What I learned from a homless guy

Quite often I pass by homeless people begging for spare change or food when traveling through downtown Vancouver. The sharp pain of an empty stomach is not at all pleasant and I know that the person begging isn’t just trying to rip me off if they ask for a meal instead of turning everyone’s pockets inside out.

Trapped in a hallway about to exit to the street and surprise a homeless man standing right in-front of the entrance to ‘shake sown’ the pedestrians. Normally this means look busy and give a simile and wave with a sorry sort of look as you quickly pass by. This time I thought I was lucky because someone else got there just a few steps before me giving an opportunity for the next person to slip unnoticed behind him. Little did I know just how efficient this man was.

As I passed he sharply turned around and held a paper cup right at my chest asking if I could spare some change. It wasn’t that I disliked him personally but I was broke without a job and had deadlines coming up the next day. In no more than another month I too would have a financial situation like his own. But instead of getting away he stayed uncomfortably close to my side and asked a new question that asked if I would give him something to eat.

Food seemed reasonable and how much would a meal cost anyways, six maybe seven dollars? So I asked him what he wanted and he replied “just a sandwich, we can go to the store over there”. So I thought alright, this will only take a minute or two. I did ask what he wanted so it would be hard to back out now.

No more than ten seconds later we are in the store with the homeless guy in the lead. Obviously he had done this before and knew exactly what he wanted. And that’s when it happened, he started asking for other things such as three packs of cigarets. Unfortunately for him I am strongly against smoking so there was no way I would give him that. But that was only the first thing he asked for. Once we got to the aisle where the food was I realized what he meant by a sandwich was actually a jar of jam, jar of peanut butter, loaf of bread. Now that cost estimate in my head multiplied three times but knowing he was homeless and that it wouldn’t change my already dismal bank account it rationalized in my head. All the while he was asking for approval of each item just as his hand was about to pick them up and I agreed to all of it.

After that he wanted a box of Cheerios. It seemed the last thing he wanted so I was thinking give it to him and it will be over. So he got that and we went to the register. At the register the counter had a glass top with lotto tickets under it. He tapped and pointed at the ticket he wanted. Lotto being one of the other things I am against it was easy to decline, but if it wasn’t for personal feelings its possible he would have it.

Finally paying for the food he asked if its ok if he went outside and he was gone. Didn’t see him again, no talk or anything. Feeling disappointed I went on with the plans for the rest of the day with an foreboding feeling in my gut since I just spent $20 that could break this months budget.

Thinking about it now I realized that experience had a huge potential opportunity that went almost completely wasted. The only reason it’s not wasted is because of the gains from spending the time to analyze and write about it. Not only was that man a great negotiator but had I been upfront and spoke with him I could have gained more from his knowledge and experience as well as got some pictures which would help me with my art along with a possible friendship. So focused on the future the present slipped by.

The environment around us is largely shaped by humans. Including the homeless whose entire life is in the public environment. Their contributions deserve our respect and appreciation. To ignore those who live within and effect it comes as a great loss to any artist who wishes to better his or hers ability to create compelling art. Even if your socially awkward they are go to resources for photographers looking for interesting sites and an ideal source of life story’s.

One week afterwards I now keep some non perishable food in my bag to hand out. Not only is it easy to give when there are items on hand but its an instant way to meet an often overlooked social group. That $20 was an investment that has had payoffs far greater than its monetary value.