I am walking south on the street when I spy him walking on the avenue, from the east, towards me. His face is obscured by a scraggly salt and pepper beard, his eyes are hidden behind long hair that hangs about his face. He’s wearing a rumpled green rain jacket over an equally rumpled dark coloured shirt and pants. In one hand he carries a big black garbage bag and over the opposite shoulder he totes a black computer bag.
He looks visibly homeless and for a moment, I do not recognize him.
He sees me. Stops and peers intently at me through piercing blue eyes.
I look back. We smile at each other in recognition.
“M!” I call out in delight. I am happy to see him. And we step into eachother’s arms for a hug.
It’s rush hour. Traffic is stopped at the light at the corner where we stand. People glance at us and stare.
A middle aged woman in business attire. A middle aged man in ‘street’ attire.
We are an odd pair.
We hug again and I ask him what he’s up to.
“Walking my trap line,” he says and he shakes the black garbage bag slightly. It rattles with the sounds of cans and glass bottles.
I laugh. Oh yes. The trap line.
It is one of the songs created for Shelter from the Storm, the musical showcase of songs from the homeless shelter the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre staged in July as part of Sled Island. It was amazing.
M. was one of the artists who contributed to the show, both musically and technically. He is gifted in so many ways. A regular at the art studio I helped create at the shelter, every Friday afternoon he can be found on the second floor of the shelter, manning the sound system for ArtBeat, a one hour musical interlude where musicians from Calgary, and elsewhere, share their talents with the clients and staff of the Drop-In.
For M, ArtBeat is a baby he helped nurture and grow into one of the ‘to be at’ musical venues of the week. From helping paint the backdrop to setting up the sound board and ensuring the technology works every week, M has played a part.
We walk west along the avenue together. I am on my way back to the office from an early morning breakfast meeting and M. is checking his trap line for possible catch. A bottle in this bin. A coin left in the parking machine. He is efficient in his checks, barely breaking step with me as he casually lifts the lid off a streetside bin or dips a finger into the silver change slot of a parking machine lining our route.
As he checks, we walk and talk and catch up on eachother’s lives.
His father passed away recently. He went to the funeral.
Years ago, that might not have happened. Since becoming involved in the art scene both at the shelter and in the city, M has reconnected with the core of his being. Artist. Musician. Craftsman. Human.
In his reconnection to his creative self, he has reconnected with family, visiting and checking in with them regularly.
It is not something that happens often in homelessness. People drift away from family, away from the roots that once held them in place. They drift away and learn to live on their own carrying the burden of homelessness as a shield, a blanket. They become isolated. Disconnected. The shelter and its people, the street and those who call it home, become their family, the place where they are known and where they know they fit.
The past was a place that hurt. They don’t want to go back. Many times they can’t.
And so, they mourn what was lost and carry on and when news of someone they once knew arrives, good or bad, they tuck it away and focus on the street ahead.
They’ve got trap lines to check. People to meet. Places to go.
I met an old friend on the street the other day. we chatted about where we’ve been. About family and friends and shared experiences of creative expressions at the shelter where I used to work and where he still lives. They’re getting closer to finding him a place to live, he tells me. He’ll be out soon.
And I hope it’s true.
I left him at the corner of 7th and 4th.
I turned south towards my office and he carried on in the opposite direction, the black plastic bag filling up with the product of his labours as he walked the streets of the concrete jungle where his trap line is set and he knows its path.
I am a father, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend. I am a writer. A musician. A carpenter. An artist. I laugh. I cry. I bleed. I hurt. Which of these are diminished because I am homeless? he once asked me.
None of them, I replied.