Autumn. I feel such peace as I look out of the big picture window in my apartment at the blanket of colour that greets me. I can actually hear the branches of the trees, laden with brilliant yellow and red leaves, as they move back and forth in the high winds. I watch the bits of yellow and red, as they float towards the ground. Okay, to be more accurate, are pushed in their downward direction. No floating here, not with these winds. I love this time of year. It’s colder out there now, a precursor of the winter to come. As I gaze out the window, my mind goes back to another day. A day of brisker winds still. To April 2, 2019, to be precise:
Last evening Bruce and I went to see the play “Fences” at the Grand Theatre. As we sat waiting for the play to start, I perused the audience. Noticing not just a few expensively dressed individuals, I thought: How fortunate we are to be able to afford the luxury of attending plays such as this. I grew up well educated, and not just with the regular classes at school either, but thanks to parents who considered it important, and who could afford it, was exposed to plays and concerts. My mum would give up her ticket to a play so that I could attend in her place with my dad.
I shared my thoughts with Bruce. He was on the same page as me. Later, as I gazed up at the stage, I noticed some people seating themselves in chairs at the sides of the stage. I mentioned it to Bruce. I commented that I wouldn’t want to sit there. Sometimes during performances objects like balls may be thrown, or staged fights may happen where actors go flying through the air. I knew that I’d be afraid of getting accidentally knocked or bonked or something. I mean, life happens, and not always as expected.
He was more open to the idea. It went through my mind that these people maybe had to sit up there because all of the other seats were taken. Poor them. I wondered what their experience would be like. I commented as much to Bruce. He said that those seats were $20.
Oh. I grew quiet. Okay. Never considered that one. Once again, it came into my awareness of how fortunate I was. I have a choice. Others do not. How wonderful if maybe some of the people seated at the side of the stage might otherwise be unable to enjoy plays due to their financial situation. Bruce nodded in agreement.
We watched the play. It included everything that we would have expected and more: thought provoking, emotional, well acted, and powerful. Afterwards I turned to him, said that I was going to boot it to the downstairs’ washroom, that I’d meet him down there. I usually leave my seat quickly after the performance before other people start to leave their seats; once that happens it takes forever to get out of the theatre and I needed to get to the washroom sooner rather than later. He acknowledged what I said. Just before I took off I noticed that he seemed upset. I wondered about that. I thought of his mom and dad, both of whom have passed away. His mom not so long ago. I could see the play triggering memories. The play was hugely about family and ended on a bittersweet note. I also wondered if it was the aftereffects of just the play itself. There had been some pretty intense moments at times. I know that I felt upset.
A bit later, when we were still downstairs, Bruce shared with me that he had needed to get away from the crowd upstairs. He said he didn’t understand why, but the play had affected him deeply. I told him that I felt the same way. I felt like I didn’t want to be upstairs either, what with all of the people milling about. Both of us prefer to have some quiet when emotions run high. I guess time to assimilate what we feel and think is better served, for us anyway, when we are not in the midst of hundreds of people.
We crossed through the exit doors from the theatre into the brisk evening air. I shivered. We turned right and headed towards the bus stop about half a block away. I hope that we don’t have to wait too long for a bus, I thought. I hunched up my shoulders in a vain attempt to ward off the cold. Just steps from the entrance, tucked a bit in from the sidewalk that ran along the road, something caught my eye. A human being? No. Sleeping? On the bare sidewalk? Oh my God! As I took in his tattered clothes and hunched up body I felt my heart break. Even as I write this the sadness threatens to overtake me again. Stunned by what we had just witnessed, we walked by him continuing on our way to the bus stop. I think we were both kind of in shock. Sort of like this can’t be real. We stood at the bus stop for maybe two seconds. I turned to Bruce. Our eyes met. I verbalized what we both knew. He could freeze to death. We can’t leave him there. We need to go back.
I stopped to briefly gaze at the poor fellow, then opened the doors to the small group of people standing just inside the theatre’s entrance doors. I spoke of my concerns. They were concerned too. One of them had spoken to someone inside who was involved with the theatre; she said that that person had called the police foot patrol, and that they were on their way. I told that person that she was a good person and that I was grateful for what she had done. We left again. Standing at the bus stop we waited perhaps a couple of minutes when I again looked at Bruce and said that I need to go back to make sure that he ended up okay and that the police did indeed come. He was thinking the same thing. As we walked back I said to him that I couldn’t care less if we missed our bus or what time we got home. I just had to make sure that the man was okay. When we arrived back at the entrance the people who had been inside the doors who I had spoken to previously were gone. Not so the sleeping man.
And so we waited. And waited. And waited. I looked at my watch, then at the huddled up shape of the sleeping man. I thought about Bruce’s and my conversation earlier about how lucky we were. I definitely hadn’t seen this coming. A huge heads up. I focused on his chest. I wanted to make sure that he was still breathing.
I know that this was meant to be or it wouldn’t be happening, but that didn’t make it any easier. Or, as far as I was concerned, right. I wondered what his story was. How did he get to be where he was? What what was wrong with our society that this even existed?
We continued to wait. Shivering again, I adjusted my scarf more securely around my neck. I thought of the beggar I encountered many years ago in Toronto. The two of us used to chat. Eventually he told me his story. About how he had ended up a street person. His wife had left him many years before. She took their children. No warning. Just disappeared. He fell apart. Lost his high level job. He simply couldn’t cope with never seeing his children again. And so there he was on the street begging.
We continued to wait. Nada. A young woman walking down the street, immersed in her cell phone, walked towards us. When she was near I spoke to her. I told her the situation.
“Could you phone the police?,” I asked.
“Are you new to London?”
“Oh. There are lots of people like that man. He’ll be okay. He won’t freeze to death. This is warm compared to others I’ve seen in colder weather. He’ll be okay. It’s common.”
She made no move to phone the police. I was stunned. How had she gotten to the point in her life that she could be so callous? I felt, more than thought, how can you not care? I decided to ignore her attitude. I persisted. While she was there I noticed that the actors from the play were standing inside the theatre chatting. I said to her, just a minute. I’ll bang on the door to get the attention of the actors. It didn’t work. I tried numerous times. There was no sign of the foot patrol. I looked up to see a police cruiser going by. I waved both hands to get its occupants’ attention. They didn’t see me and continued on their way. What to do? The woman was still standing there. I knocked again, louder this time. Nothing. They were too far away to hear. We waited. No foot patrol.
Finally the actors headed towards the exit doors. Thank God. When they opened them to leave the theatre I engaged with them. I told them the situation, that I had been told that someone had phoned the police ages ago and no one had shown up. I looked at the lead actor; our eyes met. He said he’d go inside and see about it. He was only gone briefly, reappearing to tell me that he had told the theatre manager and they had phoned for the police to come. I thanked him. I thanked all of them for caring. Again, I said you are good people. I included the young woman who we had initially engaged to help and who had done nothing. I don’t know her conditions and I don’t judge.
We all continued on our way. With one last look at the man sleeping on the sidewalk we left. As we were walking to our bus stop Bruce commented about the woman’s behaviour. I said to him we don’t really know her conditions. I also said that I deliberately included her in my thank yous and calling her, along with the actors, a good person. You never know. Who knows the effect my including her might have? And of us all acting upon that caring?
I will be forever grateful for this experience. Yes, it is sad. It is a sign of the times that this sort of thing can exist. Yes, we need to, as a society, do more. To care, and to act on that caring.
I suppose that I could look at this whole thing in a negative way. I could highlight that woman with the cell phone in this story as evidence of what’s the point? Everybody is like her. I could say that she is the embodiment of our society, and of our times. Yes, I could take that tack. But no. I truly believe that most people care. Are kind. Yes. It is sad that this kind of thing with this poor man happens way too much. But you know what? I refuse to get caught in the negative. To believe that we are all callous.
I only have to look at the group of twelve or so people who were standing just inside the doors of the theatre. They all certainly cared. They cared enough to try and do something to help. They acted. Bruce and I acted. The performers in the play became involved. I truly believe that all of these people are indicative of the fact that there are indeed lots of caring people out there. People who would act. Who would help.
I then wondered if maybe there are people out there who want to help, but don’t. People who care. They, for whatever reason, just don’t know how. Maybe they don’t realize when they say: “It’s too much. What can I possibly do? I am only one person.” Maybe they only have to have come into their awareness that yes, I am, they as individuals are, only one person. But one person, acting to add a little good in the world, one person at a time, could add up to countless people. Okay, I acted. And what happened? I discovered that I wasn’t alone that cold early spring evening. Others had cared enough to act. To care about that sleeping man.
A friend of mine runs a group of people who sign petitions to various people in power to help prisoners of conscience. He told me once that he has discovered that most people want to help. For whatever reasons, be it they are too busy, they don’t know how, or they feel that their single action won’t even put a dent in the overall picture, they don’t act. Well, what my friend has done is to make it easy for them to act. One or two times a month he chooses three letters taken from Amnesty International’s pleas to help prisoners of conscience, copies them, and then sends them out to over four hundred people with a self addressed, stamped envelope. Upon receiving the now signed letters back he bundles them all up and sends them to various people in power to try and get these prisoners of conscience released. Over the years many of these people have been freed, in part, thanks to his efforts. Here is one person who acts, and through so doing, gives many others the chance to act to do some good in our world.
And so yes, each and every one of us can make a difference.