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2006 11 06
Edge Conditions: Second Conversation
He cranes his neck in the opposite direction, inspecting the incessant onslaught of traffic. For a long time, we are both still, and I am left to stare at the back of his neck. I am struck by the violence of the creases that are worn into it, and what I start to believe is that if I could touch them, I would somehow be able to measure the pain of whatever he has suffered in the depths of those creases. The emptiness of the valley weighs down on me.

He finally turns back to look at me.

I made some very bad choices in my life, he says. The cars continue to grumble past, as his answer dangles in the air in front of us, resolving nothing.

He slaps it away.

It’s not so bad though. This is the only city in the world where you can camp in the wilderness like this, but still be so close to everything! And people are so generous, sometimes they even bring us blankets and coats when it gets cold. We’ve been through the worst blizzards out here.

Relic becomes excited as he continues to speak, unaffected by his designation as public spectacle. As more cars spill out on to the highway, all eyes pass over in this direction, to wonder, and then to forget, just as quickly.

The road in front of us snakes down into the valley; we are sitting on a strip of dirt and gravel that divides the asphalt from the grass. Ambiguity shrouds this space, crushed between the wilderness below and the affluent neighbourhood crouched above. It is not a part of either territory, nor is it a place in itself. It is the passage through, on the way to the highway; on foot it is difficult to find, even though it is so close to the city. It seems to exist somewhere beneath the life and consciousness of the city.

When I first arrived, emerging from the cover of the trees, the sudden expanse of the sullen sky was overwhelming. From behind his big yellow sign, Relic watched me approach. He waited quietly, even though I was surprised by my own act of intrusion as I arrived; Relic only became resigned and expectant in his silence, like someone who has already learned the futility of struggling against fate and will never be surprised again.

Everyday is completely different, that’s for sure, he tells me when I ask him what his life is like. He finds a cigarette in his pocket and lights it with a match. I’ve met so many people at this corner, Relic says. This is the only road around here that leads to the highway, so all the celebrities pass through this way. Jackie Chan used to come out and have his breakfast with us while he was filming his movie. I even got into a fistfight with Eric Lindros once, right here.

To demonstrate, Relic springs off his milk crate and punches the air. I am laughing at him as the traffic lights turn red, and from the line of cars that have stopped on the road, faces press through the protection of tinted glass to stare at us. I look back at them, but Relic only swings harder at his imaginary enemy.

Relic stops and predicts out loud that it will rain in exactly one and a half hours. I want to ask him about the choices that he once had, but somehow it is clear that his life exists only in the present now. It is these facts in the present that are the most important: the ominous smell of rain in the air, the guttural grumbling of engines, advancing and receding with monotonous predictability, the occasional blast from a car that becomes strangely personal in this context.

Relic walks towards the arm that stretches out from the car window. He begins to chat with the woman in the car as he collects the change she offers, and I am looking at the faces that float from the cars stopped behind her. She is on her way to pick up her son from school, the woman tells him. She cannot believe how many red lights have hit her on this simple errand. They continue this familiar conversation, and the woman apologizes for how little change she has managed to find in the car today, and promises she’ll bring more next time. Relic makes a joke as the lights switch to green, and the woman is laughing as she drives off, her window buzzing as it seals shut automatically. He returns to his post behind the yellow sign.

I notice, as he settles down on to the milk crate again, that the plastic weaving of his makeshift seating is worn in and caves a little. There is a thick sweater, an umbrella and an open box of crackers stored underneath. A half-eaten plate of roti sits to one side. When his shift is over, Relic will cross the street to the shelter of the trees, where his friends are waiting, and one of them will come here to take his place. I want to ask him about the choices he once had, but his life is based on the facts in the present now. I want to ask him how the different choices that he and his friends have made in the past could have brought each of them, slipping down the same road, to this milk crate at the mouth of the highway.

(An excerpt from Subterranean Inscriptions, a thesis on homelessness, exteriority, and identity.)
[email this story] Posted by Olivia Keung on 11/06 at 01:43 PM

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