I write this not because I am proud of my actions, but because this is a story that is all too common yet is still one that often goes unheard.
I was walking down the street yesterday evening. I live near Danforth Road and Victoria Park. While this neighbourhood is rapidly gentrifying and real estate prices are skyrocketing, the upsurge in development tends to leave behind many of the areas' less secure members.
This neighbourhood is filled with community housing and its lack of homeless shelters means that many individuals in the area sleep on the streets.
Anyways, as I was walking, I turned around to check, as one does when walking through a rather shady part of town, and saw a girl who couldn't have been aged past her mid 20s, black, in a very short black dress, arms filled to the elbow with cheap metal bangles, carrying two very heavy reusable grocery bags.
To say that she could barely walk in a straight line would be an understatement. She zigged and zagged from the inside of the sidewalk onto the road and back. None of the cars on the street were going at less than 60km in the night.
A TTC bus driver slowed down his bus to look at her through his side mirror. But after a brief pause, he too kept on going.
I turned around and said, "is everything okay?".
She almost cried out in response, "what are you doing?"
I said "I'm just out on a walk". I knew that she needed to sit down before she walked out onto the street again where she could potentially get hit.
"I am hungry; I want food," she moaned.
I didn't have my wallet on me, but I said, "don't worry, let's see if we can get you something to eat".
The problem with this section of the Danforth is that after 9pm, only very seedy bars and take-out places are open. The newer, more bougie cafés close their doors at 5pm, perhaps in part to avoid having to deal with the evening crowd.
I wanted to ask her to walk a few steps so we could go to maybe a pizza place, but it was very evident that she probably wasn't going to be okay to do so.
So I said, "let's see if this bar serves some food."
I just wanted to make sure she sat down ate something, just so that she could compose herself a bit. We walked in. I immediately started coughing from all the cigarette smoke.
I walked up to the counter with the girl next to me and spoke to the cashier, "Hi, I was wondering if you served food. If you could please get her something, I can run home and get my wallet and pay for it. I promise".
"No" said the cashier, "no money no service".
"Fine," I responded, "Can she wait here?".
By this point, the girl had fallen asleep on the bar table, she was visibly exhausted.
Instead of even trying to wake her politely, the cashier banged the table in front of her, "Hey! no sleeping at the bar".
I don't blame the establishment or its employees for their behaviour, they aren't a crisis or homeless shelter; I wouldn't trust the patrons if I worked there.
"I wasn't sleeping!" the girl said when woken up, "I wasn't sleeping!".
At this point, a man wearing some sports jersey, arms sleeved with tattoos, white, not bigger than me, walks up to the counter and says, "You're with him!? Really? You should come over to me!".
And she turned around and said to him groggily: "he's good". She looked at me and said, "you're good".
I responded, "you wait here". And I sprinted home.
I stepped into my house panting sweating, it was a good 1 km run. My mom and dad had started dinner already. I said, "mom do you have some money". She said, "what happened?". I quickly told her the story.
My dad told my mom to drive me there.
I came back, to the bar to find the girl pacing around outside moaning "oh god, oh god!".
It's hard to judge her, I don't think that I was much better in my worst moments, and mine weren't even as bad.
She recognizes me as my mom drops me off.
I say "let's go in".
She follows me.
I walk directly to the bar keeper, "whatever she wants, I'm good for it".
She hands the girl the menu. It's hard for the girl to stay awake long enough to read it fully.
Without really looking at the options, she says "I want a burger".
I say "which one?"
She points somewhere on the menu.
"Do you want the steak?"
"Yeah," she moans.
"Okay," I say to the barkeeper, "the steak, please".
"Wait! Is it big?" She is famished.
The bartender doesn't respond to her.
"Is it big?" I ask again.
The bartender looks at me and makes a gesture with her fingers to indicate the size.
"Do you have chicken?" the girl asks.
Given that the barkeeper is not responding to her, I reply.
"Yes, they do. Do you want some of that."
"Okay," she says.
The barkeeper tells me that it will take 15 minutes.
The girl and I wait near the entrance of the bar to avoid the catcalls from all of the men sitting there.
I try to talk to her.
I ask "where are you from?"
"I woke up and I am here?"
"Did you used to do anything before you got here?"
"I don't remember. I don't remember. I just got here."
While we were talking, men in the bar were catcalling her: "Hey my buddy here wants to give you a massage!" "Hey! Do you want to make some money?"
They thought I was making a sexual conquest. I thought they were weak men.
She looked at me: "You don't understand what I'm going through. You don't understand my pain".
She smiled at them, business-like.
I replied: "I know that I don't."
I think she trusted me a bit more after that. I could feel the energy change a little bit between us. In juxtaposition to the men, as weak as she looked there before them, she still had standards.
"Ignore them." I said, realizing as I said these words that I didn't need to. She already was. She knew who these men were. They were her clients if necessary, if it came to that, but nothing more. They saw her as a prize. She saw them as a last resort.
The food arrived.
She asked "Can I have ketchup and hot sauce?"
I turn to the server, who seemed to only be able to hear me even though the girl was sitting right there. "Can she please have some?"
"Sure," the barkeeper said.
As we were waiting for her to get the sauce, I said "hot sauce, that's the shit". For the first time in the whole evening, she laughed.
She showed me where she cut herself on her arms. She showed me her injection marks. She showed me in a way that can only be described as her sharing a secret.
Upon leaving the establishment, knowing she was sleepy, knowing also my mom was waiting in the car nearby, I asked her: "do you want to maybe see if there is a homeless shelter we can check you into?"
She nodded her head. We walked a block over to a building. I asked: "Do you want to go in."
She replied: "you don't know how they treat me here," "you don't know how they treat me."
By this point my mom had drove up next to us and was gesturing me to get back in the car. In her eyes, I had done enough.
The girl said "I'm going to have to stay awake all night".
She didn't even have the luxury of sleeping on the street. She was not safe.
I said goodbye. She called out to my mom: "what is your son's name?". My mom said: "Amit".
She said "May god bless him."
No one as young as that girl should be saying those words.
And no one should have to say those words in this context.
There are those who are desperately poor, like this girl; but then there are those who are poor in spirit. She is not one of them.
I feel uncomfortable sharing this story.
I remember about 3 years before, another lady on the same street asked me if I wanted to sleep with her. Her rate was 40$.
When I declined she said: "please don't tell anyone that this happened. Maybe I'll have better days and I don't want this following me around."
But I write this today, a day after this whole exchange, because I don't want to forget.
Suffering is pervasive. But those who suffer and allow us to help them in their suffering, to try and help them, are actually doing us a service. By helping them, we become more grounded, we realize that the insignificance of our own problems.
That being said, it is important to note that they are important, not just for those reasons.
And I think that the service that these people provide is so much more profound when they are about the same age as us.
When I used to do 'street-patrols' in high school, all of those who my classmates and I helped, if they were able, smiled, said thank you, they put on their best face on for us kids.
But in this case, I had to win someone over in order to help them. I had to gain their trust. I had to look them in the eyes for 15 minutes. I had to see them undressed by prying eyes.
I had to watch her stick up for me when the man asked her why she chose to 'be with me'.
Poverty should not mean a stripping away of dignity.
I write this story, not because I am proud of what I did. I write it because I had the opportunity to meet a remarkable human being.
I really am not proud. I feel guilty that I didn't find a place for to sleep. I feel guilty that I couldn't even do that much.
Poverty and housing insecurity are a Toronto problem.