Jan – Feb 2004

A few days after Christmas, I made the trudge to the grocery store to restock essentials. Halfway there, I heard a man shout, “Somebody call the police!” As I continued down the block, I saw four men beside the church, two standing, arms crossed, while two others scuffled on the sidewalk. Again, the cry, “Somebody call the police!” came from one of the men on the ground. I quickened my pace, mentally locating the closest pay phone. As I came closer, that I realized the two large men watching wore badges on their vests and were store security, that of the two on the ground, the one on top, the one using excessive force, was plainclothes security, and that the man I couldn’t see clearly, the one whose face was being pushed into the concrete, the one yelling for the police, was presumably a shoplifter.

I continued into the grocery store, not sure what to do. Should I ask the store to call the police? Surely they’d already heard the man’s cries. Then it dawned on me that, given the proximity, the security crew was probably from the grocery store.

One of the cashiers loudly bragged that she’d alerted security. Apparently this rather rough-looking individual had come in, looked suspicious, picked up a box of crackers, considered paying for them, than bolted out the door. The cashier laughed and self-righteously stated, “Theft is theft.”

And me, I’m thinking, this doesn’t sound like the act of a career shoplifter. I said to the cashier, “He must’ve been pretty desperate.” My reaction caught her off guard. She hadn’t considered need. I added, “It’s a shame, because there’s a food bank a block away,” which she turned into, “So, there’s really no excuse.” And all I can think is that she’s never gone hungry. Motivation for the crime? Desperation, possibly mental imbalance, possibly desire to be caught to get in out of the cold (remember that short story?).

As I leave the store, I notice six police cars have arrived to arrest the fugitive. They’re parked at odd angles in every direction, like something out of a Hollywood movie. Good to know that if you holler for the cops in this city, they’ll come. But all this because a street person stole a box of crackers?

In the commercial extravagance of the season, we shouldn’t forget that it’s also a time of charity. And just because Christmas has passed, doesn’t mean we should forget. People less fortunate than ourselves exist year-round, even when we don’t want to acknowledge them. I was raised to believe that our society takes care of those who, for whatever reason, aren’t capable of taking care of themselves. But when I see the numbers of people on the street, many with mental or physical illnesses, I know it’s not true, because it takes so much money.

I check the weather and see that for another night, the temperature’s dropping below –20C. Any morning I expect the first news report of the homeless freezing to death in the night. And yet, I’m inside my warm apartment, and from my balcony, I can see the lights glowing through the dark in the empty, heated buildings of the financial district. Surely we can all do a little better, help a little more, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

© Catherine Jenkins, 2004

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