As Katherine and I crossed a street in Victoria, just prior to returning home after an election-week visit, I had a run-in with the city’s official greeter.
At least, I presume that’s what he was. Otherwise, there didn’t seem to be much point to the interaction.
The tall, skinny individual was dressed head to toe in dark denim. His scowl was as ferocious and forbidding as the black moustache that drooped over his lips. He approached me just before I reached the pavement.
“Fudge you, ashcan,” he said.
OK – so those aren’t quite the words he used. His speech took a more Anglo Saxon and anatomical turn, but I’ll spare you the precise terminology.
I can’t quite recall my witty rejoinder to this opening gambit – perhaps “same to you, buddy” – but I’ll admit the brief exchange set me back a little. After a hurried review of my memory files, I had to conclude the man was a stranger to me and that I was, ergo, a stranger to him.
I might have accepted the blunt character assessment – not the first time such a view has been advanced, though my accusers are usually armed with more personal knowledge. But I had to draw a line at the first part.
It was no consolation at all when, shortly afterwards, he dismissed a passerby with a word that rhymes with ‘witch’.
“Mental-health issues,” Katherine said, but I was not convinced this was the only explanation.
Street people in B.C.’s beautiful capital have become notably aggressive in panhandling efforts, it’s true – in spite of the confidence of legislators insulated from such realities that all in our West Coast wonderland is sweetness and light.
But if this man were a panhandler, I mused, he’d taken it in a radically new direction, going straight to a presumption of rejection. Not a technique guaranteed to elicit much cash, though it removes risk of disappointment.
I’m toying with the notion he might be part of a refreshingly honest tourism campaign designed to introduce visitors to the realities of the capital’s downtown core. In my mind’s eye, I see a poster emblazoned with the legend Visit Victoria! – and underneath it, Mr. Chuck U. Farley spouting his distinctive welcome.
It’s tempting to shrug off such an incident with a laugh. Instead, it made me think of the exercise in democracy the province so recently endured.
Because, there is no way to look at this little slice-of-life without acknowledging it as a symptom – and symbol – of societal neglect. Whether it’s neglect of law enforcement in a prime tourist destination or neglect of issues such as poverty and mental health that could contribute to an individual feeling so marginalized, and angry, is worthy of debate. But neglect it is, on the very doorstep of our political bureaucracy.
When they next travel to Victoria – a city where it sometimes seems the only brightness that emanates from the legislature comes from the lightbulbs they turn on at dusk – B.C.’s newly elected servants of the people must ask themselves whether they are prepared to do their best, not only for our more agreeable citizens but for the most challenging among us.
Alex Browne is a longtime reporter for Peace Arch News.