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Big city walk: the man in this photograph is the subject of this article (photo by Mike Simpson)


When we witness an attack in the city should we intervene or keep our heads down? How do we deal with the homeless, especially in the age of covid? In this article I relate an encounter with a crazed man who interrupted an otherwise beautiful trip I took to downtown Toronto.

On Sunday I went out to do one of my favourite things in the world: shoot photos. And it was pretty good. Though it was warm and humid it was milder than usual. Plus, I went out in the early evening so the sun was low, and I was downtown so tall buildings provide some welcome shade as a cool breeze swept through.

Seems like a perfect evening right? Well it started off, and ended up a little weird, to say the least. 

Public transit has a reputation for being a little sketchy. And even in a relatively safe city like Toronto it is deserved. Though it seems like 99% of Torontonians are good about wearing masks, there’s always one guy on the train without one, and often they seem a little unstable or threatening.

So back to my Sunday. In addition to teaching I am a designer and photographer. Many of my friends enjoy photography too, and once or twice a month I get together with a few like-minds for a photo walk.

As a city-goer with an interest in architecture and street life, it’s enjoyable meeting with other photographers for strolls around various city landmarks and neighbourhoods. It’s nice to meet IRL (in real life) many of the people I meet on Instagram or through my websites. Tonight’s trip to meet some fellow photogs would be very interesting.
I got on the subway in the west end and by the next stop I realized I was dealing with a psychotic or drunk, loud and disheveled man in the nearly empty subway car. “Oh no,” I thought to myself. Sure enough the man was maskless and talking loudly at close range to another passenger mid-way down the train car. When I heard what he was saying I got nervous and defensive.
“Niggers” I heard the crazed man say repeatedly, to what looked like a dark skinned man, who just wanted to sit in peace with his bike. The bicycle man nodded his head as if he wanted to appease the lunatic and hope that he’d let up. But the loon would leave and then return a stop later.
I had moved to the far end of the subway car and I looked over at the one other man, also with a bicycle, and met his gaze. He said “he’s been doing this to everyone.” I nodded and gripped my water bottle tightly.
It’s not a frequent occurrence but sometimes I consider what I might do if I were assaulted or felt compelled to defend myself. My metal water bottle is a substantial weight and easy to grip so I sometimes pull it out of my bag. 
Of course avoiding confrontation is of prime importance. However I knew I would have to speak up if this kept going or if the loon approached me.
A few minutes later that moment came. The delirious figure staggered toward our end of the car. As he approached, leaned forward and started talking, obscenities laced with racism tumbled from his lips.
“Stop, back up!” I said firmly as soon as he invaded my space. The man did step back. He looked a little susprised, and like a robot started saying the same hateful dumb stuff. I said “Stay back, keep a distance,” and he obeyed. He then turned and walked away.
At the next stop I went to the next car and then noticed how much more crowded it was. The loon had instilled fear and disgust in so many that the next subway car had dozens of people compared to the empty conflict car.
I got downtown for my photo walk without incident. For about two hours our group explored the financial district and wandered to the St. Lawrence Market area.
It was an enjoyable evening. I was walking back toward Union Station when suddenly a voice cracked over my shoulder: “Watch the jews!” it boomed and the face was right beside me! “It’s him,” I thought, amazed and disgusted. I told him again “keep a distance! Get back.”
The disheveled man hobbled away and I paused for a moment. We walked slowly and my companion remarked: “It’s not worth it. Should probably ignore him.” Normally I would agree but this was my second encounter and I felt like a good samaritan thinking of all the people this guy had probably menaced and harassed.
Realizing he was still behind me, I turned and spoke loudly: “Keep your distance from people and stop being so mean and nasty!”
We got to a little further down the street and paused to take some photos of the fading sun. The grubby man walked by and waved his hand in greeting, and then kept walking toward the centre of the city.
My fellow photographer had remarked minutes before the encounter that he never took the subway because it was full of threatening people, he preferred the Go Train. I had agreed with him.
Retelling this story I have different feelings about this. On the one hand I feel sorry for this belligerent man. On the other hand, I feel he needs a good comeuppance. What he did need was some human contact and someone to talk firmly but tell him he was out of line.
It’s a tough one because most of us keep our heads down and try to stay safe when confronted with street menace. I guess I felt this particular man wasn’t a true threat and needed to be corrected or guided.
I got my shots, I caught my train and headed home.


Author note: In this article and elsewhere in my writing I choose to use the lowercase spelling of “covid.” This is not incorrect, though you may have seen the ALLCAPS version more in regular use. The spelling, covid, is the preferred formatting used by media outlets like the New York Times, so I feel I am in good company.