I arrived at ‘Grandma’s Pub’ and realized that I forgot my wallet somewhere, hopefully at home. I sat down and since Camp wasn’t there yet I took a chance on him and ordered a pint anyway. I was sure he’d show up eventually and take care of me. Halfway through my deliciously cold drink I looked up and there he was, shaking his head. He sat down heavy like he was carrying a sack full of worries.
“You wouldn’t believe what happened today,” he said and then paused, followed by another shake of his head, which was in dire need of some maintenance. Hair like Einstein, grey wiry bits sticking out in all direction. He combed a hand full of fingers through it making it even worse.
“Well, let’s hear it, what happen today that put you in such a dishevelled state. Hopefully nothing that a nice cold beer wouldn’t be able to relieve.”
“Well she did it now, the turncoat. Out of nowhere she suddenly turned 180 degrees.”
I thought he was talking about Maureen, his ex, and mumbled something noncommittal into my beer, fearing a soliloquy about matrimony and it’s inevitable downfall but instead Camp slapped his hand flat on the table and make the beers jump. “She promised me that she’d vote for the marina expansion and a new breakwater but something or someone must have got to her and she turned on me and voted to abstain. Now, it’s a tie vote and you can guess how Marshall will vote in order to break the tie.” Hank Marshall is the town’s major, real estate developer and Head Shriner.
“But isn’t he for development, for expansion of all kinds?” I asked, not understanding the intricacies of local politics.
Camp looked at me with pity. “He’s for development alright, but only if it’s private investment, not public spending, that might force him to ask for higher taxes.”
I was relieved that this was not about Maureen, but Council woman Muriel Bisset, who moved to the Sunshine Coast a few years ago from Montreal and is a big promoter of everything French.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I quoted a silly proverb. “You need to talk to Muriel, maybe ask her advice about carrying some French books in your store.”
“You know, that’s not a bad idea. Maybe take her out for some French fries and Camembert. I know she likes to eat.”
“Maybe some French wine with a little Edith Piaf in the background.”
“We both grinned at the picture that this evoked.
“Talking about beggars,” Camp said, “we seem to have a whole new batch of panhandlers and freeloaders in front of the mall. I understand that there are not a lot of jobs here on the Coast. It makes me hark back to the days when we had multiple government make-work programs that put young people to work building walking trails, cutting brush, cleaning up the beaches etc., I think they were called LIP grants, (Low Income Pools). They took a lot of youngsters off the streets.”
“Well today we’re looking at the people who have fallen through our altruistic safety net into a cesspool of misery where they are foraging their way through homelessness, drugs, mental health and any number of social and economic issues. No easy fixes I’m afraid.”
We both ordered another round and contemplated the universe, looking wistfully out at the open water and the boats bobbing up and down at the dock.
“This altruistic safety net used to have a much tighter weave,” Camp said, lifting his glass, ready for a nip.
“Did I ever tell you about John Vater the 3rd ?”
Camp looked at me with a raised bushy eyebrow pausing his glass halfway between the table and his thirst.” John who? the 3rd?”
“That was his name, Vater like father in German and the 3rd because he was named after his dad who was named after his granddad.”
“Crazy custom that, naming the kids after their dads. You never know who is being called or talked too.”
“Anyway, John travelled along with us in India – we’re back in the 70’ies now – and we often walked together through the maze of alleys and streets of New Delhi, between Connaught Place and Madame Colasso’s rooming house. We always passed a whole range of beggars, some with missing or twisted limbs, skinny, half naked kids with large eyes and many women no bigger then a child, their teeth missing or rotten from a life of chewing betel leaves. One such woman, who seemed younger than some others, was always squatted at the same corner of the alley leading out to the insane traffic mayhem surrounding the large square, which was more like a crowded park.”
“Beats me why large traffic circles are called squares,” Camp said, anyway carry on.”
I took a beat and a swallow, gathering my thread again. “I can still see her, sitting motionless on her haunches, holding a clay cup between her hands like in supplication, an old faded sari draped over her head, never looking up at us, as if not wanting to intrude. We were mere kids then, except John who had already done a tour in Vietnam and had seen a large part of the world. I would always drop a few coins into the woman’s clay cup and I carried a pouch full of coins just for beggars but John chose to ignore these human wrecks and never gave them anything. Then one day, just before we were leaving on a train to Lucknow en route to Kathmandu, John Vater III stopped in front of the tiny beggar woman who squatted in the same spot with her clay bowl and he got down on his haunches so he could be level with her. He gestured for her to look at him, which she did reluctantly. Did I mention, that John was one of those American giants, over six feet tall, which made the diminutive woman even smaller ? John then handed the woman two large rupee bills. I don’t remember what they were. He then put his hands together forming a customary small tent and bowed in front of her. She just stared at the large giant benefactor as if he was Lord Vishnu himself. I observed all this from a few paces away, mystified by this sudden act of generosity. When I asked John about it later he said: “Instead of giving a hundred people some worthless coins I decided to make a difference in one person’s life. She looks like she is smart enough to figure something out and I want to give her a chance.”
“That’s a different approach, I’d say,” Camp acknowledged.
“There is a follow up to this story,” I continued. “We parted ways with John Vater III in Kathmandu and when I came back through New Delhi a few weeks later I had forgotten all about this incident until I walked by the corner at the end of the alley by Mdm. Colassos and there sat the former beggar woman on a small stool, dressed in a clean yellow sari with a wooden box in front of her piled high with a bundle of News Papers which she was selling to the passers by. I never forgot the profound awe I felt.”
“Wow, she had her own little business now. That’s a great story, should be in economics 101,” Camp said. “I take it there is a moral to this tale ?”
“I suppose it is that to make a difference in one persons life beats giving meaningless pennies to many. I never like giving my coins to the panhandlers and beggars I pass on the street but I haven’t found my beggar women yet,” I said, casting my mind back all those decades for that gem of a memory.
“I don’t mind supporting them if they at least make an effort, play an instrument, juggle balls or sit motionless dressed like Napoleon or the Virgin Mary.”
“I can’t stand it when they lounge on the sidewalk with their dogs or cats. I feel sorry for the dogs. I even passed one the other day with a ferret on his shoulder.”
“And yet they’re our fellow brothers and sisters,” Camp said.
“Some crazy family, us humans.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to be a human. Every day takes an effort, if you’re rich or poor, old or young.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
“Oh, that reminds me Camp, I forgot my wallet, could you…?”
“Glad to help out a fellow homo sapiens.”