Everyone has a story

Early morning fog swirls, smoke-like, thick, descending from the sky and seeping from the sewers. Buildings, parks, roads fade into another world. The sun shines somewhere high above the steeples and soaring glass buildings of downtown; for now only a hint of light, waiting at the edge of the fog.

A young man shuffles along the sidewalk by a busy rush-hour road, eyes staring into the unseen distance. He stops at an intersection and waits for the light to change. He is wrapped in a dingy, stained, no longer white duvet. An army surplus duffle bag is strapped to his body like a backpack, keeping the quilt tucked around his arms and front. Black and red plaid lumber jacket sleeves stick out beneath the makeshift coat, their elaborate pearl buttons at odds with the rest of the picture. A knitted grey cap sits low on his head.

The light changes and he crosses the road in front of me, briefly becoming part of my narrative. I assume he spent the damp November night outside. I wonder if he was dressed warmly enough, whether he ate anything, whether he was alone. I try to imagine his story. He may be one of many youth lost in one of many cities, trying to survive, struggling with poverty or addiction or mental health issues. Or perhaps he’s just passing through on his way to the bus station, on his way to another city, another life. Lost, like too many others.

He turns just before the light changes again and I notice a skateboard tucked under his arm.

As I shake myself from the moment and continue on my way, the sun breaks through the fog and I leave him behind to shuffle on through other lives, taking his story with him.

But that skateboard stays with me through my day. Something about it adds another dimension to his character, makes him more real, more fragile. It elevates him from being a stranger crossing my path, to something – someone – more. A kid who skateboards. A kid with a past and a future.

Outside, Looking In

He sits outside on a flattened cardboard box on the sidewalk, leaning against the front of the India imports shop on the corner. He has been there all morning.

His hands are bare. A cotton hat, black with small flowers, perches on top of his head. His curly hair and beard are the colour of steel. He wears green cargo pants, a black leather jacket, unzipped to accommodate his girth, a purple shirt and a white undershirt. His bright red cotton socks bunch and protrude out of the tops of his brown hiking boots. He is not a tall man.

People push by, shuddering and mumbling about the cold, pulling their winter coats tight around their necks, and then disappearing into a shop up the street, or their car, or a bus.

A few stop and talk to him. They bring him coffee, drop some change into his empty cup, and some even stop to chat.

From his spot on the corner, he can see across the street into a cafe. He is on the outside, looking in. He cannot go in there himself; he tried once, with his gathered change, but he won’t do it again.

He watches all of the people in there, free to move about, comfortable, sitting with friends or working alone on their electrical devices or staring off into space. Theirs is a sweet luxury he cannot grasp for himself.

He’s cold now and begins to look around to see if there is anyone who might bring him a hot drink. Behind him, he knows, is the warmth of the Indian shop. He can almost feel it, almost smell it.

For the moment, no one stops.

And then, perhaps inevitably, two cruisers pull up on the corners nearest to him. He tenses, knows they are coming for him.

“I’m just a man,” he thinks. “One man. Does it really take two cruisers for one, old man?”

The first officer approaches and stands over him, blocking the bit of warmth he was getting from the sun. His head is bald and pale and hatless. He doesn’t intend to be outside for long.

The second officer appears and stands on the other side of him. They are like good cop bad cop, he thinks, or the angel and devil come to rest on his shoulders.

Someone must have called them.

They speak to him, while the voices on their radios babble and crackle.

It’s time to move on. He stands up, his legs stiff from sitting so long in the cold, and carefully returns the cardboard he had been sitting on to the pile by the public garbage can.

Where will he go? He knows it will only be a matter of time, wherever he lands, before the officers reappear and move him on again. It is endless.

He is always on the outside, looking in.