Conversations With the Homeless

When I’m with the homeless I don’t judge. I ask a minimum of questions, only enough to keep the conversation moving. I don’t interrogate or ask about their past. Mostly, I listen and try to understand. I am often asked why I am there. Although the reasons are deeper, I usually answer by saying, “The conversations here are more interesting than where I work.” I visit them before work, and at noon hours, so I always have an excuse to leave.

What I have learned over the past two years has changed my life. The people, who I consider my friends, are alcoholics, drug and other substance users. Some work as prostitutes, some have AIDS, most or all have served time in jail for various offences. All of them I would trust with my life. They have declared themselves my family. I am honored to consider them my family.

I have heard sickening stories of abuse as children and babies born with drug dependencies. Most have mental and physical illnesses, suffer beatings, broken bones, stabbings, and have a fear of abusive partners, or the police, or both. Authority in any form is seen negatively, as a means to control their lives. The homeless shelters are noisy, infested with bed bugs, the scene of fights and a place where personal items are stolen. Most of these people prefer to sleep inside common areas such as bank foyers, outside under bridges, or behind dumpsters.

In the conversations I recall, and write on these pages, I try to be as truthful as possible. I leave out details that I think might incriminate, but generally I try to give an accurate picture of the conversations I have with my friends. These people need help, but they want it on their own terms. They don’t choose to be addicts. It’s a disease and should be treated as such.

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

I’ve sometimes wondered why I’m drawn to homeless people. I’ve found some answers in the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Mate, M.D. He has a web site at: http://www.drgabormate.com

Dr. Mate works with drug addicts in the former Portland Hotel, on Hastings Street, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, considered Canada’s drug capital.

“What keeps me here? muses Kersten Steuerzbech. “In the beginning I wanted to help. And now…I still want to help, but it’s changed. Now I know my limits. I know what I can and cannot do. What I can do is to be here and advocate for people at various stages of their lives, and allow them to be who they are. We have an obligation as a society to…support people for who they are, and to give them respect. That’s what keeps me here.”

Liz Evans began working in the area at the age of twenty-six. “I was overwhelmed,” she recalls.”As a nurse, I thought I had some expertise to share. While that was true, I soon discovered that, in fact, I had very little to give — I could not rescue people from their pain and sadness. All I could offer was to walk beside them as a fellow human being, a kindred spirit.”

 

 

 

Same Mother, Different Fathers, 26 April 2013

It rained last night, so there were puddles on the sidewalk. I didn’t expect Joy to be at her spot, but there she was. I asked, “How was the barbecue yesterday?”

“It was good, except for Shark. I told Chuck that Shark and Irene would bail and sure enough they did. We were waiting to eat, Chuck had to go to Shark’s place to buy some pot.  He figured he could talk Shark into coming. When he came back he asked me, “What is it between you and Shark? He said to me, ‘I’ll sit at the same table with Joy, but I’m not going to feed her.’ I said, ‘It’s thirty years of fighting. Don’t sweat it. I wouldn’t eat any food that Shark’s greasy, fuckin’ fingers had touched anyway.

“I’m expecting Big Chester to come by. He’ll have his check by now. He want’s me to move back in with him. He know how much I hate the place I’m in now, but I don’t hate it that much.”

“He’s still seeing Teresa isn’t he?”

“Whenever he thinks he can get a piece of ass. I’ve had it with her. The last time I had anything to do with her was at his place. I think I told you about it. I was cooking steaks. She came over and leaned her head almost into the frying pan.  Her long fuckin’ hair was nearly touching our food. I was cool, I just went downstairs to talk to Fifi. What I wanted to do was take the steaks out  and push her skinny face into the grease of the pan.

“Since then she’s come up to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry Joy.’ I just said, ‘Keep the fuck away from me, and don’t ever talk to me again.’ I can be a real bitch sometimes.”

I asked, “Apart from Shark and Irene not turning up, how was the rest of the party?’

“It was good until Chuck’s landlord came over. Chuck laid into him with, ‘When are you going to fix my fuckin’ window? It’s a hazard. A child could fall through there.’ I could see this was going bad so I stepped between them. I took Buddy into the hall. He asked, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Chuck’s sister and I may be looking for a place if the price is right.’ He said,  You sure don’t look like Chuck.’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, same mother, different fathers. The only thing we share in common is sperm.’  He asked, ‘Where are you from and what do you do.’ I couldn’t decide what to say, but I said, ‘I’m from Toronto. I work in housing maintenance. I could fix that window for you, but as far as living here you’re charging way to much.  Chuck’s paying $890. I know you’ve done some painting upstairs, but I wouldn’t take it for more than $700. It’s only one room.

“Chuck came storming out and said, ‘Look, you fuckin’ nigger. Get out of my place before I put you down right here. ‘ I said, ‘Hold on Chuck, I was negotiating a reduction in your rent.’ I knew that Buddy had a button on his phone that would have brought a dozen of his black brothers here in minutes. He got in his truck drove ten feet then slammed on his brakes. I thought we were in for it then, but he drove off.

“I picked up a butter knife and tightened the screws in the window so it doesn’t sag.  Chuck said, ‘What about the next time it comes loose?’ I handed him the butter knife, saluted and left.”

I’m not much of a conversationalist, so when Joy was at a loss for words, which happens very rarely, I read her poetry.  She said, “I have glasses now, Can you leave those poems with me, I’d like to read them again.”

25 April 2013

I went to the park at noon. Pierre had mentioned that he didn’t have anything to read for the weekend. I brought him Ian Fleming’s, “On Her Majesty’s Foreign Service,” a James Bond novel.  He was very grateful.  He said, “I’ll give it back to you once I’m finished.”

“No, you keep it Pierre.”

“I really appreciate that. It’ll be in my bookshelf if you ever want it back. Books are like gold to me. I can’t stand it when people abuse books.

“I’m just coming off a ten day drunk. I was even drinking what these people drink. What is it, Imperial or that Pale Dry. I know why Joy went to hospital. I haven’t had a solid shit since I started drinking that stuff. It’s back to Blue for me;  not even Old Milwaukee. I don’t need that extra half percent of alcohol.

“If you don’t have a solid shit, you’re not healthy. That’s my advice. Now if you don’t mind I’m going to sit down before I fall.”

Matches called me over. He was half sitting half sprawled on the curb. He reached for my hand and pulled me down.

Jack said, “You two are really getting close.”

Matches whispered, “Dennis, can you give me some bus tickets? I’ll need six, two for me to get home and four for Tom and I to come down tomorrow. Tom’s not like me. I’ll say to him, Lets jump on at the back door. He won’t, not if he’s sober. Did you know that Tom is living at my place now. He doesn’t like the way I live. He’s always tidying up. Thanks, Dennis.”

I sat between Pierre and Fifi. I asked her, “I guess you heard about Joy leaving her purse at Bleeding Heart’s place last night?”

“Yeah, she came running up to my apartment, but I didn’t have any cash.  She should get it back today, Unless she dropped it somewhere between Lonely Heart’s and the cab. You know how us women depend on our purses.”

Pierre leaned over and whispered to me, “I’d be surprised if her money’s still there. I don’t know if he’s steal from Joy, but he stole from me when he came over to buy some crack. He can’t be trusted, but that’s just between me and you. Nobody else heard that.”

Matches came over and crouched to sit down on the sidewalk

“Yeah, Matches, you might as well join us. You’re already sitting on my toilet seat cushion (referring to the Montreal Canadiens hockey team logo.”

Pierre’s dog Shaggy started barking. Pierre reached into Shaggy’s buggy and pulled out a tinfoil bag of treats. Matches was fumbling, trying to open the bag. Pierre said, “If he doesn’t get that bag open soon, Shaggy will bite him. She will, she’s like that and it doesn’t matter what race the person is;  black, brown, yellow or white,  she’ll bite them.”

Matches had the bag opened and put one of the doggy treats in his mouth, then leaned toward Shaggy. Pierre said, Those treats are pretty small, I don’t think he should try that.”

Shaggy took the treat without incident. “How old is Shaggy?” asked Matches.

Pierre said, “She’s as old as I’ve know you. You came here twelve years ago; she’s twelve years old.”

Jacques said, “Matches, hand me that bag. I want to see if it has glucosamine in it. I’ve asked my doctor if glucosamine will help my arthritis. He always changes the subject. He won’t give me a straight answer. Yes it has glucosamine, along with pea flour, rice flour, miniblablabla…”

I said, “Ask Matches how they taste. Maybe you’ll like them.”

“Fifi said, “It’s good for cartilage.  I take it all the time.”

It was time for me to go back to work.  As I struggled to my feet. Fifi held out her arm. I leaned on it to get my balance.”

I said, “Us old people need a helping hand every once in a while.”

“You could have leaned harder than that. I’ll need a hand up when it’s time to go.”

25 April 2013

This morning was sunny but cold (4 degrees centigrade / 39 degrees Fahrenheit). I usually walk straight to Joy’s spot, but I had run out of bus tickets and Tim Horton coffee cards, so I had to make two stops, stand in two lineups. When I got to Joy’s spot she was sobbing. “Thank God you’re here. I saw you cross the street and I thought I wouldn’t see you. I left my purse at Bleeding Heart’s place last night. I took a cab, and only after I tried to pay the fare did I realize I didn’t have my purse with me.  In it I had my cash, my pot, all my phone numbers. I told the guy, ‘I’m just going to go up to my friend’s place to get some money.’ He grabbed my bag and said, ‘I’ll hold onto this until you get back.’ I went to Fifi’s place. She wasn’t home. Even if she didn’t have any money I could have used her phone to call Andre or Bleeding Heart. I went down to the cab and said to the guy, ‘Fuck man, I got no money. I can’t call my friends. C an I pay you tomorrow? He said, ‘I’ll give you twenty-four hours, then I call the police.

“What is it with you people? You think you can get away without paying. I got bills to pay.’ I said to him, ‘First of all, what’s this YOU people. Do you think I’m a ho? I wouldn’t be wearing nearly these many clothes if I was hooking. Do you think I’m a crack addict? Do I act like a crack addict? Is it because I’m part native?’ This guy was a fuckin’ immigrant! I was born here.

‘”This morning I had to beg the bus driver to let me on. I said to him, ‘I got no tickets, can I give you four (each fare is two tickets) tomorrow. He said, “Okay, I see you going in to the hotel through the back way. Why don’t you go through the front?’ The only reason I go in there is to take a piss, but I said to him, ‘I work as a cleaner there. Only paying guests are allowed to use the front door.’

Most of the regulars on the bus think I work in construction. I overheard this woman say that one of her pipes was leaking. I said to her, ‘It sounds to me like you just need a plastic elbow. It’ll fit inside your pipe and stop the leak.’ This other guy says, ‘If you’re a tradesman, how do you cut marble.’ I said, I’d use a Jig saw and plenty of water to keep the blade cool.’ I just pick this stuff up on programs like How’s this Made.

It’s just like when I was in prostitution.  For a while I worked in a phone sex chat room.  People say I have a sexy phone voice. I’ve heard myself on tape recorder. I just think it sounds nasal, like I have a sore throat. I went by the name Lincoln. But I’d say ‘I’m not that big, but I do purrrr.’ It was crazy working in that place. There were about sixty of us in this room, we each had a cubicle. Most of the time we’d have our feet up munching on something. When we’d get a call we weren’t allowed to initiate the conversation. Just like when we were on the street, the guy would have to tell us what he wanted and we’d give him a price. We’d wait until the guy said something like, ‘What are you wearing?’ I’d say, ‘Im just curled up in my pink baby dolls, waiting for you handsome.’ Otherwise we could have been charged with soliciting.

“Jake phoned me one time, and, I mean I was living with the guy, right, so he knew how I’d be dressed and what I looked like. We chatted for a while and when I got home he said, ‘I had such a hard on all afternoon. I had to leave work it was such a stiffy.’   — or woody, or chipmunk, or whatever you want to call it.

“Anyway, I was sure glad you came along this morning. You cheered me up. When I saw you go by, I just put my head down in my lap and started bawling my eyes out. This old lady stopped, not one of my regulars, and asked, ‘What’s the matter deary? Is there any thing I can do to help?’ She reached into her purse and dropped me one blue bus ticket. I don’t know if they even take them any more. That was before the pink ones, the orange ones. And there was only one. I guess I could have told the driver that it was folded and I couldn’d get it apart. That might have worked. ”

We saw Chester coming. “What does that old fart want? It’s always something, bus tickets, cigarettes.”

Chester said, “Hi Joy, Dennis. I can’t stop I’m going somewhere.”

Joy said, “You’re always going somewhere.”

“Cheer up,” he said we get our checks tomorrow. You’ll be getting yours too. I’ll see you.”

“I was hoping that Andre would be coming down. Last time I saw him was at Fifi’s. He was fooling around with this stupid camera. When Fifi saw that He’s taken her picture she beat the shit out of him –had him in a headlock and was pounding his face. There are a lot of people who don’t like to have their picture spread around.”

I asked, “What’s Fifi worried about?”

“I shouldn’t even be saying this, but when she was with a motorcycle gang in Toronto.  They’ve now joined up with a larger, international gang.  Well, she brought the affiliation papers  to the larger gang. I’d tell you the names, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Next came Toothless Chuck (not to be confused with Chuck who has teeth). Hi Joy,  Dennis!  Haven’t seen you guys for ages. Joy, I got those paints you wanted.”

“Cool, man. I’ve painted some vines on my walls and I wanted to add some color — flowers or something.”

“If you see Tom, tell him I have a box of oil pastels that I want to sell. I’m having a barbecue this afternoon. Do you want to come? Shark and Irene will be there.”

“I don’t know man, Shark and I don’t get along so well.”

“Just talk to Irene then. There will be lots of other people. I’m on my way to Hartmans to pick up some groceries. I’ll pick you up on the way back.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Before I left Joy asked me, “Would you like a pear?  Someone gave it to me.  I don’t eat them.”

“Sure, I’ll probably see you at noon.”

23 April 2013

This morning was bright and sunny.  When I approached Joy, she said, “Hi, Sweetie, I listened to Buddy the weather man this morning. He said it was supposed to be warm, so I didn’t wear my long johns. As soon as I got outside I thought, That was a mistake, but it’s too late to go back now. I’m sitting here shivering. I’m glad I’ve got my blanket. I’m also glad I have this box to sit on. When I was down on the sidewalk I could see way too much. Now, at least I’m above ass level.

“Some of these women wear skirts that are way too short for the size of their waist lines. I don’t need that view before breakfast.”

“How was your weekend?” I asked.

“I wasn’t here yesterday, because I was feeling sick. I was at Andre’s on the weekend.  I cooked spare ribs. We got barbeque sauce from this Chinese place where we got the ribs. Every time I’ve used it for marinating, I’ve had the runs for four days.

“I was at home Sunday, all snuggled up in my jammies, ready for bed, when Andre bangs at the door. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’  With a mournful look he pouted, ‘You said I could come over sometime.’ I said, ‘I didn’t mean now!’ He came over the next day with Hippo and brought the rest of the ribs, so I cooked supper again.

“I explained to him, ‘There’s never going to be anything between us. Stop pushing me!’ If he had teeth it might be different, but he’s got this gaping space in front, and the few teeth he has in back are rotten. I can’t even sit close to him because of his foul breath, Matches is the same.

“He said, ‘I’m saving my condom supply for you.’ I said, ‘Don’t bother.’ I believe in safe sex, but I can just imagine what kind of diseases he’s carrying.

“You should see some of the skanks he goes out with. There’s one fat bitch who is huge. I can smell her from fifteen feet away. He said he only gets blow jobs from her, but she sleeps in his bed. I don’t know how he can put up with the stink.

“He came down here this morning at eight o’clock. He asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘What the fuck do you think I’m doing! I’m working!’ Even Jake had the sense not to come down for me until nine o’clock.

“Well, that’s my venting for the day.”

I asked, “Have you heard from your workers about taking you to the furniture warehouse?”

“I’m going to phone them this afternoon. I’ll borrow Chester’s phone. One worker was over yesterday. She asked to use the bathroom. It was just an excuse to scope out the place. When she came out she asked, ‘Why do you have two tooth brushes and men’s hair gel in the bathroom?’ I said, ‘Hippo brought  the Axe, ’cause his hair’s getting so long he can’t manage it. The two tooth brushes are mine. I use the blue one in the morning, it’s newer, but I like to use the green one at night, because it has a tongue cleaner on it.’

I said, “You mentioned that Jake was getting out of prison soon.”

“Yeah, May 17. One of his friends was going to sponsor him, but he’s been sick, so I guess he’ll be going to a halfway house. He’s got family here so this is where he’ll be coming. People ask me if I’ll be getting back with him. I tell them, ‘I don’t want to be with anyone, but if he’s changed I might consider it.’ I’d rather just have him as a fuck buddy.

“Here comes Chester. I wonder what he wants.”

I said, “I’ll leave you to it.”

“That’s it, leave me alone with him.”

21 April 2013 – My Friends

21 April 2013

Today is Sunday, which means that I won’t be seeing my friends until tomorrow. Following  are some word portraits, so you can get to know them:

Joy and Me

Love is amazing —
when we give it freely
it doesn’t diminish,
it enriches our souls.

Joy, is a panhandler
(incapable of anything else),
she is also my friend.
Each morning
(on my way to work)
I eagerly anticipate
her greeting and warm smile.

I sit with her
on the sidewalk,
as witness
to her blackened eyes.
I listen to her stories
of beatings and abuse,
give comfort
when she cries.
“Tears are a sign of weakness”
her father used to say.

I bring her tea
(cream and three sugars),
a bagel with cream cheese,
on mornings when frost
is on the ground,
and on the hearts,
of most passers by.

She gives to me
her hand to hold,
an attentive ear
to my daily problems,
and a hug
(when a hug is needed).

With her love,
Joy has enriched my soul
and filled my heart with tenderness.
She has given me so much
that I didn’t know existed —
I am deeply in her debt.

Antonio

My friend, Antonio,
greets me
with a salute and a bow
(it’s his way).
I am very glad to see him
and very honored.

I don’t see him very often,
he has his own schedule,
not necessarily
corresponding with mine.
He is a free spirit.

Through dark glasses
he sees the world
(so not to offend).
He is very conscious
that his appearance
may cause concern.
He wears a beard,
his clothes are ragged,
all his belongings
follow him
in a shopping cart.

He feels uncomfortable
in enclosed spaces,
so he sleeps outdoors,
summer and winter,
on a park bench
(with his friends
the squirrels),
when temperatures
are well below freezing.

He is not immune
from assault,
beatings
(having his teeth kicked out),
not because of what he does,
but what he is,
how he appears.

I usually see him
in front of the library,
one of his favorite places.
He likes to look at books
and see pictures
of kings and other people
he has studied
in school.

Occasionally,
he joins me for coffee.
He tells me
the most wondrous stories.
Sometimes,
I think he makes them up
for my benefit.
In any case
I am honored.

Through Shaded Eyes

A breathless beauty,
enchanting and fanciful,
where castles of ice abound —
if we didn’t know just where to look
they never would be found.

A wonderland of mystery
in a public park downtown.
The squirrels know what life’s about —
in Antonio’s sleeping bag
they tunnel in and out.

They scamper
over drifts of snow,
no boots upon their feet.
When he awakes, he’ll feed them
the little he has to eat.

Through shaded eyes
he views, the world passing by.
With gentleness and thoughts of kings
he tells me of his precious dreams.
A shopping cart, holds all his worldly things.

Andre

So, I’m panning
in my usual spot.
This suit walks by —
in passing he says,
“Get a job!”
“Hire me!” I say.
“Take a shower,” he says.
“I may sleep outside,
that doesn’t mean
I don’t wash —
I wash all over.”

“Hey,” I say,
“if you’re so successful,
why do you look
so unhappy?

“I’ve made the price
of my bottle.
I’ve got some smokes,
a little pot.

“Me, I’m the happiest guy alive.”

Shakes

it’s nice
waking up
in the morning.

If I don’t,
I know
something’s
wrong.

I don’t know
where I am,
or how I got here,
but, I’m here.

I got some wine,
some cigarettes
and some ‘mary jane’ —
I start walking,

ain’t looking
for trouble, but
it finds me.

how am I?
I’ll be doing fine
soon as I get
this drunk on.

Alphonse

I look into your eyes,
grey with tears and sorrow
from the Arctic Ocean.

I feel your hurt deep inside,
hear your thunder,
see your rain.

With your fist at your chest
you open your heart,
tell me of hardship,
betrayal and pain.

I listen
with my heart
as one who has been there.

With my arm around your shoulder,
as a brother,
I urge you, to act with patience
and with love —
to be Love.

A Lost Brave

a lost brave
leans against a building
(tho he is unwelcome)
beside a busy walk.
everything he owns
fills a pack
upon his back

he is far
from his fishing boat,
an ocean teeming with fish,
from the majestic forest,
from his children,
his clan

his eyes reveal
a story of hurt and pain –
the uncertainty of the city.
a sidewalk for a bed,
charity of strangers
his only grace

a challenge
every day –
a new beginning.
beyond the fire
that tames his demons
the only plan that matters
is to survive

far from home
he can scarce remember.
a lost brave, fighting back tears,
pride in the knowledge
of his ancestry,
his place –
his blood