A Shred of Human Kindness Yields Richness Beyond Compare
Tonight I went to leave my annual property tax payment in the drop box at City Hall. It’s a lot of money to let go of at once. It would pay for a pretty nice vacation, or two. But I’m grateful to pay it—I’m fortunate, actually privileged, to own a home, a nice home, to have a roof over my head and the luxuries that come with it.
Any struggles I’ll have this month due to having to pay this tax—hold back on the Starbucks, cook my own dinner, not buy those new shoes—is my First World problem: I have a home, clothes on my back, food in my fridge and family.
My bank account might lack in dollars at the moment, my wealth factor waning, still I am rich—beyond compare.
There was a young girl sitting alone with some bags and a backpack near the entranceway to the drop box at City Hall. She was maybe 20, or younger, and said she was resting in the shade, escaping the brutal heat of what was a 30-degree day.
“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just too hot out there and it’s cool right here.”
Her name was Tanya and she didn’t have any water so I ran back and found her a bottle in my car. “Thanks, this is good,” she said as she gulped it down.
We chatted for a bit and when I left her I gave her $20.
I’m not usually that generous, but the house I paid my taxes for, the one I’m fortunate to own, is cool tonight, and there’s running water in four different rooms: If I’m hot and thirsty I’ll turn on a tap.
Tanya was grateful: “That’s too much, I’ll be ok.” Then, “Alright, I’ll take it. I’ll buy some food, more water. Maybe I should give a bottle to someone else. Yeah, good idea. Thanks.”
As I drove away, I thought of Wilfred.
I spent a good part of last Monday in search of a specific wallet for my husband. His was a decade old and had finally crumbled in to pieces and nothing but the same style would do. A wallet is a wallet, I thought, but went from store to store to store in search of ‘the one,’ because I can. I have my own car, money for gas, insurance, stuff like that.
I followed a crowd of would-be shoppers from the parking lot towards Winners, and saw an elderly man in a wheelchair holding a sign and trying to grab the crowd’s attention. Everyone kept walking, directing their attention elsewhere.
His name was Wilfred. He was 72. “I’ve had bad luck since March. Goddamned diabetes,” he said as he pointed to an artificial left leg. “You got some spare change?”
We made a deal: Wilfred would remember where I parked my car and I would get some change in the store.
When I returned to the parking lot, Wilfred led me to my car and I gave him a few toonies as payment for his eagle eye.
“Last winter, I lost my car at Meadowlark,” he said. “Couldn’t find the goddamned thing anywhere. Finally took the bus home and came back in the morning when the parking lot was empty. There it was, sitting alone in the middle of nowhere. Miss that damned car. Part of my bad luck since March.”
“Thanks for the chat,” he said as he rolled away. “Oh, and the change. But the chat, thanks for that. God Bless.” God Bless.
It’s wrenching that we live in a society where people like Wilfred express profuse gratitude for a simple chat, a mere kindness, an acknowledgement of humanity, that costs absolutely nothing and gives us everything, a sense that we belong in the world. A kindness we freely dispense to the random people we cross paths with every day—baristas and store clerks and our neighbours as they water their lawns in front of their houses?
“You are so brave and quiet
I forget that you are suffering.”
How is it that us ‘haves,’ who live in a world of comfort, framed by rose-coloured glasses, can be blind to the suffering of others and seemingly void of the simplest of kindness—the acknowledgement that human beings who struggle, who’ve had ‘bad luck since March,’ or forever, exist?
How do we choose to not look or see, or unsee what we’ve seen, write it off as not our problem, and then enjoy a pint with our $20 lunches on a fenced off patio without having even lent so much as a nod in hello?
Like the sea of business people in downtown Edmonton a few weeks back, who parted like the Red Sea to pass by a homeless man laying shoeless on the sidewalk with his pants down to his knees. How can designer heels, Italian leather loafers and $300 running shoes walk right by and leave a last shred of dignity exposed without even checking for a pulse?
How can a group of tour bus passengers, tramping along like cattle, on their way for a shot at Hemmingway’s favourite bar in Havanna, admonish the one amongst them who stopped to give an elderly woman begging a mere 5 CUC?
“She really fooled you,” they chuckled in unison. “Oh my God, you’re a sucker.”
How can a human write a Letter to the Editor, and sign their own name, to a city newspaper proudly professing that they’ll never go downtown, let alone spend a dollar there, because they’re always ‘accosted’ by ‘those people,’ when, in my experience, a simple “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change,” is responded to with a ‘Thanks, anyway. Have a nice day.”
What’s the answer to ‘how can?’ Who’s to know, who’s to judge.
But, I do know this: Having forgone a Starbucks, this cup of $.12 Nescafe I’ve nursed since I got home from City Hall is delicious. It’s full of flavour—dark, bitter, smooth—sweetened only by what was Tanya’s contagious smile, Wilfred’s “God Bless,” and the memory of a Cuban woman’s gnarled fingers gripping my sweaty neck, her tear-stained cheek crushed against mine, dry lips kissing my cheek and the whispered word “Gracias” that traveled warmly from those same lips, snuck into my soul and made a memory so precious it will forever remain tattooed on my heart.
And because of that, all of that, the gift of these important people—people—and many, many more, I will sleep deeply tonight in the comfort and knowledge that for what I have given, I am rich. Rich beyond compare.
And you, you understand that, I know. Maybe you’re rich, too.