Flashback to 1968

My first encounter with a panhandler was, when I moved to Toronto in 1968, to live with Jack, my brother. Being a storyteller himself, he viewed panhandlers 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 place I 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 had 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 fare is now three dollars. 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; 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 a quarter every day and asked about his life. ‘What time do you come out here, Sam?’

‘I’m here for the six o’clock morning 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.  After that, I go to St. John’s Bakery on Broadview. 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. I work my way north 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 woman friend, but liked his independence. He earned  a living, but he worked hard for it.

My girlfriend, Sydney and I were walking along College Street on our way home from work, in the financial district, downtown. 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.

.

Comments
  1. Very interesting story! I’m from Portland, OR where you get panhandled quite often. I’ve heard some compelling stories and I’ve witnessed and enjoyed some pretty weird entertainment put on by panhandlers. One of my favorite is the mime who spray paints himself silver and stands on a crate with a silver globe in hand for hours, how could you not appreciate that? I tip very generously every time I see him! Even when he’s not entertaining he ask others for money, the only thing is that the amount is usually for a buck or two; not the 60’s anymore I guess.

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    • Thank you very much for reblogging my post. ~ Dennis

      Liked by 1 person

      • Peace Jaway says:

        You’re welcome, Dennis. And you do paint quite a word-picture.

        It’s taken a while to find words to comment here, as I have very mixed feelings on this whole subject. First and foremost, it bothers me immensely, with all our technology and the ability to literally print houses at a very low cost, with food that gets thrown away by the dumpster-full, that anyone is homeless if not by choice, by which I mean to say, I can respect a person’s desire not to be encumbered by a home – and think that should be much easier for those who prefer that life to live without having to settle for second-class services from institutions that require a mailing address – but for people who are not living that way by choice there’s no reason they should have to and if we truly see humans as equals, equally worthy, in a world where we have the ability and resources to change their circumstances, we should.

        At the same time, there’s a difference between ‘telling a story’ and lying. When you’re ‘telling a (fictional) story’ that not only do you expect others to believe as true but telling it in order to extract money from them, some of whom may not have it to give but will anyway because they believe your ‘story’, that’s a lie of a sort that can also be called coercion or a con. Lying for a living isn’t cool. Busking, dancing or other physical entertainment, selling wares, saying, “Look, I fell on hard times, [insert true story], and I could use your help” or “Hey, I choose to make my living off the kindness of strangers, help a guy (or gal) out?” (although that last is rarely effective), even telling stories that people know are just stories, are all legitimate ways of obtaining money without a home base. Choosing instead of any of those things to just flat-out lie, to manipulate those who are kind enough to stop and listen, speaks to a character deficit in the individual – as well as a social issue in that it’s the community that responds to sob-story lies more generously than to simple truths – that leaves me unsympathetic and jades me in future interactions with people who appear to be in the same situation as the con artist. While I have no issue whatsoever with people asking for money, will give it when we have it to give, I don’t appreciate being lied to, especially with the express purpose of exploiting my emotion for profit.

        Also, I have to say, I once had a plumber at my house that spent the entire time he was working on our pipe telling me how he really needed to be at the hospital with his mom but he didn’t know how he was gonna pay for her stay there, and how she was gonna die before the night was over, and when I tried to add some extra to his check he got all indignant and retorted, “Don’t do *me* any favors! I don’t need nothin’ from you!” He wasn’t homeless or a panhandler, but I have this sense that they often have the same attitude, even as they accept my money, that they hold me in contempt *because* I choose to contribute, while if I hadn’t I’d’ve been vilified for that instead while I walked away. We had a homeless guy get angry with us a few months ago because we didn’t happen to be going across the state line and wouldn’t go a hundred miles out of our way to get him there. I don’t know how other people feel about it, but sometimes I wonder how much of a part that kind of animosity might play in the situation of those who display it and find themselves with no support system when the going gets tough. I’m sure that’s not true of all homeless people or panhandlers, but often enough I see the smarmy, disingenuous, “Oh, thankee ma’am, thankee-thankee good sir,” a debasing of oneself to a person’s face to bolster their emotional reward of feeling ‘better than’, and complete and utter derision as soon as the back of the benefactor is turned. It turns my stomach, to be frank. I don’t care how hard the world has hurt you or how angry you are at your circumstance and whomever you may believe caused it or how often you go hungry. When someone is kind, even if their intention is just to put themselves on a pedestal, you at least appreciate the gesture. … Or maybe not. Maybe people who give to others just so they can feel cool deserve the same disrespect as they’re showing, but assuming that everyone who throws a bill in the hat holds that attitude is no more reasonable than to assume that all homeless people are unmotivated angry liars. If you’re too busy being insulted to appreciate the fact that I gave (not to grovel, not to be obsequious, just to genuinely be moved that someone noticed and gave you what you were askin’ for), then I guess ya really don’t need it. I didn’t put you in that situation or in any way, to the best of my knowledge, contribute to your being there unless you’re going to heap on my head the sins of our entire country. If I give you something it’s because you asked, not to assuage any guilt on my part, so don’t be a jerk about it. I’m tryin’ to do what I’d want people to do if I found myself there. I care about you as a human being, the same way I hope you’d care about me as a fellow human, but if you’re conning me, especially without knowing what hardships I might be goin’ through, it’s difficult to continue to do that.

        In the last three years I’ve had the parents, specifically the mothers, of two young people in my neck of the woods justify their children’s pathological lying with, “Oh, it’s just stories. They don’t mean any harm.” I’m talkin’ about kids that literally lie (at least to me and everyone else who’s ever brought them up to me, including their own parents) nearly every time they open their mouths. Maybe they don’t mean any harm (in which case apparently they just haven’t been taught the value of truth and the damage lies can cause, at least not by example, and given that it’s not my responsibility to teach them that and you won’t let me anyway I have no intention of bearing the consequences for your failure as a parent) but if my son’s playin’ with them and gets hurt and I can’t trust them to tell me what really happened, that could endanger his life. Or, if they lie chronically because they’re just prone to doing things they shouldn’t, well that’s not any better. And when the lying becomes second nature and they don’t even have normal responses to the fact that they’re telling a lie, how am I supposed to trust them at all? Maybe that’s different because my son’s probably not gonna be in a situation where he’s playin’ with homeless people (just because we live in a rural area in which the homeless are either given work and put up somewhere or they simply can’t stay long as there’s little of the refuse available that makes homeless lifestyles possible in more urban areas and most are not equipped to truly live in the wild), so it doesn’t matter if I trust them as long as I don’t give ’em what I can’t afford to give. But it does matter that those who make that choice are perpetuating the idea that all of their peers are untrustworthy. It’s a disservice to those who really did fall on hard times, as well as to those who prefer a home-free lifestyle.

        By the same token, society perpetuates the lying as it’s denizens prefer big, dramatic stories that make us feel like noble saviors, which brings me back to my first point, that no one should be in that circumstance involuntarily in the first place. We don’t make actual changes that could relieve the situation, and I’m afraid that might be in part because too many people get too much of a rush by being enough better than the other guy to be able to ‘help’ them. What if we made it possible for them to help themselves instead, and supported them in doing that before their situation got that dire? So I have mixed feelings. And, if I understand correctly that you’re still in Canada, there may be very different attitudes amongst your homeless populations, or the mechanisms that leave people in that situation (involuntarily) there may be very different to those that do here, so maybe it’s an America-specific thing (although I’ve seen it from California to Florida to Minnesota and all parts in-between so it’s not just specific to this place and time; it’s been this way for at least twenty years, and I suspect a good deal longer; before that, growin’ up in the suburbs, I just never met anyone I knew was homeless so I have no frame of personal reference for before that.

        All that said, your presentation of the people you’re documenting, about whom you obviously care and make others care through your story-telling, is excellent and doesn’t feel like any kind of exploitation. Your portraits shed light on their humanity, and for all my pontificating about lies and drama the homeless person I got to know best in the course of my life enriched me and taught me a great deal about things I’d’ve never otherwise understood. Thank you for sharing your experiences here. My mixed feelings are mine to try to sort out, and reading what you write helps bolster my empathy. It certainly could be any of us out there. All the best, to you and your many friends. 🙂

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      • Thanks for your comment. I present the conversations as I hear them, without judgement, interpretation or apology. Every panhandler or homeless person has their own story as to why they are in their present situation. In some cases it started as an abusive childhood, sometimes as a mental or physical disorder. Everyone is vulnerable. ~ Dennis

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Sydney has a big heart, as do you.

    My favorite kind of people are the compassionate sort. It shows excellent character–character that has been refined in the fire seven times or more. In fact, there’s a study out that says that people who have lived in poverty are often the most generous. This principle can be applied to all forms of suffering. It either turns people into real cranks or softens their hearts for others who are in a horrible place.

    Your blog drips with compassion, not only yours. From the comments of your blog followers, it’s obvious that many have experienced their own kind of horrible and now have great big hearts, too.

    I’ve enjoyed Gotta Find a Home. Thanks for all that you’re doing for the homeless.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elouise says:

    Dennis,
    You have remarkable gifts of compassion, generosity and story-telling. I’m happy you found my blog–so I could find yours! Thanks so much for the follow.
    Elouise

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  4. theodorous says:

    ‘Homeless’ is generic name that society gives to people who either cannot or just do not want to be part of our maddening, frantic, unjust and greedy social structure. To those who willingly and bravely opt-out of the chaos and slavery I offer my praise. To those who cannot deal with the fabrications of our daily lives and find themselves suffering, I give my support.

    I’ve been ‘homeless’ twice in my life; once when a young teen in the late 60’s and early 70’s and once only a couple of years ago. In both instances I found ‘family’ along the road but most importantly I realized new levels of self-sufficiency and compassion for those around me. It is one thing to be a long-haired kid wandering and pan-handling across the country but when you have reached middle-age and try to do the same thing the world frowns upon you in the most cruel way.

    I’ve never asked anything of our government, even when I thought that I would starve, though I’ve paid over a millon dollars in income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes over the past thirty five years. If I had the chance to change anything in our socienty, it would be to change how society treats those who think and act differently than what television portrays as ‘acceptable’. I most certainly want my tax dollars to help those who cannot, for what ever reason, help themselves to live like human beings and not be forced to live as human refuse.

    I will never refuse a request for help because I know that for many people, making that request is harder than the ground they are sleeping on.

    Thank you, Dennis for giving ‘homelessness’ a face. Perhaps I’ll see you on the street 😉

    Theo

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I lived near Toronto, I would drive by a particular park every Sunday. There was always an old man with a big white beard sitting on one of the benches. I never spoke to him, but he was always there, for years. I wondered what his story was and grew fond of seeing him there, enjoying the sun.

    Then one day he was gone. Even though I never met him, I felt so sad. Later I found an article about him, and found out he was an immigrant from the same country as my parents, and was a baker before he became mentally ill.

    Just thought you might like this little anecdote, thanks for all you do and share. 🙂

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  6. charlypriest says:

    Yep, pure survival, liked the story.

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  7. Sam sounds like quite a character. Sydney is very generous, reminds me of a Thai commercial I saw about a young man helping several people – one of them a homeless girl who needed money for education. Best to both of you for caring and giving a voice to those who are often not heard.

    In Seattle, during a vacation there, my husband and I saw a homeless guy who was panhandling and had a sign that said he didn’t drink. We donated to him. A little ways down, another guy had a sign: “Why lie. I need a beer.” We laughed and donated to him as well.

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  8. Nice, interesting story. Good to read it.

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  9. raebuckley says:

    Heya Dennis,

    Love the blog, I look forward to digging into it and thank you very much for the follow.

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  10. apeerless says:

    I love this because everyone has a story to tell and it brings a new understanding, so thank you. I have marked you so I can come back and read some more. 😉

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  11. Such a wonderful and compasionate site. I am so glad you found me….I have now found you. I loved reading your stories. People are loving and kind when they choose to help another..you can’t help yourself if you let love guide you….The King of love rewards those who love one another….

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  12. Cheers for following BuildingMyBento and for liking my post about Osaka, Dennis! If you ever need advice on visiting Japan, I can try to help.

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    • I have always been fascinated by Japan. My brother visited there during the Korean War. He brought back many souvenirs. I have no plans to visit Japan in the near future, but thanks for the offer of advice. ~ Dennis\

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  13. hortah01 says:

    Very interesting story Dennis!

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  14. I was here before Dennis and I guess I did re-blog this…I sure will now…hope all is well..God Bless all the homeless, sadness around Christmas time…my prayers and donations are with them when I have the money..it has been rather tough around here…
    God Bless you and your family and Merry Christmas
    Sherri

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  15. Xander Terrell says:

    Very fascinating and cool story! And I’m glad you enjoy my poetry 🙂

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  16. egbertstarr says:

    I’ve read a few of your pieces so far. You’ve got a sparse but easy-going style that lets the reader in without giving away the whole thing. So, as the story goes along, the reader gets more as you give more. Not to overly pigeon-hole your work, because who really likes that, after all, but there’s a sort Robertson Davies pacing, I think, to much of your story-telling—even after the other shoe has dropped. This differs a lot from, say, O. Henry, who after that other shoe has dropped, there’s a distinct hollowness felt. Maybe the former is more akin, I think, to what kindness is, which can envelop and even embrace what can otherwise be taken and seen and felt as pretty grim.

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  17. Enjoyed this post. New York City is filled with creative panhandlers.

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  18. Love this story, Dennis. While living in Cincinnati, OH, a CEO became a member of the church I was serving, Knox Presbyterian Church. He invited me to lunch downtown. As we walked from his office to his club, a panhandler approached. John and I stopped. John listened to the story and game him a ten dollar bill. I asked John whether he does that often with street people. He quoted Matthew 25 and said something like, “for all I know, he’s Jesus.”

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