Photo Image: A Canadian 20 dollar bill, front and back.
There was noise in the food court as I came out and I saw immediately that a group of teens were taunting one of the homeless men that we see often in the area. As I went by I was able to hear him and the words he spoke were full of anger, and humiliation, and rage at himself for allowing himself to be tricked again. In other words, his voice wept.
The kids had got him to come over with promises of money and after making fun of his clothes, his smell, his cleanliness, which he took, waiting for them to give the money the promised. His anger burst when they handed him coupons for groceries at the store I’d just come from. He realized he’d been tricked and humiliated and made a fool of and he expressed that loudly.
The machine was without lineup, which was unusual, but then I noticed that a lot of people were watching as the security guards had come to escort him out of the area. The teens, the real bullies, the real offenders, sat where they sat and looked completely satisfied with the result.
The security was herding the man in my direction, which was towards the subway. This made sense. It was bitter cold outside and it would be safer and warmer for him to ride the trains. I didn’t turn to watch, he was already on display, so I turned to my task. I stuck my hand in my pocket to grab my glasses and as I did so I accidentally pulled the twenty out. Canadian money isn’t made of paper and it can, and did, take flight. There was a constant breeze by where I sat due to the door from the subway opening and closing constantly. The bill flew, as if by its own will towards the homeless guy who reached up and grabbed it.
He broke from the security guys who were steadfast in their determination to see him out of the building and onto the subway. It was only a few steps over to me, and he ran them, puffing. He reached over and handed me the $20 bill and said, “You dropped this.” I took it, surprised by the quickness of his movement and noticing the presence of the guards as they stood and watched. I said, “Thank you, thank you so much.” He smiled at me, nodded, and said, “Best take better care of your money!” I laughed and said, “I will.” And he was gone.
I knew, from the moment that the twenty landed in his hands that he needed that money way more than I do. I don’t want to pretend here that 20 bucks is a piddling amount in my life, we are a family whose income has been affected by my disability and money is, well, money. But even with all that, he needed it more than I did.
So, why didn’t I give it to him.
I wanted to.
I really wanted to.
It would have been so easy to have been charitable. But in my heart, no deeper, in my soul, I just knew that he didn’t need charity at that moment. He needed to be treated respectfully, and gratefully, by another human being. He needed to be the giver, he needed to be the helper, he needed to show everyone who he was. He needed to smash their stereotypes of who he was as a man and as a person. At least, that’s how I saw it.
So I let him be kind to me.
In doing so, I let his act of kindness be an antidote to the cruelty that had filled that food court.
And it was. Those that watched, save the young people who were no longer interested in their victim, were shocked at his action. They saw a man who needed money desperately, honestly return money to someone who dropped it. Their faces showed first confusion and then, in a few cases, realization.
Advocates come from all communities.
Advocacy takes many forms.
Activism changes things.
The ultimate result: Travelling from humiliation to humanity in a single moment.