In my role as dad, I must periodically attend dance events. While I am proud of my daughters and happy that they enjoy this extracurricular, you can be sitting in a chair for a long time surrounded by a pool of estrogen, lipstick and costumes, waiting for your daughter’s number to come up. There is a lot of tap dancing and wild applause of mothers.
One of the regular dance venues is the convention centre in downtown Hamilton. For anybody who goes to Hamilton for the first time, it is fairly rough even in broad daylight. The downtown especially around Jackson Square, is lined with the down and out, and in the midst of this, the Convention Centre is a point of contact. You will be all dressed up, walking past a coterie of characters with substance abuse problems. They will hold a door for you, and say pointedly, “Have a nice day” as if to underline your discomfort. It’s a way to pinpoint the broad chasm which divides your world from theirs, and it’s also a cue to unburden your pocket of some extra change.
I used to be a great sucker for that kind of thing, but I was disabused of any doubt where the money went during my twenties. I was getting some coffees to go visit my brother on a Saturday morning, and passed by two panhandlers sitting on a bench. Feeling a pang of guilt, I passed off a cup of coffee to one of the them. The panhandler turned to his mate on the bench and said, “How much will you give me for this cup of coffee?” I realized with a sinking feeling that the utility of the coffee was viewed through one lens only - how quickly it could translate into a bottle of alcohol.
Zoom back to downtown Hamilton, and you will realize that years later, I am much more circumspect in supporting poor life choices. Even Jesus recognized that “the poor will always be among you”, but one particular Saturday I saw something different.
In life, you can try to swim against the current, or you can find a way to go with the flow. That’s what the man at the pedestrian walk was doing. He wasn’t exactly a crossing guard. I am going to call him the Crossing King, because what he was doing, transcended his immediate circumstance.
The Crossing King was in a wheelchair, wizened and a little bent out of shape. He had positioned himself at the point where groups of parents might come across the road in between dance venues to grab a bite at the restaurants on the other side. I just assumed he was panhandling, but I was wrong. The man in the wheelchair was at play. He had made himself host and guardian to the cross walk, practicing chivalry with great panache and flair. He was putting on a well-choreographed comedy that was a great example of timing.
I watched this mime play out a few times over. When a family would approach, he would raise both hands to hail them to a stop, turn and frown at the red crossing light. He would wait gravely, then suddenly thrust both hands out theatrically over the road like a conductor prompting an orchestra. It was a joke everyone got. The family, momentarily confused, would see the light change magically to green courtesy of the Crossing King. They would laugh and smile, and the Crossing King would nod and bow back, magnanimous in his chivalry.
Shakespeare said that all of life is a stage and every man must play a part, and this is perhaps most true when it comes to class distinctions. But in that comedy, played out over and over, the man at the cross walk was no longer an unfortunate bound by the confines of a wheelchair. His comic mime levelled the playing field. For a moment we were all kids at play, everyone stepping out of category and having a blast. No one more than the Crossing King.