Archive for May 3, 2013

As I approached the park I could see the regulars standing along the fence: Jacques, Matches, Andre, Chester and Ricky with his bicycle, Heinz and his dog Shaggy, curled under his cart.

Sitting alone on the sidewalk was Raven, obviously drunk. She asked, “Will somebody please come sit with me?” I sat next to her, she began sobbing, “I miss my mother so much. She died on April 24th, two years ago, but I still miss her. What can I do?

“My problem is that I’m an alcoholic.”

I asked, “Do you have any other family here?”

“Yes, I have two younger sisters. One lives here, the other lives in Iqualuit.”

“Perhaps, if you talked to your sister, about the good times you had with your mother, it may help.”

“Maybe. I’m not sad about my mother any more. I’m worried about my other sister. I know that she is being abused and I can’t do anything about it. When we were younger I would always protect her, but now I can’t.

“I hated my mother when she was alive, because she cheated on my father. She was always so horny, just like I am. My dad has another wife now, but I don’t see them very often.

“Why won’t anyone pay me?”

“You’re a very beautiful woman, Raven. Don’t forget that.”

“I think I’m beautiful. I used to think I was beautiful, now I’m not sure.”

“You are beautiful. You’ll feel much better when you have something to eat and get some rest.Everything will look better tomorrow.

“How long have you lived here?”

“Off and on, off and on, quite a while, I guess. I know the city pretty well; except for the east end. I don’t know my way around there.

“I want to go home with Chester, but I don’t have any bus tickets.”

I said, “I can give you some bus tickets, and some for Chester too.”

“Chester, can I come home with you?” He shook his head, no.

She handed me back the bus tickets. “I guess I won’t be needing these.”

“Keep them for next time. Maybe you’ll need them tomorrow.”


Flashback to 1968

My first encounter with a pan handler was when I moved to Toronto in 1968 to live with my brother, Jack. Being a story teller himself, he viewed pan handlers as follows: If they present you with an interesting, unique story of why you should give them money, that story has value and should be rewarded accordingly.

The corner of Dundas and McCaul,  was a placeI had to pass each morning on my way to work. There was no way around it. Standing there, every morning, was Sam, a panhandler. He wore slippers, his clothes were ragged, but neat and clean. I’d guess his age to be in the late seventies. Each morning, Sam would have a different hard luck story to tell me, “Good morning, could you spare a quarter so that I could buy something to eat. My stomach is rumbling. Do you hear it? I’m diabetic, so it’s imperative that I eat on a regular schedule or I could go into diabetic shock.” How could I say no?

At that time bus, streetcar and subway fares were a quarter. By comparison, an adult bus fare in Ottawa is now $3.30. I always made sure that I had an extra quarter for Sam. One morning, just for fun, I ran up to Sam and said, “Can you spare me a quarter! I’ve been late for work twice this week and if I’m late again I’ll be fired!” Sam reached both hands into his pockets and they came out full of quarters. “Here, take all you need,” he said. I graciously accepted a quarter.

From then on, I just gave Sam the quarter every day and asked about his life. “What time do you come out here, Sam?”

“I’m here for the 6:00 am traffic, people walking to work. When rush hour is over I work my way along Dundas to Gerrard where I have lunch at the Yonge Street Mission. I have my cart, so I pick up bottles along the way; anything I can find a use for. I’m good at fixing things. I get a lot of good things on garbage day. I look for cigar butts. Once a week I’ll treat myself to a new cigar. After that, I work my way up to College, turn west and arrive at the Scott Mission, on Spadina, for supper. I follow the same route every day. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people, so there are plenty of opportunities to stop and chat for a while. A friend of mine owns a restaurant, so I stop there for tea.”

Through our discussions I learned that Sam had his own room. He didn’t drink. He had a lady friend, but liked his independence. He also earned more money than I did, but he worked hard for it.

My girlfriend, Sydney and I were walking along College Street on our way home from work. It was a warm sunny day and we had decided not to take the streetcar. Unexpectedly, we met Sam. He winked at me and said, “Excuse me ma’am, I’m trying to collect enough money to visit my sick sister in Hamilton. Could you help me out?” Sydney reached into her purse and pulled out a handful of change. Sam continued, “My sister is in hospital.” Sydney pulled out another fistful of change. “She has to have a very serious operation.” She shook her purse and gathered the last bit of change and handed it to Sam. “My mother’s also sick.” Sydney handed him a twenty. “I’m sorry,” she said, “This is all the money I have.”

“Thank you very much ma’am. My mother, sister and I appreciate your generosity very much. We’ll all say a prayer for you.”

“What a nice man,” commented Sydney “I hope his sister and mother have a successful recovery.” I was doubting that he had either a sister, or a mother. By this time, Sam had turned away, pulling his cart behind him. It had been a good day for him.

When I stepped off the bus this morning, I was met by Metro. He had a grave look on his face, unusual for him. He said, “Joy is up there. She’s in pretty rough shape. She’s going to need some sympathy, her sister just died.”

I approached Joy and offered my condolences. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I didn’t even like my sister; not like a normal human being would like their sister. She used to beat the shit out of me when I was a kid. She also used to think she was so much better than us. She was still a pot headed crack addict, but she didn’t hang downtown like the rest of us.

“I remember one time, when the father of her baby left her, she came to me for money. I said, ‘Well, do what I do when I need money.’  That when I was prostituting. I gave her a talk, we went to a certain corner. I told her, ‘When a guy comes along and asks you for something, work out a price then take him into the alley.’ She said, ‘I can’t do that.’  I said, “If you run into problems give me a shout.’ Soon I heard her shouting for me. I went into the alley. The guy was trying to take her from behind. That’s not what he paid for. I gave him a shot in the head, then we both beat the shit out of him. I  grabbed his wallet. She said, ‘Joy, I just can’t do this.’ I handed her the cash and said, ‘It’s your choice.’

“It was her creepy kid that tried to choke my son. I was in Toronto for the weekend and saw him again. He said, ‘Hi Aunty Joy, mom used to make me lunch around this time.’ I said to him, ‘Look honey, I may be your Aunty Joy, but I don’t do lunches and that sort of shit.’ When I looked into his eyes, bells started going off, like I’ve just reached the Bates Motel, you know, from Psycho. He’s psycho alright.

“When I first arrived in Toronto I took a cab to the address and saw my uncle Ronnie’s bike in the driveway. Nobody had told me what happened, just that I had to come to Toronto. It was important. I asked him, ‘So who’s dead? Is it one of my kids?’ I rhymed off their names and asked, ‘Which one?’  He said, ‘It’s your sister.’ ‘Shit,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t have come all this way  just for her. He said, ‘You had to come, she made you executive of her estate.’ She’d put one last screw in me, even after she was dead. I didn’t even know what an executive of an estate did. I thought that maybe I had to live in her house, or something. Ronnie said, ‘You got to divide up her stuff, three ways.’

“I don’t know how to do that shit.”

“Joy,” I said, I’m not a lawyer, but just because she designated you as executrix, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Get some lawyer to look after it. That’s what they get paid for. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“Really? I talked to a lawyer in Toronto, but he didn’t know squat. I know lawyers here, but they’re criminal lawyers. I guess they could refer me to somebody.

“Christ, she has a niece that lives right across the street. Why couldn’t she do it? We were over there. I met her asshole boyfriend. He was yelling something at her. She was holding a kid on each hip, and her belly’s way out to here. I was holding one kid. There were a couple of others running around somewhere. I put the one I had on the couch. I walked over to the guy and punched him one in the face. He fell against the refrigerator. He was going to come after me, but my two sons came in. They said, ‘Don’t you dare touch our mother!’ I’m glad I had sons. Anyway, they pushed him out the back door and beat the shit out of him. That’s the last I saw of him all weekend.

“I have to go back there this afternoon at three.”

I asked, “How are you going to get there. Do they pay your fare?”

“No, there’s no costs involved. Ronnie said, ‘I’ll give you a ride, as long as you don’t mind riding on the back of a bike.’ I said, ‘As long as you got a belt.’ I really can’t say anything, but he’s way, way up with the gangs in Toronto. He’s in town because he has friends in construction working on that highrise over there. If I wanted to move back there I could have anything I wanted, but I don’t want that life again. My friends, the ones I consider family, are here.

I had to get to work, Joy said, “If I don’t see you at noon, I’ll see you Monday. I haven’t told any of my other friends about this. They didn’t know her, and they sure as hell couldn’t help.”