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Archive for November, 2009

09. Thanksgiving

Monday morning came, and I had completed my first good night’s sleep in a long time. I had forgotten what it was like to go a whole night without crying or tossing and turning. Meanwhile, my roommates had been up all night and were still wired. I hoped that they weren’t on drugs. It turned out that they weren’t. They had simply shot the breeze the whole night long, exchanging Thanksgiving stories. Breakfast wasn’t a big to-do; just some cereal and pastries and juice.

Thanksgiving dinner was scheduled around 2PM, so I killed some time by walking around, getting to know some of the people. Many of them were surprised to see someone like me. I was surprised that many of them weren’t the stereotype of homeless people. They were just ordinary people who got caught up in extraordinary things. They didn’t set out to be homeless; it just happened.

In all truth, I didn’t know how to react. Many of them had gone through worser things than I had. One guy had served Canada in Afghanistan, and had nothing really to show for it. Another hadn’t lived in a proper house since he was a little boy, and Seaton House was his sixth shelter in as many years. Yet another had been on the streets his whole life, and he knew nothing different. I felt bad, actually. I felt like I couldn’t compete with a war veteran and two guys who spent their lives without stability.

2PM came, and we were all in the dining room. Eight volunteers had come to hand out Thanksgiving dinner, and it looked delicious. They had turkey, of course, and it looked perfectly cooked. They also had tofurkey for those who loved Thanksgiving but hated killing animals. I had tofurkey once. It was okay. And, of course, there was the cavalcade of sides: cranberry sauce (and REAL cranberry sauce at that; the canned variety is IMHO anathema), gravy, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, etc.

Before we got to eat, the shelter supervisor, a plus-size, red-headed lady named Debbie, led us all in a non-denominational Thanksgiving prayer. And then, we all lined up, paper plates and sporks at the ready. One by one, everyone got a healthy serving of turkey (or tofurkey) with whatever sides they wanted.

I was in the back of the line and waited about 10 minutes before I even came close to the buffet. A woman with gray hair, who could have been Dame Judi Dench’s body double, greeted me.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” she said.

I nodded. “Thanks.”

“Are you a dark-meat or white-meat person?”

“White.”

Dame Judi’s Doppelgängerin gingerly placed a few slices of breast on my plate. My plate weighed more than those pieces. I don’t know what was up with that. “There you go,” she said. “Gravy?”

I nodded again and she nearly drowned the turkey in gravy. “Stuffing?”

“What do you have?”

“Sausage… chestnut… traditional…” She looked to her left. Already, the sausage stuffing had been wiped out. “Brian!” she called. “We’re out of sausage stuffing!”

“It’s coming!” I heard a familiar voice yell those words. And then, I saw him: Brian Gutensohn, my creative writing teacher from the University of Toronto. A few inches higher than me, at least forty pounds thinner, and at least a decade and a half older. He was graying at the temples, but other than that, his hair had retained its chestnut hue. He took one glance in my direction, and I darted out of the dining room. I flew up the stairs to my room, landed on my bed, and sobbed. I couldn’t bear to have Brian see one of his students at the lowest rung of society. I didn’t want to think of him as a failure of a teacher.

Ten minutes later, Debbie knocked on the open door. “You okay, dear?” she asked.

I didn’t look at her, but I said, “No.”

“Do you know Brian?”

“He was my creative writing professor.”

“OH.” Debbie walked to my bed and sat on the edge. “Sweetie, come on down.”

“I don’t want to talk to him.”

“Well, you don’t have to. But your Thanksgiving dinner is getting cold, and I’ll be damned if even one of my charges doesn’t eat today.”

Suddenly, I could hear Brian’s voice: “Hi, Graziano.” I got up, and there was Brian, in the doorway. He didn’t look upset.

“I’ll… keep a plate warm for you,” Debbie said as she got up and left. It was just me and my former teacher. I never even spent time in his office when I was at university, and years later, there we were.

“Can we go for a walk?” Brian asked.

I nodded and we walked out of the room. We began to roam the premises.

“Shouldn’t you be… anywhere but here?” Brian asked.

“I don’t know if I should be on this planet.”

“Why?”

I couldn’t come up with a decent answer and simply said, “Just… ’cause.”

“What is this? America’s Next Top Model?”

We entered the stairwell and sat down on the landing. “My family kicked me out on Wednesday. I made a scene at my bitch cousin’s 18th birthday. I didn’t want to be there, on account that it was MY birthday. According to them, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’m sorry to have experienced it. I didn’t have any choice but to come here. After I got kicked out, I spent the next two days living in my car. I had to sleep in places that didn’t have police coming at all hours of the night.”

Brian wrapped his arm around me. It was a secure wrap, but a comforting one. I laid my head on his shoulder. “Don’t you have anyone else to crash with?”

I shook my head. “No one in my address book answered my calls. I don’t have any relatives in the area who will take me in. And my grandparents are dead… my brother Ryan is somewhere outside the country… and I miss Evan.”

“I know that this is five years late, but I’m sorry that he died.”

“Thanks.”

“I don’t know what I can do to help.”

“You know what you can do?” I felt myself suddenly boiling with rage. “You can try to revive Evan. He’s dissolved in Lake Ontario, but if they can extract DNA from a dinosaur, you can find a speck of him. While you’re at it, bring back my grandparents. They’ve got top-notch scientists at the university; maybe they can bring them back. Unless you know how to reverse 28 fucking years of lies, abuse, and self-doubt, then THERE ISN’T ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP!!!”

“Hey!” Brian turned me towards him. “You’re right. I can’t be a miracle worker. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t help you somehow. You’re not beyond help, you know.”

I collapsed into his arms, crying. Brian held me close and hugged me. “You have a lot of great qualities,” he continued. “You’re passionate, you’re spunky, and you’re smart. Right now, you shouldn’t be in this predicament. Actually… I do know what I can do to help. Why don’t you come and stay with me?”

“I don’t want to impose,” I blubbered into his sweater.

“Do you need some time to think?”

I let go of Brian and nodded. He produced a card from his pocket, which had his address: 600 Queens Quay West. I was familiar with that area: I had spread Evan’s ashes nearby five years earlier.

“When you’re ready, call me.”

“Thanks, Brian.” I put the card in my pocket.

“Can we please get some Thanksgiving dinner?” he asked.

I nodded and we walked back down to the dining room. I was still shaken, but my encounter with Brian had not been the disaster that I feared it would be. Sure enough, Debbie had kept a warm plate of food for me. The turkey was moist and delicious.

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08. Pre-Thanksgiving

They released me from the hospital two days later, on Friday morning. Charlotte begrudgingly picked me up. I say “begrudgingly” because she still had my keys with her. Otherwise, I would have had to take the GO Train back to Brampton. We didn’t say two words to each other on the way back. She yakked on her cell phone in her pseudo-Valley Girl voice and not once looked at me. It was probably the most civilized we had ever been to each other.

She dropped me and my keys off at what was technically no longer my home, still chatting up a storm thanks to her endless Whatever minutes. My parents were at work, so there was only one living thing there: my cat, Britney. I had adopted her weeks after moving back in, and she was my one true ally at home, never mind that she was not human.

Britney crawled out of the bushes and nuzzled and purred at my legs. I could tell that she knew what was going to go down. I picked her up and brought her inside the house. Ten flattened cardboard boxes greeted me at the foyer, along with some duct tape and scissors. I hadn’t even figured out where I wanted to go.

I spent the next three hours packing stuff and loading my car. I wasn’t going to bring the furniture along – those had been in the room before I moved in. The process was made easier thanks to my shitload of Space Bags. I personally think that Space Bags are the most ingenious invention of recent times, even more so than the iPod and the Roomba. Britney watched as I stuffed, sealed, and sucked the air out of Space Bag after Space Bag. She was perplexed and mesmerized at these glorified Ziploc bags. She had no idea what they were, but this didn’t stop her from having a ball. This is a cat who spent five hours gazing at a Jeff Stryker dildo that I bought in San Francisco and had put on my dresser as a conversation piece.

I fit everything that I had into five boxes. I put several changes of clothes in a duffel bag, to get me through at least the first week. After I finished loading, I went into the kitchen and grabbed all the food that I had purchased, perishable and all, from the fridge and cupboards. Not that my parents even noticed what I had bought. In fact, while my mother drank like a fish, she ate like a supermodel, which is to say almost nothing. I filled two large thermal food bags with the stuff and called it a day.

I noticed Britney sitting at the front entrance, meowing. I didn’t know what I was going to do with her. It would be strange to lug a cat around the GTA, but I couldn’t leave her. So, I fetched her carrier case from the garage, as well as a bag of cat litter and cans of food, and put her and said things in the car.

I went back inside for one final walk-around. It wasn’t the home that I had grown up in, but it still was where I lived for five years. And yet, it was weird. On one had, I felt sadness. I was sad that I was, in effect, without a proper roof over my head. On the other hand, I felt no attachment to the house whatsoever, no thanks in part to who owned the place.

Compare this house in Brampton to our old one in Toronto. The latter was three stories tall and a few blocks from St. Clair Avenue West, the rich heartland of Corso Italia. It was quite compact, but it was full of warm, rich colors – brown, red, gold, amber. The former, on the other hand, was vast and grandiose, but lacking in color and character. There were houses in the neighborhood that looked similar, but still had individual charm and warmth. One house had flowers growing in the yard year-round, even in the dead of winter. One house had a driveway paved in the style of the Canadian flag. My parents’ house didn’t even have a flagpole. This house was an anomaly; an anomaly that in all truth, I was happy to be rid of.

I walked out of the house for the last time, relieved and yet scared. The clouds were darkening, and I could feel the first drops of rain on my face. In my car, I pulled out of the driveway, took one last look at the neighborhood, and sped off.

I drove into Toronto and my first stop was Public Storage. I didn’t tell anyone there that I was homeless. I could have simply decided to live in my storage closet for the foreseeable future, but    it was better not to. It was housing some of my grandparents’ things as well as a few of my own. Until I got a bigger place of my own, that was where they were going to stay. I put the five boxes in the closet and left.

I didn’t have the heart to tell ANYONE about my predicament, so I decided to pretend that life was going on as usual. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, I go to the GoodLife Fitness club at Eaton Centre. I went there as usual, and worked out for three hours, followed by a quick bite to eat. Britney was okay in the car. When I got back, she was still sleeping in her cage.

For an hour afterwards, I drove around, finding a good place to camp out for the night. It was cold and wet, but I just didn’t feel right checking into a homeless shelter, especially one that didn’t allow cats. No matter what, Britney and I were a team, and I would be damned if we had to split up. Eventually, I found myself at Scarborough Bluffs, on the eastern edge of town. I didn’t get one wink of sleep the whole night through. In the back seat of my car, I laid awake under a Toronto Maple Leafs blanket that Ryan bought me before he left home. I stared through the window at the stars. My life had been reduced to this: sleeping in a PT Cruiser on the edge of town.

When morning came, I immediately pealed out of the parking lot and drove around Scarborough, aimlessly. I ended up at the McCowan RT station. With Britney and her carrier in tow, I got out and began a day-long excursion on the TTC subway. McCowan, Scarborough Centre, Midland, Ellesmere, Lawrence East, get off at Kennedy, change trains at Kennedy, Warden, Victoria Park, Main Street, Woodbine, Coxwell, Greenwood, Donlands, Pape, Chester, Broadview, Castle Frank, Sherbourne, get off at Bloor-Yonge, change trains at Bloor-Yonge, Wellesley, College, get off at Dundas, Saturday workout at Goodlife Fitness at Eaton Centre, return to Dundas, Queen, King, Union, St. Andrew, Osgoode, St. Patrick, Queen’s Park (near the University of Toronto), Museum, St. George, Spadina, Dupont, St. Clair West (near my old neighborhood), Eglinton West, Glencairn, get off at Lawrence West, walk around Lawrence Square, buy dinner at Fortino’s, return to Lawrence West, and do the whole route again in reverse. Britney and I arrived back at McCowan just before 8:30 that night. I drove away, snacking on fried chicken and potato wedges, wondering what my next step was. Once again, I found a park out-of-the-way and spent the night there, in my car, with no sleep.

Sunday morning came, and I had gotten tired of living in my car. I started calling all the people in my black book who would bother giving me the time of day. I left message after message. No responses came forth. It was Thanksgiving Eve, and I was doomed to spend the holiday at home. I finally gave in and went in search of a homeless shelter.

At an Internet cafe, I looked up resources for homeless people. After a while, I settled on Seaton House, on George Street. I drove in and got myself admitted. They were shocked that someone like me, appearance-wise, would even be in this predicament. I was shocked, too. Still, the staff were very friendly and supportive. I spent the rest of the day doing an intake interview, and when it was all over, I finally had a place to stay. Britney wasn’t allowed into the rooms, but the staff put her in a safe room so that she would not get in anyone’s way. That night, I slept in the same room as two certifiable schizophrenics and a transgendered prostitute. It was a massive change of pace, but it was at least a comfortable bed in a comfortable, if somewhat odd, atmosphere.

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