If asked, would you buy precious memories from a stranger?
It was about 1:30 this afternoon when I realized that I hadn't even had breakfast today. Sometimes my day moves so quickly that I forget to eat which is not a terribly healthy way to live. Hubby and I decided that since we were passing right by Tim Horton's at 45th and Mosley on our way home from an errand, we would stop in and fix that no breakfast problem. We each grabbed a coffee and a bagel with cream cheese and looked for a place to sit down; settling at a corner seat near the entrance doors. There was an older man dressed in what appeared to be a tan and yellow work jumpsuit seated at the table next to us. Almost right away he began to speak. It was as if he had been waiting for us to sit down. He said " I just came from the dentist and I need two dollars for a prescription." We thought he was just making conversation at first but he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ladies watch. He continued "I tried to pawn this watch but they weren't interested." Leaning in towards my husband he whispers "Would you buy this watch for $2? It's a Cardinal."
I've seen a lot of cons in my life and there has been plenty printed in newspapers about panhandlers who pretend to be down on their luck but you just had to take one look at this guy to know he was in trouble. He was pale and gaunt, very thin. He was missing most of his teeth and at the roof of his mouth when he spoke you could see some gauze left there by the dentist. He was holding in his other hand the prescription that he needed to have filled. Rick apologized for having nothing to give. In this world of debit cards, it's rare for either of us to have even spare change. It just so happened that I had taken some cash out of an ATM a few days earlier to pay for our anniversary dinner. I was still carrying about $15 of that of which almost $10 had already gone to pay for our coffee and bagels. I handed him a $2 coin and smiled. "Go get your prescription." The stranger, clearly a proud man offered to take my address and send me the money back. I refused, asking him to just pay it forward if he can. Pay it forward for those who don't remember is a social movement that was made famous in a movie starring child star Haley Joel Osment and Academy award winner Kevin Spacey. In the movie the child character tries to begin a movement as part of a class project where people do good deeds and ask them to "pay it forward". These words have become a part of our collective vocabulary but it was in the movie where I first heard them.
There are some who will still try to tell me that I was conned for $2 but I hope I'm a little smarter than that. Besides the obvious dental problem, the gauze, the clearly poor condition of this man's teeth and health, there was something else that caused me to believe him. He asked for $2. Not $5, not spare change and not something else. I just happen to know that $2 is the dispensing fee when someone is on the Trillium drug program. The Trillium program was set up by the Provincial Government to help people who can not pay for their prescriptions. You have to apply for, and be approved based on your income but most people who fall into the category of "working poor" are aware of it. Whenever someone on the Trillium program goes to the drug store to pay for a prescription, they are asked for $2 to cover the dispensing fee. Most people would wonder how anyone could not have $2, but this man wasn't talking to just anyone. He was talking to me. And I know very well what it is like to put my hands in my pockets and pull them out with nothing but lint. I joke about it sometimes but it's really not funny. There were times, especially when I was a struggling musician when I would find more money on the ground than I would make in a week. I understand need, and I know the signs of someone who isn't getting enough to eat. It's a sickening thing to know and the memories of it can sometimes fill me with anger and despair especially when I realize that in 2011, this kind of poverty still exists, it's right here on our doorstep. Too many people think that their friends and neighbours don't deserve to make a living wage and legislators are routinely making laws that reward the plunderers of this planet while overtaxing the working class. We are cultivating the attitude that so long as I have mine, to hell with the rest.
The man left Tim Horton's and we went back to sipping our coffee, reading the paper and discussing current events.
In a few minutes the man was back, prescription in hand with a look I can only describe as relief. I knew that look. It's the look of someone who has managed to overcome another crisis. Like a mother who managed to find enough money to feed her kids for another day, or a runaway teen who scraped up enough cash to avoid eviction from a rented room for another week. When you are poor, time is measured by the crisis's solved. It's hand to mouth, day to day existence. My husband later said that he caught a glimpse of the man's receipt which he was holding in his hand. It was for exactly $2. The man looked at me and my husband and said "You are the nicest people I have met here in Wasaga Beach and I want to thank you." I told him to please not worry about it. I tried to explain that lots of people find themselves short on cash sometimes. (Me too I was thinking) He wasn't satisfied with that. "I want you to have this watch, just take it." I became uncomfortable and told him that I didn't want to take his watch. I figured he might need to sell it later. This crisis was averted, but the next one will come along soon enough. He persisted "my wife died a few years ago and it was hers. I want to thank you and I want you to have it."Clearly this man didn't feel good about a hand-out. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about the poor. It's emotionally excruciating to be in a position where you have to ask for a stranger's help. Going to a food bank, or entering a welfare office, or worse - asking a stranger for a couple of dollars on the street. I would argue that nobody wants to do these things. I remember a time when I was 12 years old and I lost my bus money and couldn't get back home. My four year old brother couldn't walk the entire way and I had no other choice but to ask strangers for spare change. Most of them looked at me like I was a scammer and I had to ask several adults before someone gave me enough money to get on the bus. It's humiliating! Imagine that? Adults briskly walking away and ignoring a young child with a toddler in tow who is asking them for help. We have become so jaded that even children are suspects for cons. That memory still stings me today but imagine how much harder it would have been if I was an adult with the same problem?
I didn't want to take the watch so I said "let me give you something for it."He smiled and said "I'll take a kiss on the cheek." This got a laugh out of my husband because he knows I'm not a kissy-huggy person. I laughed uncomfortably and explained that I am not a kisser but I told him I would buy it from him if that would help. I reached into my purse for the remainder of the cash. It was only $5 but I offered it to him in exchange for the watch. I knew that I was going to get that watch whether I bought it or it came as a gift and I would feel much better if he got paid something for it. He took the money, thanked us for our kindness and left the Tim's with a little more energy in his step. I tried to return to reading the newspaper but the thought of his predicament, and the reminder of times I have stood in exactly the same spot as him caused me to lose my concentration. It brought tears to my eyes to think that this man had once seen better times. He was once able to afford that watch and now he was selling it to raise just two dollars.
In everything there is a lesson
There is a lesson in almost every interaction we have. The lesson for me is that when I hear myself complain that I don't have enough money to get the better cable package, or a nicer cell phone, I need to think back to those times in my life when I had absolutely nothing. I was just like him. I was lucky that I always managed to find the money I needed to pay my rent, or fill my stomach with food. I didn't live in the best places and sometimes I had to be creative about cooking; but I always ate, and I always had a roof over my head. Some people don't. And the most maddening part is how little compassion there is for the poor recently and how many people would be happy to see our social programs dismantled. We are being spoon-fed a big lie. You cannot dream or believe your way to success and sometimes hard work gets you nothing but blisters. You can do everything right and still be unrewarded. Karma is just superstition and life is nothing but a big fat crap shoot.
I hope that man has something warm to eat and a place to lay his head tonight. I know that prescription was for a dental problem and I hope he heals real soon. But most of all, I hope that Canadians do not lose their compassion for each other. With the way prices are rising right now on the basics; everything from food to gas to heating, I suspect we will see a lot more people looking to sell their precious mementos for just a brief moment of security. I'm predicting the rise of Pawn Shops, an industry which thrives during times of economic hardship. But if someone approaches you at the end of their tether and asks for help, I hope you will. I didn't need that watch but that man needed me to buy it.
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