A Heart Like Lebanon

I’d met Khalid many years ago at the St. John the Compassionate Mission on Queen and Broadview where I serve every Sunday.  He was a short man with a slight forward tilt.  He looked well into his fifties or possibly early sixties.  The man rolled a small cart behind him filled to the top with bags stuffed with all kinds of miscellaneous items.  He wore a small cap too small for his head, black Denver Hayes old man pants and a knitted grey sweater with stitched red diamonds that would make Bill Cosby proud.  The man smiled at me and told me his name.  I gave him mine.

“Where are you from?” he asked in a slight Mediterranean lilt.

“Egypt.  I’m Coptic.”

“Egypt?  Beautiful country you know, so beautiful.  We’re neighbours me and you.  I’m from the mountains in Lebanon.  It’s amazing man, amazing.  The air up there is so clean.  My village looked down on Beirut and all the little people.  Beautiful view, so amazing.”

I smiled.  He told me of the fresh air and the old country, his people and village and the life he left behind.

“I studied mechanical engineering you know?  I am engineer.”

“That’s great,” I said.  “My brother and father are mechanical engineers too.”

“Many Egyptians are engineers you know?  I knew one when I worked up north in Pickle Lake in the seventies.”

"What did you do up there?”

"I was engineer!  Really.  There were copper mines up there.  I helped with the machinery to mine them.  The government, they were amazing man.  They give me food and shelter, so much money to go up there.  No other job gives you a home and that much money.  But they needed people and I went.  I loved that job Mina, I’m telling you” he smiled.  “But I had to leave.”

"Why?”

"They shut down.  No more copper.  Everyone at Pickle Lake was laid off.  Everyone.  Even my Egyptian friend.  Short guy, very short guy.  His name was Victor.”

"Victor.”

“Yes.  Victor Abdelshahid.”  That name sounded familiar. 

“Victor Abdelshahid?”

“Yes, good man.  Very good man.  He was short and engineer like me.  He wanted to make money and get married.  Always looking for a wife that man.  ‘Go to Egypt and find one!’ I told him.  Believe me, he was good.  I wonder if he found one.”

"Was he bald?  Kind of a high pitched voice?”

"Yes.  How do you know that?”

"Round nose like this?” I said covering my pointer finger in an arc above my own nose.

"Yes, yes, you know him?”

"That’s my uncle.”

"Really?”

"Yes.  He's married now.”

"Wow, that’s amazing!  He was so good man, so good.  He has kids?”

"Yes, he has two kids.  Mina and Barbie.  I think Barbie is married.  Mina is an engineer too.”

"Really?” Khalid smiled, truly happy for his old friend.  “He kept telling me he wanted to get married and he did it.  This guy was such a good guy.  Very good friend.”

I knew I shouldn’t ask the obvious.  I knew the question in my mind could remind him of a reality he may not want to face.  I knew it wasn’t right, but my curiosity would not allow my silence.

"Are you married?” I asked.  I saw him flinch and look away before he turned back.

"No no,” he said.  “No I was never married.  I came back from Pickle Lake so young you know?  I needed money and I was planning to find a wife but it was hard to find a job.  I worked a few years for the government in Toronto but I had to leave again you know?  People sabotaged me and I had to go.”

"What happened?”

"Long story man, long story.  Too long to say.  But you know, I made the right decision.  You need money for a woman, you can’t just take one and not have a future.  I wish I did civil engineering instead of mechanical, believe me.  So many jobs.  Everywhere they need civil engineers.  Everywhere.”

I sat and nodded. 

"You know my sister, she’s so beautiful Mina, you should see her.  You wouldn’t believe she was my sister, big blue eyes.  Beautiful.  She married a civil engineer, he owns his own construction company.  Good man.  They have two sons, both civil engineers.  Their dad will retire and they will take over.  So rich man, they live on Mississauga Road.  So rich.  Big huge house.”

I examined the man’s words to his face to his spirit.  Usually when I see someone from the streets speak of another’s good fortune, they spoke with anger at a life and a system they couldn’t understand but knew worked against them.  Conspiracy theories and victim status and rage was the language of many I’d encountered on the streets.  But Khalid, he was truly happy for his sister and her family’s success.  He genuinely seemed excited to hear that his old friend, my uncle Victor, had married and had children, like he’d dreamed of when they were still acquainted.  Khalid dreamed the same dream, but his was unfulfilled.

"Do you know my friend Ehab?” he asked me.  “He used to volunteer here all the time, but I don’t see him for so long.”

"Yes, his work sent him to England.  I think he should be coming back but I’m not sure when.”

"That’s a shame Mina, such a shame.  I bought him something but I didn’t see him for so long.  I wanted to give it to him.  I’ll wait until he comes back.  I love that guy.  So good man, so good.”

Khalid gave small presents to all the volunteers at the Mission.  He gave one a shirt, another a small wooden birdhouse, he even pushed a twenty into my hand once when I caught him at a bus stop.  I had all but begged him to take it back until he finally did. 

I saw him almost every week I attended the Sunday Suppers second seating at St. John’s, except for one cold day at the end of fall leading into the cold winter of 2017.  I didn’t spot him at the Mission and wondered where he was.  No matter, I went on with my volunteer service and helped serve the food and sat and ate and spoke with someone else that day.  After service was done, I gathered the rest of the volunteers from St. Mary’s in Mississauga and drove us back home.  I turned south on Jarvis towards the Gardiner and stopped at a red.  To my left, I spotted a small dirty woman knelt down in front of a brick building begging change from the passing people.  No one looked her in the eye. 

Not until a short old man in glasses and a hat too small for his head sauntered down the same way, a cart full of things concealed in plastic bags rolling behind him.  The man stopped at the ragged woman’s feet.  He reached into his trailing cart and pulled out a plastic box of croissants and handed it to the woman, smiled and went on his way.

Aside from myself and the homeless woman, nobody saw him do it.  Not the rest of the volunteers in the van I drove or the servants at the Mission, not his sister or my uncle Victor, or the crowd at St. John’s or any of the rich Lebanese businessmen in sharp suits or their sons or all the women he never married.  Nobody saw him do it.

My friend Khalid, the mechanical engineer, the ex-government worker and copper miner, the man who’d seen success over the years in so many lives but his own, gave some of the best of what he had to a woman who sat lower than him on the cold concrete of Toronto’s city streets. 

Khalid didn’t have much, but he had croissants.  He had old shirts and birdhouses and a heart as big as Lebanon, and he gave it all up to his city.