Early in Ulysses, a thought occurs to Leopold Bloom that in a way has come to define the city where he lived: “Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub.” No doubt, just as great a challenge would be to try and cross Toronto without meeting a single panhandler. Even now, more than 15 years after passage of the so-called Safe Streets Act, Premier Mike Harris’s lamentable attempt to eliminate all forms of “aggressive panhandling,” the richest metropolis in Canada remains what it always has been, a city of beggars.
The generic term includes many specifics: panhandlers, street people, buskers, squeegee kids, derelicts, vagabonds, anyone with their hand out as you walk down the street. In Quebec the term is quêteur, or clochard, from the obsolete verb clocher, to limp. In ancient Rome, it was more evocative, poignant almost, naufragus, a shipwrecked person. Maybe my preferred type is the sidewalk bum, especially the aggressive kind. Who when I say “Sorry,” answers with attitude, “Don’t be sorry, dude!” As if, even with ass planted on the sidewalk and one foot in the gutter, he still feels a need to dominate the exchange.
And maybe I’m more alive to their presence than most thanks to my experience on first arriving in Toronto 45 years ago. I came up from Miami, where we lived in a semi-affluent suburb and beggars were unknown. Eighteen years old, unacquainted with a single soul in this city of two million people, I took a room in residence at the university. That first Saturday night I walked the length of Yonge Street, from Bloor to Front and back again, and all along the way encountered one beggar after another. Kids my own age ranged on the pavement outside the strip clubs and bars, First Nations men and women huddled on the streetcorners, old white guys unshaven and dazed, their caps on the sidewalk in front of them to collect whatever change might fall from the indifferent crowds. I was too dazed by the spectacle of it all to reach in my pocket and give to any of them, too caught up in the act of observing, of noting everything and filing it away.
Three days later I was walking through Queen’s Park on my way to the university bookstore. A young guy approached and spoke to me, Did I have any spare change? Tall and raw-boned, rangy, with a high forehead and deep-set eyes. He called me “brother.” I knew nothing at the time of the out-migration from Newfoundland but sensed that he was just as new to the city, just as bewildered by it as I. Automatically, I handed over all the change in my pocket. He smiled, which is to say his whole face lit up as he nodded and thanked me, not in a servile manner, but as one man to another, brother to brother. This marked the first connection I felt to any other person in Toronto, the first suggestion of warmth and affection that I experienced in this city of strangers.
As I walked away, the thought came to me that I’d done something good for this person, and he appreciated that, and this somehow created a connection or bond between us, a bond between equals. It wasn’t friendship exactly but something else, something unique and strange, sui-generis as one of my profs might have said, that carried no sense of obligation but that satisfied a need I’d never known existed.
Two weeks later I saw him again in the same place, the middle of Queen’s Park by the equestrian statue, and in the interim he’d aged 40 years. He was no longer young but teetering on the doorstep that death had fashioned just for him. They’d broken one arm and kicked his head till the teeth fell out of his mouth. They’d turned that high white forehead into a map of cuts and bruises, ripped his clothes to shreds and soaked them in blood. Then when they were finished with everything else, one of them bent down and plucked the left eye out of its socket.
That black cavity mesmerized me. When he asked again for change, I watched the hole in his face expand and felt myself falling into it. The ridiculous thought occurred that with one eye gone at least he wouldn’t recognize me. But when I caught myself and looked again, was there something in the remaining eye, a change as it focused on me, that might have been a glimmer of recognition? This idea was too horrible to consider, and I hurried past, hurried on to my next class or the gym or café, anywhere that would help me escape from the challenge posed by his half-decayed face.
The problem was I couldn’t forget the emblem of his eyes. The one dead, a black emptiness that drew me in, that seemed to say, This is what awaits, this is your future too, you were right to see yourself in me. And the other, still alive, still capable of expressing the type of demand that pushes you away as it asks, What will you give me now, now that my need is true?
This was my first experience of death in the city, of the way it stalks the streets, especially at night, and plucks its victims off the sidewalk. Strangers, acquaintances, friends, lovers and rivals. They all go into the dark. Beaten to death, hit by cars, slipping on the ice, overdosing, jumping off bridges. Of the not-always-apparent frailty that haunts us all, even in youth. Of the pact we make, every single one of us, to ignore this fact with all our might, that life is tenuous as a spider’s web.
Now that I’ve reached a certain age, I find the young beggars, new to the city, don’t interest me anymore. It’s the old ones, those who’ve somehow managed to survive years on the street, who can still attract and hold my attention. And one thing I’ve noticed is that now, perhaps in response to the Safe Streets Act, many of them offer some sort of useless service in exchange for a handout. The newspaper vendor, who for a dollar hands me a tabloid stuffed with stories so atrociously written it would drive you nuts to read one through to the end. The door holder who makes a slight bow, a barely perceptible one-foot shuffle, as he does the open-sesame to concert hall or market. The old chanteuse whose voice has gone so flat I’d gladly pay her more to shut up than continue. I was riding the Bathurst streetcar when I met one who offered a different kind of service. He was a storyteller.
Even though the northbound car was packed, I found a seat by the rear door. Immediately, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned, an old man leaned forward and asked for the time. I told him it was ten to six.
“Are you from England?” he said.
“Where you from?” A faint lilt in the voice.
“I’m from the States.”
“Oh, I’ve been to Miami many times. Did you ever hear of the Flagler dog track?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Well I was there 40 years ago. Just got off the boat from Ireland, and all I had was $20 in my pocket. I bet the first trifecta, and one of the dogs went off at 22-to-1. Wouldn’t you know, all three came in, and I won $26,000 just like that. I was on my way to the cashier, when a bookie stopped me and said, ‘Don’t be a fool.’
“He was from Ireland too. ‘If you cash your ticket with them, they’ll take 20 per cent right off the top for the IRS. Give it to me, and I’ll only take five. I been living in this country for 20 years and love it like my own, but I hate the fuckin’ government, and I hate the IRS.’
“So I gave him the ticket, and he gave me cash, and I said, ‘Where would you go for a good time in this town?’ He told me to get a cheap place in one a them hotels on South Beach, which was still a slum back then. So that’s what I did, and we had quite a party. When it was over, I went up to see my parents, who were living in a little house outside St. Petersburg, do you know where that is?”
“Of course I do.”
“First thing I did was give my mother $100, and she said, ‘I thought you was broke.’ And I laughed and said, ‘Well, not anymore.’”
He was silent for a minute, pensive, then asked if I’d always lived in Miami.
“No,” I admitted. “We moved down from Philadelphia.”
“Ah Philadelphia, I know it well. That’s Ben Franklin’s town, isn’t it? Aren’t they always talking of Ben Franklin there?”
He had another story to tell of his adventures in Philadelphia. Just before we reached the station, he grew quiet again. Then he said, “You wouldn’t have what it takes to buy a cup of coffee, would you?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see when we get off.”
On the platform, I found my pocket was full of change. The old man stood behind me without saying anything. I took two loonies and turned to him. He was short, with bandy legs, and wore a sleeveless t-shirt that looked like it was cut from a burlap bag. A wooden cross hung from his neck on a string of twine, and he’d pinned his shirt with different kinds of medallions.
“There you go.” I put the two coins in the palm of his hand. He frowned and walked off without another word.
The ingratitude irritated me—it shattered the connection that had developed between us on the streetcar. I felt like I’d been taken, played for a sucker. Then later I thought, What good will two dollars do him? If he goes through the same routine he performed for me 20 times a day—and who could stand to do it more?—with luck he’ll net $50, which won’t do much more than confirm his poverty. In the end, I couldn’t help but think he was right to frown when I gave him the money and move on to his next mark, grimly, the way a lumberjack might approach a tree. Knowing that the work involved some danger, in the beggar’s case, of violence or, even worse, derision.
A few weeks later, I found myself on the street near Yonge and Eglinton, a neighborhood where lots of doctors have their offices. I was early for an appointment, so I went into a coffee shop and took a seat near the front window, next to a little girl talking to her father. As I sat down, she made a face and said, “He showed me a dead raccoon with its guts open.” I smiled, the sun came out, and in that instant, I recognized a man standing on the corner waiting for the bus.
I’d never seen him before without the brown bag over his head, but it was certainly the Paper-bag Busker who haunts different concert venues around town. The battered guitar case stood beside him on a dolly that he stabilized with an aluminum can stapled to the bottom. His age—the raw fact that he was old—took me by surprise. Although he had a kid’s face—right down to the untamed buck teeth—the skin was worn and sagging. It was an unseasonably cold September afternoon, and the glare from the light so flat and merciless that it threw into relief every wrinkle on his face and hands, every spot or blemish on the skin. For a moment, it was like he was standing under the naked bulb of an interrogation room. I could see the frayed cuffs of his jeans, the scruffy Doc Martens missing their laces, the ragged sport coat with a crushed pop can peeking from one pocket.
He paced back and forth with hands on hips while the cold afternoon light revealed what Shakespeare calls the unaccommodated man. He didn’t look like a drunk or an addict but had the air of someone so desperately poor that his need was nudging him over the edge.
I remembered tossing a few coins in his guitar case one evening when he was playing outside Roy Thomson Hall, remembered the way he bowed his paper-bagged head and said, “Thank you, sir,” in an unexpectedly loud voice. How hard must it be to give thanks with your nose pressed metaphorically against the pavement? Maybe we should thank them, thank the beggars for standing as a mirror to each of us, for pulling the bag off our head to reveal the unappeasable need that drives and maddens every one of us.