Hey Birtle, you are supposed to write a character sketch; write about me. I know I died last month, washed up on the banks of the Red River, but I live on. You still think about me, that says something. People who did not know me are probably thinking that I, along with the taxpayers, am better off. A wasted life; another homeless bum who met his end.
I never had the things that most people value. My parents died when I was young. A boarding school became my home. There I learned fear and shame. Without the skills or the confidence necessary to maintain a stable lifestyle, I remained on the fringes of society, taking odd jobs as a farm laborer, construction worker and janitor. It felt good to work but I was too shy to make friends. On Friday nights, we would go to the bar but it always felt like everyone was watching me. I would get drunk to shield myself from the scrutiny of others and after a while, my fears became a reality; I was not welcome.
My health was never good. Heart problems limited the physical labor that I could take on. With no friends and no family, I drank to pass the time and dream of the life I never had. I did not envy the cars, houses and fancy clothes; I envied the hugs, smiles and acceptance that I had witnessed but never experienced. No matter where I went or what I did, I felt I did not belong.
Disability income does not pay very much. The eviction notice came and I walked out to face my greatest fear. I no longer had any place to hide.
With less than a dollar in my pocket, the clothes on my back, and the items I could stuff into a small duffle bag, I set off for skid row. No matter how bad things were, I never imagined I would sink this low. They are the lazy bums; I am just unable to work. I tried, I honestly tried, but nothing ever fit.
I called you Birtle because you once lived in the town where I was born. By the time we met, I had lived on the streets for five years and you were the rookie at the shelter. In those five years, I had not amassed any possessions but I had gained a life.
I remember the day I entered the shelter, everyone stared but it was different. I sensed curiosity rather than scrutiny, warmth rather than hostility. Someone offered me a cigarette. Later I realized it was his last one. They wanted to know my name and they did not care where I came from or what I had done. We played cards and we laughed (I actually laughed). They told me where to get food, where to get clothing and which workers I could trust. While they never actually said it, they told me that I belonged. In losing an apartment, I had gained a home.
The people I met were not the sub-human derelicts which society depicts; we were simply people. We were scared, we were beaten but, in many ways, we were more human than the so-called regular, respectable public. There were no airs, no hypocrisy; an overwhelming sense of honesty prevailed. While we were the poorest of the poor, we gave and shared unconditionally. For the first time in my life, I knew acceptance and love.
All my life I searched desperately for something and when I gave up the search, I found it. Society teaches us to use external yardsticks to measure our lives but I have learned that these yardsticks are meaningless. When we look for love, we fail to see it; when we measure life, we waste it.
It does not matter what society thinks. My community has existed in every culture since the beginning of recorded time. Politicians and economists derive models and programs to fix us; the general population seeks to ignore us. We have always been here and we will always be here. I am dead now but my life was not a waste. I have laughed and I have cried. I have loved and I have received love. My name was Calman and I live on in the hearts of many. I live on in your heart Birtle because you looked into my eyes rather than at my clothes.
Dave C is a Supervisor at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre. Prior to joining the Drop-In he worked in the homeless sector in Winnipeg where this story is set. No matter where he is, as this story demonstrates, Dave is a gifted writer and a compassionate human being.