I tend to walk through the city with my guard up. Wearing my city armour.
When people approach, I make an instantaneous assessment – what do they want? Money? A cigarette? Do I slow my pace? Look away? Meet their gaze and shake my head? “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” Smile briefly, tight-lipped, try to acknowledge their humanity, but not encourage further communication?
The tourists are usually easy to spot – they often clutch a map, guidebook, or these days, a phone – and have that wide-eyed look. Sometimes I address them before they ask. “Do you need any help?” I guide them to the nearest metro stop, grocery store, bagel shop.
This night isn’t like any of those.
The forty-ish man is on the road, holding a German Shepherd on a leash. He sits in a modified wheelchair, a set of smaller wheels attached to its front. I forget exactly what he says to get my attention, but when I catch his eye, it’s clear he’s in some distress. He tells me he has very low vision, and has been wandering around the area for quite some time, lost. “Is that rue Gilbeau,” he says, pointing south? I tell him that it isn’t – the street he’s looking for is in the other direction. His face falls. “Just before, a man told me it was that way, and started laughing. Now I know why.” My heart breaks. “I just moved to this area recently, and I’m trying to get home. It’s so dark and I can’t tell where I am. I’m so embarrassed.”
“Would you like me to walk with you for a bit in that direction? I’d be glad to,” I offer.
“Oh, that’s so nice. I hate asking. Are you sure?”
“Would you like to come up onto the sidewalk first?” I ask. “It might be a bit safer.”
There’s no sidewalk dip, but he says he can make it up. He tries to push his chair over the lip of the sidewalk, but it isn’t easily going over. “I should be able to do it,” he says.
“Can I do anything?” I say.
“Could you hold onto the dog?”
I take the leash and hold the wagging German Shepherd while he maneuvers the step with the chair.
“What’s his name?”
The chair finally makes it onto the sidewalk.
We walk and roll along the dark side street. There’s a short awkward silence before I make some small talk about the weather.
“That’s a very interesting wheelchair you have, I don’t think I’ve seen one like that,” I say, pointing to the smaller front wheel.
He tells me how the extra wheel makes the chair so much easier to use. “It’s a part from a kid’s stroller. It lets me go much farther, faster. I rode all the way to Canadian Tire yesterday and it only took me 15 minutes.”
Patch trots quickly alongside his owner.
“For sure Patch is going to recognize my place more easily than I will.”
We reach the intersection. “This is Gilbeau, we’re facing north. We’re on the east side of the street.”
“That’s my building! I recognize it.” A look of relief washes over his face.
“Hopefully after a bit more time you’ll get used to the area,” I say.
“Oh, I’m only going out by myself during the day from now on,” he says.
He takes off the glove on the hand he’d been using to roll his chair, and I’m not sure at first what he’s doing. Then he stretches out his arm to shake my hand. “Merci,” he says. “Maybe I’ll see you around the neighbourhood again.”
Then we turn and go our separate ways.