Sunday, March 22, 2009

Martin and me

It was a little after 11, my ex girlfriend was editing my essay; I was getting her a “thank you for saving my butt” coffee. Tim’s was closed so I continued walk down Belmont. As I continued on my way I came across an uncomfortable situation, several feet away I saw a crouched man on one side of the sidewalk and his bike on the other. To get by I would have to walk in between the two, the idea made me feel uneasy. I increased my pace, clenched my fist, and mentally prepared myself to destroy (…maybe that’s a guy thing). Just as I passed him he clenched his stomach and moaned in pain. In an instant I was disarmed, stopped walking, and asked “are you ok?” With one hand around his stomach he looked up at me and said that he had forgotten his medication at home. I asked “can I call someone for you?” He said that a nice woman had lent him her cell phone and that his mother was on her way. I felt as guilt free as a man who had just flipped a looine into an open guitar case. He continued to talk to me as I searched for a pause to slip in an “Okay, sorry I couldn’t help, have a goodnight buddy.” After 10 minutes a pause was no where in sight and it became obvious that the guy was searching for conversation. I surprised him (and myself) by extending my hand and introducing myself. It was the first time I shook hands with a homeless person. I will not glorify our conversation; it was a conversation of continual loops. Martin (as he had introduced himself) would tell me how he was not on drugs or chemicals (not that I ever asked), then he would mention how he was allergic to the mould in the leafs, he would move on to telling me about his medical history, how he never thought life would be this hard, and then back to how he was not on drugs. With every loop I learned more about him, as each loop had a slightly different variation than the first. The second loop I learned that he was 44, the 4th I learned that he could build just about anything with his hand, the 6th loop that he thought the doctor’s medicine was cancer causing (never mind that he was holding an unlit cigarette). I continually thought to myself, what am I doing here? I couldn’t help this guy; I couldn’t give him money, I couldn’t let him borrow my cell phone, I couldn’t even lit the guys cigarette (not that I would). Everything that gave me more power than this homeless person, he wasn’t in need of. It was frustrating not being able to give him a $1 and then proceed with my life. Eventually his 70 year old mother pulled up in a car. I loaded his bike into her trunk; he asked me if I smoked…. anything. His mother ignored that comment and continued to thank me. I walked away unsure of what/if anything I had actually helped him with. I know it sounds cheesy but as I walked away I prayed to God for understanding of the significance of what just happened. I kept thinking about what I did/didn’t do and came to the conclusion that I had in fact helped him. I offered Martin something that is worth more than the use of a cell phone or some spare change, I offered him engagement. At that time in his life Martin did not need anything that the modern world could have offered, he need something as old as man himself. He needed someone to share the slab of concert he was hunched over on, he needed someone to share the cold with, someone to talk to while he waited. I have come learn, through being involved with the working center and beyond borders, that the most important part of giving ourselves is just that, giving ourselves. It’s a lot easier to flip someone a buck than it is to have a conversation with them. I’ve given 20 bucks to a homeless person before, I’ve even worked in soup kitchens before, but this was the first time I really feel like I had actually treated a homeless person as a human being, a peer even. If Martin had just asked for a loonie, I would have tossed him what I had in my pocket (or lied) and been on my way. He would not be a person to me, he would have just been a form of kinetic karma. Instead he asked me to become involved with his situation and we both grew because of it. This is not to say that the experience was life changing. This is not my enlightenment, but I feel that this is a stepping stone in the right direction, a small step forward. I know I don’t fully understand what it truly means to engage the homeless, but I feel like I have grown towards that direction.


  1. I liked this story John, it was honest. I think that part of everyone's experiences with the Working Centre thus far has been realizing the small changes and steps we've made towards actually BEING and ENGAGING people we never would have before. Not just throwing money at them, or thinking secretly that we are different. But really believing it ourselves that just like us they are human, and have real needs beyond a buck in the guitar case. Thanks for this.

  2. Wow this one really hit home for me. I am of the 'toss a coin and leave quickly' camp. I hope next time I am in this kind of a situation that I can remember the courage you had in order to muster up some of my own. Thanks for your honesty.