or, how much is enough?

Now, the first thing I should say is that I’ve never done this. I’ve never panhandled anywhere (knock on wood) but this instead is a story about someone who I met, who will probably never share their story, and who really made me think. I’m not a brilliant story-teller either, but some things almost write themselves

It was the completely normal kind of oozing, grey, wet day that is so common here in Vancouver, and when it lasts for days, as it had on this particular occasion, it gets depressing and seems a lot colder than it is since it’s almost impossible to get dry. Especially if you’re outside a lot, which is particularly relevant here.

Following my usual route home, I walked past a Starbucks, on my way from one bus to the next, and was stopped by a man who asked me if I had any spare change. He was sitting in a doorway, a few feet from the door into the Starbucks, back against the wall in what seemed like a pretty much hopeless attempt to keep dry. Now, depending on where you live and spend your time, this may be something of a rare sight to you, or, as it is here in Vancouver, this may be a normal part of your city’s backdrop.

So it happened to be a day when I did have a little bit to spare, and I pulled out my wallet and fished out a twoonie (that’s a Canadian two-dollar coin) to hand the guy. He thanked me and asked if I had an extra cigarette, since I was smoking one at the time, which I did, and which I handed him. As I bent down to hand him my lighter, I made some sort of comment about it being nasty and wet out, and how hard it must be not to have somewhere dry to go. Lo and behold, we got talking.

This man, Bob, he explained to me that in Vancouver it was barely ever really cold enough for the weather to be the hardest part of panhandling, instead, he said, it was the people. Imagine, he instructed me, being so hungry that your stomach is past rumbling and is just a dull ache that cramps your body into a little ball. Imagine that was how it felt almost every day, and you hardly had the strength to walk long distances and got dizzy when you moved. That’s being hungry. Bob said to me, “On days like today, I could punch someone” and I could really see what he meant.

So I imagine sitting outside a Starbucks, hunger holding me in place, trying to talk the people going in and out with their expensive coffees into tossing me a coin towards a slice of pizza or cheap burger, all I’m likely to get that day, and only even that if I’m lucky. If anyone stops and does give me that coin. So sitting with Bob, I watch for a while, and it’s true, pretty much nobody stops. I sit and chat with Bob about the insufficiency of shelters and the best places to collect bottles for twenty minutes or so, and the closest he comes to having anyone give him a coin is a middle aged guy in a suit who tosses him his used bus ticket. Most people, in fact, don’t even seem to see him, despite the fact that he says something to almost all of them. Because I'm sitting with him, I become invisible too.

I think I might want to hit someone too. It’s a surprising thought for me, because I’m about as non-violent as it gets, but I really think I would. If I had to spend all day watching people spending 3 or 5 dollars on fancy coffees while doubled over with hunger pains, and have none of them even toss me a dime, I might just lose it, because really, how much is enough? Everyone in our society seems to feel like they don’t have enough, most of the time, to give any to someone in need. Why is that threshold so high?

Many great thinkers have described freedom as involving some sense of liberation from need for the necessities of life, which we often think of as freedom from want. But I wonder, have we gone too far? Is the only way to achieve freedom from want, at this point, for the vast majority of us, to stop wanting so much? It seems to me like the only way we’ll ever believe that we actually can afford to help someone else might be to limit the number of things we perceive ourselves as needing, so that in our relative wealth, we can finally begin to be able to see the surplus.

Bob only got $2 and a couple of smokes from me. I got a story that helped me put myself in someone else’s shoes and put my own needs in perspective. Enough is enough, and even though in my own view of society, I have relatively little, in the eyes of many, I have lots. I have a surplus. And I’ll never think twice about it again. If I can afford that $3 latte, I can afford to give Bob a dime.

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