Yesterday, on my way to a meeting, I stopped to pay for my parking at one of the meters that lines our city streets. A man approached, visibly homeless, stumbling unsteadily on his feet. As I pulled my credit card out of the meter he stopped beside me. I could feel his presence and for a second, a voice of worry slithered through my mind. My wallet was open in my hand, my credit card held mid-air between the parking meter and my purse.
“I like your outfit,” the man told me loudly. “I like the get-up.”
I turned to look at him. Smiled. Slipped my card back into my wallet. I debated searching for coins but held off. He wasn’t asking for a handout. He was giving me a compliment.
He was older, but life on the street is hard, so he could have been anywhere from 45 to 65. Face encased in a long white beard beneath a red toque with a white pompom bobbing at the apex. Green jacket. Prerequisite backpack. He stood and smiled at me, his blue eyes sparkling in his weathered face. He was missing a front tooth in his smile. He waved one hand as he checked out my long winter white coat and matching flapper style cloche.
Thank you, I replied as he once again told me how much he liked my outfit.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re that lady who used to work at the DI. I remember you!”
Down the street, three men waited at a light. They called back to him, cajoling him, teasing him. “C’mon buddy. Leave the pretty lady alone.” “She’s not going to date ya!”
He waved a dismissive hand at them and turned back to me.
“You always smiled. I liked that,” he said.
“And I remember you,” I told him, which was true. I remember seeing him at the shelter. Like so many, he wandered in and out, spending his days scrambling for a dollar, spending his nights on a mat in Intox. “I apologize,” I continued. “I don’t remember your name.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I don’t remember yours either.” He laughed at himself, slapped his leg and then added, “but I sure remember your smile!” He nodded his head some more, told me again how much he liked my outfit before shuffling off down the street to meet up with his friends who were still calling to him from the corner where the light was now green.
I thanked him again and crossed over to the other side of the street to go to my meeting.
When I worked at the shelter I used to tell visitors that the shelter was a ‘gated community’. Surrounded by tall wrought iron fencing and a gate that could be drawn across the driveway to lock off access and egress, the difference between that gated community and its more tony neighbours is, you had to lose everything to qualify to come through those gates. You had to be lost on the road of life to end up there.
But like any fence, like any gated community, it sets the occupants apart. It creates a divide between the haves and the have-nots.
And we stand on the other side of the street, looking in, wondering what it’s like to live on the other side of those gates. Sometimes we venture in just to take a look.
And when we meet them, those fortunate and unfortunates who live in the gated community, we wonder, “How did they get there?” “What path did they take that lead them to that side of those gates?”
The stories are many. They come from every walk of life. They come from every community, faith, demographic. And the only difference is, one road leads to abundance beyond the gates, the other to scarcity.
And always, for those who enter the gates of the shelter, no matter what lead them there, the reason they stay is the same. They are lost in the grips of something they never imagined would be part of their life. Something they never dreamed would become their reality. Homelessness.
A man stopped beside me on the street yesterday to pay me a compliment. He was a passer-by. A stranger. But I know where he lives. I know the gated community he calls home.
It didn’t make a difference. His compliment was lovely. Welcome. Engaging. He didn’t want anything other than to share his thoughts on what I was wearing.
He was the only one who did that. Pay a compliment to a stranger.
I didn’t stop anyone else during my day to say, “I like your outfit.” I didn’t stop a stranger to make a human connection and in my not doing it, my day was made less different than if I’d taken the time to share a compliment with a stranger.