Sometimes an event happens in your youth and you don’t know quite what to make of it until you’ve reached a certain level of hindsight and maturity. Or your view of the event changes through different eras of your life. Eleven years ago I was part of a conversation that only lasted around 45 minutes and seemed unusual at the time, but not profound. Eye opening, but not confusing. This conversation was all of those, even all these years later.
In my graduating year, the federal government sponsored a program where western high school students would have a week-long exchange with Quebec students. It was September 1992, months before the separation referendum (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up). Thus, our class traveled to a town just outside Montreal. For a small town girl, it was a culture shock. Beer was served at a particular fast food restaurant, I had my first taste of real poutine (before Burger King co-opted it), everybody seemed to smoke, I got to see a busker singing Elvis in French and the whole beauty and culture of the province was breathtaking. I still hope to return someday, as either a visitor or resident.
We did the usual tours, and eventually took a bus trip to Ottawa/Hull, mainly to see the parliament buildings. During some down-time that day, two other girls and I took a walk in a park overlooking the river and parliament buildings. We were young and naive, typical country girls. You have to understand that the town we lived in was small. Rural Saskatchewan considered us even more rural than them. Our graduating class was 11 students – the last “big” class to come out of that K-12 school.
As we were walking, we were stopped in our tracks by some sort of commotion. It took a few minutes to register what was going on. Two men with long, unwashed hair and a few months growth of beard were dancing and singing. Dancing and singing wearing dresses. I was curious and a little dumbfounded by the whole thing, so I walked up to them (a little hesitantly I must admit) and asked them what did they think they were doing. Both of the men had huge smiles, and one replied (while the other one continued dancing and singing unintelligibly), “We are protesting the objectification of women in our society. We must love everyone.”
Ok, I thought, that sounds reasonable. Just then three young men, much more polished and sophisticated than us, joined our small group of girls. One struck up some small talk, and we complied. The two dancers then skipped over to us holding flowers, exclaiming how great young love was, gave the flowers to the boys to give to us, and then skipped off their merry way. We ended up losing track of the boys soon after, but came to the park later with our chaperoning teacher.
This is when it really began. Walking on the sidewalk, one the girls I was with saw a pie sitting on a park bench. A whole apple pie, obviously from a bakery still in the box. We passed it around not knowing what to make of it. When the pie was in my hands, I heard a good-natured male voice call out to my left, “I’ll take that from you.” No sooner had I heard him than another voice bellowed out from my right, “No, give it to me.” They were about fifty feet on either side of me. Not knowing what to do, I set the pie in the middle of a sidewalk and said, “Race for it.” So they did.
The man on my left was about eighteen to twenty years old, but maybe younger, it was hard to tell. He was obviously homeless, wearing a tattered leather jacket too warm for the weather, and very dirty jeans rolled up to reveal old army boots. He had short, blond curly hair and scraggly hairs on his chin, like he wasn’t quite ready to grow a beard, but was trying. Later on I noticed angry looking scabs on the inside of his arms. At first I thought they were nasty mosquito bites (remember I was very small-town). Only after our talk did I realize what they were. His shaking hands belied the fact he hadn’t had a fix in the required time.
The man on my right was the boy’s polar opposite. Think of a cross between the movie version of Harry Potter’s Hagrid and Santa Claus with the agelessness of a sage. His large face was covered by beard, and his hair was shoulder-length and unruly. He wore a plaid lumberjack coat and jeans. A big man, he seemed warm and friendly, just dirty. He won the race. His actions immediately after shocked us all a bit. He threw, not tossed, the pie into the nearest garbage can. “It’s poisoned,” he said.
Noticing the confusion on our face, he told us the RCMP plants these pies in the park, as a way of “taking care” of the homeless population. “Doesn’t look good to have bums in our nation’s capitol, does it?”
My teacher was appalled to say the least. She questioned him, and he answered. I think that’s what started everything. I can’t quite remember, but the next thing I knew we were all sitting on a park bench, with the younger male squatting beside me. I don’t recall everything that was questioned or answered, the big man did most of the talking. Here is what I remember the most:
The conversation turned to why they were on the streets. The big man (I don’t remember any names being exchanged, but perhaps they were), started by telling us tales of his family. “There was no love there at all, kids were seen but not heard. We lived in a big house, had lots of money, but weren’t allowed any sort of luxuries. They wouldn’t even buy butter they were so cheap, wouldn’t spend the extra couple cents for butter once in a while” (he seemed particularly upset about that issue, and came back to it a few times in the conversation). “I left years ago and won’t go back.”
The younger man had a typical story of being kicked out of the house at a young age, coming back, and then running away. He didn’t say much the whole time. Maybe he saw us girls, only a year or two younger than him, and wondered how he ended up here, or maybe he was nervous, sitting in the park talking to us, worried the cops would stop. He was polite though, and contained an aura of innocence about him. Just very quiet. The big man on the other hand, was talkative and loud. This man was also the single best storyteller I have heard in my life. I’m sure many a campfire burning is missing his strong voice.
The big guy continued talking. “I have a degree in Literature from Laurentian University. Just because I live out here doesn’t mean I’m illiterate.” He clarified why he wasn’t teaching, or holding down some sort of job with his education. “I will not be a part of the establishment, perpetrating crimes on society.” He continued on this train of thought for a while.
His views, albeit controversial, were communicated articulately and showed his obvious intelligence. The questions wondered, but not asked, still hung in the air: Does he have a child wondering where his father has gone? Colleagues not knowing what to do with the boxes of his personal items, too guilty and confused to throw them out? A wife, melancholy at the sight of a dresser unused, a side of the closet empty?
We probably will never know the real story around this homelessness, but his conviction astounded me. What would the politicians sitting in their offices across from the river think if they found out a homeless man was talking a better talk than them, and sounding good too?
He regaled us with stories about being homeless. He led the gypsy life, he said. There was a network across the country of men and women living on the streets. They communicated through messages to transient friends passing through various towns. They knew of deaths and illnesses, which cites were safe, the best routes to travel. He said it was a quieter way of life, no hustle and bustle of early morning traffic, cell phones, and other trappings of technology.
We wondered, what about winter? It can’t be safe. He replied there are some that won’t leave the city. Some out of sentiment, some not wanting to leave the familiar, and some afraid their territory will be taken. Only a few last the winter. He spoke with disdain of these fellow “bums” that lack the resourcefulness to survive the winter. “What do you do?” we asked. “Go where its warm,” he smiled. “Most likely down south, or some of us have a five-star holiday courtesy of the provincial government.” He stressed that he and his partner were not among those that committed some minor infraction that would get them just enough time in the correctional so that they could be out by spring.
He continued telling us about the life on the streets; we sat awed sometimes asking questions but mostly just listening. They lived the life of gypsies, he said. No rules, everyone looks out for everyone, using your wits to survive. He painted a romantic picture. I took a drag of my cigarette and got ready to butt it out under my shoe. “Wait,” a quiet voice said, “I’ll finish that for you.” The boy looked up at me, then quickly looked down.
“Here just take one.”
“No, that one’s fine.” Our eyes met for a millisecond, and I gave him the burning cigarette. He was embarrassed and humble, or was he desperate and ashamed. Whatever he felt, I knew he did not feel the same about street life as his larger-than-life comrade.
I returned my attention to the story telling. He was a poet, he said. Sometimes he writes them down, sometimes he memorizes them, but most of the time he improvises on the spot. He opened his mouth when another commotion started. The dancing, singing, peace-loving guys were back. They were doing somersaults and appeared to be mock wrestling on the grass. “Those guys are here all the time, they don’t hurt anyone, but they’re high as a kite. PCP is my guess.” We were not surprised.
Then the poetry began. I can’t for the life of me remember most of it. The one that struck me the most was a poem, written in the third person, highlighting the inequality of women in society (diplomacy was another of his talents, we were all female). He commanded an audience, even one as small as us. He knew when to pause for effect and how long. All the cadences were there, he took our unconscious cues and tuned his performance accordingly. We were all breathless. He ended each stanza with the line “because you’re just a woman.” He seemed to highlight all that was wrong with the treatment of women in all aspects of society. At the very last line he said quietly, but not softly, “because you’re just a fucking woman.” The use of the word fuck, didn’t phase us at all or seem offensive, it was elegant in its simplicity.
We continued to chat, you know how time flies, then our teacher announced our departure with regrets. Nice to meet you’s were exchanged. Then they walked off. The older man seemed more tired than his counterpart. His shuffle did not show any signs of the lumbering run we were greeted with. Did the long conversation tire him out? Or did he realize, in our good-byes, that we were heading to a home, a family, and comfort? Did he believe everything he had said about the carefree life he led, that he was street-smart enough to survive? Did he wonder if there would be one night his senses would fail him, and he would fail to see daylight? Did we exhaust him with our naiveté, and wide-eyed questions? Did he think of his family and how they weren’t so bad after all? Or maybe we were just another audience to scam, and he had to find something to eat before the day was done. I hope it was not the latter, but it could be.
So you see, I left this park eleven years ago, and I still have more questions than answers. I could take a social stance on homelessness and the societal ills that lead to it. I could study addiction, and counsel those who need help. I could donate more money, more blankets, more time and administer more help. Did this experience mean we should value what we have or leave what we don’t value?
The men we met in the park that day were proud, they did not want us to pity them (I think I recall the older man refusing money from my teacher or one of the girls). Although homelessness and its causes are serious, we weren’t talking with a social cause. Maybe he didn’t need blankets or food, they could get that elsewhere, but four minds open to what he had to say. Maybe he needed respect, not for his survival methods or street machismo, but for his mind and stories. I will never forget that day and how I felt leaving that park. It feels much the same as now. Is it confusion or enlightenment? Awe or surprise? Maybe someday I will figure it out, but I don’t think so.