BACKPACKING ACROSS THE HILLS AND VALLEYS OF YOUR MEMORY
I’m happy to hear you’ve made it to New York. It must be strange, living in a new place, knowing that you’re going to have to move again in just a couple weeks.
Here things are more or less the same. Everything is in a state of flux, and nothing really changes. Rather it changes so slowly that one day everything’s different and you don’t know how it got that way.
Last Monday was Labour Day. The city was in the midst of an intolerable heatwave. You know the kind. When the air’s so thick you think you’re wading through hot tub to get to the grocery store. I had a couple of errands to run, so I went downtown.
Of course I forgot it was Labour Day, and the library was closed, so instead of getting anything done I ended up walking around. Eventually I found myself around College and Spadina.
It’s a funny neighbourhood, in that—like many Toronto high schoolers—it played a fairly formative role in my adolescence. Yet I still know so little about it. How did it take me so long to notice the cybercafé on the southeast corner? I only just discovered the library there in May.
On this particular day, I was walking east on College. My shirt stuck to my back. I needed a place to go, but I didn’t want to spend money. It was starting to shower, a little. I walked past the library. A man was taking shelter in the entrance alcove. I turned the corner onto Huron, and hid myself on the window ledge of the library. I sat for a few minutes, exhausted and aimless.
It stopped raining, and the man I’d seen seen sheltering in the entrance came around the corner. He asked if I had a smoke. I shrugged. No, mine were at home.
“That’s okay. By the way, my name’s Blake.” I told him my name. He held out his clenched hand and we shared a fist bump. You live on the streets long enough, you know not to shake people’s hands.
He was pretty fidgety. He seemed kind of messed up, but friendly.
“I live behind the library.”
“Cool. Found a nice spot?”
“Sure, you want to see it?”
I hesitated here. In the span of half a second, I experienced a rush of memories. This was exactly the opportunity I would have leaped at when I was seventeen. The chance to see something different, meet someone strange. Sometimes my lack of caution panned out, opening myself up to messed up and eye-opening experiences. More often though, you just feel gross and dishonest. Part of me really did want to see his home. But I no longer felt the need to put myself in such morally and maybe even physically compromising situations, at least without knowing what I was getting myself into.
“Not right now. Some other time?” Both of us knew that there would probably be no other time. On one level, it was a bit of a lie to suggest that another opportunity could ever happen. So I was surprised by his response:
“Now that’s a respectful answer. Don’t even worry about it, man.”
I watched Blake walk down Huron, and slip through the hedge into the library’s back yard. I don’t think I’ve had an exchange with someone so down on his luck that ended on such good terms before. Yes, I’ve donated money to panhandlers before, and heard the stock phrase God Bless You! a few times. But this was different. I wasn’t buying his gratitude. I hadn’t given him anything. In fact, I’d rejected his offer. But our relationship had been, at least momentarily, on even terms. Neither of us had to feel grateful to the other. It was just nice to exchange a couple words beside the library on bitterly hot day. That’s how it seemed to me anyway.
I kept walking, and hit Ross St. Looking down, I saw a building I’d never noticed before. It was the Steelworkers building. How had I never noticed this before? I decided to check it out.
The lights were off, and the blinds were closed. I realize now that they were probably all at the Labour Day parade. I kept moving and took another right.
I’d gone full circle, and was walking north back to the library. I had a feeling I’d see Blake behind the library. But I didn’t mind the idea of walking by, even if he saw me, so I decided not to turn around.
On the far side of the street I could see into the garden behind the library. The sun was out now and sparkled in the arching stream of water issuing from the sprinkler in short bursts across the lush greenery. There were flowers, benches, and ivy, blazing green in the subtropical haze of the city. And sure enough, in front it all, raised on a ledge bordering the back wall, best seat in the house, balcony seats at the symphony, was Blake plus some other dude, much younger and in a Blue Jays cap. Both were sipping tallboys and soaking in the show.
That dude in the baseball cap could have been me. But even though I can feel that I’ve changed, I didn’t mind or feel envious. I just felt grateful to witness that moment. It makes me feel better that a fucked up guy like Blake managed to find, in a city like ours, his own private paradise, and that he had a companion to share it with. All without paying a dime.
Anyways, I want to hear how your search is going. Has New York welcomed you with open arms? Don’t worry too much about happiness and satisfaction. It’s overrated.