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Call Him "Jason"
I was in the city on business last week when I saw him. At least I thought it was him - "Jason" - a young man who lives down the street from me. He was standing in front of the building where I was to meet a business colleague. I looked for a long time before walking up to him. It looked like "Jason" but there was something missing. It was the physical look of the fellow. The scruffy, dirty looking hair did not fit the person that I knew. Neither did the filthy pants with a crotch that hung to the knees, dirty t-shirt, hat upturned in his hand to collect money. If this was Jason and he needed help, I could certainly lend a hand to get him home. "Jason?" I said, standing beside the tall fellow. "What are you doing here?"
He turned and looked me straight in the eye. "I don't know what you're talking about lady. My name isn't "Jason".
I backed off immediately, apologizing all the while. But it was Jason's voice, despite an uncustomary gruffness. He turned away and then I saw the hat more clearly - the hat with the insignia of a small firm in our community - the hat that was handed out to a select group of kids who had performed special civic duties. The hat stopped me in my tracks, but so did the fact that someone was standing now in front of "Jason" and giving him a ten dollar bill, saying words of encouragement at the same time. Confused, I went into my appointment.
An hour later I was back on the street, but "Jason" was nowhere to be seen. I walked north on Yonge toward one of my favourite eateries, and there he was again - same kid, same pose. I didn't approach this time, but watched him carefully. I had known "Jason" for the past three years. He came from a good family who moved to our area to get their kids out of the city. He was tall for his age, with a shock of light brown hair that hung over his left eye. He had a way of laughing with a little snort and leaning his head slightly to the left when he talked. I'm older and retired so have lots of time to observe my neighbours. Call me noisy if you like, but call me clever too. This was indeed my "Jason" and I had a mystery on my hands.
I met up with "Jason's" mother at the market four days later and approached her on the premise that I needed some yard work done.. "Is "Jason" around?" I asked. "I can give him some pocket money in exchange for some work around the yard. I'll pay him well."
"Maybe we are paying him too well,' his mother replied. "We give him a generous allowance and can't even get him to cut our grass these days. He is too busy with his friends."
Pushing now for information, I said, "I don't see him much these days. Is he visiting friends in the city?"
"Every once-in-awhile a bunch of them go down to the old neighbourhood," mom ventured. "It was not the easiest transition for the kids, bringing them out to this backwater community. There was more for them to do in the city. We just wanted to get them away from peer pressure and all that it entails."
"I see." But I really didn't see or understand. "Why don't you just say to Jason that he is not going anywhere until the grass is cut"
"It is obvious that you haven't dealt with teenagers recently," mom replied. "You don't tell them anything. They tell you."
I shrugged. "Aren't you worried about him going into the city with his peers?"
"He wouldn't get into any trouble. He's a good kid." And with that mom was off on her Saturday rounds. Despite the fact she thinks our village is a "backwater community", "Sally" is really a nice woman. She would do anything for you, when she has the time. The key word is time. Hubby works in Oakville and she works in Kitchener so there is little time - time for their marriage, time for their kids, time for themselves.
When you can't sleep, a brisk walk to the nearest Tim Horton's is a must. And that's just what I did on Wednesday evening around 11:00 p.m. If it were ten blocks away, I wouldn't walk at night but "Tim" has conveniently put one on every corner so in three minutes a steaming cup of coffee was within my grasp, and so was "Jason" and three of his buddies, standing at the counter.
"I'm buying tonight," I said. "And then you're sitting down with me to talk."
"We haven't got time."
"You've got time," I said. "I want to talk about Toronto."
He shrugged me off and huddled in a corner with his friends. After ten minutes they all landed at my table.
"I'm not condemning and I'm not condoning. I just want to know why you were standing in downtown Toronto with your hat out when you have a perfectly good home with parents who are more than generous. What's with you? I'll bet you were all panhandling in Toronto."
"We're not the only ones," he ventured. "There are all kinds of kids who live in good homes that roam around Toronto with their hand out. It is an easy way to make a buck. As a matter of fact, it is an easy way to make several hundred bucks, enough to last me for a week or so."
That comment started an animated conversation that lasted an hour. These three young men make a career of donning dirty clothing and panhandling on the streets of Toronto. They see nothing wrong with panhandling. They say people feel so sorry that they are usually most generous. They know the best spots to panhandle. They know all the right words to say. People never question. They give, and generously if the right tone of voice is used - if a humble look is given.
They aren't about to take on the responsibilities of any job when they can, on a good day, make as much in one day's panhandling as they could in one week's work. They aren't about to tell their parents what they do "for a living", and were adamant that for the pleasure of talking with them, I wasn't going to rat on them either.
Were they ever afraid on the street? Of course, but that was all in the game, for make no mistake, they saw it as a game. Did they not feel badly about cheating someone out of money?
Cheating? Their attitude was that if a person was dumb enough to give them money, they deserved to be cheated.
As to the question about what their parents would say, or do, if they ever found out, the answers were startling and pinpointed exactly what is wrong with some families today. They said that their parents were too busy to worry about what them did. They never asked where the money came from to buy C.D.'s, clothing and games. They never asked where the kids had been and never set a time for them to be home. They never set rules that couldn't be broken. And if panhandling wasn't so profitable, all these young fellows had to do was ask for a bit more allowance "to tide them over"
Man, did I strike out when I asked why they weren't more involved in the community. There are team sports. There is a library. There is a swimming pool. There are lawns to cut. These kids, nearing their eighteenth birthday, are not the least bit interested in team sports, reading and swimming with "losers". They are not into organized events, and the last thing they would consider is cutting lawns for a living. They said they are into the "man things", sex and drugs.
When I asked what they planned to do when they finished school, none knew. Two, including Jason, said that their parents expected they would attend university, and as long as the parents were paying they didn't mind going. The third said that he wanted to "hang free" for a year or two after school, if he graduated. His grades have been slipping and his girlfriend had been onto him about "co-habitating", which meant he supposed that a "kid would make an appearance down the road."
Didn't he see that as a big responsibility - that being a dad means accepting financial responsibility for his brood? The answer floored me. "Hell," he said. "Me and the girlfriend can panhandle and there's always welfare."
Jason hung back after his friends left the coffee shop. "I'll walk you home," he said. "Look, mom told me that you needed some lawn work done. If you are desperate, I can do it. But I'm not working for $8.00 an hour. That's pauper's wages."
He didn't see the humour in my reply. "That's O.K., Jason. I'll put on some old clothes and head on down to Toronto to do some panhandling so I can pay you a man's wage if that's what you want."
I did like his company on the short walk home. For some reason the streets in my little town just became a little less friendly.
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