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Long Way From Home

True North. Call myself a *Canadian*? Never been there, but my three sons have. Plus, I know J. (Quiz: could you find Ottawa on this map?)

[6-minute read]

This wasn’t the plan, not at all, but I want to write about J. today. We hadn’t seen him in a while, and I’ve been wondering how he is. Worrying, too, and running little high-stress scenarios through my mind, where we hear gut-punching news or I find him in fearsome or depressing circumstances. Such polite words: I keep waiting to hear he’s dead, incarcerated, strung out, beaten, vacant in the eyes. J. doesn’t have it easy, and he’s an awful long way from home.

We first met when I was doing some fiddly chore in my front yard, the chaos of my garage open to public view. I can’t remember whether his first request was to do some work for a little money; it might’ve been, he’s done that, but that day it was likely a request for a bit of cash to get himself fed. He looked to be in his early 20s, with a mess of long black hair and well-worn sweats. It was unusual to be approached from the street like that, but his manner was gentle, his voice soft and dignified, and his eyes were steady and calm. I gave him some money to go a few blocks over to Lorenzo’s, a pizza place he favoured.

I guessed, correctly, that he was from Nunavut, one of Canada’s northern territories that, as of 1999, has been self-governed according mainly to traditional Inuit ideas of community. (There are no political parties, for example, and therefore no official “opposition” to an elected government.) There’s a direct flight to my city, Ottawa, from the capital of Nunavut, so there’s a small but significant Inuit presence here. We talked. His deliberate but obviously educated speech belied his scruffy appearance, and I was intrigued. Over the succeeding weeks and months, we talked several times. J. was both open about his situation – no family here, mental health struggles, admitted though relatively benign addictions, dependence on panhandling – and mysterious. He’s a complicated fella.

I was never sure whether to buy certain elements of his story. He spoke of having been a scholarship student in engineering at an Ottawa university, but details were either fuzzy or set off my nonsense detectors. Part of that wasn’t J.’s fault, really, because though I was curious and interested about his life, I didn’t want to pry too much. I also didn’t want to be in his face about facts; the kid probably wasn’t in need of an Inquisitor. So, he’d bag a few leaves for food money, while I wondered how he could afford to live in my middle-class neighbourhood and yet often be short of food. (He wasn’t a superb yard-worker.) After a time, I started to talk to him more frankly.

“Hey, J., you know this isn’t really a solution, right? Me throwing a few bucks at you here and there for food. What’s the plan? I don’t think I’m helping you out much. Is there anything I can do that would help you in the longer term?” Et cetera. That kind of thing. I’m trying. I get myself twisted into knots about how to deal with the homeless, the beggars. Certain kinds of charity don’t help. Growing up, there was only one “street person” in my town; he was fascinating, heavily overcoated in mid-summer and fantastically smelly. I later realized that there were a few people that quietly made sure that “Tuffy” had what he needed. These were older folks who knew his actual name and called him by it.

Sometimes, partly because of concerns I was just feeding addictions and not actually helping to feed the young man, I’d suggest just packing up a few groceries for J. That was fine by him. He was oddly specific about what he liked – he particularly liked Vector cereal, I think I remember – and that was a small source of fascination in itself.

And no, the stories he told often didn’t add up. And there was a time or two when it disconcerted me how “at home” he made himself on the occasions when I’d invite him in to talk, or I’d rummage through the pantry to see what we could offer him food-wise, or should I say what he’d accept. And yes, a number of times his eyes weren’t as clear as they had been, and our conversation less cogent. It got worse: one time he came when just my wife was home, and after she had invited him to step in while she gathered some goodies, she couldn’t get J. to leave. She’s not a timid sort, but she got scared that night. Nothing too serious happened, but she had to shout at him to finally get him out. I didn’t like the look on my bride’s face when she told this story, so I went looking for him at the address he’d given.

Nunavut: one of the greater flags ever. If you don’t know what an “inukshuk” is, check it out. It says, “Here I am. Here I was.”

Though only a block or so from our row-house, J.’s address was a depressing and confusing one. There were several units at the same number, and most of them hissed loudly of despair, mental illness, aggressively careless home maintenance standards, or all of the above and more. I didn’t know which unit was his, and in any case nobody answered any of my tentative knocks at various dented doors. It wasn’t until J. came again that I got firm with him.

“You can’t do that. You scared my wife. This is our home, J., and you have to respect it.” And so on. He didn’t say much, and I wasn’t sure how much he was taking in, but we didn’t see him then for a few weeks. The next time I did, he told me he’d moved into an institution a little farther down our street, a residence for folks dealing with a variety of mental health challenges. The place weirds some of our neighbours and friends out, but the people who live there are harmless to others, if not to themselves. The police and ambulance crews are there pretty regularly; it’s a den of poor physical health as well, and J. is by far the youngest inmate resident I’ve seen there.

He’s not one of the front-porch usuals down at number 198, but I’d seen him a few times, and he generally had that look that said I’m not operating according to the usual parameters of social interaction: odd grins, the thousand-yard-stare, the sense that he was conversing with folks that I didn’t have access to.

But today, the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, J. rang our doorbell again for the first time in a few months, and I was glad he did. Not only was he safe, but his hair was trimmed short, he had a half-decent used jacket on against the rain, and his eyes were clear. The new place is working for him. His meds are, too, and he has not only some friends within the residence but also counsellors that he can speak with when his mind troubles him. Meals are provided. He says he’s going to be going back to school, to a community college this time but still in engineering. His story of how this happened is pretty wacky, I’ll say that, but J. does have a way of connecting with people that makes me want to believe that this really is going to work. We had a good talk, first on my front step and then while I slow-biked along with him.

He was hoping to get a little money to go to Lorenzo’s for a meatball wrap and a pop. At fairly regular intervals during our chat, he’d remind me gently that he was at our place not for an interview with the old fella, but in hopes of going to Lorenzo’s. He’d been out doing some kind of volunteer labour at a local mall — it didn’t make entire sense to me, but then I lead a sheltered life — so he’d missed breakfast and lunch and most of a night’s sleep. In spite of his fatigue and hunger, it was our best talk in a while, and I opened my wallet at the end to pay for a late lunch.

I pray that the school thing is a real opportunity, and I’ll be collecting notebooks, binders, and sticky-notes left over from my teaching days; they need to get out of boxes and drawers, and get used. We had a couple of laughs before we parted. Each of us had also managed to share some piece of our lives that we’re hopeful about. He was returning to school. I am returning to a book and other adventures in discipline.

Lorenzo’s wasn’t open, no surprise, but he had seen another pizza joint that was. He offered a grateful fistbump as we parted, and I imagined that it was more for the conversation and my encouragement, and less about being able to buy a carb-heavy lunch. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I was wrong, but I won’t be eager to find out.

Happy Thanksgiving. Stay well, J.

Comments (2)

  1. Amalia C Giebitz

    You always put me there with you. Feel like I’m standing next to you watching the story play out. When are you guys going to come see us? [ED. NOTE: This means New Mexico. “Um, soon? Someday? Err, March 21, 2018? And thanks, ol’ buddy!” I was fascinated by NewMex before I met A. in, y’know, Dalian CHINA.]

  2. Carol

    Good post, JH. Most fascinating relationship, you and J. I hope you will be worried about him again some more and keep us updated on his progress. [ED. NOTE: And mine!]
    Thanks!
    Carol E.

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