Does this seem like a stupid question? It’s worth $7.40, right?
It’s worth about two fancy coffees, a fast food combo, a cocktail at casual pub. I paid $7 for a loaf of bread at a Farmers’ Market once. I felt a bit silly about it afterwards but I think you should pay more for something home made. I’ve paid about this much for a basket of locally-grown peaches. This week I paid $9 for a bag of cherries and realized those babies are heavier than I thought.
I would guess that half of you reading this blog know me, and the other half might kind of know me through some of the TV work I’ve done. If I asked you for $7.40, I actually believe many of you would give it to me because I think I know and attract nice people. So, I AM asking you for it, but I never want you to give it to me.
We’ve been having a helluva heat wave in Toronto. Feeling like 40-degrees on many days, it’s that hot, sticky, sauna-like feeling of being hit with a steamy, wet facecloth. It’s really nice when combined with garbage day. I was walking down busy Spadina Ave. when someone behind me shouted, “Pay Chen!” I turned and noticed a weathered-looking man with a yellowed beard in dirty clothes. I thought he was going to ask me for money but he didn’t. He said he knew me from OMNI-TV. I asked if he was keeping cool and told him to stay in the shade. He smiled a lot, we wished each other a good day and went in opposite directions. Something about this encounter made me smile and let my guard down. Truthfully, you can’t pass a street corner without being asked for change or to donate money to a worthy cause. The only way to get to where I’m going some days is to avoid eye contact and say “I’m sorry, not today.”
Not even two minutes later, I passed an elderly Asian man sitting in front of a restaurant holding out a worn ballcap for change. I have seen him in the Chinatown area a few times over the years. When I have it, I give him a few dollars. Many days I walk past him like so many others. I walked past him a few steps, stopped and turned back. It was a really hot day, I fished for change but wondered if he ate. As I was walking towards him he got up using his cane, folded the sheet of newspaper he was sitting on and put it into the small plastic bag he was carrying. I realized he wasn’t sitting on the paper for any sort of cushioning from the cement. It was just to keep him from sitting directly on the ground. He stepped into the sidewalk a bit more and just shook his ballcap with one hand while balancing himself on his cane with his other. I felt strangely sheepish and a bit shy. I watched him from a few feet away for a moment and then approached him. “Do you want something to eat?” I asked while miming and pointing to the restaurant he was in front of. He nodded very slowly.
We went into the Chinese restaurant. A typical take-out place with a long counter with trays of food kept hot for hours and signs advertising lunch combos. I felt like Vanna White and swept my arm down the counter trying to indicate that he could choose what he liked. He didn’t understand English and I thought perhaps he could communicate with the women behind the counter, but he did not speak. He looked at all the options (there were many) and gave small nods as though acknowledging each dish. I told the woman behind the counter that I wanted a large combo, she asked if it was for him and I said, “yes, it’s for him.” And my voice completely caught in my throat. I had such a huge lump I couldn’t swallow, my eyes started to water and like a hipster, I put my sunglasses on indoors.
I don’t think this gentleman was too fussy about what to eat, if I pointed in a general direction he would nod, then I’d point, “this one? Or this one?” He chose a soup and the rest was a piece of chicken and pork over some rice packed into a styrofoam container and tied in a plastic bag. I asked if he wanted something to drink by pointing to the fridge behind us. Again he nodded slightly. He couldn’t open the fridge so I opened it and he pointed to the first thing in front of him. A can of something I can’t remember. I grabbed a bottle of water for him too then pointed to the few tables in the back and gestured for him to sit down while I paid up. His lunch, soup and two drinks came to $7.40. I don’t think I’ve ever bought MYSELF a lunch that was that cheap.
At first I put the bag down on the table in front of him but thought he might have trouble opening the knotted bag so I opened it and took out the styrofoam containers. I placed the plastic spoon, disposable chopsticks and napkins next to them. On a 40-degree day and he wearing a thin long-sleeved cotton jacket in the heat; he opened the soup immediately and sipped from the container as I impulsively cautioned, “that’s hot!” I was about to open his canned drink for him but he slightly waved his hand “no”.
Now this is the part I wish I was capable of handling differently, I couldn’t even smile at him because I was pressing my lips together so hard to not cry. My eyes behind my sunglasses were filling with tears that I was trying to keep from slipping out. He bowed his head deeply towards me. I (with my expressionless bitch face) nodded back, said something like “ok, bye.” And walked out. Fast. I passed two stores before I stood to the side of a wall and started to cry. Why the f**k was I crying?? You might say, “that was nice, you bought him a meal!” I was angry that such an old, frail man had to beg on the street for change. I wondered when he last ate. I wondered if he was saving that drink for someone else. I wondered if he was someone’s father or someone’s grandfather. I wondered if he might save some of the food for later and feared the meat would go bad and he would get sick. I thought I should have left him with some cash. I thought of the many times I’d walk past him and not noticed.
You might think crying on the street is a bit of an overreaction to a homeless man. I was really upset by it and even though I cry when I watch the news (and read the newspaper) I was surprised that I continued to cry through the day. I think it has a lot to do with the stories of my father’s family when I was growing up. My grandfather died as a soldier when my father was young so he never knew him but growing up, my brother and I would be told to be grateful because my dad grew up quite poor. You know how people tell their kids “there are starving children in (insert poverty-stricken country) that would love to eat that”? My brother and I got, “you have to finish that, your father’s family never had enough food to eat. Look how lucky you are.” We were told that there were so many mouths to feed he would sneak onto farms and steal fruit from trees. That he once spent days as a small boy hiding in the woods and eating plants. That when it was your birthday you got some boiled eggs – a real treat. So when I see an elderly person begging I think of my grandfather and his struggle even though he never actually lived to be very old. Also, my brother and I thought it was really cool that my dad could climb trees and steal fruit. Sometimes we missed the point.
Remember when I said I’d ask you for money? I posted an abbreviated version of this on FB and of course as my lovely friends, you were full of “likes” and “good for you!” comments. But here’s the thing that I am very guilty of. I read things, I retweet heart-warming stories, I write cheques a few times a year to various charities but I don’t often connect with an individual who is asking for some help. Can you spare $7.40 this week? Perhaps this month? I know (as my supportive friends), you will post nice comments. I’m not asking you to post nice comments – I’m asking you take the “more people need to do this” comment you may have written and just actually f*cking DO IT. Please don’t make this sound like a big deal. It was less than $10. It’s not a big deal. I don’t often use the phrase ‘pay it forward’ because I feel like I’m talking about myself in the third person, but if you liked this story even just a little, I just want you to DO something; buy a bottle of water or a sandwich for someone who is panhandling. A coffee. A Timmy’s gift card for the guy asking for change. Then post a comment telling me about it so I can read it and smile, and hide my happy tears behind my sunglasses.