How much is $7.40?

How much is $7.40?

Does this seem like a stupid question? It’s worth $7.40, right?

It’s worth about two fancy coffees, a fast food combo, a cocktail at casual pub. I paid $7 for a loaf of bread at a Farmers’ Market once. I felt a bit silly about it afterwards but I think you should pay more for something home made. I’ve paid about this much for a basket of locally-grown peaches. This week I paid $9 for a bag of cherries and realized those babies are heavier than I thought.

I would guess that half of you reading this blog know me, and the other half might kind of know me through some of the TV work I’ve done. If I asked you for $7.40, I actually believe many of you would give it to me because I think I know and attract nice people. So, I AM asking you for it, but I never want you to give it to me.

We’ve been having a helluva heat wave in Toronto. Feeling like 40-degrees on many days, it’s that hot, sticky, sauna-like feeling of being hit with a steamy, wet facecloth. It’s really nice when combined with garbage day. I was walking down busy Spadina Ave. when someone behind me shouted, “Pay Chen!” I turned and noticed a weathered-looking man with a yellowed beard in dirty clothes. I thought he was going to ask me for money but he didn’t. He said he knew me from OMNI-TV. I asked if he was keeping cool and told him to stay in the shade. He smiled a lot, we wished each other a good day and went in opposite directions. Something about this encounter made me smile and let my guard down. Truthfully, you can’t pass a street corner without being asked for change or to donate money to a worthy cause. The only way to get to where I’m going some days is to avoid eye contact and say “I’m sorry, not today.”

Not even two minutes later, I passed an elderly Asian man sitting in front of a restaurant holding out a worn ballcap for change. I have seen him in the Chinatown area a few times over the years. When I have it, I give him a few dollars. Many days I walk past him like so many others. I walked past him a few steps, stopped and turned back. It was a really hot day, I fished for change but wondered if he ate. As I was walking towards him he got up using his cane, folded the sheet of newspaper he was sitting on and put it into the small plastic bag he was carrying. I realized he wasn’t sitting on the paper for any sort of cushioning from the cement. It was just to keep him from sitting directly on the ground. He stepped into the sidewalk a bit more and just shook his ballcap with one hand while balancing himself on his cane with his other. I felt strangely sheepish and a bit shy. I watched him from a few feet away for a moment and then approached him. “Do you want something to eat?” I asked while miming and pointing to the restaurant he was in front of. He nodded very slowly.

We went into the Chinese restaurant. A typical take-out place with a long counter with trays of food kept hot for hours and signs advertising lunch combos. I felt like Vanna White and swept my arm down the counter trying to indicate that he could choose what he liked. He didn’t understand English and I thought perhaps he could communicate with the women behind the counter, but he did not speak. He looked at all the options (there were many) and gave small nods as though acknowledging each dish. I told the woman behind the counter that I wanted a large combo, she asked if it was for him and I said, “yes, it’s for him.” And my voice completely caught in my throat. I had such a huge lump I couldn’t swallow, my eyes started to water and like a hipster, I put my sunglasses on indoors.

I don’t think this gentleman was too fussy about what to eat, if I pointed in a general direction he would nod, then I’d point, “this one? Or this one?” He chose a soup and the rest was a piece of chicken and pork over some rice packed into a styrofoam container and tied in a plastic bag. I asked if he wanted something to drink by pointing to the fridge behind us. Again he nodded slightly. He couldn’t open the fridge so I opened it and he pointed to the first thing in front of him. A can of something I can’t remember. I grabbed a bottle of water for him too then pointed to the few tables in the back and gestured for him to sit down while I paid up. His lunch, soup and two drinks came to $7.40. I don’t think I’ve ever bought MYSELF a lunch that was that cheap.

At first I put the bag down on the table in front of him but thought he might have trouble opening the knotted bag so I opened it and took out the styrofoam containers. I placed the plastic spoon, disposable chopsticks and napkins next to them. On a 40-degree day and he wearing a thin long-sleeved cotton jacket in the heat; he opened the soup immediately and sipped from the container as I impulsively cautioned, “that’s hot!” I was about to open his canned drink for him but he slightly waved his hand “no”.

Now this is the part I wish I was capable of handling differently, I couldn’t even smile at him because I was pressing my lips together so hard to not cry. My eyes behind my sunglasses were filling with tears that I was trying to keep from slipping out. He bowed his head deeply towards me. I (with my expressionless bitch face) nodded back, said something like “ok, bye.” And walked out. Fast. I passed two stores before I stood to the side of a wall and started to cry. Why the f**k was I crying?? You might say, “that was nice, you bought him a meal!” I was angry that such an old, frail man had to beg on the street for change. I wondered when he last ate. I wondered if he was saving that drink for someone else. I wondered if he was someone’s father or someone’s grandfather. I wondered if he might save some of the food for later and feared the meat would go bad and he would get sick. I thought I should have left him with some cash. I thought of the many times I’d walk past him and not noticed.

You  might think crying on the street is a bit of an overreaction to a homeless man. I was really upset by it and even though I cry when I watch the news (and read the newspaper) I was surprised that I continued to cry through the day. I think it has a lot to do with the stories of my father’s family when I was growing up. My grandfather died as a soldier when my father was young so he never knew him but growing up, my brother and I would be told to be grateful because my dad grew up quite poor.  You know how people tell their kids “there are starving children in (insert poverty-stricken country) that would love to eat that”? My brother and I got, “you have to finish that, your father’s family never had enough food to eat. Look how lucky you are.” We were told that there were so many mouths to feed he would sneak onto farms and steal fruit from trees. That he once spent days as a small boy hiding in the woods and eating plants. That when it was your birthday you got some boiled eggs – a real treat. So when I see an elderly person begging I think of my grandfather and his struggle even though he never actually lived to be very old. Also, my brother and I thought it was really cool that my dad could climb trees and steal fruit. Sometimes we missed the point.

Remember when I said I’d ask you for money? I posted an abbreviated version of this on FB and of course as my lovely friends, you were full of “likes” and “good for you!” comments. But here’s the thing that I am very guilty of. I read things, I retweet heart-warming stories, I write cheques a few times a year to various charities but I don’t often connect with an individual who is asking for some help. Can you spare $7.40 this week? Perhaps this month? I know (as my supportive friends), you will post nice comments. I’m not asking you to post nice comments – I’m asking you take the “more people need to do this” comment you may have written and just actually f*cking DO IT. Please don’t make this sound like a big deal. It was less than $10. It’s not a big deal. I don’t often use the phrase ‘pay it forward’ because I feel like I’m talking about myself in the third person, but if you liked this story even just a little, I just want you to DO something; buy a bottle of water or a sandwich for someone who is panhandling. A coffee. A Timmy’s gift card for the guy asking for change. Then post a comment telling me about it so I can read it and smile, and hide my happy tears behind my sunglasses.



  1. Sarena
    July 14, 2012

    REALLY great article. Touching. I’ve always been sensitive to any suffering, of any animal, including humans. Last summer I had a contract to work at the Old Brewery Mission. It was quite an emotional experience. I worked in a nice office, but sometimes went to the cafeteria. I’ll never forget seeing a young man, all alone, maybe 18 years old, asking for a pink frosted cupcake. It still cry when I think of it. I remember meeting a friend for dinner one day after working, and encountering another young man on St. Catherine, who didn’t ask me for money, he eyed my leftovers hungrily and asked for my box of half-eaten food. of course I gave it to him, but I totally broke down. For a moment I wasn’t sure I could even continue the 9 week contract, even though I was helping the cause. Thank you for your inspiring, soulful story. When we open our eyes and look around there is much we can do to help somebody – today. XO

  2. paychen
    July 15, 2012

    A lovely woman sent me an email on Facebook and I wanted to share part of it here:
    Hello Ms Chen… I just read your story and I want to very briefly share an experience that I had that was similar to yours: I had encountered an elderly woman at our local discount grocery store…. what got me was that her running shoes were held together with duct tape. It was February (I am in Montreal). It was very hard for me to keep it together… not wanting to affect her dignity, I chose a quiet moment when the aisles were clear and slipped her $20 to put towards her groceries. It was all I had. I posted this on my FB, and like you I got lots of “that’s nice of you” “very touching” “good for you”…but the ones I appreciated most were the posts from those who did just the same thing. I think that sometimes we are embarrassed to admit we do good for others. If everybody would share a very small amount ($7.40 or otherwise) it would make someone’s life a little better.
    Thank you for sharing, and know that there are other fabulously generous Canadians out there who do care, and do shed tears for those they do not know. xo

  3. Kristin Hursh
    July 15, 2012

    I’ll do it tomorrow, Pay, and report back. Adore you!

  4. Classy
    July 15, 2012

    This really hits home as this morning, I decided I would visit my local food bank this week and bring cans of whatever food they are in most need of. It is rare to see people directly near or on our streets as we are not a very big town.

    If you cannot spare your money, then spare your time: when I am at the grocery store I take the carts back to the cart return for any elderly shoppers I see around me, or those with lots of children. Their smiles of surprise make me hope that by doing something sweet for them, they will see our generation as a generous one, that not only gives money but also gives their time. It is only a few seconds to return their buggy for them but the thoughtfulness will last much longer in their mind. I also hope that it inspires other people who may be watching me to do the same for other elders who might be struggling to pay bills, get home to a chronically ill spouse, or get home to grandchildren they are having to raise in the absence of a parent. Our elders built what we have today and we should thank them in any way possible.

    Also, if you go through the drive through, which many, many people do…take the time to thank your servers — all of them. Thank the people who take your money for payment. Wish them a good week. Thank them as much as possible because the job they are in may be their only option for income. When you go to the grocery store, thank that young student who just had to deal with a grouchy mother and her four kids and still smiled and spoke politely. A lot of people don’t appreciate those who work the tough jobs that get them little to no respect. The hardest jobs in this world are the jobs nobody wants to do. Learn your custodian’s name, ask them about their kids, and get to know them as a person. (Mine is Mark, and he has 1 young son).

    I know my reply was slightly off-topic, but, if anyone feels that they are extremely strapped for cash (working college students, high schoolers, unemployed), and are barely squeaking by, remember: you can also give of your time, in many many ways. Improving someone’s mood might be the nudge for them to also give of their time and money.

    Moral of the comment: Be good to one another; don’t be ashamed to do good.

    • Classy
      July 15, 2012

      Also sent $10.00 over to our food bank because I couldn’t wait until Wednesday. And their hours are not when I can get over there as they are on the other side of town and out of my extended lunch break range :( But I am hoping that will help buy veggies and meat for a family.

  5. Hestiah
    July 15, 2012

    It was winter sometime, and I had only been employed for a few months after having been unemployed for 8. And outside at the intersection leading out of the parking lot where the lane divides, there is a small concrete section where a woman and a man were sitting. It was cold and they were asking for gas money to get home.

    I went into Starbucks to buy my normal hot drink, but I also bought 2 large coffees. I made sure to get some milk in a small cup, grabbed some sugars and stir sticks. I walked across the parking lot with the tray of hot coffee and condiments while others looked on and stared at me. On that day, I didn’t have a lot to give, but I wanted to make sure they were warm, even for a little while, while they asked for their gas money throughout the day.

    I didn’t see them again, so I’m hoping they got enough gas money to get home, or where ever they were traveling to. Later that day I had a moment similar to yours. Only it was in the bathroom of the office.

    I’ll continue to do things like this, when I’m able and the opportunity presents itself. Thank you for sharing your story. It warmed my heart.

  6. Lauren Simmons (@laurendorphin)
    July 15, 2012

    When I was a kid, I used to go to acting lessons at the Young People’s Theatre down by the St Lawrence Market. I think at about 5 I started to notice the homeless folks, the panhandlers, the worn and weary and to-me-scary types who hung about. And it made me really, really sad. I’d cry about it at night. I have old diaries from when I was about 7 where I wrote about being so sad about the poor. I don’t think I understood why I felt that way, and I still don’t, but when I think about it now I feel the same way: so sad inside, tears welling up in my eyes, just like you described.
    Part of why I became a teacher is I wanted to change the world. But I have lost touch with the idealistic kids who wanted to help the poor. I’ve got a few free weeks in August, and I think I’ll be giving some thought to volunteering and using that time for good.
    Thanks for this, Pay. xo

  7. ~Nancy
    July 15, 2012

    I’ve just put my girls to bed and am bawling as I read this. I have a lump in my throat and what feels like a boulder in my chest as I try not to wake them with my crying. I cry for the same reasons you do because it is unjust that there are so many people that are homeless and hungry in so may cities. I’ve had the privilege to live in many cities across the globe and experience many cultures and one thing that ties the world together is poverty.

    On a different level altogether, your post hurts because I grew up listening to my mother tell me stories of her exodus south when the Korean war broke out. She experienced hunger and abandonment that no child should ever face and what she remembers crystally is the kindness of the American GI’s that brought rations to the refugees when they were starving. I try to pay it forward every day in some way shape or form. Without someones kindness my mother would have starved to death.

    Thank you for writing this. It’s a bittersweet reminder to give back and to remember how blessed we are.

  8. J
    July 16, 2012

    When I first moved downtown 10 years ago, there weren’t as many condos and there were a lot more homeless people and panhandlers that I would encounter to and from work every day. Often after work, I’d pick up an extra dinner and give it to whoever I met along the way. Sometimes if I encountered someone else who looked hungry, I’d give them mine as well. I had my knapsack stocked with granola bars and my car stocked with water bottles and if there was someone standing on a corner asking for money, I’d offer food. Sometimes they’d decline and ask for money instead which I couldn’t afford to/wouldn’t give them.

    Then one time while walking down the street with a coworker, a lady approached saying that she had the flu and needed money for medicine. It was the middle of winter, and I believed her, so I gave her a few dollars. As we walked away, my coworker told me she didn’t have the flu and she was shivering from withdrawal. Shortly afterwards, I tried to offer money to an older lady eating from a garbage can – who waved me away and called me names. I think I became a little more jaded after those incidents, and the frequency that I gave out food/water declined dramatically.

    Thanks for the reminder about staying human. It’s a lesson learned that a couple small incidents shouldn’t change who we are inside our hearts and that not everyone who is in need of help is out to scam us. I’m going to go stock up my knapsack again with food and drinks. I have more than I need in my lifetime, it’s time to help someone else again.

  9. Mary
    August 2, 2012

    I love this. During the few really hot days this summer, I’ve bought bottles of water for some people on the street who were asking for money, and during those times I must admit, I was happy to have my sunglasses on to cover the tears welling up in my eyes.

    Even now as I write this a lump is forming in my throat. Great article.

Leave a Reply


e-Mail * (will not be published)