SP From the Vault
I’m not really sure why I’m telling this story here. While everyday life in the City of Hamilton is a topic of considerable interest to me, I usually save this blog for art-oriented writings. The most I can do is present it with the unrelated street shot above that I’ve never shared with anyone before and that, to me, seems to convey a similar feel as the story. I can say this; at a time when I was actually having doubts about continuing my interest in street photography for moral reasons, this experience convinced me to boldly take all necessary risks to document the everyday lives and environments of the citizens of the world around me; both positive and negative, and never regret it. I hope now more than ever that I’ll find a way to use my art to make a real difference.
I’m really not expecting solutions to any problems suggested within the following text, although I’d be ecstatic to receive any. I wouldn’t be surprised if no one ever has as much as a casual opinion about the experience I’m relaying. I’ve just been sitting on this story, a true story, for some years now and I keep getting an urge to do something with it.
One evening during a cold spell in January of 2007, my wife and I ran into a guy who was panhandling between a grocery store and a liquor store in Hamilton’s constituent community of Dundas. He told me what was supposed to be his first name, Josh. I didn’t get a last name. He said he was 21. I asked him if he had a home. He said he “stays with a friend nearby.” He had nice sneakers on, jeans and a winter coat but this guy was soaked from head to toe and shivering in the freezing rain.
He was asking people for the usual “spare change for food”. I asked him how long he had been out there panhandling. He said about two hours. I looked into his little paper cup. At quick glance, it seemed he had managed to collect approximately two dollars. My wife and I bought him some hot food from the grocery store, and he tore into it like a coyote in the wilderness.
At that time, the most recent poverty stats in Hamilton said that many of the citizens in abject poverty actually have fulltime jobs that don’t pay enough to live on. So, I asked him if he had a job. He replied, “No”. I didn’t bother asking him if he wanted one, I just told him about a temp agency that I was familiar with and told him to somehow find his way to their office. He looked young, kind of thin but able bodied. I figured that if he hadn’t been eating much for days, he may be a bit weak for intense manual labour but with enough food in him there may be some potential. Of course, I knew right away that he may never show up to the temporary employment agency, and even if he did, there was no guarantee that he’d be a good worker for some company. In spite of these considerations, I couldn’t just step over him and be on my way when there might be a chance to do something simple and small to help him help himself.
I explained to the guy that I am a local artist and photographer, and that if I ever saw him again I may photograph him under a model release. He seemed eager for the opportunity and when asked, he said he had ID to prove his age, etcetera. The next day I printed a Google map with directions to the employment agency and put it in my coat pocket just in case I ran into him again.
A couple evenings later, my wife and I went back to that west-end grocery store. I looked to see if the guy was out there again panhandling. He was, and this time right in front of the liquor store, almost like in the opening lyrics of that song by Everlast.
Sitting cross-legged on the cold sidewalk, Josh was rocking back and forth and signing a song but real loudly and almost obscenely. I got up close enough to see his dilated pupils. I think he was as high as a kite on something.
He remembered us. He told me he usually begs; “do this” he put it, in front of the liquor store because the people going in and out of there have lots of money. Personally, I would expect that begging in front of a liquor store would be counterproductive but that’s me.
He asked me for some change. I flat out told him that I wouldn’t give him any but I gave him the Google map. I wished him a sincere good luck and that was it. I never photographed him, although his youngish acne covered face would certainly be an interesting portrait of a part of Hamilton culture. I’ve never seen him anywhere ever again since. I think . . .
On March 1, 2008, a west-end house fire claimed the lives of five people; a 22-year-old woman, her three little daughters, and a 19-year-old male roommate. The story dominated local news for a week or so. The five of them perished in the blaze of their home where smoke detectors were completely absent. The fire was determined to be caused by careless smoking. There were two others in the burning house but they survived. One was said to be the fiancé of the 22-year-old woman.
Television news showed a photograph of the 19-year-old man; reported to be “a resident,” who died. The photo was of a cleaner-looking individual than the one my wife and I met at the shopping plaza but the resemblance between the two was striking. Even more bothersome, TV and printed news reported that neighbours of the burned out house identified the young man by the exact same name as the one given to me by the panhandler. What didn’t match was the age.
As days went by, I heard from a few people who knew or knew of the victims who once lived in the burned down house. One of them claimed to have worked with the 19-year-old at National Steel Car, a local railcar repair and maintenance company. The victims were mostly referred to by unpleasant descriptions like “losers”, “stoners” and “drug addicts”. I have no way of verifying any of this, and I’m not sure I want to but I feel almost certain that one of the victims of that fire is the man we met on a cold and miserable January evening in 2007.
I try to be realistic and refrain from “trying to save the world” but it will always bother me to think that we may have tried to do a little something for a complete stranger, only for him to die so pitifully a little more than a year later.
I wish I took his picture. Maybe his story; with his image, would mean something to others. It’s so hard to not think of that soul as a wasted life; if it even really was him.
By late August of that year, the news reported that employees of that same railcar repair and maintenance enterprise honoured the 19-year-old at their annual company-held charity golf tournament. They donated hundreds of books to two local schools in his name, even though he had only worked with them for approximately six months as a temporary employee. The young man they worked with was regarded as an avid reader.
The 19-year-old leaves behind a grieving mother, father and sister. I grieve a little for the 21-year-old my wife and I met one cold winter evening.