Saturday, July 26, 2008

Us and Them

I bear witness.  It's not my job, I'm there to fix bicycles, and it's not my choice.  Somehow the community has decided that that's my role.  I'm comfortable with this, I've played the interested outsider often enough in the past.

They tell me the details, mundane and fantastic.  Non-sequiturs abound and stream of consciousness rants are less art and more necessity.  They go out of their way to keep me informed.  He came back a week later to tell me his bike was still fine and that "It was all lies and bull-shit." His girlfriend, then only 3 days into their relationship, hadn't slept with anyone else.

He laid out one of the rules: advice isn't wanted.  On first hearing that "I haven't slept since Monday, if this keeps on I'm going to go back to my bad old ways and end up dead or in jail."  I suggested that a 3 day relationship wasn't worth this kind of angst.  His silence as I said this was exactly the same as the one when the 3 Harley's roared by, proudly mufflerless and deafening.  He politely waited till the noise stopped and continued on with his thought.

Questions are ok, sometimes.  When I asked another client, as I tried for the fifth time to make incompatible parts play nice together, if panhandling was hard work he laughed. It was the only sincere laugh I heard that day, and said "I'm totally lazy, I just sit there."

"Yah, sure." I said, "But don't you get lots of abuse."

"Well, I sit with my head down like this."

He hunched over and put his hands up over his face, covering his eyes.  I've seen people begging like this before, perhaps even him.  Huddled in a posture of abject misery, feigned or real, it always seemed like a silent plea.  But it also is an insulation, a defense.  If you can't see the person verbally treating you like you're sub-human you can pretend their not there.  If they can't see you react, you win.  A paltry victory perhaps, but the only one that that situation affords.

So I'm learning.  I'm learning what the people who have the least in our society do to get by.  I'm also learning how they treat each other.  Anger is common.  No surprise.  But so is affection, sometimes fierce, sometimes tender.  I never noticed this before because it's mostly quiet, unlike the anger which can often be heard blocks away.  Really, it shouldn't surprise, the only people these folks really have is each other.

I'm learning.  Generosity is as common here as it is anywhere.  On my first day they we're serving pastries donated by a local bakery.  They looked fantastic.  A guy who'd been watching me work suggested that I should snag one.  I demurred, saying that I'd wait till the end.  He looked up at me smiled without guile or irony and said "You know, it's ok to have a home." I was so taken aback by his kindness that I'm not sure if I thanked him.  I did have a slice of cake though.  It was fantastic.

My second day I was outside.  Everyone was lining up for food bank handouts.  At the end of the day I found a packet of apple chips in my helmet, deposited when I wasn't watching.  They could have just as easily made off with my lid and gloves.

I'm learning.  These people are often damaged: drugs, injury, genetics, you name it.  They're rough around the edges and sometime right through the middle.  Their humour isn't subtle or sophisticated.  Their anger in barely restrained and often self directed.  And yet...and yet they still can laugh.  They still forgive.  They still love.  They look on their children with wonder and joy.  They rally around the ones who are hurting the most and search for those gone missing.

I'm learning the most important secret of all.

Come closer and I'll whisper it to you, don't be afraid, it won't be a surprise:

They aren't really "they" at all.