The Guy by the Side of the Road

June 21, 2016

Ottawa, Ontario

In jeans and a t-shirt, ball cap on his head, a man about my age stands by the side of the road. It is rush hour and this is a lane leading on to the highway. We crawl along, waiting our turn to creep through a set of lights. It’s the second day of summer. The day has been great, sunny and warm but not hot.

The man in the ball cap has a paper coffee cup in his hand. The cup no longer holds coffee or any other beverage for that matter. Now it is for loose change. He holds it nonchalantly by his side. He’s not even looking into the eyes of the drivers backed up at the light. He doesn’t even extend the cup out. He has no battered, cardboard sign to explain why he is standing there, collecting change in a coffee cup.

A few drivers offer change. Maybe one in twenty or thirty cars. Most of us likely don’t meet the guy’s eye or engage in any conversation. I’m guessing that because I don’t. Why is that? What am I afraid of? I don’t happen to be someone who believes that person should just get a job. I have no right projecting my ignorant bias on someone whose story I do not know. I consider myself a compassionate individual this way.

Yet something makes me recoil. And that something is very disappointing to me. I try to pinpoint what it is, what makes me avert my eyes and not treat the man as a fellow human being, worthy of my recognition and respect. The only thing I can come up with is that he reminds me of my own fragility. I can’t imagine how low your self-worth must be when you can stand by the side of a road with a coffee cup, begging for coins. I can’t imagine how small he feels, how humiliated.

Like so many people, I struggle with a feeling of worthlessness. Yet I have so many things in my life that give me worth, that should drive the lie out of my brain. But it persists and I persist in craving affection, admiration, attention; all the things that are likely in short supply for this guy in the ball cap with the coffee cup.

Can I not offer simple dignity? A kind word, even if I don’t have change. An acknowledgement of his existence. Eye to eye contact. Anything. Anything.

I am not better than he is. In fact, in some ways, I am the more pathetic. What do I have to be morose about? Why should I dwell on my feelings of inadequacy?  I have no reason. No reason at all.

I feel ashamed that I didn’t make some kind of contact with the guy by the side of the road. Humanity needs to look humanity in the face. Looking away drives away what we share. And I am to blame for that.


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