Sunday, May 25, 2008

comings and goings

People come and people go at the Drop In Centre. There seems to be a core population of regulars, but others come and go. Whenever I meet someone new to me who intrigues me, I always worry they'll stop coming before I have a chance to learn more.

Several weeks ago now, I met one of those intriguing people. He was at the shelter, and when he asked for a coffee, he was a holding a paperback: Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. I mentioned that In the Skin of a Lion was one of my top 5 favourite books of all time. He said he reads a lot of Booker Prize winners but he doesn't know if that's good or bad... sometimes they can be - he searched for the right word - "a bit head up their ass?" I supplied. That caught him by surprise and he laughed. "Well that's one way of putting it," he chuckled. I haven't read a Booker Prize winner since university.

He has a posh British accent and every time I see him he's very clean shaven. He wears white button-down shirts, the kind that the bureaucrats I work with during the week wear. He looks like he could be working there right now. He doesn't have the rough look of an addict or the medicated look of someone mentally ill. One can't help but notice a certain similarity among the people who come to the Drop In Centre. In particular, men staying at the shelter have a weathered and guarded look, a metaphoric hunching of their soul's shoulders and collars against the elements; their skin is necessarily and obviously tough. But not this man. His cheeks are smooth and have a healthy pink look about them, free of ruptured capillaries or grooves of exposure. At one point, I suspect his life must have been pretty easy, and yet he has none of the arrogance of one who feels s/he doesn't belong here.

I'm dying to know what made him end up in a shelter. I keep thinking I'll ask him, because he has a sweetness and humility about him that make me think he wouldn't mind answering, but then he doesn't come until we're just serving lunch and it's too busy to chat. So we can only exchange a quick "what are you reading this week?" (He seemed quite taken aback at the week I was reading a book of essays by 30 Canadian mothers. "Oh. ... Are you preparing for uh...?" he gestured at my belly. He was surprised to learn I'm already a mother... it made me wonder if perhaps we'd been flirting. Even though he's quite a bit older, maybe I'm a bit attracted to him, in a harmless I'm married but not dead kind of way.) The last time I saw him I said I wouldn't be here the following week but I would be the next and I'd try to dig out my copy of In the Skin of a Lion. "Ok," he said. "I'll be... here," shrugging kind of helplessly. Like where else could he go? Even though I suspect he'll be relatively quick to find himself a place and get on welfare and start the rest of rebuilding, it was like he couldn't see that at all.

But this week he wasn't there. I was all set to ask him if I could photograph him. I wasn't going to chicken out. But he wasn't there so I couldn't ask. I'm hoping he's just enjoying the gorgeous weather today and I'll see him next week.

I do, however, have my first subject. And he's turning out to be a great first subject. He's challenging me to think and direct when what I really just want to do is just catch. He's making me decide what locations will help make whatever point I want to make (what point DO I want to make?? I DO want to make a point, but I want it to come out organically rather than me contriving to make it) rather than telling me where he'd like to be photographed. I still haven't taken my camera out, but I'm looking forward to more conversations with him and hopefully others.


Two men approach the counter together. They both want coffee. One pays his quarter, the other says he's at the shelter. His friend pipes up that people at the shelter get free coffee. I already know this. The man at the shelter says to the man who paid, "You haven't haven't lost your pride... you don't know how good it is to pay for your own coffee."


A boy says he's diabetic and has to watch his sugar. He lives on the streets and when I ask how he manages his diabetes on the streets, it comes out that he doesn't really. He lost his health card and moved before a new one reached him. They won't see him at the clinic. He hitchhiked down here from Thunder Bay when he heard that a girl he dated all through high school had cancer and maybe wouldn't be released from the hospital. I suspect he's feeding me a line, but it doesn't matter. We give him some buns with peanut butter so he doesn't have to eat the fresh donuts that came. He starts selling cell phones out of his bag and it seems like suddenly the place is all atinkle with ring tones.


Another man asks me and another volunteer what people like us are doing at the Drop In Centre. Why aren't we in our 8000-square foot houses, fully furnished? At first I take him at face value, then I realize he's kind of mocking us. Even though I've never seen that man engage in a coherent conversation and I know he's kind of nuts, I feel like he's onto me, that he knows I'm a fraud, some kind of pompous do-gooder with a silver spoon in her mouth who uses people for playthings; who once a week sinks down from her $5-pineapple plenty to play in the slums before her Sunday brunch slot. In that moment, I don't have a decent answer to his question.

"This is the place for derelicts and murderers and rapists and..." he goes on and on at some length detailing the worst of humanity. "Everybody here hates Jesus Christ," he ends. I have nothing to say to this because I don't think that's true. I've seen quite a few crosses around necks here.

Later, over brunch, when I tell Sugar D about this man's mild outburst and doubt my motives, he reminds me that I do know why I'm there, because I get to meet people, interesting people, and get out of the house. I suppose that's as good a reason as any, probably the reason most of the people come there. I go because the counter is just a counter, not some line between the do-gooders and the done-good-unto, the rich and the poor. It's just a counter that anyone can choose which side they want to stand on today, whether they want to serve or be served on any given day.


Janet said...

I think the important thing is that you are there, when so many others wouldn't even conceive of being there. That you're sharing your time and your heart is reason enough, I think.

I really like the way you wrote this. You made me feel like I was right there beside you.

Mad said...

"Organic." That's a word I could have used last Sunday. You have constructed the politics of why you want to shoot these people but the process that you want to bring to your photo sessions is organic rather than polemic or constructed. You want to show life--simply and in all its riches and wants. It's just that you have chosen a segment of society that is shunned and dehumanized in order to do it.

There. I think that's what I was trying to articulate last week. I just needed this post to put it into better words.

cinnamon gurl said...

Yes, Mad, I was very grateful for our discussion when I was talking to this guy. It really helped me focus. And thanks for your addendum here.

NotSoSage said...

What a thoughtful post, a thoughtful life you lead. And not just when you're behind the camera.

Denguy said...

It is a strange thing that only some could handle doing what you do--shouldn't we all?

jen said...

it does feel pretty damn good to pay for your own coffee.

i love it when you talk about the centre, Sin.

nomotherearth said...

I always think that most people have selfish AND unselfish reasons for volunteering. Whatever the reaons, though, you're there.

Elizabeth said...

I really liked this post and hearing about the shelter. In my work I interact with many people in the shelter system too, but rarely get this kind of inside glimpse. Please tell us more about the reading gentleman if you come across him again.