Yesterday while my daughter and I were waiting for a bus we were delighted by a crow who had found himself a prize in a nearby garbage can. A discarded KFC bag. We laughed at how he poked holes in the bag, and marvelled at his skills to pry the contents from within.
My attention was drawn by the sound of a honking car and I turned to see a man so focused on getting across the street he was oblivious to the oncoming traffic and was narrowly being missed. I assumed he was running to catch a bus to the ferry as he was carrying a blue duffle bag. Why else would he put himself in such peril? As the man approached the sidewalk the crow flew away and I thought to myself silly bird, he doesn’t want your garbage.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My daughter and I and the crow stood and watched as the man began digging through the same KFC bag the crow had been rummaging through just a few moments ago. He began eating the scraps and making an equally big mess as the crow had been but for entirely different reasons. It was obvious he was ravenously hungry.
To look at this man one would never have guessed that he was that poor, and that the blue duffle bag he was carrying likely held all of his worldly possessions. I didn’t have any money to offer him. All my daughter and I could do was turn sideways in an attempt to offer him some dignity and eat his meager meal in privacy, after which he went back to the other side of the street.
We then watched as a seagull and the same crow began scavenging through the KFC bag picking up the remaining bits of fries, and flying off with the remaining bits of bun. No more delighted by the sight but acutely aware of the stark reality of life in this moment.
But the story did not end there. As we waited to board our bus a man with a large hiking back pack disembarked and as we made our way to the back of the bus to sit I could see him stop by the garbage can and put his bag down. I again naively assumed it was so he could adjust himself and put it on his back before carrying on.
Didn’t this man pick up the very same KFC bag to examine its contents, and after eating a bite or two I guess he found it lacking and moved on to a Starbucks cup that seemed to have a bit of smoothie left in it. He then took several big sips of what remained and ran to get back on the bus using a day pass. A few blocks later he disembarked again in front of another plaza full of restaurants.
So many things struck me about this situation.
First these men, these fellow human beings were literally reduced to competing with other animals for enough food to stay alive. Such would be the case for all of us should some great catastrophic event take place, and this was likely the case many, many years ago for most of our ancestors. Neither of these men looked like they fit the stereotypic definition of “homeless” men. They were not dirty, they were not inebriated, and they certainly did not seem to be behaving erratically or mentally ill. In fact had they not been digging in the garbage I never would have known of their predicaments.
Neither was looking for alcohol or drugs, or cigarettes, and neither was asking for handouts. They were simply looking for food.
I wondered if the man with the day pass had gathered $5 and instead of buying food chose to buy a day pass so he could scrounge as many garbage cans as he could for the day.
I felt guilty. I had just left a restaurant with my daughter because I didn’t want to go grocery shopping hungry, yet these men truly knew what hunger was.
I also felt scared because it brought to mind the precariousness of the current situations that so many of us find ourselves in. Even my own.
The frequent cold hard reality of being born poor in Canada is that you can stay poor, and die poor. You have the illusion of equal opportunity, and a better life. There is nothing inherently wrong with being poor. But it does preclude you from alot of opportunities in life, and living a quality life. It does isolate, and it does stigmatize. It does lead to health problems. Many go out and work hard to obtain a better life, and sometimes move from lower to middle class, but very rarely upper. Maybe they are able to maintain it, but often things happen and they get knocked back into lower class, despite their best efforts, very, very hard work, and trying over and over again to get ahead.
Mostly watching these two men left me feeling helpless. A little more disillusioned then I already was. And really, really angry.
This is Canada for crepes sake. What happened to good governance? Where are all the social programs that are supposed to make sure everyone has their basic needs met? Last I checked food is a basic need. So is shelter. I guess I am supposed to take solace in the fact that I live in one of the richest cities in Canada so people can afford to discard garbage enough to sustain two men, a crow and a seagull.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am sickened by it. And I am sickened by the ignorance, judgement and lack of empathy other so called “polite” Canadians possess about people who are struggling like these two men.
Maybe somewhere along the line these two men got tired of trying again, and again. Maybe they couldn’t because something prevented them from doing it. Maybe their Government failed them from the day they were born.
Or maybe, just maybe, this time they just chose to pay their rent instead.
At the end of the day two men, a crow and a seagull were all trying to eat the same remnants of someone else’s discarded meal. That’s ugly. Nothing can change that moment. But there are many more moments to come – and maybe we can change those moments.
I’ll leave you with my favorite expression. Many drops make an ocean.