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2006 10 27
Edge Conditions: a Conversation
This parking lot is not visible to everyone who passes it. Somehow, its frustrated monotony forms a barrier that the ordinary gaze doesn’t attempt to penetrate. It is a void in the built environment; stores turn their backs to it, leaving their garbage to spill out of this end. An old brown church awkwardly flanks the opposite side. From the sidewalk, the plaster peeling from the walls, the gravel and cigarette butts scattered on the ground, and finally, even the people standing outside become hazy, their distinctions bleeding together. Only the red lettering on a sign manages to draw attention to the drop-in centre that is tucked away in the basement of the church.

Kurt told me about this place yesterday. He lives in a tent at the edge of the city, and comes here almost every day. The drop-in centre is a place where the homeless can do their laundry, eat a hot meal, and plug in to an expansive network of resources and people who are eager to help them to a better life, when it is possible. Kurt uses these facilities sometimes, but he comes here regularly because he is a volunteer. He likes to cook, and usually works in the kitchen.

We are sitting in the parking lot outside, because Kurt wants to have a cigarette before he helps to prepare sandwiches for lunch. At first, he is quiet and pensive; slowly, he begins to speak, and it seems like he is not as small as he was in silence. He is recounting fantastic stories about road trips to the Maritimes, hard drugs, and near-death experiences; when he tells me about rescuing an old woman, as she is being mugged in a cemetery, he grows to the size of a hero; he looks at me covertly, trying to gauge my reaction, and when he finds it, he laughs, revealing a shocked topography of jagged black teeth. At the end of his story, the old woman is so grateful that she goes to the grocery store and buys enough food for him and his friends to feast on for a week.

Listening to Kurt talk, my mind sifts through the myths, trying to separate them from the truth, but after awhile I give up. His tone is dramatic; the grin he wears is slightly derisive, towards himself for telling these stories and enjoying it, and towards me for believing any of them. Perhaps the distinction is not important: myth will sometimes shelter intentions and possibilities; reality resides in circumstances that have been determined, decisions that have already been made.

I will be going to school in September, Kurt told me yesterday. Saying this made him cheerful. I’m going to learn about computers; you can’t get anywhere these days if you don’t understand computers. I’m going to learn to be a chef, too.

He invited me to the drop-in centre so I could try his cooking. In the morning, I arrived before he did; everyone in the room laughed when I said I was there to meet him.

He could be out of the country by now, one woman piped from the table behind. He told me he was moving to Detroit. He thinks he can go and pitch his tent anywhere.

Everyone laughed again. Kurt arrived an hour later.

Underneath our conversation now, bits of his history creep by so quietly, I hardly notice them until they have already brushed past, and I struggle to salvage my memory of them. These are the things that I learn about Kurt: he has lived here for most of his life, and although he has traveled to Frankfurt and to Paris, he still loves Toronto best; he once had a wife and two children; he has been to prison many times, once for doing something terrible to his mother; his wife became tired of his mistakes one day, and now he is alone.

Kurt finishes his cigarette and lets it slide through his fingers to the ground. He looks at his watch and registers the diminishing number of minutes that remain before lunch.

(An excerpt from Subterranean Inscriptions, a thesis on homelessness, exteriority, and identity.)
[email this story] Posted by Olivia Keung on 10/27 at 12:56 PM

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