Thursday, 8 January 2015

What's Your Story: Gordie

I met Gordie. He was seated in his wheelchair at the bottom of the escalator. I had just alighted at Dundas subway station from the train heading north. Amidst the throng of people walking through the adjoining level to the Atrium, I saw him perched under the direction signs. He called out to no one in particular - it seemed to me - for "spare change for a coffee." The handle of my lunch bag was perched in the crook of my left elbow, so I made the universal sign for "I got nothin'," with my right hand. And I kept walking. It was Monday morning - the last Monday in December 2014. I wanted to wrap up the year with super early arrivals at work.

I made it about four or five steps away then did the U-turn thing that Torontonians recognize and appreciate. Because, in Toronto, one simply does not stop in one's tracks to turn and head in the opposite direction. The rule is to make a quick glance in the direction of your intended turn - while you keep walking - then, when the pedestrian traffic allows, pull a U-turn and safely blend in the pedestrian flow from the opposite direction. Trust me. After a few attempts, it's like second nature. And, while I'm up, the escalator rule is: Stand Right; Walk Left. And, and, the door rule is: Relieve the other person holding the door open for you (assuming they do) AND hold the door open for the person behind you. Don't worry. If it's longer than two seconds, you can let go - guilt free. There, there. You'll thank me later.

So, the U-turn. I made the safe turn and went back to stand in front of him. I said hi, and asked him whether he wanted me to buy him a cup of coffee. He thanked me profusely. That's so nice of you; I really appreciate it, and so on. I'm not a coffee drinker. Tried it one afternoon several years ago and I did not sleep that night. The fact that I had the beverage at about 2:30, and not being accustomed to it, might have had something to do with that. I do like the scent and taste, though, so I go with decaff once in a while. Where was I going with this? Yeah, I made sure to ask him how he wanted it. Triple. Triple. Medium or large? Large, please. Okay. I'll be right back. Thanks again. That's so kind. I assured him I'd be back. (Not in Schwarzenegger's voice.)

I took the nearby Up escalator, hurried through the two sets of glass doors, then joined one of the three queues at the Tim Horton's in the Atrium. My line was long, and the guy at the front didn't seem to be sure of what he wanted. That happens. Then, a voice to my left called out, "I can help you over here!" He'd just opened his station. I scurried over, "Thank youuuu!" He smiled. I ordered the large triple triple. In a jiffy, I was back through the two sets of glass doors, down the steps (no Down escalator) and across the floor back to Gordie.

As soon as he spotted me, he started thanking me again. I handed him the coffee and assured him it was no problem at all. Then, I did something out of the ordinary. As the crowds passed us by, I sat on the bench next to his wheelchair. I asked him how long he'd been sitting there. He said he'd been there a while. I then said, "You know, I know people don't choose this. Do you care to share what happened?"

He had been working as a contractor with an energy provider and, one day, he fell off a scaffold. Hospital stay, specialized care and loss of income took their toll. In three short years, his common-law wife left, and he lost his home. He's now on Ontario Works (financial assistance). "That's just enough to pay the rent for the rats' nest," he said. He has applied for ODSP - Ontario Disability Support Program - and is waiting to hear back. He told me there were so many times he used to sit and simply feel angry or sad, and that he's also battled depression. "But, you know what I thought of?" He asked, stroking his beard, not expecting a response. "I remembered that poem," he said. He started, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can..." I nodded. He paused, "There's a third bit." I helped him out, "And wisdom to know the difference," I said. He joined me at " know the difference."

We talked for a little while longer. I was gonna be super early for work, but, by this time, I was now gonna be right on time. He told me a story about a homeless person who, clad only in a shirt and pants, found little comfort sleeping on a sidewalk grill years ago. It wasn't the dead of winter, but it was cold. Pretty soon, some people from one of the homeless shelters pulled over, helped him up and took him in. It doesn't happen like that a lot, he explained. I listened as he made the point. "People just walk on by when they see people on the street. People don't care. How do you get people to care?"

I didn't have an answer. I told him I don't know. I paused.
"Maybe one way is to help people become aware?" I asked. I told him I'd like to write about what he told me.
"To try to educate people, you mean?"
I nodded, "Yeah."
"Yeah, people need to know that something like this can happen to anybody," he said.

I stood as I told him it was nice talking with him. He said thanks for taking the time to chat, I must be busy, and so on. I pulled off my right glove and we shook hands.
"You have a strong handshake," he said.
"Yeah. I know. I got it from my dad," I smiled. It's my go to reply when people say that.

Earlier this week, January 6, it was reported that a homeless man was found dead after a bitterly cold night in Toronto. He was found, without vital signs, at Yonge & Dundas, clad only in a T-shirt and jeans. As a result of the Artic Air Mass that descended in this neck o' the woods, temperatures have been hitting -18C and lower, but feel like -27C and lower, because of the wind chill. My mind ran on Gordie. Early reports had said the man was in his late 40s. Gordie had looked older. Later reports said "in his 50s" and "55 years old." On second and third thoughts, I don't think it was Gordie. No mention of a wheelchair, and, even though it's a "rats' nest" he has somewhere to go. Still no word on the identity of the man they found at Yonge & Dundas. He was one of two homeless people found dead this week in the bitter cold.

Life. How it goes - and how it goes on.

May your 2015 be a good one.


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