I found this in my journal today, from last summer in Vancouver.
Hundreds of times I’ve smiled, muttered “no thanks” and walked by them. Hundreds of times – yet perhaps with the exception of a couple, I probably couldn’t recognize their faces in a crowd. The stout woman and her little Filipino counterpart at the Main Street bus stop, the cheerful Asian man at Commercial/Broadway with his always kind eyes. The man atop the flight of stairs at Burrard station; the man I sometimes see before starting my day and walk past once again when it’s ending. He always has a polite smile on his face; sometimes, that smile is the reason I can’t even look him in the eye.
It makes me wonder. He must work around 8 hours, at least 5 days a week, standing in the same spot and doing the same thing. Rain, wind, storm, snow, or shine, he’s there. How long has offering newspapers to the cold and indifferent masses of commuters in downtown Vancouver been his source of livelihood? How often has anyone said more than two words to him, if any? How many, out of the thousands of people he interacts with every single day, even acknowledge his presence?
He may be a mere 15 seconds of it, but the fact remains – he is a part of our day, isn’t he?
There’s the man who sits hunched over on the ground on Granville with his head buried in his arms repeating “Can you spare any change,” always stressing the ‘spare’ in the same exact way. I’ve never seen his face but I’ve heard him say those words many times.
There’s the man who stands in front of the Starbucks on Burrard and West Georgia some mornings, in his pageboy cap with a smile plastered on his face greeting everyone who walks by him with a sincere “good morning!” and a nod, while holding an empty coffee cup that doesn’t get pushed further than a few inches from his waist. If he’s not there, he’ll be holding open the door down to the skytrain station on Granville. He’s held that door open for me so many times. For so many others. Just smiles, nods, and stays patient.
Then there’s the man with the sign on the intersection of Burrard and West Georgia lately, who holds up a sign saying he’s just trying to make $172 so he can afford a place to live.
There’s the older man I’ve only seen a few times, who literally shakes, violently, as he sits up against some pole at a busy crosswalk. I don’t know if he shook from the cold, from fear, from hunger, from disease, from addiction, or merely for comfort. All I know is it hurt seeing the moving figure in my peripheral vision as I continued to walk by. I didn’t do a single thing.
If any of those people were gone tomorrow, how many would notice? Would I notice?
If someone new was standing up at the entrance to Burrard station handing out the day’s newspaper as if the man before them had never even existed, how many would wonder why? If weeks or months passed and no one was ever there to smile or hold the door open on Granville, how many would even wonder where he’s gone? How many would ever wonder if that man did eventually manage to scrape enough together to put a roof over his head?
I don’t know if I should drop change into every empty cup I pass – I do know that it’s not practical. I don’t know what I would do if roles were reversed. I don’t know if someone asking me how my day had been would make even the slightest difference.
What I do know is that we’re all human. The problem is sometimes, we forget we’re not the only ones. We forget that at the end of day, our life is worth no more than anyone elses.
Share a smile, give a nod, maybe just acknowledge whoever it is that didn’t let the door close behind them before you got to it. Give a second of eye contact along with the “thanks” or “you too” that you spew out robotically ten times a day. When you’re asked how your day has been by that person who could be nearing the end of a 40 hour work week that doesn’t come close to letting them break even, return the civility. I don’t know, on your way to lunch, maybe ask that street-corner presence you’ve side-stepped so many times when their last meal was. Give them one.
If there’s anything taking public transportation daily has taught me, it’s that the tiniest gestures are capable of leaving powerful impressions. The youth who readily give up their seat to tired legs, the extra friendly bus driver, the polite mannerisms of anyone I encounter…I can’t speak for anyone else, but they start or end my day on a good note. If nothing else, pay that good feeling forward.
This was just a much needed spill. I guess what I’m trying to say is empathy doesn’t need to be extravagant – A conscious effort can suffice.