I wish more people cared about homeless people. Doesn’t it seem like humans spend too much time and money arguing over who’s allowed into public washrooms and pampering labradoodles, and not enough time on an entire population of people who sleep on the ground?
I am captivated by the struggle these people have had to endure, living painful existences in street filth. How’d they get here? What do they do all day? What does their mom think? I think more humans need to help humans instead of scoffing at their struggles and turning up their satellite radios to drown out their begging. Don’t worry, the labradoodles will be fine.
I was downtown, the epicentre of the less fortunate, near a fully-operational village of addicts, beggars and runaways. My stomach tightened as I walked away from my parked car.
It’s comical how many times my car has been broken into. For a while it was a weekly occurrence for me to open the driver’s side door and find the miscellaneous trinkets I kept inside ransacked around the vehicle. But nothing ever got stolen because there was nothing to steal. Only an auxiliary chord and a fermenting cup of diet coke in a Wendy’s cup.
We kind of have to change personalities when we’re in a rough neighbourhood, don’t we? Funny how only a few blocks in one direction can make us turn into tough-guy De Niro wannabes as if we’ll suddenly remember that one Taekwondo class we took when trouble approaches.
You talkin’ to me?
I was sheepish of every character I passed. Then I passed one character I’ll never forget. He was a little old man covered in dirt, and he was fishing through garbage. I stopped and stared, something my mom always told me was rude. It is rude. But this guy was incredible. He was the least-fortunate looking less-fortunate person I’d ever seen. It looked like he’d literally been stepped on all over. His face was squished together with scabs and a moustache that had 14 hairs spewing over his mouth, each hair a different length.
If there was an America’s Next Top Model show for homeless people, he would thrive. The host would be a drunken Gary Busey and the judged competitions would include: best cardboard sign, least-coordinated outfit and who can hold the most grime in their beards.
I had plans to ignore him, but then the man pulled out a pizza crust hidden deep inside the garbage can and ate it. The sight perplexed me. I lowered my douchebag, tough-guy act and stopped beside him, then asked if he was okay.
He looked at me like he was a zoo animal and I was a mesmerized little kid, our draining eye contact created a voiceless story of how he needed help and wished he could escape this cage of a life he was in. But we both knew he couldn’t.
I pulled out my wallet because I guess that’s just what you do when you see homeless people, even though I knew whatever I was about to pull out wasn’t going to really make a difference in the grand scheme of this man’s life. All I had was a finsky – enough for a McDouble, not enough for a bottle of vodka. I handed it to him and he extended a glove with two fingers sticking out of their torn vestibules. Mustering up a cancerous rasp, he said thank you. I told him about the shelter I work at and to pop by for a plate if he was hungry. He never said anything else, he just stood there and stared back at me, repeating the words ‘thank’ and ‘you’.
I never saw him again. I’m not sure where he or that five-dollar bill ended up. But I do know that our interaction was important to us both. Seeing another person resorting to a public garbage can for a meal changed how I view humanity. It made me realize there’s people out there, right next to where we work and live, with no hope in life. And that’s all I was trying to show this man by talking to him. I knew he wasn’t going to find it in the trash anyway.
I’ve stopped inviting Zac to come on my evening walks because I already know his response.
“Walking gives me anxiety.”
I used to be able to talk him into a stroll to Safeway and back before we went to bed, like a mom trying to convince a two-year-old he really does like kiwi, he just needs to try a spoonful first.
At first, he didn’t mind gawking at the different homes around our neighbourhood and judging them like jars of jelly at a summer fair.
“I kinda like that,” he’d point to a house on our left with a barn-shaped frame.
“Ugly,” he’d say about a stucco bungalow with thick pine trees shading the entirety of its front yard, “Like, imagine?”
On one particular summer night, we got carried away with our little house-gawking game and ended up an hour away from home with an hour’s walk back. We contemplated jogging back to the apartment in order to end our misery sooner, but pounding on the concrete for far too long in my Converse sneakers had already tweaked something in my knee that would bug me for several months to follow.
We trekked home, me limping and Zac muttering under his breath. Having already picked apart every house in our path, we were bored and bemused. The houses were mocking us now.
So, Zac doesn’t come for walks anymore.
He says the thought of aimlessly walking with no destination in mind makes him feel anxious, but we both know it’s more of a post-traumatic stress situation on-set from last summer’s walk. The Last Walk, I like to call it.
I go for a walk every day, usually over my lunch break to stretch my legs and break up my to-do list. I listen to a podcast or talk on the phone and walk briskly for 45 minutes to an hour.
I keep my pockets filled with used tissues for when its cold and my nose starts to run. I wear a toque or a ball cap because I think both of those things make me look less approachable and let people know I’m on a mission.
My New Balance running shoes have holes for each of my big toes and every time I pull them on, I can hear Aunt Mary Ida talking about the importance of good sneakers.
“When my legs start to ache, I know it’s time for a new pair of runners,” she used to say.
Hearing someone’s voice is nice, even if it’s only in your head.
The Seine River runs alongside my street and if you walk far enough south you will reach a special place where the houses start to resemble cottages and air smells like forest floors. Something about it reminds me of biking around campgrounds as a kid, and I’m happy to find a place in the city that doesn’t feel like it’s in the city.
Someone has hung a bench seat down on the banks so you can sit in the shade and watch the sleepy, green, river go by. I obviously never sit down, being too afraid a murderer will sneak up behind me and stab me silly.
Zac would wish he had been walking with me then.
One night, an elderly woman was walking toward me with her hands clasped behind her back and her eyes scanning the street in curiosity. She looked up and smiled at me. I took out my headphones.
“What a nice neighbourhood,” I said.
After a few back and forth comments about the weather we’ve been having, she pivoted off path and stepped into stride with me.
She told me about her son who moved far away and mentioned someone else’s divorce. We went up and down sidewalks scattered with fresh lawn trimmings, talking about my job in social media and where I grew up. In a month, she was going to be flying to Calgary to go shopping with her girlfriends. I said that sounds fun.
The night was warm and we were both in shorts and tank tops. Her doughy arms reminded me of Grandma before she became frail and forgetful. Her hair was white and a silver watch dangled loosely on off her wrist. She guided me down Vivian Street to a grey house with white trim. There was a purpled hula hoop and deflated football on the lawn.
“Just come knock on the door anytime you want to go for a walk,” she said. “Someone will answer. I live with my daughter and two grandkids.”
Two years have gone by and I’ve never been back to knock on her door. I feel the opportunity is gone and she wouldn’t even remember who I am. I hate to admit it, but I don’t even walk down that pretty little street as much as I used to. If we were to run into one another, I know I’d feel guilty and embarrassed.
Walking gives me anxiety.