When I wake up each morning, the first thing I see are splashes of orange and red transforming yesterday’s leafy green tree in the courtyard outside my window… slowly taking over its branches and bringing vibrancy and change. Fall is a time for makeovers, so whatever you are holding onto that needs a fresh new take, paint over it with your favourite colour. Paint your pain red, your doubts yellow, and your fears a bright shade of purple.
Today I was on my way to get a haircut at a nearby salon called Untitled – what an alluring name. I’ve been walking by it for months and admiring the open space, industrial design, and walls full of plants. I booked an appointment the other day, eyeing the sign on the chair next to the counter that said, “There is no planet B”. So why do we act like there’s a C and D too? Anyway, it was quite the glamorous place for a haircut and I was looking forward to an hour of relaxation and emerging transformed and fresh.
As usual, I was in a rush, thinking I had to get back in less than an hour to churn out a report, and my pace was brisk. The air was surprisingly biting, like only the end of October can be, with hints of winter that catch you off guard. As I walked past Grant street, I noticed a homeless woman on the sidewalk. Since I’ve returned to Toronto, I find it much harder to walk by as I used to. I check if the person is ok, or as ok as they can be. This woman was dark-skinned, with a small face that was covered by her black jacket hood. She was spraying clorox bleach spray onto her face, her pants half off, and muttering to herself. My heart stopped, as I thought about what to do. She belonged in a safe place with medical attention and care.
I walked back to her and asked if she needed help. She looked quite frightened and shook her head and it seemed like she didn’t understand what I was asking and then I heard her say “thank you.” I said, “What’s your name?” and she said, “I don’t have a name.” There were plastic bags full of stuff strewn around her.
I tried calling 311 (city services), who transferred me over to the police station. I was on hold for so long that I hung up and called 311 again and they transferred me to street outreach, but then I got abruptly disconnected. My hands were freezing cold and I cancelled my hair cut. I couldn’t believe that everyone was walking by, gaping at her and making sure to avoid her as much as possible, and continuing along their way. I was a little out of sight so there was no way they knew that someone had already called. Is this what we’ve come to? I thought. No one stops for people in distress anymore?
Finally I got frustrated telling everyone “no it’s not an emergency” and just called 911. I was transferred to ambulance services and talked to a kind man who said that yes sadly we’ve come to a place where people step over people that are lying on the street. He was very compassionate, as the woman from 311 had been too. I once watched a video of a woman in China who was dying on the street and no one stopped – I know people watched it here and judged the passersby and shook their heads in shock. We all do it though, especially when it’s the social norm, thinking – it’s not my problem, it’s not safe, that’s just what everyone does – any excuse to put a veil between our common humanities.
I waited for the ambulance. I called my parents which lifted my spirits, and my dad said that he hoped that people just thought I’d already called and she was taken care of, and my mom said that maybe people didn’t think it was safe to do something. My mom said, “You did a good thing. Now don’t be sad.”
I went inside a butcher shop to warm my hands a little. I picked it for a reason – there was a nice man that worked there that I’d chatted with a few days before – on that day I’d mentioned that I was vegetarian so I normally don’t go into butcher shops, but I’d glimpsed some kale and vegetables that I wanted for the pasta I was making that evening. He mentioned that they make fresh marinara sauce too – a nice added bonus! Today he was sympathetic – he said that he knew of this woman, with the same spray bottle, and they had called the police multiple times. It comforted me to know that someone had done something. He said he wished he could offer me a hot drink, and to stay as long as I wanted.
The ambulance never came. A police car drove by and I flagged it down. The cop was very kind and said that it was a good thing that I called. He said that he would go and talk to the woman and ask if she wanted help, but if she refused there was nothing he could do. He said that people in the world suffer atrocities that me or him could never fathom, and we do what we can, and that he takes solace in the fact that he sees more good than bad. Quite a philosophical conversation with a random police man who was half parked in oncoming traffic!
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the woman had started to walk away as soon as she saw the police car. Perhaps she’d had a bad experience in the past. Perhaps the mental health ward had not been much help to her… or maybe it had but she didn’t know how to accept help again. I saw the police car stop near her and then soon after it drove away.
This evening I went out to the convenience store and for a walk – the streets were empty and the lights of downtown glittered in the distance. On my way home, I saw her… dragging her bags, head hunched… but safe in her own world, and on her way. And so I went on mine.