The film I decided to make, brilliantly named by Audrey Naugle ("I Am More"), was a documentary of sorts; the original idea was to film individuals living on the streets and showing that they are human, more than the stereotypes that they are assigned. With the film now shot and edited, I ended up featuring seven amazing people - some formerly homeless, others living in poverty, but thankfully they all have some form of shelter.
As I prepared to look for subjects for my film, I was mustering up the courage to talk to Ray. After all, he was my muse for the project. Let me explain: About 12 years ago, I was working on a group project for a Social Psychology class. We were studying the public perception, in the form of coins deposited in a hat or cup, of panhandlers versus street buskers. On the surface, Ray appeared to be a panhandler and, following our prescribed methodology, I observed him for an hour. As he sat on the wall outlining the entrance to the downtown library, I saw some very curious, surprising behaviours. On several occasions, instead of asking for change, I actually saw him give coins or cigarettes to those who passed by - mostly young teens who looked like they were struggling. This really stuck out for me, something I never expected from my "lump sum" view of the average panhandler. I also saw him talking to many people, slightly shy yet always friendly, with a smooth smile graced upon his face.
A few years later, my social psychology project forgotten, I was walking up Spring Garden Road on a cold, winter's night. The street was eerily isolated - no cars or pedestrians were present - just the sticky snowflakes thickly falling from the sky and filling the asphalt laden streets and sidewalks. As my pace quickened to reach the bus stop to reach the warmth of home, I saw Ray standing completely alone among the cold. I instantly remembered him from the library wall years earlier, and could not believe he was standing there, weathering the extreme elements. I offered to give him enough money to stay in the nearby hostel, but he refused, saying I should keep it. Instead, he accepted a loonie to go towards a coffee and wished me a good night. I marveled at his trooper attitude and was strangely impressed that he would not take a $20 bill.
Since that winter's night, I looked for Ray everywhere and would give him a quarter or a dime whenever I could. I was longing to have a real conversation with him and yet I felt like I may be intruding and I worried that my expression of friendship may be interpreted as pity. Our first real conversation would be delayed for a decade, until I decided to make this film.
One holiday weekend in May, I finally tapped into some hidden element of lion-heartedness and decided that was the day I would talk to Ray. I found him sitting on the steps of the library, and without even saying hello, I babbled on for ten minutes about all of my positive observations of him, how he inspired me to make a film and how I hoped we could be friends. He listened patiently, without interruption. When I finished and let out a big sigh, as if he were friends forever, he started to tell me about his former life as a fisherman and in the military - he even revealed he had once had a son who somehow tragically died. I asked him if he would like to be in the film, and fairly enough he said no. I then asked if I could dedicate the film to him, and he agreed.
I see Ray now every 2 weeks or so. I realize that my hopes before making the film were unrealistic. I somehow wanted to reach out to him and others on the street and make their lives better. I had hoped I would have the time to visit them frequently and help them realize their talents again or even get them off the streets. How egotistical I was to think this way. After talking to Ray and others on many occasions, I am realizing I hardly have an inkling of what they are going through. My life has become distracted - I am immersed in the North American rush culture, and now hardly make the time to visit these amazing individuals, human beings, who do not live by social norms.
My mother suggested I start bringing her recyclables to Ray, which has allowed me to stay partially in touch. Even then, I am sometimes in a rush, and I hope that he does not detect this. Truly, I have developed a strong fondness for this man who works a lot harder than me or many people I know.
I came to learn that when I observed Ray panhandling on the library wall so many years ago, he also got by financially through dealing some sort of drugs. I'm not sure if he was homeless then - he is now. One night, a security guard caught him on camera and told him he would not turn him in, but he better stop this "criminal lifestyle" because there are security cameras all over downtown. Ray then decided to go "legit" and started collecting recyclables to earn his money.
Five to six days a week, he now spends long hours and walks many miles to collect wine, beer and plastic bottles to cash in. He told me when he first started, he used to walk with a cart all the way to Cole Harbour or Spryfield.
A few nights ago, while talking to Ray, he told me he was one Bingo square away from winning $30,000 on a lottery ticket. I asked him what he would do if he won. For the first time since we officially met, he revealed his vulnerability - he said he would get an apartment and get off the street if he won. This broke my heart. Up until then, he took pride in his many miles walked and his ability to sleep in the rough most nights a week.
I hope I can remove my tunnel vision and treat Ray like a real friend; to provide a listening ear and not try to fix him; to visit him more then I do now and to do what I can. I need to get out of my own head and start showing some genuine compassion - not just talk to him because of my grandiose dream to become a film maker.