Whose Story is This?
Bob's Stories Menu
Experience is the father of memories. Memory is the mother of stories. Since you have decided to cross over the threshold and through this window we are meeting. This feels a bit like so many other encounters I have had. When you stand on the street long enough you will meet all kinds of people. I have.
And besides, I have 5 stories to share with you. I cannot say much about why they are here. But I will share a little about how they have arrived. Much like you, they floated through my window. And they stuck around for so long I had to write them down.
I still wonder what they are about. They may be about crossing boundaries, about love, loss and running out of time in the rush towards some kind of raw discovery. One thing is certain. They are not my stories. They belong to the people who inhabit them and the people who are standing and waiting on your street corner.
So what happens next? Well first I am going to tell you a little about the world these stories come from. Then you will have to take it from there. Oh and one more thing…An open window is the antidote to a prison.
The Writer’s Space
I have been a staff person at PARC since its earliest days, at the heart of history of PARC – the programs, the celebrations, the planning, and the political struggles.
My office is filled with objects and artifacts. They convey a visual and emotional message about PARC’s long illustrious history: photographs of PARC members; bricks salvaged from an old boarding home, newspaper clippings; milestone event posters created by a PARC artist called Tyde; railway lanterns collected by an old prospector named Walter; the protest collage work of John Blank. In the corner there is a pile of rocks and the shard of a meteorite, a hard hat dating back to the first of many PARC renovations, and a canoe paddle.
In the spring of 2009 I made a sudden decision to apply for a Metcalf Renewal Grant to support a 6-month sabbatical leave for the purpose of writing PARC stories. My submission process was as whimsical as my proposal. I left work on a Friday to spend the weekend fixing my canoe and writing my proposal.
One year later I arrived in an Algonquin Park log cabin to begin writing. I had told many stories over the years and I had long list of story ideas and titles to work with. But the cabin seemed dreamlike. And I soon realized that choosing the stories to be written would demand an emotional connection to the material. So I lay under the pines and I began to remember. Fragments. Moments. Feelings. Questions. I wrote them down and they became my story-writing compass.
In the late 1970s I experienced a serious depressive episode. It took me to a desperate place I had never been before. I went on a trip to resolve it, embarking on 8-week canoe journey through the woods north of Lake Superior.
When I returned to Toronto I changed my career direction and began working at the Clarke Institute as a member of the nursing team on the Forensic Services Unit. A few years later I had the opportunity to participate in the first case management program in Ontario and take training in psychiatric rehabilitation. I went to work at the new Archway Clinic, one of the first community mental health satellite agencies of Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now CAMH) and located in Parkdale. Those combined experiences changed me and led to my immersion in a community work career.
As in my beginning journey through the wilderness, my professional life soon transformed into an exploration of the dislocation found in a mental health crisis, poverty, and homelessness, and a continued search for the paths and the alternatives needed to make a safe journey home.
I had moved into community mental health in Toronto on the cusp of deinstitutionalization, as Queen Street Mental Health Centre shed residential care beds and Lakeshore Hospital in Mimico closed its doors. What I found were desperate living situations, poverty and the lack of recovery resources confronting many psychiatric survivor outpatients. It was inevitable I join forces with other survivor advocates. We pressed for resources: a home, a friend, a job.
Shortly after arriving in Parkdale I started working with the residents of a deteriorated boarding home called Channon Court. My intent was to try and improve the living conditions there through organizing and advocacy, partly because I was actively supporting a number of its very disabled residents. This goal soon became entwined with investigative journalism in The Globe and Mail, ongoing collaboration with a PARC survivor staff, and controversial communications emerging from the Ministry of Health. Suddenly, the tragic death of PARC member and Channon Court tenant John Dimun transformed that work by placing it the sphere of a coroner’s inquest (Dimun Inquest 1986) and the opportunity to be an inquest witness. The jury made multiple recommendations: one transformed the Channon Court boarding home into renovated House Link Supportive Housing, another created a new agency (Habitat Services) with a mandate to monitor, fund and improve the standards of the congregate housing forced upon so many mental health survivors.
The experience gathered from mixing front line support work with public advocacy changed my career direction again and began working at PARC.
Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) / Creating an Alternative Mental Health Model
During the 1960s and 1970s approximately 75% of Ontario’s psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated, and thousands of patients discharged. In Toronto, it is estimated that by the early 1980s 1,200 former mental health patients were living in the community of Parkdale. There was little social support, decent housing, or basic legal protection for this group of vulnerable people. Their often-obvious poverty, marginal living situations, and psychiatric diagnoses bred suspicion and distrust among Parkdale’s middle-class.
When PARC was founded in 1980, it was envisioned as a haven, a sanctuary from the outside world for those who needed it most. The drop-in was the first thing to be set in place, a “living room” offering members food, company and something to do. A writing group began to meet, summer wilderness programs were developed, and a culture of music, art and community celebration took root in an old Parkdale bowling alley. Today, PARC's umbrella of personal supports and resources includes: outreach and case management, primary health care, dental care, financial support services, harm reduction programming, access to alternative coping supports and supportive housing. But this was all in the unimagined future when I arrived.
A small drop-in, with very few resources, had supported my advocacy activity at Channon Court. Now, it became my new employer. PARC was one of the first community drop-ins in the City of Toronto, deep in courage but short on options for a sustainable future. I began working there because it provided the opportunity to have a different type of conversation; a dialogue about safety, personal story, creating personal and collective welcoming strategies, using community development to frame individual support work. It was also a place voicing defiant opposition to the damage created by deficit assessments, diagnostic labeling and the human rights discrimination people caught up in the mental health system were experiencing.
PARC developed in ways similar to New York City’s Fountain House. We had an independent attitude; a “do it ourselves / do it together” philosophy that grounded our work activities. I am very proud of those days of struggle and how our small staff group (5 people) pushed back against isolation and a lack of resources to convert these into creative assets. We invented programs based on the needs expressed by members, taking steps to translate ideas into an experiential process. It was not surprising that the main theme of the program was to encourage members to express themselves; to recover their voice. This was one way to respond to the pain of isolation and loneliness of personal exit.
In its heart the PARC drop-in became a very flexible interior public space, replacing the loss of inflexible, exterior public space. It was busy. It was chaotic. But it was also safer than the world outside PARC’s doors. Creating positive space requires patience and compassion. But given the willingness and the time to create that kind of space we watched as people began to rediscover themselves and each other within it. So they kept coming back - day after day.
Relationships, trust and belonging are often scarce in damaged lives. Found here at PARC it became a source of personal and community strength, pride and purpose. PARC recognized (if not always consciously) the importance of this in the processing of the grief and loss so prevalent in members’ lives. The challenge of experiencing, understanding, releasing and replacing loss and disappointment with the seeds of hope was so basic to community development - and individual change - that I used to dream of moving the hyphen in our name; only because I wanted convey the discoveries occurring at The Parkdale Activity Re-creation Centre.
The Case Worker becomes a Community Worker
Bob Rose was employed at Archway for three-plus years, part of an innovative case management program where staff met their clients, not in the office, but on the neighbourhood streets and boarding houses of Parkdale, trying to foster positive life changes by placing themselves within the daily circumstances of the people they were trying to help. But Archway, though progressive in practice, was still a psychiatric outpost of the old guard Queen Street Mental Hospital. Making the transition from mental health caseworker to PARC employee was a further step toward erasing the us/them distinction, taking Bob toward a new politic of community mental health work.
PARC is a place filled with just that type of story and memory. Sometimes a single moment can be unforgettable. I remember working a Saturday night drop-in in 1989. We were closing up. I was standing at the door to say good night to each member as they left. For one woman, Patty, it would be her last night. She left us for a stairwell in a local building and passed away on that lonely staircase over the night. She was sick but we had not noticed. She was homeless but no one knew.
The next day when I heard of her death I took a vow that all of my efforts to engage in community development had to change. First, community development had to find a way to support people individually as well as collectively. And further, it had to create room for speaking out in ways that would deliver people’s stories and experiences into the hands of the people who needed to hear them. To do this was a way of honoring those who became lost and found a way to come back as well as those who perished on their journey. More than this, making a continued fight for change a fundamental part of the work of community building was the only way to ensure that the process remained honorable under great duress. This is a reversible equation: Development is accomplished through struggle. Struggle is accomplished through development.
Good development work means having the ability to step back, step forward and step sideways when things go wrong or become deadlocked. It requires observation and preparation - to see the unexpected and remain open to the mystery of momentum rising.
Nothing like PARC can exist in isolation. While some aspects of its – and my - evolution have been nourished by trial and error followed by reflection, others have been naturally inspired by the growth of partnerships over the years. This mirrors our responsibility (and need) to engage with others in sharing PARC concerns and values. When successful, this leads to an improvement or expansion of our services / supports. At other times it provokes us to examine our role in the world, and to examine how PARC can sustain anti-oppression work in an era of diminishing human rights.
Over the years there have been many struggles and campaigns to boot. Like the best life can offer, they may have appeared as a moment of inspiration, a simple idea, a strange convergence or connection...all scattered across the ground of experience informed by the commitment to working hard with heart and mind.
It is curious how much work can be dedicated to exploring ways to make change and search for home - and more curious how these twin directions mysteriously evolve into stories that remember where we have come from and imagine where we are going.
So that’s it. This snapshot of my journey at PARC, and PARC’s own passage through time, must pause. Now: To the stories...
Bob Rose, Toronto, April 2014.
John Blank's Bags
Some people use up all of the space around them. They fill the sidewalk when they walk down the street and pass through the world in ways you will never forget. They leave an invisible tattoo on your skin. You may not see it, but it is there. That is how I think of John Blank, and why I smile when I remember the way he introduced himself to me.
“Hi, my name is John Blank and I am an original.”
John was a big man. With his barrel chest, broad shoulders and heavy legs he seemed to be as wide as a small truck. He always wore ragged shirts with their sleeves ripped away from the shoulders. It drew your eyes toward his thick and heavily muscled arms. At first glance, he looked like an errant weight-lifter, but when John started talking, this impression quickly changed. John had a flamboyant and deep love for conversation that matched his golden coloured hair. He was genuinely interested in other people and had lots to say to them. Only one thing slowed him down, and that was his missing teeth. It affected how he talked. He had to work harder to get the words out, and the harder he worked, the wetter his words became. When John got passionate about something or told a story, you would see his friends discreetly ducking and weaving in a foolish effort to stay dry.
John’s big presence got even bigger when you saw what he carried with him. He had lots and lots of things stuffed into enormous bags made out of upholstery scraps, canvas and leather. John created his bags with a meticulous care that bordered on on devotion. He used a mixture of cords and yarns to put them together, twisting, winding and overlapping them until he had made seams as thick as his big fingers.
John’s bags were packed so that he could lug them everywhere. He usually wore two of them, one over each shoulder. Each time he put them on he had to make careful adjustments in their position, so they were balanced enough to allow walking under their weight. His daily travelling load averaged around 80 lbs. When he used more than two bags, everyone who knew him began to worry.
No one ever got the full picture of what John stored in his bags. I saw what he stored at the top of them because that was where John kept his sewing supplies and whatever else he was using to make new or larger bags. One time, I was allowed to look deeper into the bags and saw the collection of jars containing mysterious liquids, bean sprouts and grains. John showed me the honey water he carried and used to feed the bees. Below this were his shakers and rattles made out of beans, pop bottle caps, sticks and wire. John got out these home-made instruments whenever music was in the air. He loved to play them while he danced.
But there was always more in John’s bags, especially the assorted cuttings from magazines and newspapers: clippings of sentences, torn pictures and strange hand written notes. John cut and pasted this stuff together into collage posters and hefty books. The material he used explored his lived experiences with sex, poverty, hunger, love, isolation and change. As each work evolved, John inserted many scrawled comments, arrows and pointers. This was his personal way of mortising his selection of images and statements together, and it went on until some sort of finished state was reached. The overall affect was disorienting. I often thought of his creations as psychic maps, the stuff of dreams and nightmares and the things we leave unspoken.
At the last creative stage, John covered each piece with clear binding tape, wrapping it around and around until he was satisfied he had reached an optimum state of adhesion, rigidity and weight. In one notorious effort, John’s taping and collage work transformed an ordinary cook-book into an extraordinary and very heavy sculpture of sexual recipes. It was about a foot deep and very heavy. I thought it was primordial.
Most people found this work amazing even if they didn’t fully comprehend the content or intent. I loved those moody diary records of John’s life, and the way he sewed and taped his way towards peace of mind. It seemed to channel the two spirits of the man: the soft delicacy of the sewing giving way to the brute strength needed to carry the bags.
If our world begins to fall apart, it may test what we normally do to keep it together. This is what happened to John. As time passed, and as he got older, his eccentricity became more challenging to maintain. His bags got bigger and heavier. Rest was harder to find. As with all aging people, he was slowing down. His enormous physical strength was fading even though his spirit remained youthful. This is when John had to face the prospect of losing his home. His rental building was being sold and he needed to find somewhere else to live.
The spectacle of a man carrying lots of strange baggage always stirs an image of homelessness, even though most people living on the street only have the clothes on their back. John didn’t live on the street. His determination to carry the things he valued had nothing to do with homelessness. He did this because he had to, because this was who he was. From the moment John picked up his bags, he was a giant. He filled doorways because he could not get through them easily. Walking up stairs looked very dangerous. Getting on street cars could be unforgettable if it took place during rush hour. His bags would make some people step back, and other people come closer. It was all part of his charm.
John was used to attracting and enjoying public attention, but now there was something altered and deadly serious taking place in his relationship with the world. Landlords were not interested in renting a place to him, and John worried about how poorly his housing search was going. His efforts to negotiate landlord interviews were failing. He knew that he could not survive on the street, so he asked me to help him.
We talked over coffee. I knew that John’s bags were influencing his housing prospects. There was no way any landlord would understand what role these bags had in his life. And even though John trusted me, he would never agree to leave his bags with me when he went apartment shopping. Where he went his bags had to go. What should be done? John asked me to make a suggestion. So I did.
“John, I know that this may seem crazy, but here is the best thing I can come up with. I think these hand-made bags are preventing you from getting housing. They are telling a story that makes landlords suspicious of you. We have to think of another story, something more familiar to them so that you’re less likely to end up with doors slammed in your face. Have you ever considered getting some luggage to carry your things in while you are looking for a place to live? You would simply be a traveler. You can still take your things with you, but you would be less controversial in your appearance. After you secure a place, you can ditch the luggage and use your bags again. There is a bit of deceit in this, but I think it will work… if you are willing to give it a try?”
For the next hour we discussed the merits and the drawbacks of this off the wall idea. Money might have been an issue, but John had $3000 saved in the bank. Shopping could be difficult, but I had arranged the time needed to go downtown with John to ease this along. We both agreed the luggage should be quality merchandise, because anything chosen to replace his bags had to be first class.
At the end of this conversation we had a plan with a start date, a list of stores and future arrangements for a pre-shopping strategy huddle. The luggage experiment was now in motion, so I began investigating potential apartments for viewing.
Three days later we were in a large store looking at suitcases, discussing their size, color, quality of construction, durability and the number of matching pieces required for this strange enterprise. No one knows what the salesman could have been thinking as he delivered his sales pitch to this odd looking couple checking everything on display. Then, at last, John was satisfied. He purchased two large green suitcases.
On our way out of the store, I felt an uneasy sensation growing in my heart. Outside, the sky had darkened. Rain was beginning to fall. I was going west, and John was going east, but we stood together on the corner waiting for our individual streetcars to come along. We waited awkwardly, wanting to end what now felt like a strange partnership neither one of us had really wanted, but in the end had put together.
My streetcar came first. I ran across the street to catch my ride and chose a seat at the back of the car so I could look out the window and see John. As I settled into place, the rain began to fall with more force. John stood there unmoving, like a statue, his two huge bags draped across each shoulder and the two new green suitcases planted at his feet.
The rain fell harder. I felt stress in my eyes and the uneasy feeling growing. This was so unfair. What the hell had I been thinking? I stared at those beautiful hand-made bags beside the dismal and ordinary suitcases that would replace them. What was I doing? By the time the streetcar pulled away, I was convinced I had unwittingly hurt someone I cared deeply about. There was no way to take it back. There was no way any of this could take John to a place called home.
In the days that followed, the worry I’d felt on the street car got darker. John did not come to visit. The arrangements made for an apartment viewing fell through. Every passing day increased my regret for how all of this was turning out. But there was nothing I could have done about any of it. I believed that I might never see John again. What was done was done. Ten days passed.
On the eleventh day, to my everlasting surprise, something wonderful took place as the PARC drop-in prepared to close for the day. John returned.
I was there to see his entrance and it was spectacular as always. He came to the door and looked in. Then he turned sideways, slowly stepping through the doorway, lifting his bags over the threshold. I stood there beaming with a mix of pleasure, relief and uncertainty. I was glad to see John again, but just as anxious to know what he had been doing while he had been away. Had he found a place? Yes he had. John smiled at me. Then I began to bluster.
“But how did you manage this? Did you use the luggage?”
John was silent. He looked at me and spoke slowly in a hushed tone.
“You were right to tell me to change my approach to home hunting. It was… yes, it was… a lot of work. I needed to take time to prepare. So after I left you, I had to do more. I made some changes. I went to work to get some new supplies…and then I made these new bags.”
As he said this I looked again at the bags John was carrying. They were the largest ones I had ever seen. They were very finely done. The sewing on them outstripped anything John had ever made before.
“But John…” I stammered again. “Why didn’t you use the suitcases that you purchased?”
John looked at me thoughtfully.
“But… I did use them. They worked really well.”
Now I was really confused.
“I don’t understand John, you say you used the luggage, but here you are with a whole new set of bags. I don’t get it.”
There are moments when the stars in heaven, knocked out of alignment, suddenly correct themselves. This was just such a moment. John stepped towards me and leaned forward. He opened one of the bags to show me what was inside.
It was a green suitcase, inside another new and wonderful handmade bag.
Long Lost Love
Some are from the mud up
Others from the sky down
So one is falling
The other is a star on the rise
So run to me and be my love
Be the hand within my glove
Warm and free speak tenderly
The night will never end
Harry loved the woods but was at his limit on this trip. He sucked in and blew out his breath. He needed a smoke but his tobacco was finished. He had been rolling butts made from butts for more than a week and now he had only one tattered cigarette left, ready to light but stored in his kit. He was saving it for a place called Have a Smoke Portage.
He felt his stomach turn as he threw out his fishing line again. His food supply was reduced to scraps and what he wanted most was a decent meal. Anything would be better than the Minute Rice mixed with bits of instant soup and any fish he might catch. At night he dreamed of ice cream.
Harry looked down at his hands. They were scarred with the scrapes and burns of camp work.
"Damn gloves" he murmured. They had gone missing two weeks ago and his hands were suffering the wear and tear of their loss. He stretched his fingers to ease their stiffness and glanced up and across the lake towards the next portage. The canoe drifted a little in the wind. It felt like his mind was drifting, too.
The loneliness inside him had grown softer in the woods, turning away from the sadness wearing him down before coming here. He had been trying to sort out a new direction and purpose for his life; had chosen this journey as a way to find what that might be. It made his mind work in ways he didn't understand but he thought it was good fortune to feel lighter and steadier, in spite of the physical discomforts closing in on him.
Harry pulled in his line, picked up the paddle and pulled the boat into motion. He was pushing hard to finish his homeward trip north. After five weeks he had learned to travel with little rest so he started early and worked all day. It was only at night, when he lay down, that he felt the exhaustion rising in him. It turned into pain every morning and only went away when he forced himself to get up and move again.
The rain was starting up. He put his head down to increase the power of his stroke. An hour later he was carrying his bags up the rocky trail from the river. The rain was pouring now. The ground was rocky and slippery and he was forced to watch his steps to keep his footing under the pack load on his back. That's how he found the note on the trail.
It looked like a letter. It was so wet he had to peel it apart to see what was there. What he saw made him drop the thing. The paper had one word on it: DEATH. He stared down at it to see if the word would somehow disappear if it was back on the ground where he had found it. He felt a chill go through him. He was suddenly afraid, like he was supposed to prevent something from happening that he could not see coming. He looked down the trail, but there was nothing there.
By the time he reached the river the rain had stopped and a foggy mist settled in. The river was a slow moving, gloomy and airless place, so he pressed on. He was beginning his pass through the first of its bends when he noticed the smell. The air around him was sickly and sweet. It made him choke. It was a smell unlike anything he had ever experienced before. There was something wrong here.
Harry let the canoe drift. Then he saw it. A body was gently bobbing up and down in the current and slowly moving towards him. Harry held himself steady. As it came closer he made it out to be a young man. Young before the water took him away, before the face had blackened and the body had become alien. Only the eyeglasses were exactly as they should be. They remained stubbornly fixed in place as if they were containing one last effort to see the sky.
The next few hours were filled with stillness. Harry did what he had to. He later remembered covering up the body with a silver foil emergency blanket, looping a rope over both feet so he could tow it closer to shore and the slow paddle to a low hanging tree. He tied the tow line around the trunk and pushed off back into the current.
He found an open, upwind slope of riverbank with a spot to sit down. He rehearsed an SOS signal with his old red tarp and tried to calm his nerves by concentrating on the horizon but the wait seemed to go on forever. He heard the sound of a plane before he saw it. He jumped up; scanning the sky, stepping down closer to the water, waving the tarp up and down in sequences of three. The plane flew on as if it did not see him and slowly circled into a second fly by, dipping its wings towards his signal and the silver shape in the water.
As the sun faded, another larger yellow plane returned to pick up the body. The three-man crew had brought an aluminum metal box. Harry sat in his canoe and watched them recover the remains. He asked if they could take him out with them but they said no. He asked if they had any tobacco to share but they said no. Harry felt crushed. It was very bad luck to be involved in an emergency where no one smoked.
That night Harry had his last cigarette. He was too tired to go any further so he had to make his camp at the falls where the young man had drowned. The forestry people told him the accident had happened weeks before. The dead man had been travelling with his twin brother when their canoe turned over in the rapids next to the falls. One brother grabbed the canoe. The other brother tried to swim for the packs to rescue them, unaware that the undertow beneath the rapids was deadly. He had been sucked down and held fast. It had taken two weeks for his body to break free and rise to the surface.
Harry stared at the fire. He tried to get some pleasure from his last smoke but his mind was elsewhere. He couldn't begin to comprehend what dying was like. Was it intense blackness, infinitely deep silence? He looked up at the sky. There were so many stars out. It was a beautiful night. He felt like he was being pulled back and forth between sorrow and joy. Harry said a prayer for the brother who had made it to shore to sit and wait in this place. Then he put another log on the fire and moved in closer. He wanted to feel its heat on his face.
Over the next two days Harry made the hardest paddle of his life. Within a couple of months of leaving the woods his memory of that day faded. He learned to sleep in a room again without feeling he might suffocate. He was thinking about looking for a job when he got a surprising call from a friend inviting him to consider working in a psychiatric hospital. It was the last place he would have ever thought of working.
That night Harry dreamed about the moment on the river and the night spent looking at the sky. The next day he decided to take the job. A month later he found himself working in a locked hospital ward and meeting Luke in a hospital hallway.
Luke was a year older than Harry. Tall and slender, he had long black hair, an angular handsome face and strikingly beautiful hands. Luke was filled with a restless energy. He was grappling with a whirlwind of secrets, ideas and questions that were so intense he found it difficult to rest or sleep.
Luke was more fascinated, than alarmed by what he saw. He believed he was becoming a spiritual warrior and what was taking place inside him was a part of that change. He spoke with a direct, stark honesty that Harry wanted to absorb. He said that hope was living inside the heart of hopelessness. He told Harry to go and find it there.
Harry recognized a familiar solitude in Luke. He saw it when they smoked cigarettes together; how they lived to smoke and loved to be in smoke. The spiral plumes of burning tobacco filled the empty space between them, joining their worlds together.
Harry asked to work steady evening shifts to make sure he had more time to spend with Luke. As the days and conversations with Luke accumulated Harry began to feel more and more troubled. What Harry saw in Luke was the spirit of a natural poet but here in this hospital he was locked up. He was a patient and a prisoner.
Luke was waiting to be released from the hospital's custody, but he first he had to get to court to face a criminal public disturbance charge. He had been telling people about what his experiences were and this had got him arrested. Now, at the last stage of his ordeal, he was going back to court with a medical assessment outlining his psychiatric diagnosis and recommendations for further treatment. His agreement to follow through on this report was the condition set for his release.
When the day came for Luke's discharge Harry met him for one last conversation. He wanted to ask about the hospitalization. Had it helped? What should be done? What was next? Luke did not hesitate.
"The trouble with medication is it can take away everything."
Harry asked what could be done instead of this. Luke looked at him and said
"I am looking for a place to recover my long lost love."
Harry did not say anything. But later that night he wrote down what he heard Luke say.
Harry left the hospital not long after saying goodbye to Luke. He went down to Mexico and then made his way back north to the Yukon. After six months on the road he returned to the boundary waters of his first canoe journey partly to make peace with the place and partly to consider its influence on what he had been doing with his life.
It took five more years for Harry to see Luke again. They met on the street on a hot summer day. The encounter lasted only a few minutes. Luke was living in a nearby room. Life had been up and down, with admissions to the hospital and failed attempts to find a steady job. Harry mentioned the drop-in called PARC where he was now working and invited him to come for a visit.
Luke appeared a couple of months later. It was a late fall day. He was carrying a football helmet, a classical guitar and a tree branch with flowers wound around it. He was very restless and finding it difficult to concentrate. He had been spending his time wandering around in the large forested park near the drop-in.
For the next two weeks Harry and Luke saw each other almost every day. Although it was never said out loud, Harry knew Luke was coming to see him. They walked as they had done years earlier. They talked about treatment and how difficult that was for him. The rest of their time was spent encouraging Luke's efforts to recover his control over what was happening to him.
At the beginning of the third week, Luke did not return. Harry made some phone calls to find him. Luke had admitted himself to hospital.
For the next three years Harry saw Luke again every fall. Each year was the same. Luke came to see him when he was in crisis. During these periods he spent a lot of time wandering in the park. By the time he came to PARC he was carrying leaves and tree branches. They walked and talked for a week or two and then Luke went away, took treatment and disappeared.
Harry knew why Luke kept his distance from PARC after these annual visits. Luke told him he wanted this struggle to end. He worried about spending time in a place that was linked to the mental health system. He went on and off medications, then took them over longer periods of time. But the treatment had a cost. The medications could make him feel less than who he was. What he wanted was to be free of the hospitals, the doctors, the drugs and the associations with it all. What he wanted most was his long lost love.
Every discharge from hospital was going to be his last one. And it was, until the colors of the leaves changed in the fall.
Harry met him irregularly over those three years. When they got together they talked about the search for balance. Luke was trying to cope with the direction of his visionary spirit, how to live with it; how to find a way to stop it from pushing him into crisis. They discussed art and music. Luke was using these to carry him beyond the periods of turmoil in his life. Creating was what he was born to do. If only he could find some way to live with the ups and downs of his imagination tearing him apart.
Luke began using photography to make illuminated picture boxes. These were like beautiful haiku poems, constructed with phantom images instead of words. He used a razor to peel away the backing from his photos until he was left with their essence; a translucent image. Using cardboard, tape and string, he then sequenced his photo ghosts inside a box next to tiny battery-powered switches that would cast light on his subjects, turning on image upon image – until the story in the box was revealed.
He had one particular box showing an autumn scene of a small pond with blackened trees bending down over the water's surface. On one side there was a set of wires connecting the photo light switch to a gem studded butterfly. When the switch was pressed the image of a young man and young woman magically appeared on the surface of the pond. They were both smiling and leaning into each other in the manner of wedding photographs. Luke never explained the story of this box.
Three years after his first visit to PARC, Luke was settled into small room in the west end, and gradually increasing his visits to the drop-in. Time passed. PARC built housing on its third floor for the people using its programs. Eventually an opportunity for Luke to move in arrived. There were only 10 of these apartments but each one was special because they were large, open spaces with tall windows and lots of light. It seemed fitting that an artist member of the PARC community should possess this kind of place to call home.
Luke lived there for 5 years: drawing and sketching, taking photographs, writing fiery or melancholy songs on his classical guitar. He made some lasting friendships with the other tenants living near him. One night Harry got a glimpse of an old secret Luke carried in his heart. They were drinking Madeira wine and talking about love. Luke told Harry that he had been deeply in love one time in his life. It had been a true love. Nothing more was said but the silence that followed was as deep as anything Harry had ever felt before.
The cancer came suddenly and moved fast. It was in Luke's lungs. When he told Harry about his illness they smoked together as always. Luke said he should stop smoking but it was impossible. Harry knew this was true. Since they both lived in smoke, it was an unshakeable certainty they would come to die there.
In the months before the end, Luke asked Harry to look after his things when he passed. Harry bought another bottle of Madeira wine. They talked about life lived and what was coming. Luke insisted that Harry take his guitar away, to keep it safe and to play it for him after he was gone. Harry said no; he could see the guitar was still waiting for Luke to play it.
A couple of days later Luke made a surprise visit to an evening drop-in coffee house. He was very frail and weak but he came to play one last song for everyone. It was one of Luke's original compositions, a beautiful and haunting melody without words. Harry took the guitar home after that night. Then Luke was gone.
Harry went into Luke's apartment the day after he died to sit and reflect. He looked around at the paintings, drawings and photographs. He re-read Luke's last will and testament. He opened the envelope Luke had left for him and found a poem Luke had written. Then he picked up the picture box showing the hidden couple beneath the pond. He decided to take it home with him to look at while he made Luke's funeral preparations.
Over the next five days Harry began to pull together Luke's work so that it could be displayed at his funeral. As he worked, Harry could hear Luke whispering to him. Harry knew he was nearby; floating in the shadows above him. He read the poem many times. He read it until he remembered the river travelled so many years before and the twin brothers separated by death just below the falls.
As the funeral date approached, Harry had a dream telling him to do two things. First he was to place an obituary in the local newspaper. Next he was to go into the park Luke always loved, to the place Luke used during his fall visionary journeys and find some birch bark.
The following morning he called the newspaper and placed a short notice about Luke's death. There wasn't much time left. It would go to print only the day prior to the funeral, but he ran it anyway. Later that day Harry set out for the nearby park. He had to search for the birch bark even though he couldn't remember any birch trees growing there. Still, he continued on because the dream was driving him. Eventually he came to a place where the trees and underbrush were most entangled. He left the trail and made his way into the most remote section of the park.
Harry had to push through the bushes to keep going. He kept on moving until he was stopped by a fallen tree. Beyond the tree lay the remains of a fire pit and a vandalized street sign, cautioning drivers to watch out for crossing children. The sign was lying at an angle across the pit, pointing towards the far end of the tree. There, waiting for him, was a large roll of birch bark.
The funeral was a big one, attracting many PARC staff and members. A few people from Luke's life outside of PARC came too: some people from the local coffee house scene, a close male friend from high school and a couple of Luke's distant relatives. The sanctuary was beautiful, with candles throwing a soft light over the tables and the easels holding Luke's photographs and drawings. Harry placed the large roll of birch bark on top of the coffin and turned on the flamenco music but kept the glove he had brought with him in his pocket.
There were many things said that morning because lots of people got up to speak. Harry could not remember any of it after it was over. He could only think about the woman dressed in black. She had kept to herself, speaking to Luke's high school friend and moving around the room to look at what was there. After the service he wanted to speak with her but she slipped away quietly. It was only later in the day, while driving home from the cemetery with Luke's school friend, that Harry thought to ask who she was.
"There were three of us, three best friends. Now I am the only one left alive. Back in high school we did everything together. We were inseparable until that last year of school. Then we began to come apart. Luke fell in love. The girl he loved was the woman in black. They were crazy about each other but something happened and she left him. She took up with our friend and she married him. It is kind of strange. She just buried her husband 6 months ago and here she is at Luke's funeral. She didn't tell me much, only that she had to come today. You know she hasn't seen Luke over all of these years but she saw his obituary in the newspaper.
When Harry got home he got out the picture box and turned it on. He looked at the girl hidden beneath the water of the pond for so many years and saw the woman in black, Luke's long lost love. He wanted to understand what had happened.
It finally came to him one cold day while he was walking home. He reached into his pocket for his gloves. As he pulled them out he noticed one was missing. He shoved one bare hand back into his pocket, put the solitary glove on his exposed hand and moved on. One hand cold and one hand warm.
By the time he reached home he was thinking of Luke's image of the empty glove and his invitation to fill it. He looked down at his gloved hand. It was slowly getting warm and he felt it now, the unseen ways we hold our love and the unseen ways our hands work to make it real.
Harry took off the glove, picked up the box and turned it on.
The Tao gives birth to one
One gives birth to two
Two gives birth to three
Three gives birth to all things
I was standing in the middle of the drop-in and talking about the 25th Anniversary celebration.For as long as I have worked here, and that is long time, there has always been a big community party to celebrate the first day PARC opened its doors.It is lucky for everyone this is March 17th because this also happens to be St. Patrick's Day. That means two parties mixed into one. I wonder whether our PARC founders knew how an Irish birth would affect its evolution and history. Did they anticipate the influence of the Irish spirit on the songs and stories that would be found in this place?
I looked out across the room and called out. "Should we have a cake?"
There was a loud, shouted "Yes."
Without thinking, I called again "How many cakes?"
Someone shouted again, "Twenty Five." Then one voice turned into a chorus of voices, all calling for Twenty-Five Cakes. It rolled through the room like a wave. Now there was a jolly mood in the room. People were laughing because of the way this spontaneous question had been answered.
I said, "Good thinking."
But secretly I thought, "Good god, be careful what you ask for." Can we really do this? "
Inside a heartbeat I was torn between wondering how many people really thought this cake novelty extravaganza was a foolish thing to do and the conviction it would be a wonderful community event: outlandish and fun. There were so many other important things demanding our attention, so why do this? The lighting and presentation of twenty –five cakes needed some consideration too. It could be a damn fire hazard in a crowded room.
Maybe it was the idea of beauty married to the flames or the laughter flowing from shared community inspiration, but the making of twenty-five cakes now seemed like something we had to try and do. As I walked away I heard myself muttering under my breath, "A circle of light calls us."
I didn't know then that the story of this circle of light would be the legacy of Twenty-Five Cakes or that it would be anchored in the heart of one man and one moment.
Over the years PARC has learned a lot about preparing food and feeding people. When we were young it was a big challenge just to make a Thanksgiving dinner with our small kitchen's second hand and breaking down stoves. At the end of those first dinner celebrations everyone would collapse with fatigue and relief; happy we were able to make such a good meal for so many people. Now, many years later, we prepare about 90,000 meals every year. This is exhausting, determined work, driven by necessity. It's a constant thorn in our side but also a powerful way for people to come together and actively resist the destructive impact of hunger in our very poor community. It's a responsibility carried by many hands
Making twenty-five cakes was a small puddle in this sea of food. It was done in a flash. The real challenge of the event was in the cake decorating. This turned out to be a tougher problem to solve. There was more laughter than volunteers. People were shy. People were amused. Many said we had better find someone else because they would only make a mess of things. We had 25 cakes ready for decorating but only a few people willing to take on this odd project.
Nevertheless, on the night before the party, we gathered together in a quiet and empty drop-in room: 2 staff, 2 members, 25 cakes and sleeping on a couch in the back corner, an exhausted and irritable Newfoundlander named Wayne MacLeod.
Wayne was homeless and back at PARC again after a series of housing failures. He had lived for a time at the large rooming house next door, until someone set the fire which burned it down. Wayne was one of the few tenants who had refused the housing relief support offered after the fire. He argued and insisted he had the right to look after himself. Then he disappeared.
When he finally resurfaced in the drop-in six years had slipped by. The other fire victims had been living in their replacement housing for years while over that same time Wayne's personal problems had become more intense. He had drifted into crack cocaine use and his body was beginning to break down under the strain of his drug taking patterns and an unstable, uprooted life. By the time he came back to PARC he was in trouble. He needed nursing and medical care to cope with serious health problems. He needed personal support. Wayne felt alone in the world and he was sick and depressed and moody. He was angry with himself one day, angry with the world on the next day. But he kept on struggling, hoping he would eventually pull things together so he could get a home and keep it.
We helped him find a place but it wasn't very good housing and he soon lost it. It's hard to break free of the street, live alone and change your life without the comfort of old companions, especially when all of your friends are continuing to use drugs or alcohol. Wayne had a very difficult time facing this, so it didn't take long for the street to take him back again. After that, he steadfastly refused other housing help offers. He said he was not ready. He continued living on the street or on other people's couches. For a time he even broke into the abandoned fire ruins of his long lost rooming house and lived there secretly and dangerously.
In this state of mind he arrived at the drop-in early every morning, well before the doors opened. We invited him in and with some ups and downs allowed him to stay on long after we had closed up for the day. He was absent when he was using. But most of his time was spent resting at PARC. We helped him take meals when he could eat and recover some of the sleep he was missing. Mostly we gave him as much comfort as we could, so he could use the place as life line and consider whether it was still possible to go on living.
Everyone has their own unique reasons for joining the PARC community. Poverty and personal hardship certainly drive people through its doors, but once inside the reasons for continuing to visit or work there gets more complex. Understanding why people build such intense long term relationships with PARC is like trying to untangle the knots of memory and experience we carry around within us? It has something to do with the questions this makes us ask. Are these knots making us strong or making us prisoners? What knots should we try and make tighter? Which ones should we try to shake loose?
Wayne was a man with a lot of knots. It made other people crazy at times. This was especially true because his rough edges sparkled with charm. He talked in a strong Newfoundlander's brogue and he had the kind of rough humor people from the rock bring with them to the mainland. Most often he was a quiet man. His personal privacy had great dignity and it drew people to him. He was someone you wanted to like and had to like, even when he was doing things to piss you off.
One of Wayne's special traits was his determination to never do anything if he was asked to do it. I used to think that this was a little like his last stand; a personal protest against a world which had handed him so little. His trust and belief in fairness had been betrayed. Give and take had for a long time been a one- sided deal, so it was better to refuse anything which might set up or give in to another person's expectations. He was careful. It was safer for him to keep his distance. Better to watch from the outside than be trapped inside.
He did not take kindly to invitations and he also didn't like the arbitrary nature of rules. He made up his own mind about what was right and what was wrong. If this got him into conflict his quiet side disappeared. He wasn't shy about letting people know about his grievances. Things got loud at times. He made his own choices and whether they were good or bad they all had to fit in with his Mr. Grouch public image.
But there were other moments as well. These revealed a good heart beneath his survival armor. He was vulnerable and thoughtful. And he could not hide that he was a long way from home. He made little kind gestures then acted as if he wanted no one to notice. But of course PARC did notice and thanked him when they happened. We did it carefully and privately, knowing that Wayne would brush appreciation aside and pretend not to care, even as his blushing face told a different story about what was going on inside his heart.
As we set up our cake decorating stations Wayne woke up. As usual he was grouchy. I got him a sandwich and something to drink. As he ate I noticed him looking at the long line of cakes waiting for their dressing. I knew better than to invite him to help out but I walked over to Wayne's couch and sat down beside him. I told him that all of these cakes were bringing up memories of my grandfather, on my mother's side, in Lunenburg Nova Scotia. Sammy Herman lived in a big old house by the sea and he made the best cakes and pies I have ever tasted. I began to talk about his lemon pie and growing up in Nova Scotia.
Then Wayne told me about his love of blueberry pie. His long grey hair hung down around his weathered face; a face which had spent so much time outside that it was worn like old wood. He could have been one of the fishermen I would watch when I was a little boy lurking in the back of the local Lunenburg dry goods store, eating my handful of homemade sauerkraut and listening without understanding to the banter of the old men around me.
So I asked him if he had ever eaten molasses and dumplings for dessert. He laughed, because that is a real poor person and fisherman's cheap treat. The only place I have heard tell of it was in Newfoundland. I know this because my grandmother on my father's side lived in Hearts Delight and she made this for me when she came over to the mainland for her over winter visits.
I laughed too. Then I asked him if he would keep me company because I had a lot of cakes to deal with. It would help pass the time to swap stories about Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. So over he came and flopped down in the chair beside me. I grabbed one of the butter knives we were using and began to lay on blue frosting. When I added some white tips I said this is going to be the sea. As I worked, our stories started to roll back and forth. I kept up my decorating, but I was careful not to say anything which could be misunderstood as an invitation for Wayne to join me.
I was starting on my third cake when Wayne picked up a knife and grabbed a cake. We kept on talking. By the time Wayne had finished his second cake something had changed. His interest in this project had shifted. There was less talk. His effort became stronger and faster. He was the picture of concentration. It was as if he was discovering his inner artist. I was tiring and slowing while the cakes were leaping out of Wayne's hands. His first cake was shy and subdued, the second a fiery red. After this, he was in hot pursuit of a cake decorating masterpiece. The colors flew together and the cakes rolled out.
The other decorators stopped what they were doing and came over to watch. They proclaimed their approval but Wayne paid no attention to what he was hearing. After they went away he said he had never had a birthday cake and a lot of time to make up for.
By the end of that night we were done. The completed cakes were a wild mix of colored imagination and Wayne had decorated twelve of them. We finished up; working together to place everything on trolley cart storage shelves, then covering the carts to hide and protect the work until it was ready for our presentation the next evening. Wayne was cheerful. He was smiling in a way that I had never seen before.
The following day was a buzz of activity. In all ways it was a typical March 17th party. The place was packed. There was lots of good food. People danced and watched old PARC videos, to see themselves in these movies and remember old friends who had passed away. Later, in the early evening, the musicians took the stage and the songs began. In between their sets we played Irish reels.
But there was also something new coming. The news had travelled through the crowd that Twenty-Five Cakes were waiting in the back hallways. At around 7:30 the call for cake walkers went out. Since then, this label has stuck. Now whenever we do this it is always called the cake walk event because everyone knows that being a member of the PARC community is about as far from a cake walk as you can ever get.
The back halls were crowded and loud with excitement. 25 Cakes, 25 walkers, a candle lighting team and then more people helping to make sure this procession would be able to make its way safely through a crowded drop-in, to encircle it with its candle light and sweetness. Then we turned off the lights and the cakes began coming out into the room.
It was a long procession of people. They walked slowly and deliberately, taking care to keep their candles burning. The procession kept coming, moving to make its way around the edge of the drop-in floor. As it got bigger and bigger a collective gasp began to rise from the room. Finally the last of this line of cakes came out and took its position next to the first one. The drop-in was surrounded. The circle was complete.
In the glowing candlelight everyone was smiling and looking at each other in amazement. I stood there, transfixed by the beautiful faces of the people holding the cakes and the beauty of the people cheering them on.
Then I looked out across the room, searching for Wayne. My heart made a sudden dip. Wayne was nowhere in sight. Then I found him. He was standing at the back of the drop-in behind the coffee bar, staring out at the circle of cakes and light. I put up my arm and began waving at him. He saw me but he didn't move.
I felt something was terribly wrong. I remember thinking …"How could you forget about Wayne?" I had been so busy with the finishing of this event that I had completely forgotten about him and the remarkable time we had spent together. I rushed over to the coffee bar. When I got closer I saw his face more clearly. He looked haunted.
I called out to him. "Wayne, Wayne…..it looks so beautiful. Look what you have done." Why aren't you holding one of your cakes?"
He did not reply but only turned to stare at me. His face seemed to be struggling to find a way to come to rest. I thought I saw tears rise and then dissolve. His mouth was fixed as if it was trying to decide whether to smile or scream with rage. He looked pale with uncertainty. His hands were limp at his sides as if he was exhausted.
I spoke to him again. "Wayne, are you OK?" He kept his silence but our eyes were locked together. I am not exactly sure what happened next. It felt like being in a traffic accident, at the moment when the car is suddenly turning in a totally unexpected direction and you know that you are about to crash. Everything starts to swirl beyond your comprehension. I heard myself talking with words that were not of my making. They came from some place beyond my mind.
"Oh Wayne, I see how it is. You are the artist looking at your creation and standing back to see it all.
Wayne looked harder at me. The candles were illuminating the room but it was enough to see that he had heard what I said. I felt the tension between us rise. It felt like he was sharing something very important with me. As I watched, a light seemed to come from within him. It brought the color back into his face and his mouth relaxed. He smiled. Like he had suddenly loosened a very strong knot entangling him and now he was falling free. Then he burst into laughter.
And being a man of few words he said, "Yeah…I think it's time to eat some cake."
The Pathway of Life
I took off my mitten to peek at the tuft of white hair cupped in my hand and feel its feathery softness beside the hard metal of the gold ring.
I spoke to myself. "Hard cold"
This is what Walter would have muttered, if he had been standing beside me instead of lying buried in ground at the edge of a city. None of us can know where our journey will end or what place we will be left to sleep in. Our last resting place is more likely to be settled through convenience than poetry. But if Walter could have chosen a place, this might be it.
At Ragged Falls the ground is quiet. All of its secrets are buried under the freshly fallen white snow in stark contrast to the roaring of the river down below me. That is where I'm going; down the steep slope towards the main section of the falls, to say a prayer for my old friend. I want to give the river what I have been saving, to leave his hair and ring in the kind of place which reminds me of him.
At the brink of the falls I put my arm out over the rushing icy water and slowly open my hand to the updraft above the river's wake. It sweeps away his hair, swiftly blowing it up into the sky. I have to stand carefully to keep my balance. I close my hand on his ring and shut my eyes to remember him. Then I throw the ring hard and fast, so it flies far to its rightful place in the falls beneath me.
The story of how I came to know an old prospector named Walter began far away from Ragged Falls on a hot August day with clear blue skies.
Walter was 78 years old and living in a tiny room inside a large, decrepit rooming house. His building was on the verge of collapse, held together with patch-work repairs and heart break. He had been living in that dump for 6 years
I had heard Walter was being evicted from the place. The landlord confirmed this was true. He said he liked Walter but had to do this. Then, to justify his reasoning, he took me down a dimly lit hallway to an apartment door. As it opened I saw a mountain of goods piled high to the ceiling. The last remaining space in the room provided the faint hope for a sideways maneuver from the door's entrance to the mountain's edge. What lay beyond was chaos.
The landlord told me Walter had lived here until it was no longer possible, then moved into another smaller room in exchange for the promise he would clean out his old apartment so it could be rented. Two months had passed but nothing had changed. Walter was continuing to bring things home, and now his new and smaller room was also filling up.
I left the landlord in his office and went down another hallway to find Walter's new room. At his door I knocked and waited. There was no sound. I knocked again and called out his name, "Walter?" The door slowly cracked open. A slight, white haired man peered out at me. "Who are you and what do you want?"
I started to introduce myself, wanting to explain why I was at his door. Glancing above his head I could see one of the walls in his place with stuff stacked to the ceiling. Then the door slowly closed.
I went for a walk to think about this brief encounter. I was sensing his fear mixing with my own anxiety about being old and living in a place like this. I wondered what these two rooms filled to overflowing meant to this old man and why he had barricaded himself inside each of them in succession. My heart told me it might be important to surround yourself with objects if you felt alone in the world. The things we find and keep can provide us with comfort. Whether this lasts or fades or has to be retrieved again and again, is a deeper mystery. But when all of this is tossed aside, what we gather may have another very practical purpose. It can fill up empty space and protect us from strangers who might try to come through our door.
I remembered the stained sport coat Walter was wearing. It seemed important. So when I went back to visit three days later, I took a brown pin stripe suit with me. It was a peace offering, a gift to message my respect for the values of his age and generation. I suppose I was in a symbolic frame of mind at the time, wanting to send a message Walter would see rather than hear. Entering an isolated world can be very difficult. Words have to be used carefully. Words can be misunderstood. I hoped the suit represented a simple way of showing him … I want to know you.
The second visit was a better one. When the door opened I held up the brown suit between us and I spoke through it, telling him I had brought this present. Then I lowered it and smiled at him. The door opened wider. He reached out his hand to take the suit and smiled back with spontaneous pleasure, distracted from me towards what I was giving him.
"I saw this suit and I thought of you." He looked at me in a way that was different from my first visit.
He breathed heavily. "Oh this is… very kind of you… thank you. What's your name again?"
With those words our friendship began. I explained who I was, and why I had come with an offer to help solve his landlord problems. I told him about PARC, what it did and what it believed to be important. As I spoke I noticed Walter was looking at me decisively, listening.
I was looking at him with just as much intent. He was a small man with a slender, strikingly athletic build for someone of his advanced age. He was wearing a soiled white shirt and using tattered suspenders to hold up his trousers. Around his throat he had wrapped a wide red bandanna, tied in the style of an old bandit who has just pulled his mask down. His face was striking, with large, blue green eyes, a large arrowhead nose and enormous protruding ears. His hands were small and delicate, the skin translucent with age. I could feel his life spirit drawing me towards him.
After about 20 minutes Walter said. "Why don't you come in……….this would be better than talking in the hall."
I stepped through the doorway and he sat down on the edge of his over- crowded bed. I scanned his sleeping area. There was a big stack of brown paper bags piled at one end next to a collection of blankets in various colors, magazines, books and newspapers. Six feet away from the bed, almost within touching distance was the room's south wall. Jutting out from this was a massive green metal file cabinet with drawers so packed they could not be closed. It was filled with more newspapers, magazines, and packages; supporting another pile of books, papers, boxed dishes, shoes and clothes that were threatening to touch the ceiling.
Further along the wall of this cell-like space was an arrangement of cardboard and plastic boxes, filled with plastic bags. They held cans of food, scraps of cloth, nails screws, and tools. Lying on top of all of this was an old axe and above that hanging from the ceiling, a kerosene lantern. For some reason there were thin sheets of cheap and broken plywood covering the floor of the room. I thought it odd until I saw cockroaches moving in and out from under it whenever I shifted my weight and disturbed the wood's arrangement.
I stood wedged into the space. The one window in the room looked as if it had never been opened. But Walter did not seem concerned with his claustrophobic home or its crowded and obvious discomforts. He simply looked at me with interest.
He looked at me steadily and spoke carefully. "Can you get a truck to move my things?" I said yes. Then he asked a second question as if it was very confidential and important. "Is it a prospector's truck?"
Sometimes we promise to solve problems without having any recourse or time to form a realistic judgment on how to proceed. We act on instinct, committing ourselves to outlandish schemes, trusting that fate, luck and awareness will take care of the details. This was one of those moments. I thought about a prospector's truck and what it would look like. It had to be an open pick-up truck. It had to be old, battered, and something I could get my hands on without too much trouble, ready for use when I needed it. Then I remembered my carpenter friend's red Toyota flat bed and its rust ridden sides.
"Yes, I can get a prospector's truck. Why don't we go over to PARC? We can have a cup of coffee and something to eat. We can talk about the truck when we get there."
The next few weeks were busy ones. I focused on making a relationship with Walter and encouraging his trust in me. I noticed how his mood could change. He would be erratic, irritable and distracted on some days, and more relaxed and clear headed on other days. I soon discovered he was using the brown paper bags to help alleviate the misery of incontinence. So I got him some diapers and with gentle diplomacy persuaded him to try them. I noticed how this seemed make him look more comfortable. At this early stage I was visiting every day, encouraging him to come over to PARC with me, to meet the staff and members of the drop-in. I walked him over for the lunch service and helped him to get into the habit of using this. We ate together and talked. Soon other PARC members became curious about this old man, new to PARC. They dropped by our table to say hello and his apprehensive mood slowly began to change.
As the days passed and his visits to PARC increased, his natural ability as a story teller began to show itself. He had an opinion on everything and he loved discussion. He had an ongoing interest in reading the newspapers and commenting on the news of day or big political events, but the stories of his adventures were the most important part of our conversations together. I was struck by how Walter's stories always seemed to end with some kind of special supernatural or spiritual discovery.
This was how he explained his residence in Toronto. Walter had come down to the City from his home in Ontario's northern woods to get some medical care. He had taken the place because it was affordable and conveniently close to the local hospital where he could get surgery to help with his failing bladder. After this, he retreated back to the rooming house so he could complete his recovery. But his plan for a short-term stay in the city changed after his surgery. He delayed his return home after a visit from his guardian angels told him to do this. Walter believed in guardian angels and was very forthright about how they continued to advise and guide him. His guardian angels had convinced him to remain in the rooming house, to keep an eye on things and watch over the safety of the place. Even more, his guardian angels promised to let him know when he would be free of this responsibility and could live elsewhere.
His life before coming to the City had been unusual. He had worked in the mines on and off, but only as long as he had to. Most of his life had been spent alone, prospecting in the bush. He had done this for over 40 years. Walter had made money and lost money. He was by nature a treasure seeker, but having looked for gold all his life he had also learned to notice and recover many other things along the way. He was interested in what could be found through close attention to the ground over which he walked. He shook his head as he recalled the young prospectors who had never been able to see anything other than the gold they were determined to find.
He mused. "They missed so much because they never looked for anything else. They couldn't see there are lots of other important and valuable things under their feet. They didn't pay attention."
Then, as if to illustrate his point, he told me how make an edible porcupine stew (seasoned with spruce buds), and how to live safely in the woods without becoming a victim of the forest spirits that haunted them (listen for their voices in the wind). He said that to be a good prospector a man should hunt to live and live to hunt.
As Walter talked, the more of a contradiction he seemed to be. One part of him was the grand, old, competent frontier gentleman. But he also lived with great uncertainty, given to hoarding things and enduring the misery and isolation it brought into his life.
Meanwhile, the risk he would be evicted had not changed. I wondered if this might be the best way to get him out of the rooming house. Then I considered what might happen if he was pressured to leave his housing without his consent. I could see what had to be done. There would be no quick fixes to the situation he was caught up in. I had seen those before with people forcibly moved to institutional care and public guardianship. They lost their rights and in some cases quickly lost their lives as they went through the trauma of this. I thought that I knew Walter well enough to believe this might happen to him.
He was living with serious risks at the end of life filled with risks. I had to ask myself what was better – living a life you owned or living a life you that you were forced to live by somebody else because it appeared safer? I had to be very careful now. I was making the commitment to find a way for Walter to sort out how to live more safely. But I had to do this before the risks he faced became overwhelming, or before it was too late for him to make decisions about how those changes would be made. So I told the landlord I was planning an intervention, was making progress and needed more time.
Walter had gradually come to depend on me. The promise of the prospector's truck had not been forgotten. It was arranged and waiting for the moment we would use it. In the meantime Walter was continuing to take his meals at PARC, getting out for social support and becoming stronger.
The end of summer was upon us when I arranged a date to borrow the little red truck, to begin moving some things from his living space and launch a clean- up of his old room. I learned that Walter had a rented storage locker just south of his rooming house. I proposed using this to help with the clean-up but I wanted to see it first. I suggested we take some things for storage and choose some other things for disposal. Walter did not want to let anything go but I was hoping he would gradually change his mind as we went forward. In fact I was hoping the real outcome of this work would eventually be his transition from the rooming house to a better place to live. Helping him release his hoarded things seemed to be a way of preparing Walter for letting go of the rooming house he believed he had to live in.
I made a short visit to the storage facility on my own, to confirm the kind of rental arrangements Walter had there and see what else I could discover about him. The manager was sympathetic. She knew Walter and was more than willing to talk with me about the extent of her business dealings with him, because she worried about him. She told me he was renting 4 storage lockers; two large ones and two smaller ones. In her words, he was a very dedicated customer, and yes, had been continually increasing the scope of his rental space since his first contract was set up 6 years ago. She didn't think what was going on was right. He was old and should be using his money in other ways than this. She didn't really know what he was putting into his lockers and even if she did there was nothing she could do about it. I stood there in stunned silence.
A week later I arrived with the prospector's truck. Walter was in great spirits while I was tense with expectation. What was I going to see in all these storage lockers? How was I ever going resolve this problem? I kept my thoughts to myself and concentrated on Walter's eagerness to take a drive in my borrowed prospector's truck.
I was struggling with the question of how to sort out what could and should be done. So I told Walter we needed to inspect the storage facility to plan the best possible pack up and relocation of his things. This became the working purpose of our day. I was the worried young man feeling older than my age. Walter was youthful and full of energy. Our check of the storage units was completed over the next couple of hours. But at the end of this everything had changed.
The first storage unit was filled top to bottom with old beds. The second locker had construction tools, floor tiles, paint, and scrap wood of various lengths and types. The third locker was filled with shoes for men, women and children, used clothes, tattered furniture, radios, televisions, a fitness workout treadmill, dolls, toys, games and magazines. The last unit was only partially filled and looked like Walter's original room, a mish mash of found odds and ends. This was the one he wanted to use. The others would remain untouched.
Walter unlocked and inspected each locker carefully as if he was looking for something he could not find. He explained this storage depot and what it was for. Everything he had found and brought here was to be transported back to his old mining home near Red Lake. The goods he had purchased or rescued from garbage disposal would be given out to the people living up there. They were poor and had little. He was saving everything for them because he knew they were in need. He was going to make their lives better.
Walter wasn't concerned that so many of his things were old, tattered and even broken. Repairs could be made to them when he got them back home. He knew everything would be appreciated and used. It was quite a vision. How this old man had managed to gather up and move all of these things was incredible but something else was pulling on me now. When I drove him back home I knew I was grappling with a problem that was much deeper than I had bargained for.
I knew I wasn't going to solve this hoarding problem with a tiny prospector's truck but I was beginning to understand more about how he lived. Within his collection of objects lay the story of what they represented, the people who would use them one day and the life he had lived. He was still out there prospecting, but with a purpose adapted to the circumstances he found himself in. He was holding on to what had been the principle direction of his life and true to his beliefs he was finding all kinds of valuable things in his travels. But he had not found the gold he was looking for. I thought to myself. People are gold. Relationships are gold. Then I decided to take him camping.
PARC had a fall tradition of providing a wilderness camp experience for up to 50 people at a place called Camp Kandalore. Our host camp had a long and storied history. It had been established as a canoe tripping camp back in the 1950s and was one of the first places to seriously train young people in the art of the canoe. On the back of its property there was an old log building with a priceless collection of canoe craft, the original Kanawa Canoe Museum. PARC discovered the camp when it was going through a period of hard times. Camp attendance was down. They had no money and we had no money, so we improvised. We traded our labor to the camp to help them renovate. In exchange they provided a camping experience for PARC members that turned out to be so powerful it created a shared tradition for both parties.
This was where I wanted to take Walter. I began to talk about it and show him pictures. It was coming up in a couple of weeks. It would be a big deal for him to leave the rooming house for any amount of time. He was still new to PARC and this too was a challenge. So I adjusted how we would get there. We would avoid the long, hardy bus ride and the first settling in night of camp. I would make a special trip to take him up in the comfort of my car. We would visit and stay as long or as short as he liked. We would have the chance to walk in the woods and paddle a canoe together. It would be like returning home. He would see the forest again.
Walter was nervous about leaving his room and storage lockers untended but I could see he was being drawn towards this adventure. I noticed how his contact with other excited drop-in members was helping this along. Eventually he agreed; he wanted to go to camp, if I could drive him there as offered. I prepared his bags. Then I made sure everything at the camp would be set up to help him feel safe and welcome when he got there.
We arrived at the camp a couple of hours before its second day supper service. We had taken our time driving north; stopping for rest breaks, having a big lunch en route and taking time to reassure him that everything back in the City would remain just as he had left it. By the time we got to the camp his anxiety had faded and he was in great spirits. When we walked into the main lodge, a cheer was raised by other PARC members. They came rushing over to greet him. Walter was surrounded by smiles and hand shake greetings. He was beaming in the glow of all of this attention. It is a beautiful thing to be noticed and welcomed.
Walter loved the camp and it fell in love with him. We hiked alone together and with groups of other members. He was still very agile and he wanted to walk every trail. But sometimes the distances or the rough ground tired him. I offered him my arm if he became unsteady on his feet and he took it. The camp staff and camp group were fascinated by him. He was old, but strong, and he knew so much that he just naturally took on the role of camp guide. He named the trees he saw and told everyone what was useful or unique about them. He pointed out various plants and how they could be used for food or healing. And he told stories.
The most lasting memory of that first camp took place while we were out on the water in the canoe. He was still a skilled paddler so we took turns in the bow and stern. While we rested he talked and I listened. He described his chance meeting with Grey Owl, his grand encounters with the northern lights and snow shoeing in the winter woods. I was convinced that I was sitting with a man who had lived a special life, a life that should be honored with as much love as I could bring to him. I knew at that moment I was going to bring Walter home to meet my wife and children.
A week after we got back to the city I invited Walter to my home. He looked quite dashing. He was wearing a red bandanna around his throat, his fedora hat, and a suit and tie. I remember how gracious and gentle he was as he met and shook hands with my wife and son and daughter. He had three helpings of dinner and just as many rounds of dessert. Afterwards we went out to the front porch to linger for a while before I took him back to his place. I remember him there beside me. We didn't say anything. We just sat together, smelling the fall air and watching the tree and garden at the front of the house.
A couple of days later I asked Walter if he was ready to tackle his overcrowded rooms. I told him I could get a few of the men he had met at camp to help us out. I was going to rent a van to use with this crew. Many hands would make it easier to get his things out of the rooming house. He said he was ready.
On the morning of that day I wasn't really sure what would happen but I had a plan I hoped would work. I had hired a six man crew and told them we were going to be moving a lot of stuff out of the rooming house next door to PARC and into a storage space. And that it belonged to the old prospector who had shared the recent camp with them. I would pay an hourly rate if they agreed to keep one condition. They had to promise to make no comment about what they were moving or where it was going. They just had to do the work and trust that everything would work out as it was supposed to.
Our helper crew was directed to clear Walter's first room. Walter was free to watch over what was taking place. He was a bit anxious but I stayed by his side and helped him through this. Periodically I took him aside for a break, so we could retrieve things from the room he was living in. We set these aside, so they were ready to be placed in the truck last. They would be the first things moved into the storage locker once we arrived there.
It took a full four hours to get a load together. Walter did surprisingly well. He was edgy but in good humor. The crew I had hired made the big difference. They liked Walter and he liked them. They were very respectful and they worked carefully and hard. As promised they kept their thoughts to themselves, except for the occasional eye rolling in my direction. When we finished I put the crew in a taxi and sent them down to the storage space. Walter climbed up into the van with me and we started south. I looked over at him. He looked very tired.
When we got to the storage facility we began the unloading process. This was harder, because the walk into the locker was much further than it was from his rooms to the truck. So we used hand carts. I set up a chair for Walter at the locker so he could watch what was coming in. We brought the things from his room in first and put them near the locker entrance door. Then I began to send selected items from the old room. I tried to pick what looked important and left the rest. We did this for an hour. Every 20 minutes I stopped the unloading and slipped back to the locker to see how Walter was holding up.
At the end of an hour Walter looked up at me with very tired eyes and asked,
"Are we finished yet?"
"Yes, we have just a few more things to come. You wait here for me and I will bring them in for you."
I went back to truck. It was still more than half full of goods. I picked the best things I could find and loaded up the dolly truck to take it back to him. Then I closed and locked the truck's back door. We were done. I paid the crew and explained Walter had moved what he wanted. We were now finished. Then everyone was thanked for their patience and their support and sent home.
I grabbed the last dolly load and wheeled it into the locker. Walter had fallen asleep in his chair outside the locker space. I let him sleep on for a few minutes and then I wheeled the dolly past him and into the locker to unload. The sound of my movements woke him up. I told him that we were finished, he had done a great job and now I could take him home. Walter gave me another tired smile as I unloaded the last of his goods and locked the door. As we walked back to the truck I wondered what would happen. I was holding my breath. I was gambling that he would not ask to look inside the truck to see if it was empty.
When we arrived at the truck I knew it was over. He wanted it to be over. He climbed into the truck without a word and I drove him home. He thanked me for my help and we said goodbye. I waved as I drove off. I was torn between turmoil and peace as I headed north to deliver the last of our load to a city dump station. I had to tell myself that I was doing what Walter wanted me to do and what had to be done before he could go forward to a happier place. But I also asked myself if I could do this in my own life? Could I hang on to only the best things and let everything else go?
We never said anything more about that day because we got busy doing other things. I was encouraging Walter to let me move him to a safer home. But this was difficult. He had lived in that old building for a long time and even though it was a dreadful place it felt too safe and familiar for him to let it go. We were talking and looking but it was taking time to get him ready to leave. Still we were doing other important work together. We cleaned up his room to make it a bit more livable. He also stopped paying his rent on his storage lockers. He gave me written permission to look after his affairs there. Now, communications on the rent owing and the future of the lockers was going through me. One month of arrears had turned into two, which turned into three. I knew that we were headed towards a notice that would say the lockers would be confiscated for unpaid rent and that this was coming soon. Walter knew it too but it did not concern him. He didn't want to talk about that place anymore. He was walking away from his storage locker dream and letting me help him do that.
Halloween arrived. I invited Walter over to have supper, to help give out candies to the children coming to the door. We sat together on the porch again and he put the treats in their bags. He had a comment for every costume. I remember he smiled a lot that night and I thought about how we all put on different disguises to make our way through life.
Then, as chance would have it, there was big trouble in his rooming house. In early January its heating system broke down. I was busy with work that kept me away from the building. Three very cold days had passed before I accidentally discovered what was going on there. When I found Walter lying ill in his bed I called an ambulance. Then I thought about how I could put his landlord permanently out of business. ***
The hospital told me Walter had pneumonia. When you are old pneumonia can kill you. But fortunately Walter was a tough old boy, and was able to bounce back from this crisis. As he recovered he told me his guardian angels had visited him and told him he must not go back to his old room. I nodded and smiled and said I agreed with them. His stay in the rooming house was finally over. It was time to move on.
When Walter was well enough we left the hospital and chose a small retirement home together. It provided him with a room and a meal service. It was a nice looking place, although it lacked the kind of characters appealing to his social interests. But he still had PARC for this. So he adjusted. He asked me to manage his financial affairs and I took discreet steps to change my relationship with him. I resigned as his worker and fully took on the role I had been really having with him – family.
We still had some years to go before our time together ended. He continued to gather or purchase objects of interest from time to time, but he was more selective now. Since I was looking after his money I could support him whenever he found something he was compelled to acquire. He liked to collect old kerosene lanterns. Whenever he picked these up he gave them to me so I could hang them from the ceiling in my office. He found old cross cut saws, which he insisted I store for him. He loved old books. One of them was called Pathway to Life, published in 1888. It was filled with pictures and strange chapters like: The Importance of Taking Aim or The Bravery That Confronts Steel and The Bullet. Walter loved that book. One night he brought it with him to dinner. He knew my wife was a book binder and he wanted to arrange for her to repair and rebind it for him. She did a lovely job and Walter was delighted, but after he looked at it he handed it back to me and said, "Keep it for me please."
Walter was 83 when he made his last trip to Camp Kandalore. He was still determined to walk its trails like we had done at every camp since the first one together. We made our last hike on the day before camp ended, walking arm in arm down the now familiar trail to the river and on to the back quarter of the camp where the cliffs lay. Walter relied on me to steady his balance all the time now. I am not sure he really noticed this because it was familiar and he was so happy to be there. I was happy too. But I had to stop more to rest. Supporting him was hard work. When we turned around to make our return trip to the lodge the afternoon was waning. The trip back was slow going because we were tiring. When we got back to the river, we headed up the slight incline to where the trail broke off in two directions. The right trail went back to the main lodge and supper. The left trail went up a steep hill through a series of switch backs leading to a look-out site. I stopped so we could both rest. We found a big log and sat down together. After a 10 minute break I helped Walter back up to his feet and started us on towards the main lodge trail.
Suddenly Walter pulled on my arm and stopped walking. He shouted at me.
"No. I don't want to go to the lodge. I want to go to the top of the mountain."
He pulled away from me and started up steep hill trail. I called after him "Walter, stop. It is too far and too hard a trail. We can't get up there and back before dark."
He continued on, waving his arms back at me to show he didn't want to hear what I was saying. He shouted at me again.
"No, I am going up the mountain. I don't care what you do."
I stood still watching him go. I waited, hoping he would stop. But he continued on, even though he was beginning to stagger with exhaustion as the trail ascent became more difficult. I waited another minute. I remember feeling the second hand of an invisible watch turning inside of me. It was winding me up tighter and tighter. I stopped breathing but he kept going on.
I called again… "Walter, please stop…!"
And then I ran after him, with great, leaping strides, until I got close enough to grab a hold on his arm. I pulled him to a halt, let go and wheeled in front of him.
"This is wrong Walter. I know you feel strong but I am tired…and this is not safe……to try and climb this trail… alone…. We have to go back….!" My words sounded strangled.
Walter wobbled slightly in a great effort to restore his balance. Then, he hit me. His fist struck me in the chest, directly over my heart. I staggered back in shock. He staggered too. We stared at each other. I was struggling and Walter looked stunned. Neither one of us moved. We were holding our ground. I wasn't going to give way and neither was he. Nothing was said because nothing could be said. We were drifting, into an unbroken stillness and emptiness that had no form. There was nothing for us to hold on to, except each other, and the dead to right certainty we could never exchange or explain our places in the world.
A crow flew over, its call breaking the silence between us. We both looked up to watch its black form pass over. The sky was shifting. It seemed to be mocking and forcing us down into the softness of the earth for a relentless, few seconds.
As I lowered my eyes I saw Walter slowly beginning his turn around. He was moving elegantly, like an old dancer. He took a few steps down the hill and stopped, turning slightly to see what I would do. He was waiting for me to come back to him. Then, he stretched out his left arm towards me and spoke softly, but with a voice that was resolute and firm.
"It can wait on another day. Come on."
The Hammer and the Lotus of Edmond Yu
February 20, 1997
The grainy photograph on the newspaper front page showed the dark figure of a man lying on the floor of an empty city bus. He had been shot and killed by the police. He was a 35 years old and his name was Edmond Yu.
If you have ever come close to the brink of disaster and been lucky enough to step back from it you will know what the edge of waiting, lasting darkness feels like. It gets into your blood and changes things forever. Some say there is very little separating that darkness from walking into the light; only a fine, fine line, waiting to be crossed. We can't predict what will happen if this line appears. All we can do is use what it leaves us.
Edmond pulled up his jacket sleeve to show me the line of six watches along on his left arm. He was telling me how much he liked my old Timex and why I should sell it to him. This was not the first time he had tried to get it from me.
He sat there smiling, dressed in many layers of black clothing. The jackets, vests, sweaters and heavy pants, boots, all black, made him look like a giant. Seven was a special number for him. He was pointing at the empty space where the last watch should go: my watch, the seventh watch. I laughed and told him he was not going to get it from me.
But In my heart I knew he was telling me something important. Time was on my mind too. It worried me. The winter season had deepened into its hardest phase, bringing unpredictable snow storms, sudden warming spells and then freezing temperature drops. Even though Edmond was cheerful he looked exhausted. He was putting up a brave front but his eyes told another story. He was worried, too.
I looked at his face, darkened from exposure to the wind, sun and the cold. His head was closely shaved. During quiet times he stared at what was in front of him, his gaze moving out and beyond what was present in the room towards some unknown place. When he spoke he leaned forward to get closer. I bent forward too; so close I thought our foreheads would touch. It was an unusual thing for me to do, but familiar. This was the way we talked: reaching for the right words, bending low to listen, getting close to each other.
We were discussing coming in from the street, returning once again to the dilemma which always played itself out in our meetings. On this day I was showing him pictures of the Gerstein Centre because a room and bed was being held for him. I could drive him there that afternoon. He only had to say yes.
This young Chinese man had started on a long and difficult journey before we had ever met. He was attending medical school at the University of Toronto when he fell into an intense personal crisis. As his difficulties worsened he was forced to withdraw from school, even though he was regarded by many as the most brilliant student there. He was hospitalized by his family and forced to take treatment. The hospitalization was a second trauma and the beginning of a longer and deeper struggle. The promise of a future in medicine was replaced by a diminished life of medication, boarding homes and at its worst, homelessness. Life had gotten harder not better. Now he was here at PARC.
Edmond picked up the pictures of the house to study them, talking to himself about what he saw. He asked questions, paused and then answered them. I leaned closer and touched his shoulder to gently remind him of my presence.
Sometimes it seemed like Edmond was swimming into these inner conversations. It was visible and physical, his movement from charming social banter to insightful comment, then on to muttered associations and self talk. He seemed compelled to speak this way. It was at the heart of his effort to organize his thoughts; this public sorting and debating of what was important and what did not matter. Only now, he had to stop talking. He was exhausted. He had to come in from the street.
I remembered what he had said a week earlier.
We had visited a small house. It was assisting homeless men using the Out of the Cold church shelter spaces provided through the faith community. The house was new; a volunteer- run experiment and a short walk away from PARC. A bed had just become vacant and it was possible Edmond could take it. The terms for living there were open. He could stay as long as it took to find another place to live. I explained the arrangements made for him to have supper at the house. If this went well he could move in.
As soon as we arrived there I could see he wanted to stay. He ate dinner as I talked with the lead staff. This was different from his hesitation to use any of the larger homeless hostel shelters downtown. Like many other fragile people he had good reasons for not wanting to go to those places. They were too crowded and too intense. But this house, so close to PARC, was inviting.
I heard him laughing and talking in the dining room but could see the house was unsettled. The other men looked wary of Edmond. Some appeared puzzled, others hostile. The volunteer staff was uneasy. They worried about their ability to support this unusual man who talked to himself in such strange ways. So they called the house supervisor. I knew what the decision would be before I heard it.
As we walked away from the house it began to snow, beautiful soft white flakes drifting down through the darkness. Nothing was said between us until we paused in a store- front door way. The emptiness of the street was overwhelming but it was time to separate and go on. Edmond could see I was upset. He put out his hand and touched me on my shoulder as I had done with him. Then he spoke softly. "Reality can sometimes be painful. There is no place in the world for me."
I touched the pictures of the Gerstein Centre with my hand. "It is time to go. We'll drive over. This will be much better than the last place we visited. Let's go see it. " Edmond wearily stood up and we left together.
Edmond was welcomed by the more experienced Gerstein staff. They saw him as I did: intelligent, unusual, charming and troubled. I visited with him each day and encouraged him to rest. The support provided by Gerstein could help Edmond cope with this critical period in his life but it was a time-limited crisis service. However, due to the history and circumstances of Edmond's vulnerability we had an agreement to extend his stay beyond the normal 72-hour guidelines; to create more time for him to recover and more time for me to try and find a workable and helpful place for him to go to. The urgency and difficulty of finding this alternative in the community was a problem. He had respite care but I was worried it was simply not enough to help shift his journey from the street into housing. I had to find a place that was flexible, supportive, available and agreeable to Edmond -- even though I knew a place like this really did not exist.
On the last day of his life I went to see him. In the morning I went to look at work being done to create new mental health support beds inside one of the downtown shelters. It wasn't ready to open yet and looked like a hospital unit. I arrived at Gerstein just after lunch time and heard that Edmond had a restless night. When we sat down to talk I asked if he would take some medication to help him sleep. I would get it for him. He didn't say no.
Edmond then asked if he could come to back to PARC with me.
"No, Edmond…the drop-in will be closed so no time now for visiting. It is better you stay here at Gerstein and rest. I will see you tomorrow."
When I got back to the west end I called his former doctor at a Chinese mental health agency. He had lost contact with Edmond over the last year. I explained the situation and my desire to get some medication support to use in tandem with the safe space Gerstein was providing. He agreed to assist with this; I told him I would get back to him after seeing Edmond again.
As we spoke, Edmond was alone on a bus with the police, and the guns were being drawn.
Edmond's death jolted a city that was beginning to notice the growing number of homeless people living and dying on the streets. But this was different. He had not frozen to death or died in a fire while trying to stay warm. He had been shot and killed by the police. Survivors with a lived experience of police contact during a mental health crisis had painful memories awakened. Their fear of the police ran deep. They wondered why this man, alone on an empty bus, was shot dead instead of rescued.
The police invited the media to gather at the shooting site. They spoke in front of an empty bus, using it as a prop to explain why the "lethal force option" had been used. The police response was based on a report Edmond had allegedly assaulted a young woman passenger while waiting to board the bus. The driver had cleared the bus and locked the doors to await police assistance. The three responding officers entered the bus and engaged Edmond in a long conversation. At the latter stage of their contact Edmond pulled out what appeared to be a weapon. He held up a shiny hammer. The officers reacted to the immediate threat they saw in that moment. One officer shot him several times; one of the bullets striking his head.
In the days following there were more news conferences, public rallies and community meetings. A candlelight vigil was held where Edmond had died. Grief and anger rippled through the crowd. As the candles glowed I closed my eyes.
I remembered Edmond as he was. He had candles too, carried in his pocket to warm his hands. He had a beautiful smile and an unusual spirit full of contrasting energy. He did things that made you notice this. There were times when he seemed to be brooding darkly and other moments when he sat very still with his eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer. He looked like a Buddhist monk when he prayed. It seemed to fit with his other, lighter spirit; the one that moved him to carefully stand on his head or joyfully sing Born Free at the PARC all-night Solstice party.
When we first met he was dressed in new, black and layered clothes and standing outside the large, run-down rooming house next door to PARC. He was facing the entrance door with his right arm outstretched. He was holding out his disability pension receipt, talking to the rooming house and himself. Within the next few minutes we were sitting down to talk with the landlord. He had been living there for 2 months and his rent was due. He wanted to pay it but the landlord would not accept it. He was evicting Edmond because he "made too much noise." He said the other tenants were complaining about Edmond talking with himself and his chanting and use of a gong and hammer. When Edmond heard this he got up from his chair. He looked at me and said. "I will not stay in a place where I am not welcome."
When I opened my eyes I noticed my watch.
Another rally was planned for The Grange Park, close to the Chinese neighborhood he often visited. Edmond had sheltered in that park during an earlier homeless journey, years before I met him. On the night before the rally I went upstairs to get my things. I was invited to speak and I was thinking about going for a quiet drink. I needed to compose my thoughts and make some notes. As I walked into my office I found something strange waiting for me. It was a carpenter's hammer, lying on the top of my computer keyboard.
When powerful messages are sent they arrive like flash lightning. You feel them in your body. I knew instantly that this hammer was a message from Edmond no matter how it had come to find me. The hammer is one of our oldest tools. It is a symbol of strength and transformation. When most people see a hammer they do not think of it as a weapon. What comes to mind is fixing what is broken and building what is needed. So I took the hammer to the rally, to talk about why a homeless man had died with a hammer in his hand.
Across the world a young Tibetan woman was visiting with the Dalai Lama. She owned a small store on Queen Street stocked with Buddhist artifacts, literature and Tibetan cultural items. Edmond had been a regular visitor in her store, dropping by to explore his interest in Buddhism and absorb its welcoming atmosphere. Her husband had called her to give the news of Edmond's death. She and the Dalai Lama lit candles and prayed for Edmond.
Awareness may shape what we make of the world but it's not the only force guiding us. The year after Edmond's death someone set a fire near a stairwell that destroyed the old rooming house where he had lived before his eviction to the street. Two people died, fifty others escaped. Like Edmond, they had to face another danger after the fire was put out. They were homeless.
The old building called 1495 Queen was a disaster waiting to happen. It provided poor quality housing with a simple management plan; get the most profit possible from the most vulnerable people. When the fire broke out on a September afternoon it shut down the neighborhood for 20 blocks. A cloud of smoke hung over the noise of fire trucks, police and other emergency vehicles lined along the street. Community residents and PARC staff rushed into the building to help people get out to safety, bringing tenants together in the drop-in when there was assurance PARC was safe from catching fire. Then the work of providing emergency relief support began, going late into the night and on and on over the days, weeks and months following; a great effort to resettle everyone who had lost their home.
The scope of the fire relief response was so large PARC had to be helped out by many community partners to carry it off successfully. The courage and determination of the fire victims made a compelling story. It described who they were, the barriers they faced and why they were compelled to live in such a risky place. The fire was a reminder of what happens when you deny people the hope of a safe home. And it provided the incentive needed to bump the people who had been displaced from there to the top of City's long housing wait list, into subsidized housing.
It was a sweet and bitter ending to the fire relief effort because its success revealed a larger and meaner truth. There were thousands of people needing affordable social housing who could not get it. With government funding to meet this need taken away, they were being left behind on waiting lists many years long and getting longer. It seemed like it took a near-death experience to get past this barrier and into a home.
For the next seven years the burned out building lay very still. Its exterior street façade was intact but the hole in the roof caused by the fire was open to the heavens. Rain and snow fell into the building's shell. Deeper down, in the abandoned apartments, sat the charred heaps of clothing amid overturned chairs, tables and other personal belongings of the people who had lived there.
Birds nested along the roof edge showering its entrance with their droppings. Windows close to the street level were shattered and replaced with plywood. Periodically, signs of forced entry through the rear of the building could be seen from its alley laneway. It was known that some people, desperate for shelter, were trying to use the place even though this was an extremely risky thing to do. Every so often city inspectors came by to have a look around and make sure the property was secured against trespassing. It was a dangerous place. The passage of time and the elements were working on it. The building was like an old tomb, awaiting re-discovery.
Against that backdrop of decay the work inspired by Edmond's life and death began to appear. A group of survivor activists, front line workers and supporters were researching how to create a survivor-led Safe House which provided extended and peer-based supports to people in a homeless/mental health crisis. They saw this model successfully used in other countries and the need to bring it to Canada.
Some of the group's early advocacy found its way into the coroner's inquest held to review the circumstances of Edmond's death. The jury recommended: improved police training, expanded crisis response resources including the exploration of a Safe House crisis model for use within the mental health system. But its final recommendation was the most eloquent one of all: Build Supportive Housing.
Across the years Edmond's story was being kept alive. The Safe House Project told it over and over in conferences, community forums and press releases as it worked to create a resource which could have prevented his death. The survivor community gathered in the Grange Park every year to re-tell the story of the first vigil. They brought candles, flowers, faith and love. We said the same thing year after year: one day we would make something to show how the world could welcome all the Edmonds trying to find their way home.
Eventually the Edmond Yu Safe House Project finished its work, defining a new homeless crisis response model that could have helped someone like Edmond find their way home from the street. Even though the government funding needed to build it never came to pass, no one was surprised its public donations kept growing. There was a deep belief that Edmond's story was not finished, only waiting for what would happen next.
It came with the rousing of 1495 Queen from its long sleep. A new city council was asked to report on derelict properties suitable for conversion into social housing. The burned rooming house next to PARC sat ready, a high-profile site well-suited to this direction and ready to test this opportunity. Here was the chance to turn what had put Edmond Yu onto the street into a place that would have taken him off it. People speculated how this might happen. What would it take for 1495 Queen to become supportive housing? The neighborhood was changing. Not far from PARC you could see the steady creep of money. Small and familiar local stores were turning into upscale shops, wine bars and high-end restaurants. But you could also hear and see the diverse chorus of voices responding to what Edmond had said on that snowy night, determined to make the housing which would have encouraged him to say ….There is a place in the world for me.
Seven years of waiting had passed but the waiting was now over. When the opportunity to make a proposal came, PARC submitted a plan to transform the old rooming house into the kind of housing Edmond's memory inspired. It was referenced by safe house principles, to ensure the direct involvement of survivors in its development, its future staffing and the recovery support options it would provide to the community living there.
There were still many miles to travel. The building was a more dangerous wreck than ever. Rebuilding it presented many challenges with years of hard work still to come. But for Edmond's community, the submission of this proposal was a future already written. There was a feeling of conviction in the air. New housing that would heal was coming. It would be anchored by his name and story: Edmond Place
The watch Edmond had wanted, the seventh watch, was still on my wrist. The dial on that watch had made thousands of turns since the day of his death.
February 20, 2010
It felt odd. This was going to be the last annual memorial before the construction of Edmond Place was finished. Before the next anniversary of his death rolled around, there would be 29 new homes built in his memory. Thirteen long years had passed to get to this day.
Earlier in the week I had printed off some large photos of Edmond Place to show how the work was coming along. The front, side and a rear lane views showed the changes in the building's appearance, the scaffolding and construction hoardings around the site. A big sign out front blared HOME. The photos were placed in an envelope and stuffed into my bag. I planned to pass those pictures around at the memorial. It was going to be a happy event.
I had a morning meeting to attend before the noon memorial start. For some reason I decided to clean out the back pack I carry. I am not sure why I did this because I usually like to carry a lot of work around with me. The only thing left in my empty bag was the envelope of 8x10 pictures of Edmond Place. I had a quick look to make sure they were there and closed it up.
I left early so I could walk to the meeting. I had only walked a short distance before I had to stop. In front of me, at the edge of the sidewalk, was a line of framed photographs. When I saw them I felt an odd physical sensation, a strange feeling of convergence with the past. I remembered finding the hammer. I bent down to look at them. They seemed to have been laid out in a sequence. Four frames with color images. The fifth and largest frame was empty.
The first one was a butterfly, a symbol of change and its inevitability, commented on by the Buddha who said the butterfly was special, because it did not know its own mother. The second image was a starfish lying on the ocean floor. The starfish is a symbol of direction but not the kind which the stars in the sky guide. It represents the direction of our unconscious mind and thoughts. The third frame held a waterfall, cascading over rocky ledges, the symbol of endurance and fortitude.
The last photograph was of a lotus. The lotus flower seed contains the tiny miniature leaves of the fully grown flower. This is one of the reasons it is revered as a symbol of rebirth and wisdom across many cultures. The lotus is born complete. It grows in muddy water, disappears each night below the surface and rises at dawn every morning.
I picked up the four framed photographs and put them into my empty bag. Then I began to walk away, leaving the empty frame lying on the street. But the further I walked the more uneasy I became. It felt like I was trying to wake up. I thought about the empty picture frame I had left behind. Why had I done that? I turned around and went back. The empty frame still lay where I had left it. As I bent down I knew why I had been compelled to return for it.
I reached into my bag to pull out the pictures of Edmond Place housing and placed one in the empty frame. It was a perfect fit.