Amidst General Indifference

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Don't turn a blind eye

Don’t turn a blind eye

“What is he doing here?”

I was coming from the supermarket, a heavy about-to-rip plastic bag full of groceries precariously hanging over the handles of Mark’s stroller. That Saturday, the sidewalk was packed with people enjoying the nice weather and the last days of les soldes. I didn’t walk to plow into idling pedestrians so I stepped into the road (theoretically car-free on weekends), hoping the plastic bag would hold until my parents’ place.

I almost bump into him. A guy, sitting in an antique hospital wheelchair, in the middle of the road. I glanced at him but I didn’t slow down. Fifty or so, although it was hard to tell because he was in bad shape, unshaved and dirty. Filthy dark green clothes that may or may not have been another colour ten years and a hundreds of washings ago, shoeless, both feet partially amputated—hence the wheelchair—an open bottle of wine on his lap, a bunch of plastic bags tied to the back of the chair. His head was tilted back and he smelled of wine. Quick diagnosis? Passed out, likely drunk.

People were walking around him as if he was street furniture.

“He can’t stay here!” I sighed to myself. Not that the sight of a homeless guy may deter gourmet shoppers from pushing the doors of the chocolaterie next door. But bicycles, motorbikes, delivery trucks and street-cleaning vehicles are still allowed in pedestrian zones. He could get run over.

I looked around to see if a police patrol was around. No blue in sight. The holy lunch-break hour, I guess.

I arrived at my parents’ place and promptly forgot about the drunk homeless guy.

An hour later, Mark, my mom and I headed out for a walk.

“He is still here!” I said incredulously, spotting the same homeless guy in the same street.

“I don’t think I’ve seen him before,” my mum noted as we got closer. When you live downtown, you get to know the street life around—homeless people, panhandlers, gutter punks, etc. It’s actually common to reach a status quo: once they know you live around and walk by twenty times a day, they just nod instead of asking for change, and locals can also offer a baguette once in a while.

But this guy was a stranger. I hadn’t seen him before either and by then I had walked around a lot with Mark.

“And he was in the same spot earlier, you said?” my mum asked. “I’m surprised no one moved him.”

Mind you, we weren’t moving his chair either. It felt like overstepping boundaries. And where would we push him, anyway?

“Well, I guess I didn’t do anything either,” I admitted. “But we’d better let the police know,” I added. “Because otherwise, if we all turn a blind eye… he will still be here tonight. Unless he gets run over before.”

“Looks like he is drunk,” my mum agreed. “But I don’t like the idea of leaving someone passed out like that. After all, we don’t even know for sure he is drunk, we are just assuming!”

It wasn’t a wild guess or a stereotypical assumption. The empty bottle on his lap and the smell of alcohol were good clues. Still, you can die from alcohol poisoning.

It took me a little while to find a police patrol but a few blocks later, I bumped into one.

“Excuse me,” I said. “There is a homeless guy rue de la Fosse and…”

“Did he do anything to you? Is he aggressive?”

“No, quite the opposite. He is in a wheelchair, passed out in the middle of the road.”

“Oh, that’s Jean-Pierre.”

“Jean-Pierre?”

Oui, that’s his name.”

“Well, I’m a bit concerned because he is in the middle of the road and he doesn’t look like he can move around easily.”

“We know him well. He is an alcoholic and a diabetic,” the policeman sighed.

Hence the amputated feet, the wheelchair and the smell of booze. See, I can be a cop too.

“I’m just afraid he is going to be run over. And, well, he is passed out…”

“Mam, don’t worry about him. You should watch your bag,” he added. “There are pickpockets around.”

Case closed.

The short discussion left me a bit dumbfounded. I’m not naïve, I wasn’t expecting the police to run to his rescue and I know that there is no quick fix for homelessness. Social workers can help, there are soup kitchens and shelters and you can’t exactly force people to use them.

But still. Should we turn a blind eye when we see someone who may need help? Should we be immune to social tragedies and other people’s distress?

There is a thin line between keeping an eye on fellow human beings and overstepping. I must admit I get annoyed when random strangers tell me how to parent: “your son isn’t tied up in the stroller!” (I know, he is almost three and can open the seatbelt by himself so there is not point) “Where is your mommy, little one?” (I’m right HERE! Gee, I’m not going to step inside the sandbox…) “Make sure he doesn’t fall into the fountain!” (Oh, really?)

Yet, I think that if you have that gut feeling, you should say something. Because if no one does, then what?

One day, I was pretty sick in Buenos Aires and I had to take a seat while Feng was buying me cold water. I had a fever, not the end of world, but I felt weak and I just looked like shit. Several people slowed down and asked me if I was feeling okay. The two-second check was truly appreciated. It made me feel human and I appreciated the help offered.

And as travelers, Feng and I relied on the goodwill of strangers more than once, to know what parts of town were dangerous, when the next bus would come and whether the ATM was rigged.

I still think that if someone doesn’t look okay or something doesn’t look right, you should say something. Indifference is rarely the best option.

Because awful things can happen amidst general indifference.

And because we are trying to live in a society here.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

5 Comments

  1. The same things I have been pondering of late. I could have written this. I don’t know what I would do, because my safety comes first and people displaying atypical behaviour could respond to help atypically. It is so tough. I so wish I knew how to help. Hamilton is tough for this stuff.

  2. I won’t give money to mall rats or street kids if I think that they are just looking for cigarette money but I will help people if I think that they are genuinely needy. One time, in downtown Edmonton, I was working late and I ran across a couple of young teenage runaway girls hanging in front of Chez Pierre’s strip club on Jasper Ave. I didn’t want them to get picked up by the pimps that usually cruise the stroll looking for new recruits so I bought they supper at the A&W. The place was full of hookers and their perfume was so strong that I couldn’t evern taste my burger. I wasn’t trying to play social worker but I thought that maybe the girls parents were worried about them and would want them to come home so I talked them into phoning their parents in Vancouver. I paid for the calls and their parents just swore at them and told them not to come back. I know first hand that teenage girls can be tough to live with but you can’t just kick them out on the street. I wished them luck and gave them each $20 and directions to the nearest women’s shelter. I always wonderd what became of them.

    A few years ago, in downtown Regina, I encountered an old woman in a pink housecoat and slippers. I was just getting off work and my bus was coming but she looked so lost that I knew I had to help her. There was a large senior’s home nearby so I figured that she had wandered away from there. I took her arm and led her the few blocks to the building. The people there knew her and took her in. I was 20 minutes late getting home but it felt good to help someone.

    Have you had any smoke pollution in Ottawa this summer? Today in Regina it is 31C and the smoke from Washington state and British Columbia is hanging in the air. The sky is dirty gray and looks like it did when Mount St. Helens blew up. This is worse than the volcano because the ash just settled on the cars but the smoke stings your eyes and nose. A month ago it was smoke from the fires in La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan. At least I am not in Calgary which is supposed to worse than Beijing.

    • No, it’s fine! Not a wall of text, don’t worry. An interesting read as well, you recognized people who genuinely needed help and gave a hand. That’s what I think most people should do… we can sometime use the help of a stranger. I don’t “spare change” much either but I often buy coffee (in winter) or a snack when I see homeless folks. I ask beforehand if they’d like something to eat and drink and so far, they’ve been grateful and friendly. Just a two-minute connection… but I think it makes the world less harsh, more humane.

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