Monday, November 15, 2010

At Table Number One

Lately, I have been a bit haunted by a fictional character that I am writing about. His name is Billy and he is a homeless man. Aboriginal. Violent. Queer. Abandoned by his mother and with no knowledge of, or contact with, his father. Oh, and he hates women. Yeah, I’m glutton for criticism and abuse as a writer.

Billy features in a new novel that I am writing called Vita’s Prospects. He is conceivably the least sympathetic of the three main characters yet it is always Billy that people seem to remember when I read passages from the new writing. It is Billy they always seem to feel for.

I had been thinking about what to do about people like Billy, the real Billys of Toronto. How do you help aside from possibly throwing money at the situation (which I know would help somewhat but not completely)? As they say, if you're gonna talk the talk...

My friend D has been involved with the Out of the Cold program which has operated in the basement of a church here in Riverdale for a couple of years and I was pleased to learn that she was doing it again this year. I asked if I could join her in working the dinner shift at the church on Friday nights.

When we arrive at the church, my daughter and I are both understandably nervous, J more so.There are some forty odd volunteers including a youth group from Timmins. Luckily I am partnered with an experienced volunteer, K, at table number one. My daughter works with two friends from middle school at another table. My friend D valiantly slips into the kitchen with a friend and will spend the next two to three hours scouring dishes.

K fills me in on how the shift will work. The men (and some women) file in. Twenty five or so. Tonight there are more volunteers than people being served.

We introduce ourselves to the group of six who sit at table number one.

Strikingly, a man that I have already mentally named "The Professor" and his friend sit facing towards the front of the hall, towards the servers where we are standing, holding trays. Tall and lean, he is conservatively dressed with simple, dark framed glasses and a very somber air. His friend, an older man, seems a little more lost, a little less tied to the world around him. When we introduce ourselves, The Professor politely introduces himself and his friend who is sitting to the left of him and says very little during the meal.

There is also the "Reader", an older man, who is enjoying a thick, softcover book during the meal. He is small, bearded, affable and completely content to read during his meal and not converse.

There is my "European Grandfather" - quiet, almost courtly, who seems to speak little English, with glasses and a nice camel coloured jacket. He speaks to no one, says nothing except thank you or yes and no. He leaves early, before dessert.

And most curiously, for me, there is the "Varsity Football Player" with the "Manic Girl". He is tall, broad, with a football style jacket and very new sneakers who appears to be carrying all of his clothing in a large, black suitcase on wheels. But his face betrays the middle class demeanor. He looks tired or ill or someone who has not slept well.

With him is very hyper young woman in a baseball cap with a rough manner. They seem oddly matched. She is a tad manic. As soon as she sits down she makes a quick, tipping motion with her hand in my direction. When I ask her what she wants, there is a very loud request for coffee as if she doesn't hear well or can't control the volume of her voice. She is constantly in motion and it occurs to me that she might be a bit high. If she is visibly intoxicated or stoned she won't be granted admission to the meal - those are the rules - but there only seems to be a trace of something in her system.

That's our group.

We start with soup and K and I bring over three bowls each on our aluminum trays. The group is polite and appreciative. Then we bring over family style servings of chicken, roast potatoes and vegetables. One serving per, unless there is extra. 

In the background a volunteer is playing the piano in a corner of the hall. He plays "Bye Bye Blackbird" and this starts to unnerve me for some reason. Later one of the men, one of the clients, will take over and play the Beatles' "Yesterday". I whisper to K, "I wish they would play something more upbeat!"

Oy...I can't help thinking of how these men and women got to this juncture in their lives - particularly the really young man who seems to be carrying all his possessions. When I mention it to R later he comments sadly that maybe that young man is at the beginning of his experience on the street - that that is how you start, with nice clothes, and all your things and then it slowly deteriorates and you lose more and more and then everything.

The rest of the volunteers, many of whom are teenagers, do not seem to be affected by this music. There is definitely love in the air as they hug and get close and flirt in between their serving duties which they are being responsible about. They laugh and giggle and flirt. True, many are probably here for their obligatory community hours for high school graduation and seem unfazed by what is before them. 

I can't decide if this the sheer optimism of youth or obliviousness of the sadness around them.

There is the odd trip back to the kitchen for another bowl of soup or juice and the requests are polite and patient.

After a dessert of apple and cherry pie and vanilla ice cream, the composition of the room slowly ebbs and changes, most leave but there are a handful of men who will stay (and it appears one woman) for the night. Some are already slumped in a corner trying to sleep. We clean the tables, wipe them down, disinfect them. We put them away. We start to pull out erstwhile mattresses and pillows and blankets into the hall.

The shift ends. It's short but very intense, a little emotional. And I am somewhat exhausted by my simple tasks. I seem to have passed the test. The supervisor who gave me an appraising up and down look when I when I first came on shift now give me a tepid smile of approval.

The teenagers are still smiling, still flirting. I wonder if it hurts the men to observe them so when you have so little? I know I feel a slight pang in watching their puppy dog energy. What is before the kids is so strange, so foreign to them that they can't even imagine being in the shoes of these men and women. 

But it is not so fantastic, nor strange in this city...and eminently possible, for anyone.


Andrew Smith said...

What a wonderfully evocative essay. I could see the people, even smell things described. Bodes really well for the novel, and I'm full of admiration for your devotion to research (although I know your generosity was just as much a motivation).
I wish you all success, Andrew

Unknown said...

Michelle, this is a sensitive and thoughtful account of your evening and the people you met.

I've yet to meet Billy, but I know you'll do right by him.

Michelle said...

It is worrisome. You want to do right by people. You don't want to exploit their suffering as a writer. Thanks for your supportive words Andrew and Maria.