This story is by Dennis Martin and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Don’t look at me that!” thought Phil Smith. “I’m not a monster, I just asked if you could give me a bit of money. You look like you have plenty. I guess I thought you could spare a few dollars for me.” But the businessman scowled at him, crossed the street, and walked away.
Phil was a homeless man who had lived on the city streets his entire life. His usual home, if you could call it that, was under the shelter of a railroad bridge that spanned Calgary Avenue on the west side of town. But here toward the east end of Calgary Avenue, was the best place to beg for money. It was in the richer business end of town, and it was easier to get people to give here. However, despite his homelessness, Phil avoided begging if at all possible and used it only as a last resort.
Homelessness was all Phil had ever known, and that in itself was bad. But he had it even worse than that. His mother was a drug addict. So in addition to homelessness, his first memories in life were the crippling cravings of withdrawal and the stifling effects of a drug damaged mind and nerves. Also, he was often physically abused by his father. His first memories of him were the pain of a bruised back, and bruising mental anguish. Because of all this, he had become just too damaged to get ahead in life and climb out of poverty. So he lived under the shelter of the Calgary Avenue railroad bridge and hopped from one small job to the next to pay for his bare necessities. If he was lucky, he had enough money to buy more food than the one meal a day that the soup kitchen downtown provided him.
Today though, was one of those days that Phil had resorted to begging. Christmas was on Saturday and he had decided earlier in the week that he wanted to surprise his Mother with a visit for Christmas. She lived in Richmond, which was about an hour’s bus ride away. Phil would need to find a way to get money, for bus tickets and food, before Friday evening, so he could catch the 6:00 pm bus. It was the last bus headed to Richmond before Christmas. Phil figured he could probably find a small job somewhere to fund his small Christmas trip. However, he had spent almost all the week looking for work and hadn’t had any success.
Finally, on Friday afternoon, Phil went to the Calgary Avenue business section of town to beg for the money. He had miscalculated though. The businesses in this area were mostly banking, real estate, and professional offices. Normally Friday afternoon was bustling in this area, but a lot of the businesses had closed early for Christmas, so there wasn’t much foot traffic left. Also since the foot traffic was light Phil didn’t blend into the crowd as well as he could on a busy day. Because of this some of the pedestrians recognized him as a beggar from a distance and crossed the road to avoid him. This lowered his success even further. By late afternoon he had some money collected, but not quite enough. He was about to give up in defeat when he saw a businessman down the street lock his office door and begin walking towards him. So far today, the little success he had been having, was with the business people. Just maybe this man would give him the remaining amount that he needed. He could probably make do if he could get just another $10.
* * * * *
Richard Jones locked the front door of his real estate office along Calgary Avenue and hurried down the sidewalk toward the parking garage two blocks away. It was Christmas eve and he was headed home to a party with his family. He had worked later than he intended to but he was satisfied because he had closed a commercial real estate deal today that put him in record sales territory for the year.
Richard hurried down the sidewalk toward the crosswalk at Eighth Street and Calgary Avenue. He would need to really hurry if he was going to make it home on time. He impatiently paused at the crosswalk. He would probably need to wait for the crosswalk signal because traffic on Eight Street was busy at this time of day. He was about to make an attempt at crossing the street when he heard someone call out to him. “Excuse me, sir. Could you spare me some money?” Richard turned and looked. He thought he recognized the man who was walking towards him. If he was right, it was the homeless man that lived under the railroad bridge several blocks away. Richard drove through that underpass every day on his way into the city, and he often noticed him. He had seen the man begging here before too. He always bitterly thought of him as a lazy leech who preyed on the goodwill of society. Who else would spend their whole life sleeping on the sidewalk and begging to survive?
Richard paused a moment considering whether he should give to the man. The homeless man read his face. He had gotten good at reading peoples’ faces after years of being at the mercy of others. He saw the doubt, then a softened flicker of compassion raised his hopes, but the face changed again and hardened into contempt. “No,” Richard said. “How do I know you won’t just use it for drugs or alcohol.” “I won’t,” the homeless man said. “I need it for a bus ticket.” “A bus ticket? When you look like you are starving?” Richard scoffed. “What for?” But before the man could respond, the crosswalk signal changed. “I’ve got to go. I’m running late. Go to the soup kitchen downtown if you need a meal. Or better yet, get a job,” Richard said, and he scowled at the homeless man as crossed the street.
* * * * *
Phil checked his watch after the businessman walked away, it was 5:45. It’s too late, he realized. Even if he had the money now he couldn’t make it to the bus station in time to catch the 6:00 bus to Richmond. His hope gone, he turned and shuffled back towards the railroad bridge.
And while the people who had shunned and avoided him all afternoon were enjoying their Christmas eve in the warm; he would be laying out on the cold, hard concrete trying to stay warm and sleep. And while the traffic whizzed past him on the street as people rushed about making their Christmas plans and wishes come true, his had been ruined.
“People would probably think I am crazy,” Phil thought. “To go to all that effort to try to visit my Mother when I struggle just to keep myself fed. After all, her bad choices are a lot of the reason that I have had such a rough life.” “I still love her though,” he decided. “In spite of all that.” “You see,” he said out loud as if his scorners could hear him, “I’m not a monster even though you treat me like one.” “For I can love the unlovable.”