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all men were boys once…

June 30, 2015

I watch the old man shuffle past me as I sit on my local cafe patio and drink my morning coffee. It’s just after 8:30 and the other people on the sidewalk – business women, students, delivery men – wiz by the old man with that great sense of indifference one only sees in hip happening urban centres.

The old man is but a pylon.

Most people, I realize, do not see him at all.

-if ever I needed an anachronism of everything that is good and bad about this province…this would be my man. The grinding poverty, the resilience…

-if I needed an old lobster-fisherman-Maritime-look for my character-driven movie about hard-times in rural Nova Scotia

– if ever I needed a man of the sea from a time when men went about as far as Grade 8 in school before being called by their dads to the boats…this would be my man.

– a man who 60 years later has a face creased and beaten by wind and water and a little too much hard liquor –

-if ever I needed an old man who lived what was left of his life at the old Inglis Lodge rooming house around the corner, along with a motley crew of old drunks, addicts, and cripples – everyone waiting for Godot…

-if ever I needed a Charles Dickens character – the hat, the old fisherman’s pants, the britches, the thick salt-and-pepper beard –

-if I wanted a Dicken’s character shuffling through a modern world of mini coopers, cell phones, south-Asian university students, and the very busy-busy-business of everyday life in hipsterville…

-if ever I needed that man…

…this would be the perfect man for the job.

II

The young man – 17-years-old, bright, attractive – sat with us for an hour and went over the sad story that is his life.

Sexually abused since as long-as-he-could=remember, before running away from home at 14, by his father and an uncle; his mother an alcoholic.

Ever since he discovered opiates at fifteen, his life has been a one-way highway to hell.

With virtually no social services in this province and a 6 month waiting list for mental health counselling services, he has found refuge on the streets, among the other broken people of our society.

“At some point this weekend,” he tells us matter-of-factly, “I’m going to intentionally overdose.”

There are no dramatics. No hysterics.

Just the whirring of the 1am air conditioner, and a few fruitflies buzzing in the lamplight – floating over my slice of watermelon on the desk.

He thanks us for all that the staff has done for him, and in thanks, he tells we needn’t worry, he wouldn’t attempt suicide at the shelter.

“Thanks” I say. “The paperwork would be a bitch.” He smiles at the thought. “Now you see what I mean?” he says to my co-worker. “He has a sick sense of humor. That’s why everyone likes him. He gets what we’re going through.”

~~~~~

We sit for another hour, my colleague and and I trying every trick in our arsenal of tricks to get him to see why he needed to stay among the living.

We know that his addiction is now a massive vampire bat sucking at his neck like a giant cancerous goiter.

We have a file-full of paperwork that has studiously recorded his ever-deteriorating state of existence.

But today is the day of last straws and no turning back.

His mother had called to inform him that she had moved to Vancouver, and she told him that she hoped she never had to ever again set eyes on him. (His father and uncle are 2 years in, on a 10 year conviction for sexually abusing him.)

“I’m done,” he says finally. “I’m just done.”

With nothing left but the air-conditioned silence of the night, he trundles off to bed. My colleague agrees to do the required paperwork, while I go down to the kitchen to prep tomorrow’s dinner… (beef stew for 20.)

III

Imagine you are talking to a 19-year-old boy, whose father he has not seen in more than a decade, who knows only that his father has not been allowed to come back into his life since he nearly beat the boy’s mother to death. (And not for the first time.)

Imagine that you are talking to this 19-year-old boy and it is three in the morning at the shelter, and he has come to you because he can’t sleep – he’s got a bad case of the nerves – and he needs a smoke, and so you stand outside together and he asks you “do you believe in Guardian Angels?”

He’s a scrawny little guy, covered in scars, and it’s 3 in the fucking morning, and he is terrified.

In what should be the safety of his room – away from the streets – he sits through the night – his head full of nightmares and images of savagery.

His world was that of violence and addictions and Children’s Aid bureaucrats, and abusive foster homes, and going to church, and being beaten for not believing, and juvenile detention centres, and month-long stints in solitary confinement, and 1/2 way homes, and more times than he can count being at the end of some midnight cop’s baton.

He is 19-years-old and has 2 high school credits. One in gym and the other in an intro to some woodworking class.

In our managerial-oriented society, his skill set includes stints at landscaping, roofing, drywalling, and car mechanics – but he has no “high school” – so we deem him very nearly useless, and so we won’t accept him into any apprenticeship program, and he is forced to work for nefarious fly-by-night contractors who steal his wages, and we’ll only ever pay him what we have to as required by law – minimum wage. Like it is his fault for the low state of his life.

“Do you believe in Guardian Angels?”

“I don’t know…” I say to him. “On good days I do, I suppose.”

He drags on his cigarette and hunches himself against the damp cold of a Halifax morning.

I thought about it some more for a moment, and then I said, “I think the bigger problem is this: how would we recognize a Guardian Angel, if we ever saw one.”

IV

How to Spot a Guardian Angel:

There are villages in northern-India and in Pakistan where a wife’s value is still understood to be the number of cows her family can provide to the husband as marriage dowry.

I was watching a documentary (name forgotten) and discovered that the average price of a wife in this part of the world is four cows.

Not surprisingly, a man’s status in this patriarchal arena is measured by the number of cows a man has accumulated. The more cows – the higher the status.

Many men, in this part of the world, view women as disposable – for each new wife brings another four cows.

Mind you, the four cow price tag is for fresh, young girls – in the physical prime of their life. The price drops considerably as the women age, and drops precipitously if the woman is a widow, has been raped, has the evil eye or, God forbid, is a lesbian.

In this particular story, the storyline (with many subplots) followed a man from a small village in northern India, whose wife had some kind of blood disease, and the only way she would survive was if she received an expensive blood transfusion.

In the first subplot: The man had already broken many social rules by taking the time and spending the money for his wife to see a doctor.

In the second subplot: the man wonders aloud to the camera team how was going to be able to afford such a procedure for his wife. The price was the equivalent of three years wages.

In the third subplot: the village men actually come and congratulate him on his good luck, for now he can get rid of the hag and marry another young girl and get 4 more cows to add to his herd.

In the fourth subplot: we discover that all of the cows that he owns has come from the original four cows his wife brought with her dowry. There has never been any other dowry.

In the fifth subplot: the man announces to the village that he wishes to sell his herd, in order to pay for his wife’s blood transfusion. The men of the village are furious and think that he has gone mad, and they begin to argue with him and ostracize him. Soon none of them will talk to him. No one will buy his cattle.

So the man takes his cattle to a neighbouring town and swings a deal with a wealthy landowner. He sells all of his cattle to help save his wife.

In the sixth subplot: the women of the village quietly begin to bring food to his door; they say that they would wash his clothes, and clean his house for him if they were allowed.

They say that it would be an honor to do so for such a man.

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