I witnessed something unusual on my way down Decarie early this afternoon. I was driving along, minding my own business, when I happened to look up and see a young man, probably in his mid-twenties, walking down the lane markers between cars, shaking his drive-thru coffee cup and making "I need money" gestures at drivers and passengers alike. That in itself is not unusual, not in Montreal, especially not while the sun is shining and the weather is passably warm. But what followed made me really reflect on our society, on how we (as a community) raise our children, and how insidious our own prejudice may be.
As the light was about to turn green, the young man suddenly perked up and swung his head in the direction of the sidewalk. It took him a couple of tries before he saw what had caught the attention of his ear. Standing on the sidewalk near the gas station, there was a woman, maybe in her early to mid-thirties. With her, she had two children, one maybe 10 years old, the other maybe 7-8 years old. The woman was smiling broadly, and she was beckoning to the man who had been walking on the road. I could clearly see that in her hand she held paper money. Whatever it was, it wasn't a dime and a spitball in the eye; it might have been a five, or a ten. The young man pointed to himself, visibly surprised, and when she grinned and nodded, beckoning him forward with the money as bait, he came running between the cars. He was in perfect safety, because the light had barely turned green, and no one was moving anyhow.
Soon, I was directly across from them, and I could see the actual moment when the woman on the sidewalk gave the young man the money.
Then I happened to glance in the rear view mirror. A cop car had suddenly turned on his rooftop lights and pulled into the gas station driveway. I had barely gone a car length forward before I saw the officer had his door open and that he had stepped out to speak with the young man, the mother and her children.
I have no idea what passed between them. I don't know if there were charges pressed or warnings issued - and if so, to whom - but it inspired in me a stack of questions.
Who was at fault? What law was broken? People beg strangers for charitable donations all the time, but that's not illegal - so how is this different? Was it a traffic violation, or was it something more?
And what about that woman, as joyful a giver as she is? There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that she's simply a generous soul, and she was probably taken aback by the intervention of the police. Maybe she'd been in the act of teaching the merits of kindness to her children. Maybe she was trying to teach them that we should never judge. What was going on in her mind the moment that officer switched on his lights and pulled over to speak to them?
And more importantly: what was going on in the minds of those children? They must have been watching all of this with wide eyes. What would they be thinking of their mother, when she demonstrated a willingness to give money to a complete stranger - one, presumably, in need of money and a kind word? What would they think of this young, able-bodied man, walking between cars begging for money, when presumably he was fit enough for a second chance and some stable employment? And most importantly, what would they think of the police, who made such a big and visible deal about the exchange of money between mother and vagabond?
I'd just finished reading Jo Walton's Farthing (a Christmas gift from Michael Lorenson), and there was a particular quote that struck me and stuck with me. Further research actually attributes the line to Anatole France. "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich
as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and
to steal bread." As soon as I saw those lights go on, that's the quotation that came to mind.
So, one question that's stayed with me since early this afternoon is this: "What did those two children just learn about our society today?" Because surely, I'd just witnessed a formative moment in their lives.
And the other question is: "What did I just learn about my own prejudgement?"
Literary sidenote: Anatole France also said: "When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it."