I had a strange evening.
We were out of toilet paper, of all things, so a walk to the drug store to restock was in order. Weather in Ottawa in November is often one of extremes: either beautiful and picturesque with fluffy, crystalline snow in mounds, or dismal, grey and perpetually rainy. The past week it’s been the latter and today was the worst yet. It has been pouring rain all day today, cold and wet and leaving enormous puddles all over the city. A good day to be inside with friends as we were midday. A good evening to stay inside, warm and safe, not ideal for blocks of walking.
I don’t mind the rain. I quite like it, provided I’m prepared for and expecting it and I don’t have to sit in wet clothes for too long afterward. I can’t imagine, however, sitting outside on the sidewalk in this weather. Dreadful and utterly depressing seems an apt description. So I felt a great deal of sympathy for the man sitting at a corner, hat on the ground in front of him, asking for change.
“I’m sorry,” I answered.
I rarely have change. I rarely have cash. I am entirely too reliant on debit, a trait which Jon finds particularly bothersome. So I apologized to the man in the wet, in the cold, in the dark, in the street, in the night, while everyone was rushing around, running errands, running to a bus, running home to a hot meal.
“Fuck off,” he responded.
And I walked on, waiting for the light to change as the man on the sidewalk behind me muttered curses at the people passing him by, continuing down the street in the wet, in the cold, in the dark, just as before. But it seemed wetter, colder, darker. Angrier.
My encounter has been weighing on me since then. I couldn’t stop thinking about it as I walked to the store, bought my few items (with debit, of course) and then started home again. I was thinking about it right until I was crossing a street and one of the on-coming cars suddenly turned and accelerated directly toward me. The woman driving the car had a cell phone pressed against her ear and she seemed distracted by the rain, by the dense traffic, by the darkness of the evening. I yelled to get her attention, to get her to stop. She narrowly avoided me as I ran across the street. I turned and waved my arms at her, hollering, “Get off your phone!” Other pedestrians turned and looked at me, curious. Now I can’t stop thinking about that encounter, either.
I felt justified in yelling at the driver of that car. Driving with a cell phone in rush hour traffic, in the core of the city, in the dark, in the pouring rain is a recipe for disaster, a disaster she and I narrowly avoided together. Next time she might not be so lucky. Some other pedestrian might not be so lucky. Put the phone down, I thought: drive safely. I felt justified. I don’t want anyone to be hurt.
I can count on one hand the number of times someone has told me, sincerely, to ‘fuck off’. Even fewer are the times that I have said it to someone. Those incredibly rare times that I did, though? I meant it. I felt justified. The man on the street corner felt justified. Justified by poverty, by discomfort, by rain, by cold, by anger, by sadness. Perhaps by loneliness. By desperation. And I find myself hurting, knowing that there is a man out there who feels that much anger, that much sadness or desperation or loneliness or coldness, a coldness that goes deeper than flesh, a coldness that aches into his spirit so that he mutters curses at strangers – at me – while huddled on the sidewalk.
In the rain. In the dark.