Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Searching for the panhandler and his pooch

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I'd had enough.

Enough of the emotionally draining columns, and all the sad stories from all the sad people.

So Thursday I went in search of a happy story.

Not that the one I had in mind -- about a panhandler and his pooch -- doesn't have a seam of sadness running through it, but I thought maybe, in the telling, I could supply an ending that would make me happy.

The panhandler's name is Ernie, his dog is Gypsy. She looks like a German shepherd-cross, in a long-haired, blow-dried kind of way. They're well-known and as far as I know well-liked in the Exchange District where they share a room.

The first time I met Ernie and Gypsy was late last winter while driving by their favourite corner; Princess Street and Logan Avenue, just a block down from Siloam Mission.

In a way, Ernie operates the corner like a drive-by donation window.

The window being opportunity.

On the late February weekday I first saw them, Ernie was standing respectfully on the sidewalk with Gypsy sitting obediently behind him on a blanket.

Ernie is personable and respectful when he panhandles. He doesn't step out into traffic, which apparently helps him get along with police. I don't know how he ended up on that corner, but he told me he used to work as a tile layer, and he rescued Gypsy some years ago from Osborne Village.

I saw Ernie and Gypsy again last summer. And then, this week, Tim Hoffman, one of his corner regulars, told me something disturbing.

The 21-year-old University of Manitoba student stopped at the corner a week ago and Ernie asked if he could give him and Gypsy a ride home. Ernie said Gypsy was having trouble walking.

In they got, and two minutes later out they got at a rooming house half a block from Red River College.

Ernie lifted Gypsy out of the truck, disappeared inside the house and that was the last time Tim saw them.

Thursday, Tim and I drove to the rooming house. I wanted to see how Gypsy was doing and whether she needed to see a vet and be prescribed some pain medication.

But all I found at the rooming house was more of the sadness I had been hoping to avoid.

A woman named Susan who lives upstairs let us in. She had been running a bath in the only bathroom in a house with 10 rooms and 16 people.

Susan knocked on room 7.

We could hear Gypsy barking.

If Ernie was there, he didn't answer.

Susan's door was open, so she invited us to see what kind of accommodation $300 a month buys in Winnipeg.

The room was big enough for a large-screen TV, a bed and not much else. Although there was a small space heater in the middle of the floor.

She and her male partner needed the extra heat because they had blocked the old-fashioned wall vent. It was either that or have mice as roommates.

Susan said there is a house cat, which earns its board and room eating the mice; but the cat doesn't fancy the other critters Susan says the house is crawling with: bedbugs.

I don't know where Ernie was Thursday, but on a frigid Friday morning I went searching again for the panhandler and his pooch.

First on their favourite corner.

Then back at the rooming house.

This time Susan didn't answer the front door, but when I was leaving I noticed something on the snow-packed front step: A fresh paw print next to a boot print that suggested they were out there somewhere.

I drove back to the Siloam Mission area still looking for them or another story that would make me happy, even if it was an unlikely place to find one.

Then, to my surprise -- as I sat parked on Princess Street watching a parade of impoverished people making the daily two-block trek from Siloam Mission's soup kitchen across Main Street to the Salvation Army -- I noticed someone who looked familiar.

A big, white-haired man with a long white beard. He had just climbed out of a Freightliner dump truck, which could have been a sleigh in disguise for all I knew.

The only thing missing was the red suit and reindeer, that's how much the white-whiskered guy with the rosy cheeks looked like Kris Kringle.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Klaus Kroeker," he said.

Close enough.

I asked him to smile for a photo, because I knew no one would believe me.

And with that he laughed a laugh as familiar as his look.

I swear it sounded like, "Ho-ho-ho."

Sad to say, that's as close to a happy story as I could find this week.

Maybe you can do better.

If you find any happy stories out there, let me know.

I could use some. We all could.

Meanwhile, if you see the panhandler and his pooch, tell them someone is looking for them.

That would make me happy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 B1

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