I forgot how overwhelming a big city can be until I moved back to Toronto from western Newfoundland. So many buildings, so many people. Everybody jostling — even the street people who hover around the subway entrance, holding cardboard signs and cajoling handouts.
Angel isn’t one of them. She has her own spot, on the sidewalk, next to a health food store. It must have been her quietude that drew me to her. She has an apartness, an aura of calm. She does not have a line of patter, nor a cup for money. If someone approaches, she smiles, holds out her hand, says thank you very much. Then she goes back into her stillness, sometimes singing
Perhaps because she is such a contrast to the chaos around her, Angel has become “my” street person. Few of us have enough money to give a handout to all the needy. As the Gospels teach, the poor are always with us: you simply can’t serve them all. You can become swamped by your inability to help, or you can do as I did and pick one person. I give my small change, and anything else easily portable and likely to be helpful, to Angel. I bring her food sometimes and squat with her to eat it. We have gone out for lunch together a couple of times.
Dark haired, slim, healthy-looking, even pretty, Angel keeps herself well. Under other circumstances, she would be the woman in the office you wonder about: Why did she never marry? Should I set her up with my cousin?
Angel isn’t her real name. Most homeless people have a street name along with a spot that is theirs. They develop a persona that helps them to be that name in that place. Angel can be territorial about both. The only time I have ever seen her truly angry was when she heard that someone else was using her name. When your name is all you have, it is important that it not be appropriated.
She was born in Temiskaming, Ont., 44 years ago. When I heard her singing and commented on her lovely voice, she told me she was “the Shirley Temple of Temiskaming.” I laughed and asked her if her hair was curly then. She looked mystified. “You know, like Shirley Temple,” I said. Turns out she doesn’t know who Shirley Temple is. Angel invents the songs she sings. They come from the heart in exchange for her daily bread.
I ask her where she lives. “I live around the corner, in a room,” she says. But another time, she tells me she lives so far from her spot that she’ll sleep “rough” if it takes her longer than usual to panhandle the money she needs. I ask her how much is enough: “Twenty dollars.”
Sometimes when I talk with Angel, we have a real conversation. Other times, I ask a question and she looks at me, dazed, and asks me to repeat what I said. I think: drugs. When I hint at this, she demands that I tell her who suggested she is a druggy. She is not and never was, she asserts. She is cross with me. I don’t know whether to remain skeptical or make a leap of faith. I decide to believe her.
She certainly shows no outward signs of addiction. Her habits are regular. She is polite, clean and never smells of alcohol. I suspect mental health challenges, but don’t ask. I can’t do anything for her in any case, and I don’t want to be like the woman who helpfully insisted that Angel visit the food bank, as if that were the solution to her problems. Angel tells me she went and got groceries so she wouldn’t disappoint the lady. But she has no kitchen and had to give them away.
Angel is articulate and has a good vocabulary. Her grammar is excellent. I ask her if she liked school. She answers me in her own roundabout way: “My brothers went to school. They have jobs up north. I can’t go there anymore.” Does she want to? No answer, just a shrug.
She likes walking with me, and I with her. One time, I was walking my small terrier, and Angel joined me. Out of the blue, she showed me her wrists, which are always covered. I can see scars, long, thin, white and deep. “I fell on a knife,” she said. I don’t believe her for a second, but I don’t know how to take the conversation to the next stage. I let it drop.
Our best chats are over food: it puts her in a talkative mood. “Have you got a special friend?” I ask one day. She puts down her burger long enough to grin at me: “I had a boyfriend — hey, maybe I still do!” I ask her about kids; what I really want to know is whether she ever had a child. I reach for photos of my husband and daughter. She answers me by saying very earnestly that she would like to have a baby someday. I quickly put my little album away, hiding my face, knowing my eyes have tears in them.
I don’t know how to solve the problem called Angel. The feeling that I should and could be doing more, better, less clumsily, haunts me. She disappeared for a month last summer, and I worried that she was ill or worse. I tried to convince myself she had gone on vacation or home to her family. When she reappeared at her spot on the sidewalk, I had to resist the urge to probe. I have learned to respect the quiet privacy in which she wraps herself.
There are days when I don’t have the courage to deal with Angel. I change my routine to avoid her. I justify it by convincing myself that Angel has made her decisions, just as I have made mine. But I know it isn’t so, that her choices were blunted by whims of time, genetics, upbringing.
Surely God didn’t blunt them. God can’t have invented the downtrodden to push the rest of us to do good. I have read and reread both books of the Gospel where the phrase “The poor are always with us” appears, and I have searched the commentaries, trying to make sense of my time with Angel. But like so many angels in the Scriptures, the meaning of this Angel slips out of my grasp.
So I will continue to give her a loonie when I see her, more at Christmas or when I hear from my own beloved daughter and am so moved by the contrast that I can’t bear it. I will still take her out for a pop, ignoring the disdainful looks of the café owner. I will stand in my living room, debating how I will offer her this sweater that is too small for me, or this clutch of toiletries with a scent my husband doesn’t care for. It is all totally inadequate, but it is my best effort to connect.
I know we will remain separated in ways that are as basic as our physical selves: she on the sidewalk among the scurrying feet, the litter, the slush, the spray of passing cars — always looking up; me with the dubious luxury of always looking down. In the end, I know the only thing we truly have in common is that we are both God’s children. That has to be enough.
Keep it free!
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