Saturday, December 12, 2009

As natural a sign of winter as steam from a black football player's head

Toronto is a cold city. It's -8 right now and the stiff winds give us a wind chill closer to -20. On winter days, Toronto is divided into hot and cold. There are heated buildings, cars and people, and there is the cold, empty space between them. A common site downtown on these cold winter days is the sleeping bag. At a busy intersection, a homeless man will decide to draw attention to himself by taking a nap right there. Today I saw this at the northeast corner of Bay and Queen, in front of Old City Hall.

Even if it's not loud around you, the mid-day crowds, the swirling winds, the gonging streetcars and the perception of panic as you get around this man will create a phantom din in your head. Only after you get away from this do you realize that it's actually pretty quiet.

It's a shame, of course, that in a city as wealthy as Toronto with a winter so cold, somebody has to be outside all day. The homeless man in a sleeping bag, seemingly oblivious to the rush around him, is trying to make a statement about his plight. The statement is as much a spectacle as a Pamela Anderson photo-op.

There are lots of places to lie around downtown, most of them are not busy intersections. The man in question wasn't even panhandling, he just wanted others to notice the fact that he exists, to stare and see if he was still alive, and to highlight the gap between himself and the wealth at the intersection, which is where City Hall, Osgoode Hall, the financial district and the Eaton Centre all meet.

In that, he succeeded. I couldn't tell if he was awake or not, or if the woman standing about six feet away talking on a cell phone was talking about him. But of all the people that walked by, a significant number stopped to gawk, at least briefly. Surrounding him was food from all the eateries nearby: the Starbucks that is kitty corner from Old City Hall, the Timothy's that's across, and the cafe and hot dog trucks at Nathan Phillips Square.

The horror induced by seeing someone sprawled out in a sleeping bag on a day so cold at an intersection so busy was artificial, of course. He could have just easily, and more comfortably, curled up in a quiet corner somewhere. The spectacle he produced was false, but hopefully enough people noticed that the fundamentals of his situation couldn't change, even if he could go away.

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