Her bulky handbag clutched to her chest, eyes darting left then right, the pale young woman scurried to catch the green light. Safely across the busy street, she reined up sharply: no sign of him. The damp browed uncertainties of the long night subsided, but Allison’s relief was short lived. It was almost 8:30; she had no time to waste.
Once inside the lobby the young woman flew around the corner, and fumbled to unbutton her coat, then slammed to a halt. There he was half-hidden at the end of the hallway like a pile of soiled clothes. Could she slip quickly past him up the stairs?
Move quickly, that was her best defense, say she hadn’t noticed if they asked. If they found out that she’d not reported seeing him, there’d be hell to pay. But when it came down to it, she couldn’t fill in the form, with the HB pencil sharp as a knife: November 28, “Seen again in the hall.”
Without even looking his way, she could visualize him in detail. She had spied him often enough as he moved along his territory or crept along the halls. He wasn’t much taller than she, no more than five foot four: thin, frail, wiry, and bent. His grey face was cut by dirty creases, his yellow teeth crooked and broken.
He was always hung in the same outfit, probably all he owned. Layers of clothes: the baggy striped shirt gaping at the front exposing grey underwear and a pale wizened chest. Over that a faded black vest and a huge jacket stained with dried food, the pockets ripped, and the buttons dripping off. The comical trousers, hoisted around his waist were squeezed tightly by a broken belt. Carelessly laced shoes protruded out of baggy unevenly rolled pant legs. He wore no socks.
The first day she had dismissed him as a drunk. Annoyed he had crept up from Vancouver’s skid row where the druggies shuffled the streets begging for money, she was angry that he was invading her street. He staggered along oblivious to the busy people pushing by him, occasionally stopping to look in shop windows. He obviously had no money; he should get a job.
Days later when she studied him more closely, Allison realized he was not as old as he had seemed, probably not over 55, not even as old as her own father, and when she considered what job he could do she knew no one would hire him. If men who looked after themselves like her father couldn’t find work, this old guy was off the radar.
She had worried about what he was up to. At any moment he would stagger into the busy street. She wanted to ask if he needed help but as she moved forward, the gaunt figure swung around towards her and she recoiled. She had better leave him alone, other people were watching: a couple across the street turned away, a young woman pulled her curious toddler out of his path.
Then, a few days later the derelict crept further into her life. She had ducked into the bakery near her office to buy an apple turnover for coffee break, an indulgence against the rain that shrouded the city. The girls at work would ask if she’d given up her diet, which she had not, but after all it was only one day, only one treat. As she waited to be served she spied him, a shadow in the brightly lit, white shop. He was hovering in front of the glass display, supported by an older guy — obviously neither a shop worker nor a friend — who urged the ragged man to choose something. Allison watched as the shop clerk filled a brown bag with buns and cookies for another customer. When the well-dressed man indicated they were still not ready to order, Allison reluctantly made her purchase and left satisfied the poor guy would have something to eat that day. Later sitting in her office, hot coffee in hand, the image of the old man drifting the streets without socks scratched her mind.
But then, it was not long since she had stood outside. Not in rags, of course, but almost penniless. Thinking only to escape her parent’s small town fate, she had thought nothing of the cost of living on her own in Vancouver. The family had cheerfully waved her goodbye, her face still grinning as the bus rumbled towards the city. But when she arrived hours later tired and hungry, she moved off the bus reluctantly, feeling abandoned in the dirty terminal.
Uncertain where to look for a room, she lugged her huge battered suitcase along the unfamiliar streets, searching for a welcome. At last she found a third floor room where she existed at the whim of a sour faced landlord, fearing eviction if she made a noise. A worn sign tacked to the paint pealed wall on the first floor landing instructed, “No visitors after 10. One bath a week.”
And then the task of finding work. Always arriving too late, looking disheveled and confused while other applicants appeared confident and happy. The whispered conversations in waiting rooms with other girls, and older women some with desperate smiles, some who had been looking much longer than she had. Her Mother scribbled her anxious letters advising her to give up and come home, but Allison held off for one more week, living on noodles, and one more week. And then finally she had landed a job.
The relief, the joy, was overwhelming. What gratitude she had felt towards the woman who told her the news, the man who showed her to her desk, her new boss. And best of all when she settled down in relief was to know that she would be helping people; working for the government health services. She, of course, would just be typing and filing but the office where she worked helped needy people. People like her father who perhaps she should have stayed with, should have supported more.
Not much money when you added up the cost of a room and food and clothing and the bus, but a start. If she were careful with her money, she’d have enough to send some home. Sometimes she could even treat herself to a coffee and donut at Tim Horton’s.
That had been the worst thing about those first weeks. Walking the streets in the rain, her wet feet aching, glancing longingly in restaurant windows, watching the women drink coffee, and carelessly ordering what they liked. How she envied them. She had longed to go inside, to the warmth, to order a coke and fries. But of course she didn’t. An extra treat could mean having to give up her search one day earlier. Having to go home and live off her family.
Watching the little man — later they always labeled him “Lurchy man” — from across the street as he lingered outside the restaurants her chest ached, for him and for all she had hoped for when she came to Vancouver. True on a sunny day with money in your purse the city was as beautiful as in the brochures. But on rainy nights, the damp creeping up the stairs, family far away, the dread of lay-offs and unpaid bills chilled the dream. After she sent some money home to her folks, she never had enough left to stop worrying.
So why had she added the dirty street man to her worries? If they knew at the office what she had done, how she had drawn him in, they’d blame her for everything. It was just that she couldn’t avoid him. She felt him behind her stumbling along searching the ground. What if he found some money? That would make him happy. Even a quarter would help; a couple of loonies and he could buy a cup of coffee. Then one morning shivering with the damp as she moved ahead of the ghostly figure, Allison had surreptitiously dropped a few coins near the wall. Later when she left for home the money was gone. She was glad; she had done something.
But then he came inside the building. She caught him in the hall. Terrified by his sudden emergence from around a gloomy corner Allison stumbled up the stairs and blurted out her fears to the receptionist. “Creepy isn’t he,” the girl said. Other staff had already complained; Allison’s response brought action.
The next day a meeting was called to discuss “potentially aggressive drop-ins.” Everybody was to attend. Not that anyone thought the distorted little man was a threat but his presence inside the building caused unease. “Better to prevent an incident,” Allison’s boss commented.
Allison was relieved there was to be a meeting. Something had to be done for the old guy; maybe he’d come into their building for help.
The meeting room was so crowded some people had to stand by the wall; even the clerical staff had been invited. The social worker, who reminded Allison of a sitcom star whose name she couldn’t recall, introduced himself and suggested everyone else do the same. The room buzzed warm and friendly. Staff members joked about seeing one another in the hall or commented they hadn’t gotten together since the Christmas party. After the introductions the social worker who insisted she call him “Ted” explained about drop-outs and distributed a faded photocopy of rules on how to deal with aggressive clients. The manager, a woman from the third floor, explained with a smile that the funny little fellow who had staked out their street had probably found the building warm and decided to camp out for the winter. The staff shuffled their annoyance. “He can’t stay here,” they rightly insisted.
A solution had been found. Staff would record the man’s appearance and if he kept returning the police would be notified.
“What will they do with him?” someone asked, curious.
“Just see he moves on, doesn’t come back in here.”
Allison wondered where he was to move on to. She wasn’t expected to ask questions she knew but she blurted, “Can’t we find him a place to go?”
The faces turned to her. The social worker smiled kindly.
“He’s not one of ours,” the man explained. “Sometimes they just like to get attention, to get noticed. If he asks for something we can provide — a glass of water, information, give it to him, but otherwise move him to the door.”
“But he has no place to sleep,” Allison cried recklessly.
“We do what we can but some people fall through the cracks.”
Allison knew the expression. She pictured a sieve teeming with wiggling people, like in the old coloured pictures of Hell in her Sunday school class. The sinners writhing and contorting as deformed devils prodded at them with spears. So this was how it happened nowadays.
A notebook for logging the man’s appearance “Or any other strangers loitering around” was passed like a chalice around the table. The murmurs in the room shimmered like bees in a hot field.
Allison wondered if her uncle Fred would fall through the cracks. He’d been out of work for two years—longer even than her dad. He didn’t bother to look anymore. Sometimes he hadn’t even shaved when she dropped by in the afternoon. But no, she wouldn’t let that happen. She’d send more money home, look after him. Someone else would have to worry about the old street guy.
Sitting amidst the comfortable buzz of the staff, joking, talking now about fire safety, a huge ball caught in Allison’s throat. Moving hot like lava through her body, it crushed her ribs, and burnt into her stomach.
“What’s the matter, Allison?” someone asked impatiently.
The desperate girl squeezed out a smile, mumbled an excuse, and hurried out the door to the washroom. Stumbling into the cubicle, Allison banged the door closed, and collapsed onto the seat squeezing her gawky body tight as a bud to suffocate the sound.
©2021 Melodie Corrigall
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