Hardened: an awkward juxtaposition

It’s a shocking juxtaposition going to work in the downtown core every morning: the men in thousand dollar suits scurrying to breakfast meetings, the thirty-floor highrises shadowing the sunrise, the business woman’s click-click of high heels in the frosty morning air as she rushes by, a Starbucks non-fat, no-foam grande latte and a thousand dollar Gucci bag in hand.

And then, like an unexpected slap in the face, the scruffy, bearded man sits huddled on the corner by the Petro-Canada Tower, pie tin in hand, asking for a buck, and a girl much younger than my twenty years huddles in the corner at the Centre Street train station, hollow eyes painted black, sucking on a cigarette and shivering in the frosty morning air.

To people who have lived in Calgary for some time, the ones who go downtown to work every day, this juxtaposition becomes less and less obvious until the day it disappears altogether. Days and years of exposure to panhandlers and homelessness hardens the savvy business man or woman to a point where poverty can be ignored.

A friend, a life-long Calgarian who has worked downtown for several years, recently told me: “It’s terrible, but I don’t even feel any sympathy for those people anymore–if they would all just disappear I wouldn’t even notice.”

Coming from a small town, where homelessness doesn’t exist and poverty is better disguised, to my first job in the downtown core, somehow seems to set me apart from the majority of hardened Calgarians–for now.

To someone witnessing homelessness for the first time, it seems strange that anyone could become the person who just walks on by without a second glance. To ignore the reality, or wish it away, and exist in a world consumed by board meetings, reports, luncheons and budgets seems so foreign a concept.

But, I must admit that try as I may to retain it, my small town naïvete can only hold out for so long. I too, am becoming hardened to the juxtaposition that was so glaringly evident on my first few trips to downtown Calgary.

Initially, I was the sucker that gave people my change when they asked for it, without even a second thought.

Then, I made the transition to a more cynical line of questioning: to give or not to give? Give a buck to the man on the street corner and he can go buy a coffee, get inside out of the cold, right? Or, he could use that buck to buy his next high, to support the habit that got him on the street corner in the first place.

While I haven’t reached the stage where I can walk on by without a second glance towards the reality of poverty, now I reply: “no, I’m sorry”, and hurry onwards, thinking of my presentation at my 7:30 breakfast meeting.

Sometimes, it seems like it would be simpler to not even provide a response, to just walk on by without a backward glance, but then reality kicks in and I remember that everyone has a story, and that all people deserve compassion.

One of my biggest fears is that someday the city will get the better of me and I’ll become hardened too.

I fear that I’ll become the woman with the Gucci bag and latte in hand, as I click-click by in my high heels, to my highrise tower, where I can shut societal realities outside and choose not to look down on them from the perfect vantage point in my corner office.

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