“Do you drink coffee?” I asked. “Well, I won’t refuse . . .” came the reply. It may seem strange at first, me offering her coffee, seated as we were in her living room. It was a rather expansive room, with a cathedral ceiling, skylight, and a commanding view of the street. Well, actually, it was the street.
It was a bitterly cold March afternoon, and we shared a chunk of sidewalk on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. We sat not in overstuffed high back chairs, but her on a foam pad and me on several layers of cardboard – both very effective in keeping out the chill. Although we drank from Styrofoam cups with plastic lids, this scene could easily have been recreated in a Victorian parlour. Instead of tiny petit-fours and a silver platter of freshly baked scones, I offered submarine sandwiches instead. “I found some money this morning, so today we eat. Tomorrow, who knows?” “If that’s mixed meat, I don’t eat pork!” “Nope, today we have roast beef!”
My host/ companion on this day was an interesting woman; I believe her name was Mary. Her whole world, for that moment, was an area of about 6 ft. square. All of her prized possessions were stored, somewhat precariously, in two shopping carts that stood at her side. She had a son somewhere, but where exactly she wasn’t sure. She mentioned a husband, but didn’t say whether she had been widowed or divorced. No matter, the effects were the same. She had come to Canada from England where she had been a nurse, but it would seem she could not find work now. She had some money in a bank account in Scarborough, but no way to reach it. She was 49 years old, and would be turning 50 at the end of the month. It seemed strange in a way that our birthdays are only three days apart. How fragile are the bonds that tie people together.
So, why was I there? The question crossed my mind a couple of times as we sat there, although the answer seemed straight enough. I wanted someone to talk to. I knew that there must be a person hiding in that shell and I’d been the recipient of enough cold stares from strangers to know their sting. Besides, city people always seem so cold to me; I thought a warm smile might brighten both of our days. Even as we sat there, people would glare down at us, as if they could make us evaporate from the look in their eyes. We weren’t asking anyone for anything; we were simply two people enjoying coffee and conversation. Perhaps it was fear that registered in the eyes of those who chose to demean us with a passing look – perhaps it was that their existence was somewhat tremulous at best – working two or three jobs to pay the bills. Can’t afford to pay the rent this month, and they could be joining us on that little patch of cement. The safety net we believe exists doesn’t catch everyone, some fall through the holes. Are they any less because of where they are forced to live? Do they not deserve their dignity and our respect, or is it okay to kick them away if they have to sleep in the middle of the path we might be walking?
It became quickly apparent to me that Mary was everyone’s mother, and she shared with me a few stories of some of her ‘family’. There was Mr. Roberts, he’s from Mars, you know, and wears bright red running shoes. And then there was Carlos, a young gay man who was slowly dying from AIDS. Michael would come by to visit her from time to time, and where he went in the in-between times was something she didn’t ask and he didn’t share. Everyone has to have some way of making a living. When he arrived, they would go to the closest coffee shop and share a small coffee; it was an opportunity to get a little warmth and use the washroom. She had to sit at the table closest to the door as the counter staff didn’t like it when she brought her carts inside and she worried about having something stolen. Her whole life was in them.
She was also worried about me, and the way I was dressed – her several warm layers against my T-shirt and denim jacket. I assured her I didn’t get cold much, but she made sure that I was aware of the places to go to get clothing. At the AAA Motel you could get a room for $95.00 a week, and at St. Andrew’s Church on Tuesdays you could get a hot meal and a place to sleep. There never seemed to be enough blankets there, though, people kept stealing them. She had three herself. She felt a little bad about it, but a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do to survive.
After about three hours, I was getting a little stiff and the cold had reached up from the concrete through the layers of cardboard on which I was sitting. I reached into my bag and pulled out the small leather pouch that sits in the middle. Opening it, I retrieved two small items I had found and which she could add to her cart. The first was a small pink plastic heart; it was a little chipped around the edges. The second item was a little key. The two seemed a perfect gift for her – she had through her kind words and generosity unlocked the inner reaches of my heart.