Monday, September 5, 2011

Out Looking In

They found our hero in the gutter
With a diamond ring and a gun.
He'd done it for the love of Lucy
And ended up on the run.
Watch out for Lucy,
Though she may look frail.
Say excuse me, Lucy,
Darling don't you use me;
I don't want to land in jail.

- Watch Out for Lucy, Backless, Eric Clapton 1978

Homeless for three months.

Not without a home of course. But it didn’t take much to figure that if the grass sower had access to my wallet, my car, my license plate, then he knew my address, and if the house hadn’t been burned down yet, or maybe booby-trapped, then it was at least under surveillance. 

Frankly, though, that isn’t why I didn’t go back. I’m not sure what was going through my head. I was withdrawing from whatever painkillers the hospital had intravenoused into me, that bloody highway in my neck was rerouting traffic while construction went on, I had forgotten the name of my slaughtered wife and daughter, and, as I recall, I was heavily into the belief that I had been to the pearly gates long enough to figure out that they didn’t exist.
So I was fucking tired and I just didn’t have the heave to pick up my feet much past Bay and Queen.

So I leaned against the corner of 390 Bay. The thrum of all the re-insurance companies scuttling about its granite skeleton couldn’t throb through my marrow deep exhaustion, I remember feeling. I leaned against that building, pictured 9/11 briefly, wondered how that much steel and concrete stays erect, and stayed there for, I think, almost three days.

You know those sped up city-scape sequences that they use to represent the hum of daily life in the big city? When your brain goes on hold, that shit happens. The key is not to move your eyes. After a few hours, you’ll start to see the cars bunch up at the stoplights like flashing salmon resting before the next leap upstream. The people, multi-coloured blood cells flowing by, brush by you like you’re as unimportant as cholesterol plaques.

Care as little as you can and the roaring scoop of your belly pain fades into the sound of the streetlights coming on all at once. Over zealous car horns collapse into the spinning mutter of rubber on asphalt. Your skin is no longer the definite terminus of your body and it mingles with the particulates of diesel, the astringent sting of mouthwash and the shudder of streetcars trampling their way along their lucky tracks.

At some point, my leaning collapsed into a squat. The ligaments in my knees eventually sagged enough that my ass contacted the sidewalk. I guess I was woken by the tiny mucousy sound of my mouth opening; it’s a muscular contraction to keep the jaw closed.
My saliva was more paste than liquid. Three days without water will do that. Yeah pasty mouth, followed shortly by death.

So just after my mouth went basset hound on me, and just before I kicked the empty bucket for good, well, that’s when the Queen came by and gave me water.

I call her the Queen because like Elizabeth, her right hand makes that unceasing backhand wave. Unlike the United Kingdom’s monarch, this Queen has been on the streets as long as had I lived in Toronto.

I’d see her a few times a week while I was taking computers at Ryerson. Yes, my friends and I made the requisite nasty comments about her. I think I may have instigated the whole Queen moniker, by whipping out that clich├ęd homeless person insult, “Get a job!” And one of my friends mockingly defending her highness’ honour by bellowing, “She’s got one, man, she’s the Queen!” His sneering of “The Queen” accompanied by pursed lips and the over-arrogant backhand wave.

Why do only groups of people make those kinds of comments about street-folk? I never even thought those thoughts when I passed her on my lonesome. You worry about getting too close and smelling their stink, sure, but you don’t go out of your way to spit some lame vernacular at them. Why in groups?

Now, she was there, sallying to and fro a few yards from me. Her hand wave was more of an upright palsy now, and as she sashayed closer and closer to me, I could hear her mumbling invective. I think it was about the time; she was urging everyone on the street to get where they were going; people were waiting for them; how rude it would be to make them wait; have a look at the old city hall’s clock across the street. But I was dehydrated and probably delirious.

I do remember her wafting into my personal space, and yes, the stench would have woken a Mike-Tysoned boxer better than an ammonia caplet. I remember her reaching into the same long black trench coat she’s worn all these years. I remember thinking that its blackness was now a wrinkled grey. Rhino skin. Triangles of furrowage from years of being folded into a sidewalk pillow.

Things clinked inside her coat. Dusty, ancient, borderline medieval things. She withdrew her nearly Pakastani tanned hand, veins the size of dew worms roped around knuckles stretched taut, unharvested fruits of arthritis grown under seasons in the city sun.

A sparkling unopened plastic bottle of water in that claw. Without missing a beat in her muttered tirade against time, she broke the seal of the cap – I assume she knew how weak I was – and left it at my side near my hand.

Like a Persian rug gone mad, her talk opened up its weave to say to me, “Drink and live now, boy.” The streams of salivary rasping closed over again. An eye closing. A racing flood rising over a mid-stream stone.

And then one more gasp, “We’ll see about yer killing yourself tomorra.”

Her back to me. The wake of her body odour washing over and away. Her backhand wave clearing a furrow into her oblivious subjects. The sea parts and closes again behind her.

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