The square patterns of plaid on his shirt were worn and faded much like the skin visible on his face. The narrowness of his facial bones seemed intrinsically placed but were noticeably extra skinny through time and experience.
His jeans were loose and faded, and even more so at the knees. They were stained with filth but fitted to his stature.
His stare was blank as he stood with his eyes facing the metallic shine of the up and down escalators he stood in between. Metro-takers of a plethora of ethnicities, ages and social backgrounds stared blankly at the floor, passing the man, letting the stairs move them in motions that both defied and flowed with gravity.
I took the stairs in nervous contemplation to the level of Concordia that smells almost acidic of greasy pizza before returning to the bottom of the escalators to stand beside the homeless man.
Many questions of bribery flashed through my mind as I paused in front of him, parting my lips, letting some of the hesitation out in thoughts:
- “Would you mind answering a few questions for me? I can buy you a coffee and a sandwich…”
- “I’ll buy you want you want if you answer my questions…”
- “Do you want me to buy you lunch? If you don’t mind, I just have a few questions for you to answer please…”
No matter which inner monologue voice I used to practice my conversation starters in, they all sounded presumptuous, misinformed, and even a bit pushy.
“Do you mind answering a few questions for me?” I began saying. Displeased with my sentence I added, “It’s for a school project. I have to conduct an interview. I can buy you lunch if you’d like.”
“I’m not hungry” he said in an answer full of power fitted for my fumbling approach.
“I mean, I just have some questions. Are you interested in answering them?”
“How long will this take” he asked, protecting himself from my unknowness.
“Just a few minutes.”
We stepped aside closer to the ancient stairs that no one takes anymore before performing proper introductions.
“I’m Tamara” I said, putting out my hand for a shake.
He shook my hand firmly while pronouncing my name.
“What was your childhood dream?” I asked.
“To play pro sports” he answered without detail.
“What was the pivotal point that got you to where you are?” I wondered.
“It was a divorce and a work accident that put me on disability leave. When I moved here from Ontario, the Quebec government wouldn’t cover my disability.”
In my mind my eyes widened at the sheer familiarity of the word divorce.
“Do you have any health issues?” I asked redundantly as I read off of my paper, answering it with a yes on my own.
“Do you have any children?” I wanted to know.
“Yes. I have three.”
He watched me, contrived, write down in incomplete sentences whatever he told.
Foolishly, I may have asked, “What is the worst thing that has happened to you while homeless?”
“Probably the time I got stabbed” he answered much like you would in a high school “Most Memorable Moment” kind of way.
“How did that happen?”
“Well several guys swarmed me, wanted my money; we fought but they took my money, stabbed me and ran.”
“What is the best thing that has happened to you while homeless?” I said, trying at changing the subject.
“Nothing really” he told me with caution.
“Do you subscribe to any religion?”
“No” he said much like many do.
“What would it take for you to no longer be homeless?”
We both had our shoulders pressed against the metro wall, with just a foot and some of space between us.
“A living space, a disability pension” he answered assuming that that’s what it would take.
He watched me as I jotted down his answer, misspelling pension and not bothering to correct it.
“What about prison?” I asked without my paper. “I mean,” I said as I began to explain a possibly pretentious theory I have: “I like to think that if ever became homeless that I would try to go to prison because then at least I would have daily meals, a roof over my head and time to work on writing a novel and getting ripped. I wouldn’t go for a felony, but more for late tax returns, or because I shot a brick through a window.”
He expressed a great laugh at me; we both couldn’t help but to smirk at the nonsense and the lack of reality in the world that I presently live in.
“I’ve been to prison before and back in the 80’s it wasn’t so bad. I worked out, I made friends. It was a safe environment – believe it or not. Now, that isn’t the place you want to be anymore. Even if you just threw a brick through a window.”
I didn’t argue. I don’t know the first thing about actual prison.
“Does your family know that you’re homeless?”
I didn’t press to ask why.
“Can your family help?”
“No” he said. “I don’t want my kids to know I’m homeless. They’re in their 30’s and I have this idea that I am still supposed to be taking care of them until I’m much older. That’s what parents are supposed to do, right?” he asked, in search for my agreement.
“You know Tamara, my kids had everything. They were spoiled when they were younger. I had a great job, I was making 1.5k to 2k a week.”
I watched him as he opened up to me.
“I did contracting at some point. You know what that is, right?” he wanted to make sure.
I smiled. “I know exactly what that is. My father is a contractor.”
“Okay,” he continued with enthusiasm, “well I used to do brick laying – and man did I love that! I like physical jobs. I got a few jobs here but you have to be licensed, otherwise…”
“..You get fined. A lot” I said, in sync with his thought.
“So, what do you have planned for tonight or tomorrow? Do you visit any shelters?”
“I usually take it day by day. I don’t visit the shelters much, it’s not my thing. I don’t get hungry until later on in the evening and I don’t have much of an appetite anymore. I hate using the shelters because part of me wants to help myself. I guess it just makes me uncomfortable taking from them. The goal for me is to just save enough to live in a hotel for a few nights. Some of us get money, maybe 500$ or so from the government, but if you spend a week in a hotel, well it’s gone.”
“I see. And you’ve never used the shelters really?”
“Not much. At first I did, but now it’s a bit of a pride thing.”
“I get it” I said, “I guess similar to how you don’t want to take help sometimes or use the shelters or tell your family the truths about your situation, passers-by are mostly apprehensive in where their change is going, if they don’t just have any on them at all. I’m also fearful honestly sometimes too, because the only interactions I’ve had with homeless men and women begin and end with aggressive shouting as I walk by.”
He nodded in familiarity to my conceptions.
“Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years time, my friend?”
“That’s a hard question to answer. Hopefully just with a home and stable. That’s all I really want.”
I wish I could have said something like Oprah or Ellen at the end of this interview like: “Well, you don’t have to hope anymore because we’re giving you” as my voice and excitement would both raise in octave together, “a brand-NEW HOME WITH A COMPLETELY PAID FOR MORTGAGE!”
Instead, unfortunately in that instant all I could do was scour my wallet for 7 student dollars, shake the man’s hand, wish my new friend well, and maybe promise myself to smile at him the next time our paths cross.
As I began to walk away, “Don’t be afraid, Tamara” he conseiled me, “there are some destructive homeless people who are violent and dangerous, but there are some really nice ones too. Stay away from the violent ones, and just remember: we’re people too.”
Two days later at 11:00 p.m. inside of Concordia metro station, at the bottom of the stairs I saw the new friend I had made.
While my friends and I drifted to the bottom of the escalators, we rummaged through our bags searching for change.
“Remember me!?” I asked with grand excitement.
“Yes!” he said with a huge smile, trying to hide his drunken eyes.
When I noticed the gloss over his brown irises and the tiredness of them, and the oddness in his behaviour, I grew disappointed though I understood his choice.
He backed away from me with disappointment in himself as his body language changed, his shoulders softening.
I handed him a few fingers-grab of money and the apple from my bag that I had failed to eat during the day.
To the state I found him in only two days later, I couldn’t help but to think unhappily, “You’re drunk. That’s what you went and did!”
Except that’s probably what I would have done too.