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Robert Kinghorn: A journey down soft side of street

  • May 10, 2020

Often, we do not see the softer side of people’s nature as they put up a facade of toughness and independence. This is especially true on the streets where the law of the street is, “Don’t show weakness, don’t show compassion.”

Yes, we see the addiction and the violence, but seldom are we allowed into their lives to see the softer side of their humanity. I have been fortunate over the years to be invited into the lives of many people on the street who are willing to let their guard down and talk of what is in the depths of their gentle, fearful hearts.

There are many strange sights on the street, but one of the recurring ones was a lanky man standing on the back of a motorized scooter being driven by an elderly woman who was adept at negotiating the traffic on the busy streets while adroitly hopping on and off the sidewalk. I used to stand fascinated by this and sometimes felt like the people who watch stock car racing, waiting for the inevitable accident.

I recognized the passenger as someone I had previously met outside a seedy bar on the downtown strip and who furtively reached into his pocket and offered me “the best weed on the street.” It was a few months after this, outside the same bar, that he introduced me to “Mama,” the driver of the vehicle.

From that point on, each time I passed the bar there they were together, until one week I saw her and asked, “Where’s your boy tonight?”

She said, “He has not shown up. It is unlike him to leave me here alone.” Later in the evening I saw her in her motorized scooter and I shouted to her, “Hey Mama, has your boy shown up yet?” She slowed to a halt and said the words that betrayed her outward tough appearance: “I’m worried about him. You get older, but you are still a mama.”

The other recent reminder of the softness of the street occurred as I was starting to wend my way home. I looked up and saw the familiar face of Brenda approaching, a lady who had been a regular on the streets, but who I had not seen for two years.

“What are you doing back downtown?” I asked. “I got raped and beaten last week,” she said. “Imagine, I’m 57 and I got raped. It’s been four days now and I’m broke, so I am back on the street for the night.”

I asked how her daughter Fatima and her granddaughter were doing and I told her that I had remembered that she named her daughter after Our Lady of Fatima. Her face brightened into a smile and she said, “My granddaughter is a real cutie. She is going to be an actress, she can wind me around her little finger.”

With that she started to demonstrate her granddaughter’s technique as she held one of my fingers. “She comes up to me and takes my finger like this, and then she slowly starts to hold my other fingers like this while giving me one of these cute sideways smiles as if to say, ‘I’ve got you now.’ Yes, she’s a little actress and I love it. Come by and see me later,” she said. “I’ll be on my usual corner.”

And with that she was gone into the cold and dark of the night leaving me to wonder which is the real Brenda, the grandmother or the prostitute? The reality is that she is both, but we seldom see the soft-hearted grandmother within the prostitute.

Fr. Greg Boyle tells the story of a dream one of his gang members had about him. They were both in a pitch-black room and Fr. Boyle reached into his pocket and pulled out a flashlight which he pointed to the light switch. He said that we cannot turn the switch on for others — we must wait until they are ready to turn it on for themselves.

If we think we have to turn the light on for them we will burn out, and that is 100 per cent certain. We can only point the way to the light.

Moments like meeting Brenda back on the street sadden me, but when I see the softer side of her, I know she will make it one day. I only have to continue to point to the light.

(Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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