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.

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Trailblazing

Long-shadowed by power
(names and faces)
I’ve run, transiting thresholds
to come full circle.
Setting out from darkened manor,
I passed o’er lamplit plains
where St. George wages infinite war
upon ignorance.
Retreating for a time,
I tucked myself away
down ragged, age-worn peninsulas,
became wild again,
embraced by wind and rain and waves,
until one day I sought the high road,
a bridge back to civilization.
But spears and barbs flanked cobbled lanes
and so again I fled, this time
o’er bee-gilded, golden meadows
until in a small fishing boat
I began my final journey home,
seeking refuge along the way
among kindred earthen peoples.
I can no longer tell whether I’ve been
running from or running to
but I have landed here,
which is just about where I began.

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Inspired by Jennifer Knoblock at Graceful Press Poetry, who in turn was inspired by Margo Roby’s Poem Tryouts (“The Streets Where You Lived”), this poem was built around the names of some of the streets I’ve lived on over the years.

At first glance, I realized that many are names of powerful men and leaders (Roxborough, Nepean, Burnside, Putman). Roxborough also means “manor of the dark-haired person” and Putman means “dweller by the pit or hollow.” Other streets referenced: St. George (my university residence address), Iveragh (named after Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula), Upper Bridge, Barry’s (“spear,” “sharp”) Lane, Cahernane Meadows, and Curragh (small Irish fishing boat). Currently, I live on a street that has the same name as my father.

The Key

The key lay on the sidewalk, cold silver glinting in the winter sun. Something–hope, or fate?–prompted me to pick it up. Turning it over in my hand, I wondered only half-mockingly if it was supposed to be the key to my future, my past, or maybe the key to your heart.

Most would say it was pure superstition to imbue an inanimate object with that much significance. I wish I could agree with them.

That little bit of metal weighed heavily in my pocket for weeks. I could feel it, heavier than it should have been, as I walked to work and home again, as I did the groceries and popped out to lunch with friends. And, each Tuesday as you and I walked arm-in-arm down the snowy streets to that little bar on the corner, I could feel it pulling one side of my coat down just a bit more than the other.

Did you notice? You never mentioned it if you did, and you were always so perceptive when it came to symmetry – or the lack thereof.

It began to feel like the proverbial albatross, but still I carried it. It was there in my pocket that night, our last Tuesday as it turned out. The streets were unusually slippery and thick with snow as we picked our way past shopfronts and other pedestrians, you ahead of me for once instead of by my side. I kept looking up into the orange glow of the streetlights, watching the thick snowflakes as they fluttered in and out of the halos. I was trying to hold back the tears.

Yes, I knew it was over even before you said anything. People feel these things.

We reached the bar and you went straight down the narrow stone steps and disappeared inside, leaving me to make my own way down carefully, alone. You were clearly on a mission. When I finally stepped into the dim, faded red ambience of the place, you were already at a table. I noted it wasn’t our usual corner; that had already been taken.

“Something has changed.” You launched into it without preamble the moment I sat down. I thought briefly that you were talking about the seating arrangements rather than us.

“When? When did it change?” I remember asking. I wanted a day and a time.

You looked at me then, curious, like you suspected I knew something. Sighing, resigning yourself to the truth, you gave me the day, and her name.

It was you, not the key, you and the weakness of the human spirit, that made all this happen.

And yet. And yet, the date you gave me was of course the same day that I found the key.

I don’t know why we bothered going through the motions that night, ordering our drinks and our dinners. We sat there for hours, hands wrapped around our individual glasses, staring in silence, oblivious to the other lives, the other dramas, unfolding in front of us.

I don’t go back there now. I wonder sometimes if you take her there, if you sit at our table.

I still carry the key, though. I’ve started looking around for a possible lock it might belong to, a possible life I might belong to. I can’t believe that finding the key was accident, and I won’t believe that it was only a catalyst for our end. It isn’t the key to your heart, but maybe it is the key to my future.

Surrender to the Wind*

source: cfr.org, Joe Penney/Reuters

The wind is wailing. At home, that always meant the weather was changing. It was exciting because the land would be refreshed, we would be refreshed.

Here, the wind signifies nothing. It never stops. It wails through the spaces between the tents in the camp, this place that all of us now call home, as though it’s accusing us of being in its way. Sometimes, it blows a few tents down, scattering the last remnants of their occupants’ lives.

I try not to think about all of this during the day. Life goes on and there is much to be done; water gathering, cooking, looking after the younger ones. But it hits me at night, stinging my eyes like grains of sand in the wind. Even worse, I know that the militia could come for us at any time. They live among us, our attackers, and we, like fish trapped in an ocean rock pool, are easy prey for them as they move freely between the shadows.

I know I should stay put, especially at night, but I can’t keep lying here, listening and waiting. I need to know what’s going on beyond these flimsy walls. I need to know whether anyone is out there.

The wind and the slap-slap-slapping of the faded tarps drown out the sounds of my footsteps as I cross the packed earthen floor. I peek through the tent opening, looking up and down our narrow row. It is one of thousands that criss-cross the sea of matching tents. The moon is full, so it should be easier to see, but it glows red through the clouds of sand kicked up by the wind.

Our row is empty. I watch for a while, expecting a hooded figure to appear at any moment, its machete or rifle flashing in the moonlight. I think about lying back down but something – the moon, perhaps – tugs at me, drawing me out into the windy night.

I pick my way along the row, pausing whenever I think I hear something, or when a new row joins mine. I’m so busy listening and watching and imagining shadows into being that I don’t notice I’ve turned down a path I’ve never taken before.

It’s not until a few minutes later that I find myself, improbably, at the end. The end of the unfamiliar row, the end of the camp, the end of the wall of tents where the wind howls unhindered as though it was the end of the earth.

My breath catches in my throat. At the front of the camp, the only other part of the perimeter I’ve been to, there is always a flurry of activity; aid workers, registration desks, food being handed out, people gathering. But that is miles away.

Here, there is nothing. The red, dry, dustiness spreads out before me, from the tips of my toes to as far as I can see. There are no trees, no huts, no roads, not even a footprint. Just the red moon, hanging low over the western edge of the sky – on its way to America – and the first golden light of morning leaking over the eastern horizon. And me, at the edge.

I stretch out my foot and press it down into the earth, leaving a single footprint.

I don’t think I can find my way home, so I sit down and wait for the sun to rise.

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* Title is a quote from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Long Time Passing

In 1975, the streets of Haight-Ashbury were still lined with cafés, musicians, artists and poets–everyone who had come west following a dream. There was ambience. There was feeling. It was real.

But four years later, everything had changed.

I came to a stop in the middle of the intersection on that first day of my return and, looking around, wondered what had happened. The cafés had been replaced by tacky souvenir shops and antique stores selling lace, of all things. The street scene had changed, too. There were a few coked-out runaways; both the rich ones who could afford to be there for the experience and the ones who were genuinely starving. Vagabonds, too, and the odd, lost, tie-dyed tourist peering nervously through pink-tinted circle-framed glasses.

The only things that seemed to have stayed the same were the cracks in the pavement and the grit lodged in the corners of shopfronts where flyaway newspapers resembling ghost town tumbleweeds gathered, telling of times that continued to change, just not in the way we had thought they would.

It wasn’t honest or real anymore. It felt empty and silent. In earlier times, a variety of tunes poured out of the cafés and, mingling with the sounds of sidewalk buskers and poets, made up a new, different breed of music. Somehow it all jibed.

But without the cafés, there was silence, and in that silence the soul of the place seemed to have curled up and died. In its absence, the cracks in the road were all I could focus on.

Until I noticed the only person around who felt familiar, like the echo of a memory. His jeans and faded red t-shirt were unremarkable enough; I noticed him because he was repeatedly hitting a tuning fork on a telephone pole, then holding it up to his ear to listen. He nodded and smiled each time, his faraway look growing blank as the sound faded.

In the old Haight, strangers used to talk to each other without hesitation. “Hey man,” I said, “where have all the cafés gone?”

He shrugged and gave me some convoluted directions to another neighbourhood – left here, right there, left, right. I looked at him and frowned. This wasn’t the response I’d expected from a man who appreciated the music of a tuning fork.

After an extended silence, during which he must have been assessing my merits, his face broke into a toothy grin. “You got enough to buy me a soup and a coffee, man?”

That was more like it. We struck a deal and I followed him along his meandering route through the back streets of the city while he told me about about all the changes. The Haight had become a victim of its own personality. The people who had come for ten years and more to expand their minds, live the dream and hook up with other likeminded people had been replaced by the squares who, too late, had decided the hippie movement was cool. You can’t emulate a movement. You’re either there or you miss the boat.

In the midst of the deserted warren of streets, I heard the music first. And not just any music. Decent, far-out, creative music. Next, a flashback of odours teased my nose. The café was a perfect hole-in-the wall kind of place. A handful of musicians were playing in the back corner shadows, a big pot of soup was simmering beside a pot of percolating coffee.

It felt like coming home. It was almost like the old days, and almost was good enough.