Let’s get this out of the way: I work on Bay Street; I commute downtown from the ‘burbs every morning.

Mea culpa.

Toronto’s financial district is primal chaos every weekday morning. The trains release hordes, thousands-strong, into streets built around cars, where pedestrians jockey for precious sidewalk space, cyclists ride through a gauntlet at every intersection, and panhandlers run a serious risk of being trampled under the stampede.

Bay & Front

The intersections are choke points. Want to know what it feels like to scramble for a lifeboat on a fast-sinking ship? Take the 8:15 to Union and try to walk from Front to King.

Adding to the chaos and impatience of the morning rush are people in bright-colored uniforms, wearing crazy hats, holding signs, wearing backpacks with flagpoles, dancing and yelling. They shovel wares frantically from the cardboard boxes scattered around them, and they aggressively shove papers into the hands of passers-by.

Ah, the Sample People.

Women in smart suits and high heels, men in serious grey pinstripes with expensive leather briefcases, young execs wearing tighter, trendier, but no less expensive clothes– they all love the Sample People.

Grab that granola! Cut in front of that man to snatch up some hair dye! Free sugarless gum– are you kidding me? Give me! Free laxatives! Free pain killers! Drop everything, dammit, I am taking that free wrapping paper!

a religious maniac downtown Toronto handing out flyers cult
Everyone’s in on it

When I first moved out of the city and experienced the commute from the suburban perspective (rather than that of an urban cyclist), the Sample People annoyed me, delayed me.  But lately, I’ve been wondering: why is everyone clamoring and clutching so desperately for something free?

I want to know why a serious businessperson will comically skitter around the sidewalk and beg, hands out, for a box of market-research-grade granola bars. I want to know why the woman in front of me, an intimidating lawyer-type, is so pitifully grasping for a 5-pack of Kleenex with a golf course’s logo on it.

If most of these people are commuters traveling to their jobs on Bay Street, it’s reasonable to assume that most of them are paid well enough that they don’t need that free pack of cup-o-soup. So why the urgency, why the desperation?

They are suffering not from physical hardship, but from emotional hardship, spiritual hardship, social hardship– a dearth of purpose, a shortage of direction, a lack of meaning. Like old men who turned to hoarding after living through the Great Depression, these commuters turn to the next product, the next television show, the next shiny thing they’re told they need, because they too are going without– but their hunger is an existential one.

Why does the scramble for freebies on Bay look just like the scramble for lifeboats on the Titanic? Because a drowning man will grab anything that’s thrown to him when he knows his head is just about to go under.