“Excuse me?” The whispered question was faint amid the bustle of a Friday evening sidewalk. Wrapped up in my own impatience to get home, I didn’t realize he was speaking to me.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said again, a little louder this time but still breathless, difficult to hear amid the sound of rush hour traffic on wet pavement. “Could you possibly spare some change so I can get something warm to drink?”
“Sorry, no.” The automatic response was out of my mouth before I’d even looked up into his moist, blue eyes. I saw hope there, and watched it melt into disappointment as his gaze dropped.
He smiled then, and nodded without looking up, raising an apologetic hand. “That’s okay, thanks anyway.” I watched him shuffle off, shoulders hunched under a tattered backpack, bare ankles, white as fish bellies, visible above unlaced sneakers, head bowed against the rain or the gaze of strangers or both. He didn’t stop to ask anyone else. He just kept walking.
I’ve grown immune to the requests of panhandlers, wearing my cynicism like a suit of armour.
The form of the approach is irrelevant — I’ve seen them all before. There’s the conspiratorial request, one addict to another, “Can I bum a smoke?”
Or the silent act, suitcase displayed like the stage prop it is, plea scrawled in black Sharpie on a piece of cardboard. “Stuck and broke. Anything will help.”
Even the occasional attempt at originality feels forced and false. “S’cuse me, ma’am. Would you be interested in providing just a small donation so I can get totally toasted today?”
If I had a dime for every time I’ve said, ‘Sorry, no,’ I’d never have to work again.
I tell myself that I say no because I can’t say yes to everyone. I tell myself the few cents in my pocket wouldn’t make a difference anyway and my donations to all the charities dedicated to helping the homeless are enough. The truth is I find the intrusion irritating. I just want to get to where I’m going without someone trying to guilt me into passing out coins like so much Halloween candy.
But those moist blue eyes wouldn’t leave me alone. They haunted me as I stood there in the rain, waiting for the bus. I remembered that open face looking hopefully into mine. I saw the immense effort of asking etched in the lines between his nose and mouth, visible in the tremor of his lip, audible in the hesitancy of his voice. I recognized him, even though I’d never seen him before.
With what felt like a twisting of my heart, I remembered the ten-dollar bill in my pocket, change from a lazy lunch spent bitching with co-workers over beer and nachos at the pub down the street. I looked up the sidewalk to see if I could spot the tattered backpack. I imagined catching up to him and tapping his shoulder. I pictured surprise on his face as I slipped the bill into his hand and felt the gratitude of his smile as I walked away without a word.
I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck to get a better look up the street, past commuters and shoppers, around groups of teenagers gathered in packs, but I couldn’t find the backpack. I reached into my pocket and fingered the crumpled bill. It felt like a piece of scrap paper.
It hadn’t been that long, I thought. He couldn’t be far. Maybe he’d turned at the intersection; he might be just around the corner. I hesitated, questioning the wisdom of chasing a homeless man down a dark side street, then considered the possibility of missing my bus and the dreary half-hour in the rain until the next one. But the corner wasn’t that far away, it would just take a minute to walk over and have a look.
I stood there, wondering, holding onto my indecision like an umbrella. I shuffled insulated, waterproof hiking boots, remembered sock-less feet in lace-less sneakers, and looked up to see my bus splash to a stop at the curb. Just another sheep in the herd, I joined the queue of commuters jostling for position, hoping for one of too few seats.
Staring at the seams running down the back of the cashmere coat in front of me, I fondled the ten-dollar bill in my pocket and thought how handy it would be come lunchtime on Monday. Then I caught my reflection in the bus’s fogged over window and, throat and cheeks burning, bowed my head against the gaze of strangers.
An earlier version of this story originally appeared in The Globe and Mail