I wish these stories weren’t true. They did happen, and this is how I remember them – as connected stories merging.
The first story happened in what feels like a previous life, with a former partner, and former friends, in Toronto – a city no longer my home. But the memory of him falling face first in the street, in the middle of the pedestrian walk, in the middle of winter, stays. I can still picture it and feel the echo of emotions on that street – reverberations.
We were a few hundred yards away, striding on cross country skis, on new fallen snow, up the affluent residential area to the busy intersection of Yonge Street. I don’t know how or why he fell. I just remember seeing two young men exit a small car which couldn’t drive where his body lay. Each passenger took an arm and dragged the lifeless form to a snow piled near the sidewalk. He was face down. Once lowered down, they turned, and got into their car to drive away.
But, we were close now and had all picked up our pace getting ready to intervene, to help. My partner said something to the men through their window as I stared at the lifeless body, rotating him over. His eyes were wide open. Someone called 911 and I remember a siren, a woman leaping out of her car stating she was a doctor, and CPR being administered as they scrambled into the back of the ambulance driving away with the back doors still open.
Police took our names and came to visit us in a friend’s apartment later that evening. They wrote down our statements, what we witnessed, and said the man was “homeless”, had hit his forehead on the concrete pavement, and died instantly. I wondered about his family. Did he have children? Who would notify them? I remember feeling disoriented, confused, and horrified at the implied which slammed against me as I sat there impotent. It was a long time ago, yet the memory is fresh.
Now, in Ottawa, I spend time walking the streets in my inner city neighbourhood. It’s easier than driving near my home, and I enjoy this design for feet over cars. I’ve come to mostly enjoy the various buskers, the local panhandlers, seeing this as varied forms of being, ways of eking out an existence. There are the men on bikes collecting bottles and cans for the beer store whose addiction drives them, and whose actions benefit the environment.
But the streets look different now. The pandemic has changed them. The 28 year old former roofer bound to a wheelchair passed away when COVID struck and his depleted body quickly responded to the virus – I read the article in the newspaper. Many in the neighbourhood watched out for him, knew where he lived, in subsidised housing. He was cared for. I remember giving him $20 as he panhandled for money outside of the local grocery store and he told me, “Oh no. This is too much. I just need money for a coffee.”
The other day I saw a neighbour striding along the sidewalk shifting towards the road shaking his head – not shaking his head “no” so much as an aggressive negation, a form of tutting disgust and rejection. The kind of head shake with a downward scowl that communicated derision. I noticed and wondered at this clean white man, well beyond middle-aged, tall with a round belly and a white golf shirt. He wore sunglasses, so I couldn’t see what his eyes were saying, but the body movements were loud. He was passing a young homeless man, one of many who have appeared in growing numbers. He was moving away on this narrow street, shaking his head at this thin, dark haired man sitting on well-worn slip of cardboard on a concrete patio under the shade of a tree, legs crossed rocking back and forth over a Starbucks mochachino, half consumed, a smile spread across his dirty face. I felt my heart sink.
In this passing moment, a mere millisecond of linear time, I entered an intersection of past and present street stories.