On my way to work, I decided to stop in at Pulp Fiction coffee house to pick up a soy matcha latte. It is my occasional $5 morning treat – as a working mama, rewarding myself with a few quiet minutes and something delicious to help savor the moment.
There were two men ahead of me. One larger man who was ordering a drink, one smaller man who was looking into the display case. Brownies, vegan bars, breakfast sandwiches. I wondered whether they were together. The larger man grabbed his coffee and paid, and they exchanged a few words. Yes, they were together. Do they work together? Are they friends?
As the smaller man looked into the display case, I looked at him. He had a scruffy beard, a slight hunch. I briefly scanned his arms – a few scabs on his elbows, but no immediate signs of other scars. I looked at his feet in sandals. His toe nails didn’t look very well kept and his feet were a little dirty, but not bad. His clothes were a little dirty but he could have just been working construction or landscaping.
He said he would get the cheesecake. “Why not,” he said. The larger man said, “ok.” The barista reached into the display case for some cheesecake. “And a brownie too.” She grabbed the brownie. The two men exchanged a few brief words. The larger man had brought the smaller man in to buy him some food, he was most likely homeless, and he chose cheesecake and a brownie. I thought if this is what he gets to eat, that he really should have gotten something more nutritious.
It was my turn to order my $5 drink, and as I was paying, I knew the smaller man was going to come speak to me. He was still standing there and was looking at me with almost the same curiousity as I had of him, but whereas I had no intention of talking to him, I knew he had a plan. As I’ve done before, I avoided eye contact until I no longer could.
He said hello, I sat down at a table to look at my phone and wait for my drink, but instead, I found him telling me his story. I listened with some curiousity and some hesitation. I knew he would ask me for money at some point. I knew the other people in the cafe would be listening with skepticism, perhaps pity for me or him. I wanted to be kind, I wanted to listen, I wanted to help him, but my past experience taught me to be cautious with men like him. Especially as a woman. Especially dressed in my nice work clothes with my $5 drink and fancy wallet, phone and car keys in hand.
If I engaged him a conversation and showed interest, would he get attached? Would he follow me to my car? Crazy thinking, but would he ask me out on a date and then I’d have to say no, getting out the easy way by showing him my fancy ring and saying I’m married? It has happened before.
He moved from Toronto in November. He just got accepted into social housing in downtown Kelowna. (Upon reflection, why didn’t I ask where he lived before he got into social housing? Most likely, he was living on the street). He asked me if I knew where that social housing complex was. I said “no, sorry, I actually just moved from Toronto too.”
He smiled excitedly. “No way! What a small world. Where in Toronto did you live?” Cabbagetown, I said, somewhat hoping he lived in the neighbourhoods around there, so that we could relate on some level. (If you know Cabbagetown, you’ll know that there are some very poor neighbourhoods around there. I guess I just assumed he was from a neighbourhood like that.) “Oh wow. Right downtown. I’m a west side boy. ‘Sauga. Brampton. I moved out here to get away from my family and start new. They’ve all abandoned me because of my schizophrenia. No friends or family. Well, actually, I still kind of have 2 friends, but 2 only.”
Schizophrenia. That makes sense. That’s why he’s kind of twitchy.
The barista called him over because his milkshake with whipped cream was ready. She asked if he knew the man that bought him the food. He said no. She said, “well, that was very nice – you better make sure to do something nice for someone else today.” He eagerly told her that he had already helped someone with their flat tire this morning. He said it with a childlike pride and sincerity. For some reason, I had a sense that he was truthful and kind.
He sat back down with me. “I know I’m not supposed to ask this in a restaurant…” There it was. “Do you have any change you could spare? I need to go over to Safeway to get some Vicks.” He carried on to tell me that he was going through the welfare application process again, because it is under provincial jurisdiction.
I felt bad, said “of course” and passed him a $10 bill. “Please spend it on something good.” I wanted to tell him I had a young son and that the money was going to him instead of my son, so that he would feel some guilt if he spent it on drugs or booze, but I didn’t. Thankfully.
He told me he writes poems and that he wants to write things that would create a common platform for all walks of life. I thought, such kind and big ideas for the world. He said that most people with his condition can’t focus their thoughts, and that some people say he has a gift with words because of his condition. He asked if I wanted to hear some. He has it memorized. And he said he’d put it to music for me.
In the meantime, a woman at the counter was waiting for her drink and saw mine come up. I guess she saw me, sitting sideways in my chair like I wanted to escape. I didn’t mean to sit like this, but when I noticed it, I didn’t move. She asked if the drink was mine, passed it over, and I said “thank you” and took a sip. He started his song.
The words flowed beautifully. They rhymed very well. They had a dark undertone as he spoke about the devil, condemnation, the day of judgment; but he also spoke about God and heaven. I didn’t fully understand what he was saying – whether it was dark and disturbing or beautiful and hopeful. But perhaps it was brilliant. Historically, haven’t some of the worlds’ most talented people been schizophrenic?
He lifted up his milkshake with whipped cream and gave me a respectful “cheers” against my soy matcha. He said “did you like it?” I said, “yes, you have a way with words. You should keep it up.” “Really?” Yes, I said as I was putting a lid on my cup, with some hesitation and confusion. I really was impressed by his poem, but what was I supposed to say? I felt other peoples’ eyes on me and at the same time, I felt embarrassment that I was not fully honest or open with him. I was saying what I thought I should say with the least commitment possible.
He continued to tell me about his condition, how he had ADHD when he was younger, and how he believed that ADD and ADHD were the precursors to many mental illnesses. He said the mind is the least understood body part in medicine, and that we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding mental illness.
I was still standing from putting the lid on my cup and he stood up to meet me. He asked me my name. Norma-Jean. He said his name was JJ. I thought to myself (but didn’t say anything), “hey, I go by NJ. Another similarity!” Instead, I said thank you, told him to keep up with the writing and please take care. I walked away and looked back to see if he was still there, but he was gone.
I sat down in my car feeling distraught, embarrassed that I didn’t treat him with more kindness. I know that these thoughts are what create the ugliness in our society when it comes to mental illness and homelessness. I know that I want to help, and immediately started thinking of reaching out to the non-profits that work in this space, like CMHA and StreetToHome. But I also knew that I wanted to reflect and write this all down.
I don’t know what I would do differently next time. Would I try to listen and have an honest conversation? Would I give him money? Would I carry around Tim Hortons or Safeway gift cards in case he asked for money? That way I knew he would spend it on something useful (or so I would assume). Would I ask him if he did drugs? Would I ask him about housing, food, family, social support, mental health support?
This man left an impression on me. I’m not proud of my reactions. I quickly judged him, even though I don’t want to treat people like this and I have tried to share this experience as honestly as possible. I wish I didn’t make these snap judgments and believe the only way I can stop them is to call out these ugly thoughts. I recognize these thoughts are only reflections of judgments on myself, and that I would rather try to empathize and understand where other people are coming from, no matter their housing situation, financial position, or mental health.
Others may have had similar thoughts about this man – maybe they would have ignored him, maybe they would have spoken to him briefly as I did, or maybe they would have treated him with the utmost compassion. I know what I’d like to say I would do next time, but know that I have a lot of personal work to do before I get there.
Either way, I hope I will see a book of brilliant, world-changing poems published by JJ one day. I also hope he enjoyed his milkshake and cheesecake, his occasional morning treat.
This post also follows some articles and videos I’ve come across recently – some highly disturbing, others enlightening. I believe they are all worth a look.
1. Remarkable young woman and her autism: Carly Fleischmann blogs about her journey with autism
2. CBC news article on disgusting letter to parents of an autistic son: Letter asking to ‘euthanize’ boy with autism not hate crime
3. New legislation driven by Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide: New Brunswick considers new cyberbullying legislation
4. Convocation speech on kindness: George Saunders’ advice to graduates