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EXCUSE ME, SIR

So I’m at the bike rack by the chain-store grocery beside Broadway transit station in East Vancouver when a weary, worn-out, mid-twenties fellow man asks for a minute of my time.

"Well, I’m just about out of cash," I say, "so you’re asking for the right currency."

He says he’s got some food vouchers from Welfare, but they won’t let him buy smokes with them in the store, so would I like to buy enough so he could buy some smokes.

"I would," I says, "but I don’t think I have that much."

I scan my change and spot two loonies and a bunch of small stuff. I’ve also got to pick up my daughter from school in a few minutes and she and I usually like to stop for a treat somewhere along the way home.

But he’s persistent and gets me to count it out. It’s $5.50, give or take a dime. Too close to argue about. Being a student of omens I recognize it as one and I fork over my dough. $6.75 worth of vouchers and as part of the deal he throws in some free advice on how to lock my bike up so a bike-thief would be less likely to steal it. He tells me he was spare-changing and he just bought the vouchers from another panhandler. "Don’t let that stop you from trying to cash them, though. They won’t even ask for your ID."

I pick up my daughter from school and on the way home we pause at a café she goes to all the time and I’m kind of a regular at, too. When I reach in my pocket I remember.

"Hey listen, I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a coffee and a hot chocolate today."

"Sorry, I don’t know you."

It’s someone I haven’t met before. "That’s okay. You probably don’t get many of these. It would just be a hassle for you…but what about my kid? She comes here a lot."

She sits down with a friend of hers and enjoys a hot chocolate, while I bike to the bank and back.

The next day I decide to hold onto my last fiver, delay my next bank visit for a day and see if I can redeem the vouchers. A franchise-food place near the transit station. At least they’ve probably done this before, I figure.

She makes me a tuna sandwich and when I get up to the cash register she takes one look at the vouchers and closes up.

"Let me see the manager."

He says, "no." He’s been burned already. Welfare didn’t pay him back, so he won’t take them anymore.

"Well, that’s too bad, cuz I ain’t leaving till my stomach’s full."

"Fine, I’ll call the police."

While he’s on the phone telling them all this I do a quick survey of the ten people in line behind me, who all agree he’s a fool not to take the vouchers. "…being a franchise and this close to the transit station…and other people would come in with more of them, too."

"Yeah, but I can see his point," I say. "It’s not his fault. It’s just the system. We’re all victims of it." I move out of the way and the woman behind me having exactly the same meal gives him a five-dollar bill. They like the colour of her paper. She eats.

The guy is giving my height, weight, color of hair etc. to 911 now, so I says, "well, I’ll see you later. I may be poor, but I’m not stupid." I hear him repeating that to the cop dispatch as I leave.

I beat it and then decide to bike up to a different franchise place on Kingsway. I figure a franchise can probably deal with this easier or at least, seeing a little more of it, they ought to have a system in place–some policy other than: "Sorry."

On the way I think about how this is going to change my whole plan—postponing everything I was going to do for at least half an hour. Or longer if I decide to carry a chip around on my shoulder until someone cashes the vouchers. No wonder it’s so hard to get back on one’s feet if, as soon as you are finally able to stand up, the first thing you have to do is run around.

When I get up that mile-long hill, the golden arches are closed. Under renovation

Great. Now where? I know one thing: it’s gonna be downhill. So two blocks down Kingsway I spot the next franchise—same one as the first one.

I’m hungry as I wait in line. I’m getting ready to part with my last fiver. "Excuse me, do you take these?" I humbly show them to the manager.

He reads them, checks me out, reads the fine print, glances down at the fridge-table full of food. "Yeah, OK. I’ve never seen these before, but we’ll give it a shot."

"Thanks, man." So now he’s got to take those pieces of paper and find someone else who’s willing to humour him and honour them—either a bank or a ministry representative or whatever—maybe you.

Yesterday I think I saw the omen. But I could’ve seen it differently. Next time someone tries to sell me some vouchers so he can get a pack of smokes and I look in my pocket and find precisely what he needs I’ll just give it to him. Mind you, he did give me precisely what I needed. The material for this story. So thanks to the management and staff of the restaurant at 1773 Kingsway at Miller, Vancouver, British Columbia. They even gave up one of their tables so I could sit down and write for an hour.

971 Words December 3, 2002

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John Frem

John Frem is a 46-year-old chef and roofing contractor with two unpublished novels.

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