Thursday, December 31, 2009

little old homeless guy

How had he ended up being responsible for this sweet little old homeless guy? He was pretty good at looking after his own needs, but this job where he was looking after a flock of homeless people up at a camp outside Toronto was way beyond his talents. And now, this poor old guy had gone astray and who knows where he was? Was he sick – dead - or wandering around confused in some small town between here and Toronto?

He and Patty’d put the guy on a bus back to the Sally Ann in Toronto where he lived - but he’d never made it. The Captain from the Shelter was there to meet him, but the old man wasn’t on the bus by the time it got to Toronto. Now, Amos felt like he’d really screwed up. Like he’d been playing at being a shepherd but he’d lost one – the most vulnerable one – to the wolves of the world’s cold indifference. What did he think he was doing accepting this job – this responsibility? He was a child in a shepherd’s cloak and had no business messing with people’s lives like this.

He’d blown back into Trono like a spring seed carried on warm and fertile western winds all the way across the country – mysteriously, impossibly landing in the concrete asphalt downtown of Ontario’s biggest cold hearted, cold cash city. Between he and Nick they’d pretty much driven the fleshmobile non-stop all the way – taking turns crashing in the cramped back seat while Jacynthe rode shot-gun making sure the driver stayed awake. She didn’t seem to sleep at all.

The passage home was a blur – a dream – from day to night to day – three days dead to the world – in between there and where he would be. Amos would lift his head up from the back seat in the middle of the night to find Nick with his right arm straight out in a punch - his fist gripping the top of the wheel. The speedometer needle was pushing for the bottom, the little six-banger engine humming high. Amos wanted to say “go easy” but he recognized in Nick’s straight ahead stare into the night – his own desire. Now that he was on his way home, he just wanted to get there and get started. He had a new purpose – a new way to walk – the he couldn’t wait to test out on old familiar streets.

He and Jacynthe dropped Nick at the Bay Street bus station. She’d wanted to keep heading to Montreal too, but Amos had talked her into meeting his brother – Paul and Carol were living just up the road on the edge of the university campus renting a professor’s house with Lawrence and Denise.

It’d been a full year since he’d met Lawrence and Denise in the wild rocky mountains treeplanting – the start of his wild western rodeo ride - and here they were to give him bear hug “welcome homes” at the circle’s full turn. Paul had a knack for turning pretty much any situation into a celebration, but that night he killed the fatted calf for his younger brother’s return.

Carol went along – holding back a little – her face all smiles and fun but her foot on the brakes - as usual. Amos caught the sideways looks she gave his strange new companion – and how uncomfortable – jittery - Jacynthe was in this posh university setting. He knew right away it’d been a mistake bringing her here – she was a fish that swam in deep undercurrents and this was a place in the sun.

Not that his friends and family were snobs or anything – it was just that they were middle class puppies - happy and having fun playing on the shores of privilege - and she was a fish out of water. The song that Amos and Jacynthe had composed couldn’t be translated into this language.

They all did their best to make her feel at home. But later, showered and well fed like good little children put to bed, she told Amos this was not the place for her. Early the next morning she slipped away - an alleycat who can’t trade freedom for comforts behind locked doors. She didn’t ask Amos to remember her – but to remember always his heart’s song.

Later the same day, Amos was very surprised to find his song being sung by another cat. He’d met Larry last at the Brunswick Hotel. Friday afternoons theology students – friends of his brothers’ - would get a table, drink draft, and talk God. Amos would drop by before his cab shift and listen in to their crazy talk. They’d laugh and swear and compete to be the most sacrilegious – sure that the church would never be big enough to handle the vision and hope they had in their hearts.

Amos had bragged to them that if they really wanted to be with the people and reach out and touch them with hope – they should drive cab. They threw big words at him like those little sandbags kids try to get through the holes in the plywood. He’d taunt them saying those words were meaningless if they couldn’t make sense to a drunk. Still, at the time, he was impressed by their bold passion and piety-free sense of humour.

Larry, a wiry, dirty blonde, little guy with coke bottle glasses and an energy only matched by his wit-sharpened intelligence - had now graduated with top honours and bottom results. The National Church interview committees couldn’t get their heads around his prophetic, poetic passion for the people so far from the church’s doors that it’d never cross their minds to put a penny on an offering plate. Larry refused to make it easy for them to let him pass and so they put up the wall that had protected the Sanhedrin from Jesus - between Larry and his ordination as a United Church minister.

So Larry’d found –like water moving around a rock - a church where ministry was a matter of what you did - not who you knew or who you blew. The Christian Rehabilitation Centre – or CRC as it was known on the street - stood at the end of a little dead end street. Made from the same red brick, five storey, 1950’s housing-for-the-poor-solution – it was a part of the inescapable cycle of Regent Park’s poverty.

The CRC didn’t really serve the Regent Park community. The people in the apartments had troubles enough and need enough. But their troubles were different from the homeless ones who wandered unbothered among their children, streets and alleys. While the CRC spoke proudly to its funders about social change – it’s walk was all about just helping the poorest of the poor survive another day. This church, who’s sanctuary was seldom used, was a sanctuary for the men and women who lived hand to mouth in the streets, drop-ins, rooming houses and hostels and social service maze of Trono’s downtown east end.

Crazy Larry was well-loved in this ministry because he loved so well. He’d pour out his heart and soul and cry and shout as loud as he’d laugh - and as often. He had Amos talked into working for him that summer by their fifth beer in the El Macombo that first afternoon back home. Amos would babysit 20 homeless people at a run down old church camp on Lake Scugog – just ninety minutes from the city – ten thousand miles from his Scarbro roots and right back in the east end of the place he’d started from.

Larry’s tale
I knew the call had to come sooner or later. I was impressed that it wasn’t until the second week at the camp that Amos and Patty got into waters stormy enough to call for a lifeline. The call came just as I was leaving the CRC late one evening. Carmel was still there, but he was always the last to leave – even though he had the furthest to go – heading home to his late-blooming love.
Carmel, from the isle of Malta, and his Irish bride had both left their religious orders to pursue an earthy love. She must have been willing to share him with Jesus because Carmel still kept monks hours. He’d drive in from their country sanctuary before the sun rose, reaching the CRC by 6am. This hour was when his flock was being put out to pasture. The homeless shelters - using a rationale that the guys needed to get out and find work - evicted their tenants every morning and sent them trodding off to find breakfast at their favourite Mission. Most of them were walking-wounded – barely able to do the hard work it took to simply survive grazing in the fields of Toronto’s poverty industry.
Carmel would meet Eddie at the door and together they’d get a breakfast going for the guys who started lining up about 6:15 – the time it took to get from the Good Shepherd Men’s Hostel to the doors of the CRC.
These guys all had stories to tell of productive lives and victories won - of careers and wives and children. They’d been members of Lion’s clubs and churches. They’d served in W.W.II and Korea. They’d been captains of industry and foot soldiers in the construction ditches of skyscrapers - the towers of power that now blocked their sunshine as they panhandled and made their way through the cold canyons to the next dingy mission oasis.
There were the young warriors too. Guys too tough, too sensitive, and too stubborn or proud to stay shiftless at home in small town economies. In small towns everyone knows your misdemenours as well as your name. There was no chance for new starts where memories run long and rivalries deep. Their crimes were everything from truly jail-worthy acts to simply being born without all the smarts and skills, wits and family supports needed to find a place in tight economies without charity or imagination enough to let them fit in. Behind them were burnt bridges over rivers of memories too swift, deep and wide to swim back across.
While some had anti-social violent streaks in them, most restricted their victimization to themselves. Drifting from place to place, the excitement and adventure of being on the road would slowly begin to wear them down. Their clothes showed what was also happening to their souls. Slowly, you’d become immersed – then drown - in a skid row lifestyle that expected nothing more of you than to live and behave like cattle.
A couple of winters on the street and the fight would leave you. Not enough good food, too much bad wine or cheap dope - a visit or two to one of the city’s institutions for the criminal or insane - and any inner resolve you might have arrived with would slip through your fingers like grains of sand.

We were there, Carmel and I and a small band of revolutionaries from a variety of downtown agencies, to change all that. We were pursuing Christ’s vision of a community that set places of dignity at a banqueting table that the good and deserving had rejected. We were fighting for Tenant’s rights, for Affordable Housing, for a Welfare system that sustained people instead of penalizing them.
And all of us, despite our greatest efforts and hopes, would get caught up in the wheels of the charity business. It was where our people lived. It was how they survived and they needed friends like us who could help them deal with crooked landlords. Friends who could negotiate with keen and green welfare workers making it their mission to pull power trips with the purse strings of welfare rules and regulations. The Charity business was what paid our bills after all.
Church and Government grants would provide, like welfare, only just enough to keep our little agencies alive. Rock the boat too much and you ended up in the drink yourself – unemployed without that renewal of annually tentative fickle funding. As I liked to tell our fresh recruits to the cause – “give em a hand up – but just to their knees - not their feet.”
Always more optimistic than me, Carmel would quote “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” Trouble was, the pond was behind fence and gates and fishing poles only put in the hands of well-intentioned social service workers.
So now, our latest fisherman was on the phone ready to quit. I had great hopes for this newest young revolutionary – Paul’s little brother - so I listened patiently. Paul and Amos were preacher’s kids like me. We lived up to the stereotypical P.K.’s taste for trouble and delighted in messing with social convention.
Paul and I had found in Jesus a kindred troublemaker. Like Jesus, we had a healthy suspicion of all things religious. And as his followers we had an umbilical cord connection to the church that we couldn’t cut. We loved to rail against conformity and church bureau-crazy confusions while quaffing ales on a Friday afternoon. Amos would drop by on occasion.
He’d boldly tell us older, wiser, divinity students that if we wanted to really connect with people we should all get behind the wheel of a cab. “I do more pastoral care in a day than you could do in a week. I have opportunities to share the gospel every. I don’t have to wait for a captive and already converted audience on Sunday mornings.” I liked his mischievous spunk and the troublemaking twinkle in his eye as he’d tell us we were all full of shit – daring us to make our book-learning come alive.
I lost track of him for a while. I’d finished up my studies, had been rejected by the church as a candidate for ordained ministry, and had been working at the CRC for a while when he showed up again. He’d been treeplanting in B.C. Avoiding law school, Amos’d spent a winter driving cab in Vancouver and found Jesus on the tidal mudflats. Or, maybe it was Jesus that’d found him? Anyhow, as a ski-bum/dishwasher in the mountains he’d heard the Almighty calling him back to serve in the family business – serving the Lord.
Amos was ripe for the Christian Rehabilitation Centre. Carmel and I’d cooked up a funding proposal for a summer holiday for a bunch of our favourite homeless buddies on the shores of Lake Scugog. There was a little house and sleeping cabin that had seen better days on the edge of an old United Church camp property. It was a chance for the boys to get out of the city and dip their feet in a lake, eat healthy and just stay in one place for a whole week. We’d done a test run the summer before - you could see the effects on the boys after just a day or two. It was like an enchanted spell lifted off of them as they started remembering what it was like to be a human being again.
The main camp was still being used by a single mom’s children’s program, but we’d managed to get the use of these other buildings for the coming summer. We got a Federal government grant to hire some students and put together a United Way application to cover food and transportation costs. We scrounged a van from the Central Neighbourhood House and tapped into the Fred Victor Mission’s food stores to keep the costs low.
Carmel went along with my idea to hire Amos and he picked out Patty; a green and eager Community Worker student from George Brown College. We gave the two of them use of my girlfriend’s old Datsun two-door five-speed beater. (Amos’ wheels had died. The motor blew within a week of his return. We’d tipped a beer to it’s memory.)
Carmel gave Eddie the summer off from CRC breakfasts and sent him for the summer up to Scugog. Eddie was a farmboy from rural Quebec. For years he’d been a C.P.R. crew cook and was used to fixin up belly-filling batches of meat and potatoes. Eddie was in his element at the camp; baking pies for the boys between smokes out on the deck. He loved the chance to spoil them with better food than they’d seen in years. It was still the same canned stuff of soup kitchens but Eddie made it for twenty instead of a hundred and he’d send Amos and Patty off to the farmer’s markets to get fresh veges and eggs. He stood a little taller in that kitchen. Or, at least, he was less bent over.
Patty and Amos were officially hired by the CRC boss Rev. John Faro. I truly enjoyed watching Amos trying to get an extra fifty cents an hour out of that stingy old holy scammer. He gave them the “you’re doing it for the cause” speech and they swallowed it just like we all did. We were true believers - there for the people and not the money - and most of us wore around some degree of guilt - like dirty underwear never spoken of – ‘cause we were makin a living off our friend’s suffering. We had money and a life beyond the circles of the homelessness – so getting lousy pay was part of our penance. It helped us convince ourselves we were together with the people on the shitty end of the stick.
Of course John didn’t tell these minimum wage-earners about his other two jobs that kept him occupied and mostly out of our hair. I had the pleasure of giving them the goods on John’s extra curricular jobs as a real estate broker and university chaplain that provided him with a Muskoka power cruiser lifestyle. I might have elaborated the extent of his scamming just a bit. But it was part of the myth of John Faro.
We were part of a long line of workers he’d exploited for the cause. There was no shortage of disgruntled former CRC staffers out working in neighbouring agencies - all the wiser for their tutelage under Reverend Pharo. He and Carmel had made an arrangement decades ago. Carmel ran the place and John did the power lunches and glad-handing politics that it took to keep the money flowing. John was the front man figurehead of the CRC - took all the credit - and that was just how Carmel liked it.
The new Camp Counselors were both pretty green to skid row. Amos knew the clientele from cab-driving but had no idea how the Social Service Industry worked. Patty was a pretty uptight, by-the-book, follow the rules student. There’d been no lectures to prepare her for this. The only rules for the camp were “no drinking or drugs”. She didn’t do too well with the free hand we gave the two of them to come up with a plan and make the first camp happen within two weeks.
Amos approached his father’s church to get them to sponsor campers for $50 a week. The guys in the drop-in dubbed it his “Send a Skid to Camp” program.
Patty was in tears in Carmel’s office before the end of the first week. Carmel asked me if I couldn’t have a talk with Amos. Seems like he was off and running with the ball while Patty was still trying to figure out the rules of the game. Amos was just making them up as he went along.
Over some beers that night we talked over the problem. I wanted to know just how long it would be before he got it on with her? He was obviously already messing with her head, when would he move on to the rest of her? I told him about the bets being laid on it already. Amos played the honourable professional and denied an interest. He told me a few stories about old girlfriend troubles and swore he couldn’t afford such trouble in his life right now.
He was a storyteller like me. A poet even - and as we drank ourselves into that place that only artists can describe (because it defies description?) we fell in love again with our own truly funny, radical, off-the-wall prophetic visions of community and peace.
He told me about a poem he’d written in Vancouver where Christ helped junkie with a fix in a downtown alley. A down and dirty Christ that met people where they hurt, and without judging, pulled from them enough hope to get them thru another day – survive the tragedy of their lives. I played him a Tom Waits song - “Misery is the River of the World – Everybody Row” and read him a few of my own poetic riffs. He lapped it up and showed he got the gist of it - even though his eyes betrayed some puzzling - not an unusual response to my poetry.
We were already pretty drunk when Paul showed up and dragged us off to the El Macombo. When the band quit for the night, the brothers of thunder found me passed out in the alley being ruffed up by the bouncer. I was playing dead and the bouncer was stuffing ice cubes down my pants trying to see if I really was dead. He turned on them “Do you know this guy?”
Paul denied me just like Peter denying Christ.
But Amos said “Yeah, he owes us money – we’ll take him from here.”
The bouncer left and, as Amos bent over me, I opened my eyes and said “get me the fuck out of here” He dragged my skinny ass up onto my feet. As I staggered, I clutched at his leather jacket ripping a few teeth out of the zipper. In years to come, Amos would point to those missing teeth and remind me just how tolerant he was of saintly, prophetic assholes like me.
Now that we’d established a good working relationship, it was all piss and roses from there on in. Patty survived her first week with Amos and the boys. Amos came back high on all the campfire stories he’d collected. “These are God’s people Barry! They’d give you the shirt off their back, share their last smoke, give you their bed and sleep on the floor. I’ve never met more generous people.”
“Just remember Amos” I warned, “the Devil’s in them just like in you. You never know how dark your heart is til you lose your light and way. Then the evil one will play you like a guitar” He nodded. “Yeah, you gotta wonder how such good gentle people could end up living like they do.”
Then Amos told me about this guy he’d jut met - Charlie…

So, Monday morning we packed them off - Scugog bound with another gang squeezed into the van. Some of these guys were carrying all their worldly possessions right along with them. This trip was a great risky adventure to leave behind the lifeline routine of marching from mission to hostel to soup kitchen. Patty had managed to get a few women to go along with the gang this time. Eddie just climbed into the cramped back seat of the Datsun chuckling “ere we go again.”
It was maybe three days into week two when the call came. I was a bit surprised at Amos’ shaking voice. For such a big, bold, young buck - he was out of his depth now you could tell.
“First we discover that he’s got lice. This beautiful gentle little man -couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds -must’ve been at least 80 years old. That was pretty bad. Beau and Rocky told me what soap to buy at the Pharmacy and helped me strip him and bathe him – he was skin and bones. We burned his clothes and gave him the smallest trousers and shirts we could find in our supply. He had to roll up the sleeves and trouser legs. He was a saint – humble and gentle and kept his sense of humour through the whole ordeal.”
I laughed at the picture Amos was painting.
“That night the Japanese church folks invited us over to their campfire. So a bunch of us go over for hot chocolate and marshmallows and this little guy starts talking in Japanese with them! We couldn’t believe it. Turns out that before the war, his family imported Japanese silk and he’d lived in Japan for some time before returning home to Germany.”
“Around the campfire later that same night he told me about how he and his family had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent off in trains to concentration camps. He said he still had nightmares about riding in those boxcars not knowing where he was going or what would happen to him.”
“That was hard to listen to, but listen to this - the next morning I’m having a coffee with Eddie and I hear someone shouting my name. I run over to the bunk house and Beau is standing there over our little friend. He’s rolling on the ground, shaking and spasm-ing like a son of a bitch. I’d never seen an epileptic fit before - but I knew what I had to do from the cabbie first aid training. I put him on his side and made sure he wasn’t swallowing his tongue and kept talking to him.”
“That’s really good Amos.” I reassured him.
“Yeah, but he should have come out of it. Well - he did for a minute or two - but then he’d go right back into it again. Patty was there by this time and I told her to call for an ambulance. Larry – I tell ya - he just kept going into these grand-mal seizures one right after another. It took the ambulance forever to show up. I was freaking. This poor little guy didn’t have the spunk to climb a full flight of stairs and now the stuffing was being wrung out of him by some epileptic demon. It was awful to watch him writhing there on the floor not being able to do nothing to stop it.”
I told Amos “You were Christ for him -with him – suffering in his humiliation and struggles man. That’s all you could do – and you did it.”
“I dunno – I felt so fucking helpless. It was awful. But that’s still not the worst of it. We followed him to the hospital and by the time we got there he was sitting up and okay. We didn’t know what to do with him next. So Patty called down to the Salvation Army Mission –y’know the little one off College. Some of the guys’d told us that’s where he stays. The Captain down there said to put him on a bus and send him back. Patty got him to promise to meet our little friend at the bus station.
So, that’s what we did. He was still pretty dazed and confused but I thought – once he gets back where people know him, he’ll be okay. We said goodbye and went back to the camp.”
“Good. Sounds like you two handled it really well.” I assured him, wondering why he was calling. Did he just need to report in?- just talk it out?
“Yeah, well, Patty called the Sally Ann about three hours later and talked to the Captain there and he told her that he went to meet the bus - but our friend wasn’t there! Larry - he must have gotten off at one of the stops along the way. All I can think about is that in his dazed condition - he’s living out his Nazi nightmare. He finds himself on this bus and he doesn’t know where he’s going and he gets off in a panic. Now – who knows where he’s wandering around? The bus must’ve stopped at dozen little places from here to there. What can I do?”
I paused and let his angst sink in to my heart a bit – as much as I could. Amos had come up against that wall of helplessness that all of us who serve crash into sooner or later. His resources and smarts and strategies had come to and end and he had nothing in his bag to offer. He’d opened his heart to the sufferings of a gentle innocent soul and Life was opening it even wider with a cruel crowbar’s yank. God knows it’s the helpless, innocent weak ones who get tortured right alongside the buggers who deserve it and bring it on themselves.
“There’s nothing you can do about it Amos. You have to let him go. God’s walking with him every step. That’s all I can say. That’s all that I can hope for. It sucks man. I know you probably feel like you need a drink - I sure do - but you’re at a dry camp and you’ve gotta keep it together for the rest of them.”

I hung up the phone and poured a large scotch. The vulnerable heart that made Amos a natural for working the inner city was also the weakness that could chew him up and spit him out. Now we’d have to watch and see. Would he harden up – turn professional social worker and keep the pain at a safe arms-length distance? Would he go native – let go of the comforts of his middle class status and try to trapese without a safety net? Would he run – get a church job and disappear into the lives of safer, neater, community-building? Hard to say what would happen to Amos Brown.
I only knew that my own soul was filling up with more pain than the booze could keep down. In my grandfather’s yarns, I’d been reading about how farmers used to put a chunk of pork fat into a cauldron of Maple sap to keep it from boiling over. Was Amos’ willingness to stay close and open to people’s pain - the fat in the cauldron? Was I that chunk of fat that was keeping Amos from boiling over? Was Christ the chunk of fat that was keeping me from boiling over? Each day the farmers’d put a new chunk of fat into the next batch of sap.
“God, give us the fat for another day. Drop it in this cauldron that boils us up. The syrup’s for another world – another time – give us the fat for today and we’ll keep watch on the boil ‘til you say it’s ready.”

I met the van when it arrived back at the CRC. The boys slowly wandered off – back to the tooth and claw scrape - hopefully with a little fresh perspective in their heads, some calories stored up for the struggle, and a few good memories to get them thru the tough nights ahead. I asked Amos how he’d made it through?
“Well, he grinned, when you’ve got no bottle – you start lookin for other comforts close at hand.”
“No! You don’t mean….?”
“Listen – Larry – what I found was that these guys are just like me. They’re at loose ends in the world. They have this inner desire to give – they’re so giving I can’t believe it. But, here in the city – all that’s expected of them is to receive. Receive handouts, welfare, soup-kitchen food, social worker’s advice…right?
“Right” Amos had come up with something I could tell.
“Well, we all know that it’s better to give than to receive – right?
”Right.” I nodded.
“But if all you ever do is receive, and never get your chance to give – then how are you ever gonna feel good about yourself?”
“Right!” he had it. He’d found the core of the problem.
“It’s all about dignity. It’s a basic human need – to contribute. It’s how I establish status in a community. It’s how I establish who I am.” “You’ve got it Amos – what are you gonna do about it?”
“I have no fucking idea.” he shook his head. “But I have a feeling that figuring out how I’m gonna contribute has something to do with figuring out how these guys are gonna contribute…”
“Sounds like GOD’s got ya by the balls boy” I told him – prophesying “you’re gonna go wherever that mission takes you I can tell.”
“YEEEOOOWWW” was Amos’ reply as he jumped in the van – a huge grin on his face, fire blazing in his eyes, Jesus in his heart, and a long story unraveling deep in his guts.

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