Taken for a ride

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am

Downtown last week I spotted a desperately thin, long-haired beggar making his slow but sure way towards me. At each person he passed, he held out his hands in supplication, whispering a request for spare change. When he got to me, I barely had time to tell him I had no change before he spat out: 'You have money, you son-of-a-bitch.'

Why me? And then again, I suppose, why not? How much rejection can any one person take? I was, apparently, one too many.

Summer in the capital always brings out the beggars and hustlers. When the weather turns, their ranks will thin considerably, most hitchhiking west for a winter in the mild but wet climes of Vancouver.

But, for the moment, they are on every street corner in the downtown core. Each has his or her own pitch. There are the ones with dogs. You may not feel any sympathy for an apparently healthy young man in a country with free medical care and other social-support systems. But you might take pity on his pet.

Others, I have recently noted, are offering dog-eared paperbacks that they have evidently scrounged from rubbish bins. Take a book, leave a bit of change.

The most striking beggar, a man who has become an annual fixture on one busy downtown corner, sports a red-and-white top hat adorned with a bright, red maple leaf. A Canadian nationalist, he's cheerful and appears to be successful at his trade.

In the end, though, the beggars are at best a minor annoyance. It's the hustlers who give all street people a bad name.

Two weeks ago my son, who is working on a construction site for the summer, raising money for university, was on his way home on payday. He had a pocketful of cash. He was stopped by an anxious young man, who fed him a hard-luck story.

He said his son was in hospital, desperately ill, and he needed C$40 (HK$275) for a bus ticket to get to his bedside. My son has a soft spot for children, sick children even more so. He didn't even hesitate - he plucked the money from his pocket and handed it over. The man was beside himself with gratitude.

Half an hour later my son saw the same man walking down the street with a prostitute and a happy grin on his face. He raced after the hustler and accosted him. They exchanged a series of inventive curses but, thankfully, no blows.

'Cheap lesson,' I told him later that evening, while he muttered darkly about what he imagined he'd like to do to the man who took advantage of his good nature. Now, he'll no longer be so trusting.

That's not something I could have taught him or, for that matter, would have wanted to teach him about the way of the world.