The young man stepped forward. "Excuse me, sir," he said, a hopeful sound in his voice. "Do you have a few minutes?" He appeared to be in his early 20's, about my oldest son's age, and was accompanied by a young woman of the same age. They were Greenpeace volunteers.
We - me, my married daughter and her baby - were on a street on the edge of Gastown, an old section of downtown Vancouver. It was a week ago today. The skies were grey and overcast and there was a pronounced moist chill in the air. The gentrification that is pushing its way steadily through the surrounding area hadn't quite made it to this street, and the shops that we passed had an edge of seediness to them, though they probably looked considerably better on a bright sunny day. Most things do.
I was familiar with Greenpeace. They have been around a long time. Not surprisingly, my daughter hadn't heard of the group, so I briefly filled her in on its work.
The volunteer held a clip board in his hand and a bright smile on his idealistic young face. Back in the day, I would probably wouldn't have given this guy the time of day, even though I was sympathetic to their cause. I just wasn't a stranger person. I didn't do strangers very well, in part for reasons I explain below.
As it was, we only had so much time together. This guy looked like he wanted to talk to us about signing a petition. I frankly didn't want to take some of our time and give it to him, rationalizing that, in any event, I wasn't a resident of Canada. I politely declined and we moved on.
Later, after lunch in a neat little Peruvian place, we were walking up the street toward Canada Place (where all the cruise ships dock), my granddaughter nestled in a snuggly against her mother's chest. Ahead of us, we could see a short, crow-like woman, bent over a rolling walker, moving from person to person, obviously asking for money. As we drew closer, we could hear her yelling at someone, presumably because the person had been rude to her as they declined to give her any money.
Like many people, I hadn't particularly liked encounters with panhandlers. Partly, it was because of my not liking encounters with strangers. Partly, it was for the same reasons others don't like confrontations (which is often what they are) with panhandlers.
I steeled myself. I knew she would approach us as we drew near. Sure enough, as we pulled up beside her, rounding the corner, she turned to look at us. Inside a nest of very-nicely streaked hair was a wizened face with tiny eyes.
It's amazing what sorts of communication can pass through the mind in a split second. I made up a story about this woman, where she lived, what had brought her to this point in her life, how old she was, etc. I imagined her to be in her 60's, but in reality, she was probably about my age. Hard living prematurely ages.
She looked for a moment as though she was going to ask us her standard question: "Can you spare a quarter?" But then her eyes fell upon Nutella (the nickname for my granddaughter) behind me, and I could see them widen.
"Oh!" she crooned. "What a beautiful baby! Ohhh, look at the tiny little feet. Ohhh, isn't she precious? Ohhh, she's so beautiful!"
I felt nothing but goodness flowing out of this woman, and I could, with my mind's eye, see her being fed by simply gazing upon the image of my beautiful granddaughter, drinking in Nutella's sweetness.
The spell only lasted a few moments, then she looked up at my daughter and said, "You are so lucky." Then, looking at me, still smiling, she said, "Have a nice day."
She then turned, but after a second, pivoted back toward me and said, "I don't suppose you could spare a quarter?" I reached in my pocket. All I had were four pennies (which that very day, the Canadian government had started removing from circulation).
"I'm sorry," I replied. "This is all I have." To my shame, it didn't occur to me to reach around for my wallet and pull out some American bills. She looked disappointed for an instant, then smiled and turned away, making her way to her next encounter. I watched her for a moment. Then, as I was turning to walk away with my daughter, a couple came up to us, heading across the street.
"Did she creep you out?" the man said as he approached.
"No," savoring the sweet exchange we had just experienced, "not at all."
As I turned to walk away, I saw out of the corner of my eye a look come over the man's face that I would described as "perplexed." A few steps later, my daughter turned to me and said, "I'm proud of you, Dad."
A little further on, as we walked back to the car, we again came upon the Greenpeace volunteers. Passing them, I turned, smiled and said, "You guys do good work." A brilliant smile lit up the young man's face. "Thank you!" he replied. "Have a great day!"
I felt good.
I entitled this post "Encounters with Fear." As it turns out, both my daughter and myself were affected by these encounters in Gastown. On her own blog, my daughter has written about what this encounter with the old woman on the street meant to her and how it prompted her to examine her own fears.
For me, there was a time - before I came out - that I was afraid to approach or interact with strangers, whether they were servers in a restaurant, people I passed on the street, panhandlers, whoever. I attribute that fear to life in the closet and to life in a religious system that engenders a categorization and judgment of people, particularly strangers.
Since coming out of the closet and leaving that religious system, I have found that I am much more open to encounters with strangers. And to the wonder within and stories of each person I might meet. And for that, I am grateful.