New York City has a problem with homelessness, but I've rarely had a problem with individual homeless people. Some shout, some shake or threaten. I remember one skinny lady zombie-running along the Park Place subway platform with her clawed hands outstretched toward commuters, a thick, swinging rope of saliva hanging down to waist level; it was Christmas morning. But, largely, things are cool. A transaction here and there, an occasional no-money smile, a little bit of small talk with the regulars, and not much else. I often feel sad for homeless people here, but never annoyed by them.
Not so in Montreal, where Lisa and I had a hard time with people on hard times. I think it came down to a surprising sense of entitlement on their part. People rarely asked for change, instead asking for specific dollar amounts. One guy walking in front of us along St. Catherine extended a metal cup attached to a long pole behind his back, and shook it in our direction without ever turning to face us.
But the worst was the man on a bicyclette. Lisa had ordered a sandwich for lunch and found she could only eat half. She had it boxed, thinking she might be able to give a free lunch to one of the many panhandlers we saw every day. After a few outright rejected the sandwich—one dismissively waved it away—a (homeless?) man rode up to us on his bicycle, spoke some French, and jingled his crunched-up paper cup filled with coins. Lisa shook her head, indicating she had no change, but offered her sandwich instead. I think there was a brief and awkward language-barrier moment, and then the man said, motioning at his bike, "And where am I supposed to put that?" Then, before I had a chance to yell, "in your belly, you fucking asshole!" he added, "and besides, I just ate." I. Just. Ate. And, to add insult to rejected charity, he patted his belly to indicate his great satisfaction. We were at a loss, and then he finally offered, "it would just be easier for me if you would give me some money." Then, frustrated with our inability to adhere to his particular needs for our charity he pedaled away, possibly hoping to collect more money to pay for his 2pm shiatsu massage appointment.
Now, for any homeless people reading this, I suppose it might sound a little insensitive. Asking for money is not a very prideful or easy thing to do, and it's really not up to me to decide how it should or should not be done. There's no particular etiquette to it, obviously. I have no illusions about how lousy it must be to have to ask for money, and I don't expect homeless people to perform little funny dances for my spare change, or for them to greet me with a Wal-Mart smile so I can feel a little better about myself in the moment. But I guess I never realized, until this Canadian trip, that sometimes jerks remain jerks even in the worst of circumstances.