Commentary  Free judgement

Saying no and meaning it

This man has a name but I don’t know it. I’ve passed through his faux shop (a busy street corner where he displays his goods) at least a hundred times over the past couple years. He is always hunched over, forever squatting with outstretched palms, squinting eyes, and a surprisingly suave mullet. “Too daahllahs” moans this misunderstood moose. His hands raised with two fingers up, an ingenious pair of temporary antlers. (Are his two wishboned fingers beaming out peace, victory, or, more plausibly, simply asking for two dollars?) With seemingly unwavering hope (or a severely broken short-term memory), he dishes out his wanting like a fanatical egalitarian: impatient red light drivers, disaffected businesswomen, and late-for-class teenagers all get their chance to spend a toonie, and have the feel-good moment of the hour.

Except for me. I get none of it, not any more, at least. Sometime around my thirtieth or fortieth trip through his “dépanneur of need” he gave up; not on the world, not on thirty-something yuppie types in general. He gave up on me specifically. Hopeful crooning gave way to spiteful splashes of disdain and derision. Halfway to making his trademark peace/$2 sign, he would recognize me and twist his hand upside down, plunging his thumb at the center of the earth in a gesture that told me I was completely useless to him. Thumbs down. It began to feel like he was incarnating Simon Cowell, reminding me brutally that I shouldn’t quit my day job, since I clearly wasn’t cut out to help this particular homeless guy for a living.

It takes a lot of energy to ignore this guy and I always fail in my attempts to pass by unassumingly. It had been a while since we had shared a stare when, yesterday, I approached his dépann-air. From the opposite side of the street, through a grid of idling cars and revving Bixis and impatient lawyers he used his elfin eyes to pick me out, incredibly. Gesturing at me with his downward-cast thumb, he uttered his simple and terrible “NO.” It got me thinking.

How many times does this guy get to say no and really mean it? Whether it’s a party or a ride or a job or a one-night stand, having a capacity to say no to something reflects a state of resourcefulness. The feelings I experience when this man, in his unconventional way, turns me down, make me wonder about our negative capabilities. Maybe I’m just trying to come up with a consoling description of our despair-laden exchanges and the way they haunt me. Regardless, I feel like somewhere in his beguiling “NO” lurks a clue or two about what many people call human dignity.

Conor Coady is a History and French Literature student. He can be reached at

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