We’re in this Together

The other day as I was walking past a tiny Gastown bodega, a man called out to me. His dirty, ill-fitting clothes and pale, weathered face suggested he spent his days and nights just trying to stay alive on Vancouver’s streets.

It was the way he called out to me that made me stop. It wasn’t his word but his tone; soft and kind, I could hear the humanity in his voice.

His eyes lit up when I stopped and he said, “Most people don’t even acknowledge I exist.” Feeling at a loss for words, I nodded. I know what it’s like to feel invisible and I knew this man was no stranger to that feeling.

The kindness in his voice remained, but I could see the fear creep into his eyes as he asked, “Would you—” he hesitated, eyes lowering, “Would you be willing to buy me some bread and peanut butter?”

“Yes.”

“I’m so hungry and I need something to…. Yes?” He made eye contact again and I could see the light dance in his eyes. How many times had he heard “no”? Too many times.

“Yes.” I smiled again. “Come on, then. Let’s go inside. What’s your name? Mine’s Cheryl.”

“Really? I’m Pete.”

“Yep. Come on, Pete. What do you need? Bread? Peanut butter? Maybe some jam?” I said as we walked through the door. “There are some bananas over there. Why don’t you grab those too.”

Five minutes later we were out the front door and standing on the sidewalk, a bag full of bread, peanut butter, jam, bananas and bologna.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” Pete said, nodding towards the camera slung over my torso. “I am. Born and raised.”

His eyes widened and his smile grew. “Me too! That’s a rarity these days!” Then Pete became self-conscious, shuffling his feet and looking at the bag of groceries with embarrassment. “You must think my food choices aren’t very healthy.”

I laughed. “I might not have chosen the bologna for myself, but I understand. A friend’s sister spent four years on the streets. I know it’s about filling you up; about carbohydrates.”

After some more conversation (Pete trained as a millwright, but has lived on the streets for five years now—an injury left him unable to work and he slipped down the slope of alcoholism), we said our goodbyes and I was off walking again; mulling over the experience. Pete’s someone’s son; someone’s brother. He went to school and used to drive an old Charger. Pete’s real. He exists, despite many who would prefer he didn’t.

Pete had an exceptionally shitty day and I was the first to stop; the first to make eye contact. It was the warmth in his voice that made me stop. It reminded me that kindness calls out for kindness in return.

We could all do with a little more kindness in our lives.

You don’t kick a man when he’s down, you put your hand out and help him up. We’re in this together.

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