I often think about how it will be for my children to grow up in Cambodia as it is so different from where I grew up. So, I thought I’d start writing about that here…
I grew up in a privileged home in Canada. Canada: one of the richest nations, good schools, “free” health care, quality law enforcement, and clean streets.
One can be quite sheltered living in Canada, but they don’t have to be. There is still the abusive family, alcoholism, homelessness, drug abuse, etc… But one can easily turn a blind eye to all of that and focus on entertainment and self fulfillment. And you don’t need a lot of money to do that; it is a mindset that makes people selfish and inward focused, not an abundance of, or lack of, money.
When I lived in Canada I would often volunteer for an inner-city church which would serve dinner to the poor every Friday night. It wasn’t a soup kitchen, it was a restaurant. The patrons would arrive, be seated, given a menu, and served by a waiter. Most of the food came from local grocery stores giving deli-made sandwiches, donairs, microwave pizza, sometimes a cake or two; all the stuff, while still good, that was no longer sellable from the store’s counter. There was rarely a shortage of that food. There was a professional chef who would cook up one special meal for the night: spaghetti and meatballs, or pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, something good like that. Those chef specials were always 86’d first.
Sometimes I worked as a waiter, but usually I was given doorman duty. My job as a doorman was to let people in as the empty tables allowed. And, more importantly, my job was to keep anyone out who was visibly drunk or high. Those who were denied access were given a bowl of soup, a bun, and a coffee at the door. Occasionally a disallowed customer would gladly accept his soup and toss it all over the doorman. That never happened to me though, it only happened to the doormen who got too preachy about the evils of alcohol. The key word was ‘visibly’ drunk or high. I once had a man show up wearing a jester’s hat. I told him I couldn’t let him in (I was sure I could smell booze coming from his long beard too). He asked if he could come in if he took off the hat and behave himself. I thought for a second and said yes. He went in and didn’t make any problems.
The restaurant was in the basement of an old Catholic church. The church had a rectory, then used for storage, towards the back and up an old narrow staircase. The rectory was painfully small with space for no more than a bed and a table. A pocket-sized bathroom with defunct plumbing was situated in the corner. The sanctuary was used on Sundays by the church running the restaurant. The floor of the sanctuary was old wood, uneven and wavy, covered with dirty carpet. I feared my foot would go through if I stepped on a particularly weak spot. The whole place smelled of moth balls and old plaster. It was one of those old buildings that is both alluring and repugnant at the same time.
I enjoyed working the door. As a waiter I was too busy to talk to anyone, but as a doorman I was able to have many interesting conversations. Street people don’t bother with small talk, you get all the gritty details from the start. “Hi. My name’s Joe. I’m a recovering cocaine addict. I had a relapse last week. I just got to take it one day at a time”…”My name is Steve. There are bad people trying to get into my room at night. I hear them talking in the hallway. Last night they were banging on my door. I don’t open it though. I told the landlord, but he won’t listen to me”. Often they would ask me to pray for them, which I did.
In Canada there are different kinds and levels of poverty: there is college student poor and “going out on my own” poor, which are just temporary situations; there is poor due to a lack of self esteem or ambition, in which the person will have a low paying job and a small apartment, maybe an old car, but not much beyond that, and not much hope it’ll ever get better; and then there is the deep poverty where one doesn’t have a home, or a job, or even a change of clothes. This deep poverty is not caused by laziness or lack of ambition–there are other factors, like mental illness.
My first encounter with this deep poverty happened when I was 19 years old. I was an electrical apprentice. My boss, a Christian man, would often do work for inner city businesses at a discounted rate. One of these businesses was an old hotel, maybe one hundred years old or so. Now it was being used as an apartment building for street folk. Have $50? You can rent a room at the York Hotel for a couple of nights. A ‘No Knives’ sign hung at the front entrance. The reception desk was worked by a perpetually tired woman. The wide staircase leading up to the rooms had a dusty carpet which I’m sure at one time was plush and luxurious. Each single room was just that: a single bed in one corner, a small wall-mounted sink in the other, a cheap light above the sink and one on the ceiling, both with an off-white glass shade with blue floral design, hundred year old paint job on the walls. Bathrooms were common-use down the hall, four urinals along the wall and two stalls with wooden dividers and doors. No showers. I never looked into the women’s washroom.
My boss, Bert, and I were there to fix some lights which had stopped working in four rooms, two rooms above the other two on different floors. Three rooms empty, one occupied. The problem in all four rooms was related so we started in the one closest to the electrical panel and worked our way through the other rooms in succession, and finally to the last room where the guest was staying. Bert knocked on the door and an old man answered. The man was completely naked. My sheltered 19 year old brain didn’t know what to make of that. Why would he not put clothes on before answering the door? Does he not care if a woman was knocking? What if it was the receptionist? Maybe she’d be too tired to care. The old man appeared to be half asleep. Bert, who was himself past 60 years old, calmly and politely explained why we were there and suggested the man take a moment to put some pants on before we came in, which he did.
Bert left me alone in the room to investigate above the ceiling light. The old man, wearing dingy grey pants now, lay on the bed with his back to me, sleeping. One ratty small black bag sat on the floor beside the bed. It slumped in on itself, mostly empty. Before getting on the bed, before Bert left the room, the old man did not once make eye contact with us. He always looked at the ground and nodded to whatever Bert spoke to him. There was nothing in his eyes or facial expression to show that he cared much about anything. It’s as though there was a continuous sighing coming from him, not audible, just there about him. I finished fixing what didn’t really need fixing and quietly let my self out, closing the door behind. After we’d gone I regretted not leaving some cash on his bed. I thought about that old man a lot. I still do.
To be continued…