It was a blistering cold day in downtown Toronto, and with every breath I took I could feel my insides turning to ice. The streets were cluttered with people who I thought I could avoid once inside Union Station, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It looked as if the entire population of Canada had decided to use the subway today.
My feet were begging me to find somewhere to rest, so I fought my way through the station, looking for an empty seat. Eventually, I found one behind a mob of mothers screaming at their children to stay close, and my feet started to sing with the anticipation of sitting down. I hadn’t been this excited since my first day of kindergarten. Much to my dismay, and, just like my first day of kindergarten, my excitement was shattered immediately. Huddling against the wall beside the bench was a man wearing a black hoodie and a scar that cut across his face, from the corner of his left eye to his mouth. I had watched enough “Forensic Files” episodes to feel that this man wasn’t good news, but my feet were killing me, so, convincing myself that I was safe enough in the middle of the day with hundreds of witnesses around, I sat down and studied the man from the corner of my eye.
His dark, bleary eyes were lost in thought, staring at empty space in front of him. He was humming something that sounded like a cross between “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and was thoughtlessly stroking a black dog with matted fur with one hand and holding a Christmas-themed Tim Horton’s cup in the other. It was February. I wondered how long it had been since the man had had something warm to drink.
My analysis was interrupted when a young woman screaming on her phone stopped right in front of the man, with her back to him. If I couldn’t hear her colorful language, I would have thought that she was trying, and failing, to conduct an orchestra because she was furiously waving her free hand. It wasn’t her theatrical gestures that held my gaze – although, she was amusing to watch – but her clothes, or lack thereof. She had her blonde hair in a topknot and was wearing a knee-length, skin-tight fuchsia dress with glossy six-inch heels in the same color. She looked like an outraged, underdressed Barbie. Apparently, hypothermia was the new black.
After she stomped off, I realized that she hadn’t paid any attention to the man, like he was invisible. As more people passed, I realized that no one saw him.
Eventually, a boy with a mop of fiery red hair stopped and smiled at the dog, which wagged its tail frantically. As the boy leaned in to pet the dog, his eyes fell on the dog’s owner, and his smile vanished. Seconds later, so did he.
A hundred more people passed the man, not noticing him, and then I saw a frail older man running to the not-so-invisible man, waving a brown paper bag. As he ran, I noticed that no one was paying any attention to him either. The running man reminded me of Old Man Winter from stories I read as a child; he had a white beard that matched his papery skin, wrinkled like the bark of pine trees. He looked like he might be 80 years old, and I wondered if it was because he had lived on the streets long enough to lose his youth faster than usual, if he, instead, was supposed to look like jolly old Santa Claus with rosy cheeks instead of the thin, pale man, panting for breath in front of me.
The old man looked at his friend with kind eyes and gave him a toothless smile as he handed him the brown bag. The invisible man returned the smile and poured the only Loonie he had in his cup into his hand. Old Man Winter’s eyes shone with gratitude as he put the Loonie into the pocket of his worn sweater before running over to a woman sitting on a bench. There were so many invisible people here.
My cheeks were hot from shame, and I could feel the weight of the wallet in my bag tugging my shoulder, begging me to help the man who was freezing beside me, suddenly looking more vulnerable than he had 20 minutes ago.
I realized, then, that to most, this man was invisible, like Old Man Winter and the lady with the hollow face sitting on the bench across the station from me, and to the few who saw him, he was a monster, waiting to hurt them and take their money. This was what the boy had thought. It was what I had thought.
I jumped off the bench, my feet feeling nothing, and put a few bills into the Tim Horton’s cup. As I leaned in to pet his dog, the smell of tobacco hit me and I tasted dry cigarette smoke. The man watched me pet his dog and then met my gaze.
“Thank you,” he said in a voice shaking from the cold. He smiled at me, and his cracked lips start to bleed. I returned the smile and headed toward the trains, hoping that he would treat himself and his dog tonight, hoping that he would no longer be invisible and that people would help him without judging him, like I had, and hoping that I wouldn’t fall on the ice that had formed on the ground he called his bed.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.