…in October of 2010, my friends and I went to the Toronto Zoo. I was very excited – it was my first visit to the zoo here and I had wanted to go for a long time. The weather was lovely that day – warm, sunny and dry. We had a great time walking around, seeing different animals and learning something new! We even went out for sushi after the zoo!
My lovely friends drove me home after our sushi dinner. (I live downtown and my friends a little bit east of there. My neighborhood is fairly safe and quiet and, despite the fact that just a block from my building is an area which provides a hangout spot for some interesting characters, I really do love living here.) En route, I asked to be dropped off a few blocks away so that they avoid the construction madness close to my building which was interfering with traffic. I was also in the mood for a little stroll after sushi. As we approached the traffic light at the intersection where I was to exit, it turned red. After expressing my gratitude for the day and the ride home I got out of the car, and realized I was also grateful for the warm sun rays that were still reaching me despite summer being long gone. In reflection of that moment, I would use the word ‘content’ to describe it.
I may have walked no more than a few minutes when I saw a young man walking in my direction. He was quite slim, dressed urban but not flashy, a bit shorter than me and he looked a little lost. Although I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t surprised when he stopped me. I thought he might ask me for directions to wherever he was going but instead he said, “Excuse me, I just got released from jail, I’m really hungry and I don’t have any money. I was wondering if you would be able to buy me something to eat. I would pay you back when I can.”
I had to take a moment to reflect on what he said and on what he was asking of me. A young man, who was just released from jail, was asking me to buy him a meal. If there was ever a reason for a woman to be scared of being mugged or to be skeptical of communicating with a stranger, I was facing it. And yet there was something in his eyes – a pain intermixed with a lack of ego and a sense of truth and realness – which, without any hesitation, had me reply something along the lines of: “You won’t pay me back as I probably won’t ever see you again, but what do you want to eat?”
He suggested McDonalds and I immediately said “Hell no!” in my head – I have never eaten nor will I ever feed someone processed foods with no nutritional value. Instead I said that it was kind of far and out of my way but that there was a Tim Horton’s still open which was closer. (I admit I don’t eat food from Tim Horton’s either but I figured he could get something somewhat wholesome and unprocessed. I also thought that it would be at least a little bit better than the food he was fed in jail.) Although hesitant, with great humbleness he agreed to my proposal.
To my best recollection, this was our conversation as we walked side-by-side to our destination. Please note that I shortened it for the sake of space and that for me it felt like I was a Big Sister to a kid and this was us hanging out.
ME: How old are you?
BOY: 18 (I think that’s what he said)
ME: Why were you in jail?
BOY: This guy messed with my sister and I went and took care of it. (He said this in that it’s-my-responsibility-to-protect-my-sister tone.)
ME: How long were you in jail?
BOY: Nine months. (Not a happy reply. No sense of pride.)
ME: And do you think that what you did was worth going to jail for?
BOY: It wasn’t but it was what I thought was right. (Said with head down.)
ME: Remember that the energy you put out is the energy you’ll get back. Pause. Where are you going to go now?
BOY: I was told that there was a shelter around here. I am going to spend the night there and then go to the labor office first thing tomorrow morning and register for any work I can get. (A glimmer of hope and excitement in his voice.)
ME: Do you have any family?
BOY: I do but they don’t live around here. (I found out that his sister was in Mississauga.)
ME: Why don’t you go and stay with them?
BOY: Well I would go stay with my dad but he lives in Jamaica. (There was a sense of longing and sadness in his voice.)
ME: What about your mom?
BOY: She has her own life – a new boyfriend now and other kids and I don’t feel welcome there. (Said with an undertone of anger and acceptance.)
ME: Did you finish high school? Do you have plans of going somewhere after that?
BOY: I have a few more courses to take but I do want to go to college or university. (A glimmer of hope.)
ME: Good. You need to do that.
We walked into the TH’s and stood in line to place his order. I told him to order anything he wants and I was prepared to spend money on a few meals. After all he was a hungry and straight out of jail. To my surprise he looked at the cashier, who had already given us a few confused glances, and said “Could I please have a donut and a water?” As my heart was breaking after hearing those words I turned to him and said “No. Order FOOD. Whatever you want – sandwich, soup, chili, anything. You need to eat a meal.” He looked at me with these eyes which were now filled with disbelief and gratefulness and asked “Are you sure?” I confirmed and he expressed a sincere thank you.
The cashier suggested a combo or something as I stood there feeling completely humbled by this young man. From the interaction we had up to that point I realized that before me stood a soul in pain, who lacked parental guidance but knew right from wrong and displayed greatness which I hoped he would understand as he grows, lives and matures. Strangely (or not?) I felt socially responsible to encourage and support his growth journey.
I paid for his order and the cashier gave me a confused look. As he disappeared to get the food I turned to the boy and without any thought or rehearsal of it in my head said: “Go back to school and finish it. Educate yourself to enable yourself to do more. You can do it. And don’t forget that the energy you put out is the energy you will get back, so keep it positive. Good luck tonight and on your job search tomorrow.”
With the smallest of smiles and eyes which were filled with intense emotion he confidently said “I will go back to school and I will do more. Thank you very much for this. One day I will pay you back.”
I’m pretty sure I said “Pay it forward” as I rushed out before tears started falling down my face.
I felt gratitude and humbleness for a few different reasons. The first was for the fact that I trusted my gut instinct when I met the boy and that it was right. The second was for the fact that I was able to help a stranger and pay forward what many people have done for me and my family over the years, in many different ways. The third was for the fact that he chose me to be a little rainbow in his cloud for even a few minutes…
I remember walking into my home and thinking how amazing it is that I have a roof over my head, parents who were still married to each other and who I could reach out to anytime if need be. I also had food in my belly and I was living my life. I was enjoying the fruits of my labor – eight years of post-secondary education which resulted in a great job that enabled me to have a place I call my home and allowed me to not only afford the basic necessities of life, but also to experience more – different restaurants, concerts, travels….all the things I love which feed my soul.
I think about him sometimes. I hope that he is well and happy. Someday, hopefully, he will know that unexpectedly yet incredibly, he humbled and moved a woman who was on her own growth journey at the time, that one fall day in October of 2010.
Note: I have shared this experience with only a handful of people thus far. Writing about it took me right back to that day and it humbled me all over again. I hope that the story you just read leaves you with nothing less of appreciation for what you have and for what you are able to do in helping others…even if for a moment.