56th Birthday

It’s frenetic on Robson Street, it always is.  Blurred bodies crunch over fallen brown leaves: a parade of privileged boots past glittered window dressings and souped up BMWs.

Vancouver has such an indescribable Vancouverness to it:  it’s rotting forest and foreign privilege, stylish gay men wrapped in perfectly draped scarves.  It’s hard black espresso and Art Gallery Protesters, seven lilting Asian languages floating in the space of two sidewalk squares.  It’s a melting pot of expensive yoga pants and hardcore addiction.

I’ve found a seafoam green bathing suit in the new Victoria’s Secret down the road, and now I’ve promised Nolan a caramel apple in recognition of his painstaking work of controlling his brother while I hastily sidled out of my jeans as quickly as humanly possible, knowing the fall-apart window was mighty lean.

Outside of the lingerie shop on Robson lay a man in a blue quilted sleeping bag, just to the right of the stomping boots, the chatter of sidewalk shoppers.

Oh no,” breathes Nolan, keeping close to me and my loud pink bikini bag,”Oh no.  Mom. That man has no bed to sleep on.”

He’s OK,” I say, and I look away like everyone else, “He’ll be OK.” And I take Jude’s hand and walk briskly toward the blinking hand, not looking.

We stop at a coffee shop a block down to use the restroom and to purchase an apologetic chai latte and Nolan’s on his skateboard, helmet askew, while I usher Jude in his green-striped Sasquatchewan shirt through the pastried front doors.

My oldest son has stopped, rigid, near the fir plants at the front entrance and his eyes are wide, and then liquid with little kid empathy.

I turn my head to look where  he is looking and there squats a man with a mottled grey beard and a hand-rolled cigarette,  framed on the sidewalk across the street from a sleek-lined two-storey Banana Republic.  He holds a scrawled cardboard sign: “Today is my 56th Birthday.  I am hungry.  Anything helps.”

He’s not wearing a shirt. He’s skinny and too old for 56. He’s shaking in the October wind.

I usher my boys into the waft of warmth, ask the barista about the key to the restrooms and I take Jude in.  Nolan stands outside, frantically rapping at the door, “Mom, Mom! That man! He’s cold and he needs a shirt.

I get my latte, I nod to Nolan, I quietly tell Jude to stop smashing his head on the coffee mug display.

We’ll ask,” I say.

But it is what Nolan doesn’t expect. It is what I suspect, what makes me saddest.

I don’t want a shirt,” says the birthday man,”I’m hungry.”

My Mom will buy you a sandwich,”says Nolan. He’s crouching, looking in his eyes. Something I don’t think to do.”They have really good banana loaf. Or pumpkin scones with icing.

I’ll tell you what you can do,” the man says, and he looks at me hard and not at all at Nolan and Jude is off lovingly fingering the fir leaves, then plucking them.”What you can do for me is buy me a lemon soda, one of them in a can, and bring it to me.

But. You don’t want anything to eat?” Nolan asks him again, timidly. Incredulously.

A lemon soda is what I  really need,” he says,”I’m thirsty.

We watch a pretty young Indian girl regard his pasty chest, drop a five dollar bill in his cap, and hastily retreat into the coffee shop.

Why doesn’t he want a shirt?” whispers Nolan,” Why doesn’t he want a sandwich?”

He’s cold.  And he’s hungry, I think, but maybe for something other than a sandwich.”

Focused shoppers tromp by, people glance and look away, I grab Jude’s leafy hand and Nolan’s forgotten skateboard and we walk over crunchy brown Maple leafs, toward our silver car.

“Maybe he’s not that cold, Mom.  Maybe he doesn’t need a shirt.