What’s God got to do, got to do with it? Duking it out with the deity, & other tales from the street
Updated: Apr 2
In the sunny streets of a false Toronto spring, God and I are duking it out for the souls of the disenfranchised.
The hardier, or most desperate street people, are out in all weathers, in tattered blankets and thrift shop coats. But this early thaw brings out new numbers of them, the ones too frail for winter begging, allows them a little more mobility to importune, and takes me farther afield, to revel in the brief blessed warmth.
Did I just say blessed? the very word that’s become my sticking point,
I always walk out armed with giveaway cash; think of it as my street tithe. My guilt-sop for being one of the non-needy. It used to be toonies, but since COVID hit the streets, I also keep a stash of rolled $5 bills. To drop into a paper cup or an outstretched hand, say “Good luck” to the painfully avid face of gratefulness, hoping not to come across like some self-congratulatory Lady Bountiful.
The most heartrending are those who just snatch it, say nothing…
But it’s the deity entering the picture that frosts my socks.
The first time was the rickety guy huddled outside the Main St. subway station, after a snow storm, a cardboard flat between him and the freezing sidewalk. “Oh, thank you, ma’am. God bless you.”
“If only God were paying more attention,” I said.
Mis-hearing me completely, the guy smiled and nodded energetically. “Oh yes, isn’t He always…”
I should have left it alone. But, as I’m not afraid to acknowledge: I’m a show-off unbeliever. Ever since Grade 1, after a religion lesson at school, when my parents told me that no, they did not believe in God. I had a wonderful time, vaunting it in the schoolyard. “I don’t believe in God.” – “Oh yeah? Where do trees come from?” – “I don’t know, but not from God.” I only backed down in grade 2, when I was cornered by couple of large 11-year-old girls, rumoured to have boyfriends in the terrifying Beanery Gang: “Shaddup, you wanna be manslaughtered?”
In the streets, now, it’s not just a question of credit, I swear; not the fact that I ante up, and God moves in from the wings.
Read about Guthrie and Seeger, hitting the road, riding the rails, awakening America’s working class as they went. Singing, “Longhaired preachers come out every night, try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right… “
I decided this was a Guthrie-Seeger-type opportunity to enlighten The People.
The mustachioed young South Asian guy, slumped in the doorway next to a daycare, possessions in green garbage bags, keeps his eyes fixed on my handout, doesn’t even look up. The young woman outside Dollarama invokes the almighty, and keeps smiling brightly. The desperate raddled young Black guy trolling a Tim Horton’s takeout window just snatches at the money.
One middle-aged East Asian outside Sobey’s, once allowed inside the parking lot, now sent outside, shakes his head uneasily when I query his blessing. A middle-aged Francophone outside Shopper’s, tries to set me straight: “Oh yes, ‘e is there, just waiting to show ‘imself.”
It began to remind me of my first go at educating people in the streets.
This was alongside my multifaceted star producer brother John, who went on to make a doc about the questionable efficacy of polls, Ask A Silly Question. Demonstrating a deeply workable strain of popular credulousness, and the fact that people would go to hilarious lengths, rather than admit ignorance about what a pollster was asking. In New York, for instance, a poll of a few dozen uptown Manhattanites, asked about their favourite ways of cooking silverfish, produced a couple of score delicious recipes for marinating, grilling, sautéing, stuffing…
Back home, one question was about a totally fictional Metro Toronto Councilman: “Do you think Alderman Wally Hinckle’s antics in the council chamber have cost him his chance at re-election?”
At first, not believing people would spontaneously make fools of themselves, Bro employed me as a shill, a pretend interview subject, to encourage participants. But it quickly became evident the public needed no such priming.
“I think he’s one of the few honest men on Council!”…"He’s great, speaks his mind.” --“Hinckle’s got my vote!” The more fake details you fed, the more expansive the answers. One gray-haired lady with a rolling Scots brogue, shook her head when asked, “What about Hinckle’s involvement in that mortgage scandal?” --”If ye looked deeper into that one, ye’d find a lot morrre than just Hinckle involved!”
Then there was the fake petition about climate change, meant to demonstrate what people will sign without reading. The presenter is me – at the time, a newly-single mom, fresh out of yet another marriage & needing employment.
Stationed in the parking lot of a big suburban mall, I’m decked out in a gingery wig even fuzzier than my actual hair, and playing the flirty ditzy tree-hugger for all it’s worth: “Excuse me, sir, can I please have a couple of seconds of your time to sign our petition to PM Trudeau [this was Pierre, not his baby boy] for a, like, really really worthy cause, like, cleaning up the water, like?”
When the guy rears back, I show him, deep in the endless many-pager, where it says: “And, Prime Minister, the signer of this petition agrees to donate to the bearer $250 to help clean…”
The reactions are electrifying. No more chin-chucking chuckles, just cold fury, or icy panic. One previously flirty father leaves his 11-year-old daughter standing there, bolts to his car, locks himself in, and rolls up the windows, shaking his head for long minutes, while we knock and try to straighten him out.
It’s late afternoon, when I go into my routine with a guy heading into the mall. The sun is in my eyes so I can’t see his face, but can make out that he engages, refuses, but flirty-wirty, chuckling and nodding; like a guy responding to a chickee he finds pretty cute. At the top of the mall stairs, out of the sun, he turns, to give a last smiley wave.
Somewhere, on ancient videotape, there may still be a shot of me, babbling:
“That was my first husband...!”
…But I digress. Dissing the deity in the streets, there was one time I did get rumbled.
The merry-faced guy outside a pawn shop doesn’t hear me the first time. When I repeat, he rears back. Goes, “Woh!” Crosses himself and looks heavenward, shaking his head. Like. Hey Lord, it wasn’t me! But has not, apparently, been directed by the almighty to return the infidel offering.
However, it is with the cheery fuzzy wino in the LCBO parking lot, that I have my most meaningful exchange, and, at last, my epiphany.
He takes my donation and crows: “I’m a Newfie! Everybody likes me!”
Ever the bonder-er, I plunge mindlessly into a classic Newfie-turnaround joke. (“Do you know how Newfie women get pregnant?” -- “No, how?” -- “And you call them stupid!”)
As I utter the setup question, it hits me: Tell this supposedly reverse-Newfie joke to a Newfie? What if he says, “No, how?”
But he guffaws. “Do I know how them women get pregnant? I got a lotta them pregnant myself! -- Hey! What’s yer age?”
I give what’s meant to be an adorable Gosh-who-can-remember shrug.
“Lookin good!” he carols across the parking lot. "Bet ya haven’t hit the old six -oh!”
That’s when I had my epiphany.
There IS a god, and he is a real, gallant, old-school, dude.
Or else, a Newfie.
…The husband who didn’t recognize me? Well, it had been almost a decade, and we’d barely lasted five months – but that’s another story. -- Remind me, I’ll tell you…