Away on a sidewalk

Published December 1, 2009

THEY WERE navigating along the sidewalk, Jack steering the shopping cart and Cindy hanging on. She hadn’t been feeling well for quite a while, everybody could see that. A kind of reputation had grown up around them. When they didn’t turn up in the usual places for a couple of days, people noticed.

“Seen Jack and Cindy?” You could hear the concern in the question.

“Yesterday. Industrial area.”

“They okay?”

“Guess so.”


But things weren’t okay. Cindy wasn’t sure she could hang on to the shopping cart much longer. They were getting close to a busy corner downtown. “Look,” said Jack. “There’s a McDonald’s. You stay here and I’ll sit at the corner and panhandle. People might be generous seeing as it’s Christmas. I’ll get you a Big Mac. And coffee. Lotsa cream. ‘Way you like it!”

Cindy sank down on the sidewalk. She felt more sick than hungry. Jack arranged the shopping cart so she could lie behind it. “Okay,” she said. She looked at him; he was her one bright light.

The phone rang. You could hardly hear it over the noise of the twins chasing each other in the family room. “Would you like me to get that for you, dear?” asked Grace, smiling.

“You’d better, I’m incapacitated at the moment!” laughed Richard from beneath a pile of dogs and children on the living-room floor.

Grace checked the call display and her heart sank. She mouthed who was calling to Richard and saw him steel himself. She picked up the phone, and in her delighted-to-chat voice said, “Good evening, Mr. Premier.”

Pause. “Not at all.”

Pause. “That’s so kind of you. The same to you and your family. You’ll be wanting to talk to Richard. He’s right here.”

Pause. “Thank you very much.”

Grace shushed the kids as Richard moved into the den with the phone. He emerged a few minutes later.

“He’s called an emergency cabinet.”

“Now? Tonight? Christmas Eve?” asked Grace in astonishment.

“It’s important, ” said Richard, grimly. He was already putting on his coat and heading out the door.

People weren’t as generous as Jack had hoped. It took an hour before he had enough for Cindy’s Big Mac, fries and coffee. But when he came out of the fast food joint, he saw people in black hoodies gathered around the cart. They were about to roll Cindy and rip off their stuff! The burger, fries and coffee went flying as he sprinted towards the cart, yelling at the top of his lungs. He felt ready to kill someone.

As he got closer, he saw it: blood on the sidewalk. Was she dead? He felt his heart stop. Then he heard a gurgle and a baby’s cry. What idiot would bring a baby out on a night like this?

Richard was driving carefully. As he worked his way through downtown, he passed the usual rowdies and drunks, hitting every stop light. Near a McDonald’s, he noticed a group of street people kneeling around a shopping cart. They were strangely still. Then he saw the blood. Something made him stop and get out.

“Thought you’d never come,” Cindy whispered to Jack. Someone wiped the blood off the baby with a shirt from their backpack, wrapped the baby in it and handed Jack his son. Then some idiot in a suit decided to get out of his car and watch.

Richard flipped open his cell phone. “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“No ambulance!” said the crowd in unison.

Richard was taken aback. “You don’t want an ambulance?”

“No ambulance.”

It sounded final. For street people, getting involved with officialdom, even paramedics, can be bad news.

“Well, is there anything I can do?”

His offer was greeted with dead silence. What would a suit know about street life? The sooner they got him to leave, the sooner life could go back to normal.

But life didn’t go back to normal. As soon as Richard drove out of sight, he called the ambulance. And by the time he walked into the cabinet meeting, he was feeling deeply troubled.

 “Wasn’t that Richard Domin?” asked someone back on the sidewalk. “Saw his picture in the paper. Sure it was him. Minister of Housing.” Street people know more about what’s going on than most people think.

“Well, if that was Richard Domin come to visit…hey Jack! Your kid might be premier one day! Have us in for a banquet! Sleep in real beds!”

Jack usually didn’t say much, but this time he said a lot. “Never know. Miracles do happen.”

The premier was not pleased. The opposition was about to jump on a scandal and thanks to the economic downturn, a major part of his election platform had just evaporated into thin air. The cuts would be announced in the new budget. So which ministry was going to take the hit?

The men and women around the table fought hard for their programs. Each was determined to win. Except Richard. Eventually there was an exhausted pause and Richard told the story of the baby born on the sidewalk, and of the dead silence that had greeted his offer to help. “Great story!” scoffed one of his colleagues, “Figure it’ll get you an extra hundred million for your ministry?”

Instead of joining the fight for cabinet power, Richard decided to simply tell his truth. “It’s Christmas Eve. I saw a baby born on the sidewalk. In our city…a baby born on a sidewalk! I asked what I could do, and they said nothing. I refuse to believe that. Even in these times.”

People realized he was serious. The conversation continued in a different tone and with a very surprising outcome.

It was very early Christmas day when he crawled into bed next to Grace. She asked how it went.

“Actually, really well.”

He told the story of the baby born on a downtown sidewalk and of the extraordinary commitment the premier had made. Strange how a baby could make that happen.

It was very early Christmas day before Cindy and the baby got settled on a stretcher in emerg, Jack hovering.  A doctor came in. “So who do you think you are?” he asked Jack. “I guess I’m the dad,” said Jack. “Nope,” said the doctor, grinning. “Your son is born on Christmas day, so who the heck do you think you are?”Jack got it.  “Well, if her name was Mary, I guess it’d be obvious, but since it isn’t, I don’t have to worry about being God. Not like you doctors.” The doctor chuckled. He was going to like this pair. Cindy waited a moment, then said, “But it is.” “What is?” Jack asked. “It’s my real name. Mary.” Jack was startled. “You never told me that.” “Well, it always seemed so religious. But tonight it just feels right. So I’m telling you now.” A pause. Then Jack said, “Got something to tell you, too. Jack’s not my real name. First name’s Joe.” “No kidding? My partner’s Joseph? And I never knew!” Cindy spent a long time that night in thought, with the baby and Jack beside her, wondering what it all meant. Their street family walked all the way to emerg. Jack went out and told them about Cindy’s real name, his real name and the baby who had revealed to them who they really were. If street people could be that important, anything could happen. And they didn’t know the half of it yet.Canon Harold Munn is rector of The Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria.


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