Inner City Diary
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Let me tell you who the real tough guys are
November 4, 2001
Everyone knows we've got tough people in this neighbourhood.

People hear about the gangsters on the news, see mug shots of the ten “most wanted” losers. Looking at their grizzled faces and bleary eyes, reading accounts of their exploits, one might assume they are the toughest folk in the neighbourhood.

I'm sure they're tough enough to beat the snot out of me, but that's no big achievement. The props of their toughness - rumbling bikes, gang colours, weapons and pack mentality - are symbols of gutlessness. They are more to be pitied than feared.

They get old and die like the rest of us, with nothing to show for the noise and damage they've caused. Their “friends” backstab them. Their kids hate them. The collective memory of the neighbourhood mocks them. They are swept away by the tide of their circumstances, like driftwood caught in currents of greed and laziness.

I know lots of people tougher than them.

Take the guy who learned a new language, went to work every day at 5am, got hassled by co-workers for doing his job well, and abused by bosses until he retired. Then there's the woman who worked years in factories where the insult of daily worker searches was added to the injury of harsh working conditions and pitiful pay. There's another woman who worked her fingers to the bone in sewing factories. And that's just my dad, mom and aunt!

Real toughness is characterized by a refusal to give up on doing the right things. A stubbornness in responsibilities, sticking with “impossible dreams.”

My friend Bonnie is that kind of a person.

She fell about four months ago and doctors used an assortment of pins and plates to piece her back together. Countless hours of physio. No pity parties. Lots of determination.

But that only begins to describe her toughness.

For over thirty years, Wayne, Bonnie and Connie have run a little “Variety Store” and theatre here in the West End.

Over the years, they've had more than a hundred incidents of vandalism, robbery and various forms of nastiness. They've dealt with hookers, dealers, con artists, and a wide variety of other loons and goons. They've been on the verge of bankruptcy, or quitting, countless times.

But it's plain that this corner belongs to Bonnie, Wayne, and Connie. It becomes plain every time the “Open” sign goes up in the window. Raising that sign has become a daily act of defiance which has inspired residents of this community for years.

In some ways their place is like countless other coffee shops in every other place. Regular people at regular times coming for their regular coffee, regular sandwich or soup. Some come for conversation. Some just to share counter space with those who like to talk. They listen, squint, smile and frown at the banter. The conversation becomes a litmus test for the self-image of the community.

Listen for awhile and you'll hear what's wrong with the world. You'll hear customers talk about “damn politicians,” bungling bureaucrats, crazy crooks, and neurotic neighbours.

But if you stay long enough, you'll get a taste of more than coffee, cigarette smoke, and lively conversations.

You'll get a taste of what's good about this neighbourhood, good about this corner. People meet. Tough people who have lived through tough times. Lives are shared. Ideas become reality and hopes are re-kindled. The up-and-coming can learn from former teachers, truckers, politicians, wardens, cons and doctors. Representatives of almost every imaginable profession.

They've taken more confessions, brokered more peace agreements and done more social work than most of the “professionals” combined. They've visited customers in hospitals, given rides and helped them clean their homes. They've counseled and cajoled, laughed and cried with countless friends. They've attended funerals of elderly customers and graduations of younger children.

Like every coffee shop, they serve coffee. But that coffee, those three tough people, and this corner become parts of the glue that keeps a community together.

I know Bonnie's toughness has helped the healing of her arms and legs. What she may not know is how much it has helped us as well.
Copyright 2001
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
New Life Ministries
West End CIA
Contact info:
New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929
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