I can smell him before I see him – the odour of cat urine and stale cigarettes reaches all the way down the stairs. He is always wearing the same leather jacket and black baseball cap. When he opens his mouth to speak his yellowing beard reveals a number of missing teeth. His words come out as bursts as if it’s an effort to push his thoughts out into the world.
This outward description probably wouldn’t put this gentleman on your list of dinner guests you’d like to have over, and yet, I am honoured to call him a friend.
I wasn’t always so sure about him. The first time he came to the Drop-In he announced to the group that he had found his housemate dead 2 days before. He didn’t seemed too affected by this experience. His appearance, gruff speech and nature of conversation were all off putting, but it was the smell that was especially noticeable. In our 2nd floor space where the windows don’t open, it was stifling.
I have to admit that I was not disappointed when he left after only a short stay. He did come back to have more coffee and eat more muffins. He also came back the week after that, and the week after that, always interspersing his time at Drop-In with panhandling to get a few bucks.
And slowly, week after week, I have come to notice all the details that got missed during my first encounter with him.
It turns out that he has a sweet, almost child-like nature that is rare to see in a 64 year old man. His eyes twinkle when he speaks as if in every word he says there is a valuable secret to be earned. The week of his birthday he could barely sit still, telling us about every encounter with friends or family members bringing their good wishes or gifts of cash.
He is always polite and courteous, noticing details others would walk past. When it’s windy out he uses his breaks to check on our sign and props it back up when it falls. When we’re closing things up and I ask someone to take in the sandwich board outside, he runs to complete the task before anyone else can say a word. He loves to take part in the trivia games that one of our volunteers creates and organizes. Energetically announcing answers no matter how wrong they might be and often showing a hidden brightness that takes everyone by surprise.
A few weeks ago when he promised my son that he would bring him some toy cars, I wasn’t sure that he would remember. On our way to Drop-In, my son kept saying “That guy has hot wheels for me today”. I had my doubts that bringing toys to my son would be a priority to someone who spends most waking hours walking the streets. But the moment he saw my son, he grinned and jumped up to go get a plastic bag of cars and other toys he had somehow collected over time.
There are days when we really wonder if running our small Drop-In is really worth it. We wonder if it is truly fulfilling its purpose and if it is really meeting a need in the community. There are days when we get caught in the trap of looking for success in numbers or in big transformations.
On other days, days like today, I see success as offering my friend a place to belong, to laugh, and to share. I see success in offering this gentleman a place to be himself and in a world that is too often built on first impressions – a place to be discovered. This kind of success does not belong to me or to any one person, it is rather something to keep aiming for as we walk our streets and interact with those around us. I’ve learned from my new friend that you can tell you’re close when you take a deep breath in and the smell makes you smile.
By Jasmine Chandra