If you live in a big city, chances are you’ve had some strange encounters. Not that small towns are immune to the peculiarities of the human condition but there’s something about large metropolis’ that attract all walks of life. There’s the perception that a big city is where the big opportunities are but success is always the same combination: hard work, personal connections, social class and luck. Make your own way but respect limitations. You can surpass limitations, but it takes time, luck and strategy to get yourself there. This is true for a lot people in Hamilton. Or #HamOnt as the kids like to say. We are a unique city where we live across the bay in the shadow of Toronto, staring at the hustle and bustle of bigger opportunity in a bigger city! The pursuit of more! Barf.
Hamilton has a way humbling you. A lot of people have made an incredible life for themselves here and a lot of people suffer. Which is true in any city. You have the rich and popular, the poor and forgotten, then the rest of us. The in-betweeners. Most of my friends are starving artists or fire-blazing entrepreneurs. Dreamers and thinkers.
I have had moments in this city where I have felt on top of the world. In 2014, I received the Hamilton Art Award for Best Emerging Artist in Performance as nominated by Lisa Pijuan-Nomura. It was a great moment. Everyone was in good spirits, it felt nice to be recognized for something I cared about, a lot of vibrant conversations that night and good energy. I’m all about that.
I’ve also had low moments where I was beyond drunk and crying next to an ATM machine, begging the robot to spew money on me so I can buy more booze. That was some next-level-teenage-angst-drunken-grossness right there.
Yes, this city has seen it all! And in a way so have I. Had the honour to perform for the mayor a few years back. Also got a tattoo of a pizza slice on my arm at the back of a clothing store in the worst part of town.
There’s something freeing about seeing all sides. I have the motivation and ambition to get ahead and make a life for myself and my family but at the same time I’ve been in the gutter and have seen sadness. It’s all here, it’s all real.
About a month ago…
I was walking with a comedian friend of mine to take in some exercise and good conversation. We were rounding the Durand neighbourhood which is beautiful with it’s old heritage buildings and amazing architecture. A lot of monolithic churches with tall spires and neighbourhood library boxes on people’s front lawns.
We were down McNabb, rounding a church, when this man appeared from a nook on the church side. From one look I could tell that he was homeless and most likely addicted to alcohol or drugs. He was stumbling and started marching towards us like a wounded tiger.
“Hey!!!” the man yelled, quite aggressively. “Shake my hand!” No hi’s, no how-are-you’s. Just “HEY!!! SHAKE MY HAND!”
I have studied crisis intervention in the past and immediately started assessing the situation. We were relatively alone in a blind corner of the city. He wasn’t asking for change or making small. He had a raised voice and wanted to make bodily contact by shaking our hands. From his tone to his actions, I was concerned for the safety of myself and my friend and honestly just wanted to keep walking but didn’t want to escalate the man.
So I said to him, “Nah man I don’t like shaking hands but lets fist bump.”
He ignored me and turned to my friend, even louder and more aggressive than before, “I SAID SHAKE MY HAND!!!”
My friend followed my lead and said, “No thank you. I’ll give you a fist bump though.” The guy wasn’t having it. He had this sort of sad, bewildered look on his face. Like, why won’t they shake my hand?
Then he said something that broke my heart. “I’m a human dammit. I’m a human. Shake my hand.”
It just bummed me out. I don’t know this guy or his situation and it’s hard to treat him kindly with me perceiving him as a threat. I was trying to do some quick thinking about the best way to deescalate the situation but also questioned if the situation was really as bad as I thought it was. Truth is, I’m a big purveyor of prevention and would rather avoid any form of escalation than deal with the consequences. I’ve seen innocent things turn into life-or-death situations very quickly. So this is the context for my initial hesitance towards this man.
Though, if I was teaching a non-violent crisis intervention class I would never recommend doing this in a million years but in the situation I just decided to trust my gut from years of dealing with hostile situations in a group home environment. I said to him, “Okay… what’s your name human? I’m Clifford.”
He said, “Hi Clifford. My name is Joe.”
Then I said, “Okay, nice to meet you Joe.” And I put out my hand. He shook it and thanked me shaking his hand. He didn’t try to shake my friend’s hand again and backed down immediately.
This is true for a lot people in Hamilton. Or #HamOnt as the kids like to say. We are a unique city where we live across the bay in the shadow of Toronto, staring at the hustle and bustle of bigger opportunity in a bigger city! The pursuit of more! Barf.
So We Wished Him Well And Started Walking Away
We kept going, not saying much to each other, when Joe kept yelling from the church. “You’re a good man, Clifford! You shook my hand, Clifford! You’re a good man.” I had some satisfaction that the man was pleased, even though it was my personal preference not to shake his hand, but I’m glad it didn’t escalate into a worse situation. If shaking his hand reduced the chance of a serious conflict then I was okay with it.
Then he yells out this: “Hey Clifford! Did you know you look like Cartman from behind?” Joe with the South Park reference. I playfully yelled back, “I guess that would make him Stan!” Pointing to my friend because he was wearing a blue coat like the character Stan from South Park. He yells back, “He’s not Stan, he’s Kenny!!! Because he’s DEAD TO ME!”
Which is just such a crisp, wonderful punchline. Anyone who knows South Park knows Kenny is a character that dies every episode. His comedy was good but required you to be familiar with South Park.
The entire situation felt very Hamilton. The right amount of weird and scary.
As we walked away, I was quiet with doubt. I didn’t know if I handled that situation correctly and still felt a sense of concern because conflict with strangers always freaks me out.
But at least I know there’s a guy out there, named Joe, who loves South Park and is happy that someone treated him like a human and shook his hand.
Clifford Myers is a stand-up comedian from Hamilton, Ontario who stopped watching South Park like 15 years ago.