that in the past, I've been less than polite with some of them (downright rude on occasion) and can be rather abrupt when I'm in a foul mood, but over the last ten years or so I've tried to be as civil as I can be, which (Lord help me) can be a rather onerous task when dealing with some of the more aggressive panhandlers.

Over the course of this civility, I've gotten to know a couple of the "usual suspects" who seem to haunt my haunts, and am on a first name basis (or rather nickname basis) with a couple more. The neat part of this is that they'll occasionally come up to me just to chat, with no talk of a "donation" at all. The downside is becoming friendly with certain individuals, only to see them passed out drunk (or high) in a back lane, bus shelter, or planter the next day.

So, as I'm walking toward my bus stop the other afternoon, my "buddy" "Steve" sees me, calls out "CJ!" and trots over.

"Hey bro!" he says to me, "can you help me out with some change? I'm trying to get to Kildonan Place."

"Yeah, I think I have some," I say, reaching into my pocket, "I have a twonie you're welcome to..."

"Awww, thanks bro!" he smiled, "That's another one I owe you!", then ran up Graham towards Vaughan, completely oblivious to the fact the Kildonan Place bus was waiting directly beside him... which amused me to no end.

I laughed and shook my head. Good ol' "Steve".

Witnessing the whole scene was the only other individual at the stop with us - a dour looking guy in (probably) his early fifties.

"Why did you give him money?" he demanded of me, "It just encourages them, and he's probably buying drugs right now!"

Now, my first instinct was to belt him one in the face and scream, "Don't you ever fucking question me again!", but ultimately decided it'd be more fun to talk down to him.

"I don't usually give them money," I explained, "but he caught me in a good mood."

"Humph. Really?" he scoffed.

"It's absolutely true." I said.

"I normally just tell them to fuck off," he sneered, "and to get a job!"

This guy's really pissing me off, and I want to hit him, but I switch tactics and try my best "Live and Let Live" act.

"And you know, mate?", I said, "I used to think the same way. There were times I'd get bugged for money twice by the same guy - on the same block within a couple of minutes! My record was getting asked for change nine times in three blocks!" - (which is true, by the way)

"Fuuuuuck!" came his witty response.

"Exactly," I added, humouring him, "It used to annoy the shit outta me."

"And it doesn't now?" he asked suspiciously.

"Not really," I answered nonchalantly

"Oh, bullshit," he again scoffed.

"Seriously, mate", I said seriously.

"Well what changed?" he inquired skeptically.

"I remembered an old saying, 'Never judge a man 'til you've walked a mile in his moccasins.'" I replied.

"Yeah uh-huh," came another brilliant remark.

"I'm serious," I calmly explained, "It's only due to the choices I've made in life that I'm where I am now, and not stuck begging for change on a streetcorner."

"Hmm," he said.

"If things had gone horribly wrong," I continued calmly, "that could easily have been me. So I try to look at things from that perspective. I mean, how would I feel about having to ask someone for a handout, to eat my dinners at a mission or soup kitchen, or worse yet, a dumpster? To rely on the ever-dwindling generosity of strangers in these cynical times, just to buy something to eat, or to feed an addiction that's ruined my life?"

His features softened a little.

I continued, "We often forget there's a very human, very personal cost to this sort of abject poverty. I mean, I'm a proud man, and I'd have to be at rock bottom to even consider begging for change. Do you have any idea how long it would take me to work up the nerve to ask a complete stranger for change that first time? Knowing that that first person may very well be an ignorant, judgemental cocksucker at a time when my self-esteem is already very low?"

He seemed to understand, his face showing a bit of humanity.

"I never thought of it like that..." he said softly.

"Well, it's a sad reality," I explained, "but over time, they develop a sort-of sixth sense about who's cool and who's the ignorant, judgemental cocksucker!"

"Heh," he laughed, "Do you think..?"

"Absolutely!" I said, flashing an evil grin, "Case in point: There are two people standing at this bus stop. Which one of us did he ask?"

It took him a couple of seconds to catch on. When he did, the look on his face was priceless.

Some days, it's all too easy - like shooting fish in a barrel.


  1. CJ,

    Excellentie post. For years in the 80s I lived in Oz village. A haunt for of all sorts of denizens, dopers, scoundrels and misfits... and humans.

    Regularly approached for change and/or smokes, I lived by one rule when deciding whether or not to 'assist' a panhandler, I simply looked in their into their eyes ... if I saw malice or entitlement they got nuthin': if I saw humanity I gave what I could... sometimes even a donut & coffee at the old "Country Style"(?) [or maybe it was a Robins?,... can't remember]

    Often, if it was cold & I had the time I'd take them into the donut shop with me. I will never forget one January night (-30c) when a punk behind the counter told me I shouldn't be spending my money on "Darryl" and he wouldn't serve him.

    "Is he barred?", I asked.

    "No", the hammerhead said, "we just don't want his kind in here."

    To which I replied it was my money & donut-hole could either serve us, go fuck himself, call his manager, or call the cops. Eventually he served us... but I remember looking into that donut-prick's eyes and seeing malice. 25 years on, I occasionally look for that smug fucker when I'm downtown - hoping he is destitute and in need - hoping he asks me for change, just so I can say ... I don't give to your "kind".

    I am under no illusions that many I give to are of suspect character, but if I see no malice... then I try to help. Fact is, when I take the bus, I am apt to see more malice in the faces of sad, frightened, embittered people in business dress than I am to see it on in the eyes of street-people!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Fat Arse!

    I first met "Steve" a year or so ago at the now-defunct Salisbury House on Portage (across from the Air Canada building).

    While I was sitting at my table, enjoying my greasy french toast and greasy coffee, Steve shambled into the restaurant and sat down at my table.

    My first instinct was to tell him to piss off, but I relented. He had a sort of sadness about him, so I smiled and said "Hi there!"

    I think it freaked him out at first, but he introduced himself as "Steve" and we struck up a conversation. Of course, the girls working the counter called security, who promptly told Steve to leave. I told them that he wasn't bothering me, and they told me that it's their policy not to allow panhandlers into the building.

    "Then I'm leaving, too." I said, and promptly did so... we walked over to Tim Hortons in Portage Place, where we continued our confab. In the end, he did ask me for change, but I think he was happier to have someone to talk to.

  3. Yes how very true your point is wish more took the time to see this, they are just like us just not as lucky for a break or two .


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