11 February 2019

The world as I know it is in turmoil. I was probably naive in thinking that the lyrics of All You Need is Love by Lennon and McCartney would eventually come true:

“There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved

Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
It’s easy
All you need is love”

I was a hippy in the midst of Beatlemania, Woodstock, and protests of the Kent State Massacre of 4 May 1970. I attended sit-ins, rallies and in my university classes, I heard lectures by supporters of the Weather Underground Organization, known as the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and other groups who asked us, “Why are you just sitting here? Why aren’t you protesting or throwing a bomb?”

I didn’t throw a bomb. I mellowed out on Moroccan Gold, hash oil laced with opium and watched music from the stereo speakers assaulting my head in blinding waves. I became paranoid and was unable to walk down the stairs, I had to slide down one step at a time. I witnessed a beating on the sidewalk. A man had been pulled halfway out of the driver’s seat of his car and was being punched repeatedly to the head. A gang of youths surrounded the fight scene. One said, ‘You’re in a very dark neighborhood.’ I was catatonic, in a state of mental stupor. My wife said, ‘He’s sick. Happy New Year.’ Seeing that I was not a threat, they let us pass and said, ‘Happy New Year.’ When we arrived at the Toronto subway I was afraid that I would be pushed in front of a speeding train.

I’m writing from the viewpoint of a Canadian. If you’ve done the math you will conclude that I am old. I don’t like to be labeled as old, nor do I like to be compartmentalized as a white, male, heterosexual. I recognize that I experience ‘white male privilege’. I like to think that my ideas and beliefs extend beyond these limitations. I think the same of others. We are what we say and do, not how we look, our gender, or gender preference.

In the 1970s a Youth Revolution seemed inevitable. We didn’t trust anyone over the age of thirty. In The Greening of America by Charles A. Reich, required reading in my Humanities class taught:

“how a once-free America had become a Corporate State that made no one happy. And then it suggested a remedy.”

The way out? It wasn’t political change — for Reich, politics came last. The first and most important thing: Consciousness. As he saw it, America had outgrown “Consciousness I,” which had helped form a nation of free individuals. It had outgrown “Consciousness II,” which was corporate and heartless. Now it was time for “Consciousness III,” in which people would turn away from the quest for traditional success and forge a new, personal path to satisfaction.

In short: Change the way you think, help others do the same, and soon the system has to change.”

We saw and supported the black civil rights movement. Richard Nixon promised an honorable end to the Vietnam War. In January 1973, the Nixon administration negotiated a peace agreement with North Vietnamese leaders. Eighteen months later, facing certain impeachment by the Senate due to the Watergate scandal, Nixon became the first American President to ever resign on August 8, 1974. The Vietnam War ended on April 30th, 1975 under the administration of President Gerald Ford.

With the ending of the Vietnam war, I was under the impression that the world was becoming more civilized. I knew returning vets, one had been a driver for Jonathan Winters during his USO tour. I knew members of the Black Panthers and the Klan. While on a heavy equipment course in Charlotte, North Carolina I was drinking beer with a group in a local tavern. The conversation turned to the treatment of blacks in the Carolinas. Someone from another table said, ‘We treat blacks much better here than they do in Mississippi.’ Robert, a Klan member sitting next to me stood up and said to the speaker, ‘How would you like to see a cross burning in your front yard.’ Not another word was spoken. Half the tavern stood up and walked out.

I asked Robert about the Klan. He said that he had nothing against blacks. His uncle was the Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America (UKA), a Ku Klux Klan group, so he grew up as a Klan member, not by choice, but as family. He wasn’t allowed to leave the Klan or the state without written permission. Robert was a likable, good-looking fellow about twenty-some years old from Asheville, Tennessee. He likened being a member of the Klan to being a member of the Boy Scouts. They wore uniforms, had meetings in the woods, but instead of campfires they burned churches.’ What did I know, a prairie boy from Saskatchewan barely of drinking age?

Speaking to a friend, and acknowledged Black Panther, I invited him to join me for a beer somewhere. Since I didn’t have a car I gave him the choice of locations. He said, ‘Thanks for the offer. I’d like to but the places I can go wouldn’t allow you in the door. The places you can go wouldn’t allow me.’

This was completely new territory for me. I was sitting in the front seat of a car driving around the back streets of Charlotte looking for a club. I heard a loud bang from the back seat. I turned around and saw a friend from Colorado pointing a handgun out the window towards a black man standing on the corner. He said, “Don’t worry. I wasn’t trying to shoot him. I just wanted to see him jump. Later he had a quick draw contest with a vet from Tennessee. Luckily nobody was injured.

“Dec 28, 2018 – The Senate passed a bill for the first time in its history that, if enacted, would make lynching a federal crime. More than 4,700 people were lynched in the U.S. from 1882 to 1968, according to one estimate, and over 70 percent of the victims were black.”

Twenty-seven countries around the world allow same-sex marriage yet, as of December 2018, “in the United states marriage certificates are not issued to same-sex couples by eight counties in Alabama and one county in Texas. Those wishing to marry in these counties must travel to another county to obtain a license validly performed in other jurisdictions.” Where is Democracy if the majority is circumvented by an ignorant minority?

I am a feminist if that means that I support strong women in power who intend to unite the country and rescue it from the clutches of the pay for pray evangelists who hide behind their racism, bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia. These evangelicals are the money changers who Jesus threw out of the temple:

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

The women’s liberation movement “included campaigns in support of peace and disarmament, equality in education and employment, birth control and an end to violence against women.”  When Congress proposed the amendment in 1972, the resolution said it would become effective if approved by three-quarters of state legislatures. This seemed reasonable and long overdue. “At the time, ratification seemed a foregone conclusion; both parties had supported the ERA for nearly 20 years. But the nascent religious right mobilized to block it. Ratification stalled at 35 states—three short of the three-fourths majority required…  On January 15, 2019, the Virginia Senate voted to approve the ERA. The resolution now goes back to the House that rejected it 40 years ago.”

In December of 2010, my lungs ached, as frost hung in the bitterly cold morning air, making breathing difficult. I trudged in the falling snow toward the building where I work, in one of the city’s grey, concrete, office tower canyons. I dodged other pedestrians, also trying to get to work on time. I noticed a woman seated cross-legged on the sidewalk with her back against a building wall. A snow-covered Buddha, wrapped in a sleeping bag, shivering in the below-freezing temperature. I guessed her to be in her forties. Everything about her seemed round. She had the most angelic face, sparkling blue eyes, and a beautiful smile. A cap was upturned in front of her. She said ‘Good morning sir.’ I replied with “Good morning.’ I was intrigued by her and wondered why she wasn’t staying at a homeless shelter and eating at one of the churches that offer free meals. I thought, There but for the grace of God go I. Her smile and blue eyes haunted me all day.

The next morning when I saw her I asked, ‘Would you like a coffee and perhaps a breakfast sandwich?’ She replied, ‘A breakfast sandwich sounds good. I don’t drink coffee but I’d like a tea with three sugars. When I returned with her meal in a bag she said to me, “Thank you so much, sir. You’re so kind. Bless you.” I truly felt blessed. I asked if I might sit with her. She replied, ‘Certainly.’ I asked how long she had been on the streets. She hesitated for a moment then said, ‘I arrived from Toronto in ’97, so that would make it 13 years. I sleep behind the dumpster in the back of Starbucks.’ Thus began a beautiful friendship.

Two years later I spoke to Joy about the possibility of writing a story about her and her friends. Several days later I saw a group of people standing near the park. Some I recognized as being Joy’s friends, so I started talking to the ones I knew. Joy arrived and said to the group, ‘This is my friend, Dennis. If anything bad happens to him you’ll have me to answer to. He’s writing a book and would like to talk to some of you.’ I said, ‘My intention is to write a book from the point of view of homeless people.’ I asked them, ‘What would you guys like the general public to know about your situation? I won’t use your real names.’

A large man approached me. He said, ‘Get your notepad and pen out. I’ll talk to you.’ Darren [a college graduate and Gulf war veteran]. ‘First of all, we aren’t you guys, we’re not a group, we’re individuals. We come from different places, different backgrounds, in some cases different tribes. Some of us don’t even like each other, but we congregate here to have a beer, smoke a joint, to be with others who don’t judge or verbally abuse us. We accept everyone.

‘As for me, I’m from New Brunswick. My ancestry is Mi’kmaq. My family lived in a small town where the priest made all the decisions. My mother and father were both alcoholics. I have a brother and a sister. It was the priest’s decision to send us to foster homes. I was sent to Boston, I don’t know where my brother and sister are located.’

When I’m with the homeless I don’t judge. I ask a minimum of questions, only enough to keep the conversation moving. I don’t interrogate or ask about their past. Mostly, I listen and try to understand. I am often asked why I am there. Although the reasons are deeper, I usually answer by saying, ‘The conversations here are more interesting than where I work.’ I visit them before work, and at noon hours, so I always have an excuse to leave.

What I have learned over the past nine years has changed my life. The people, who I consider my friends, are alcoholics, drug, and other substance abusers. Some work as prostitutes, some have HIV/AIDS, most or all have served time in jail for various offenses, including drug dealing, domestic violence, and murder. All of them I would trust with my life. They have declared themselves my family. I am honored that they have welcomed me.

I have heard from them sickening stories of abuse as children and babies born with drug dependencies. Most have mental and physical illnesses, suffer beatings, broken bones, stabbings, and have a fear of abusive partners, or the police, or both. Authority in any form is seen negatively, as a means to control their lives. The homeless shelters are noisy, infested with bed bugs, the scene of fights, rape, and a place where personal items are stolen. Most of these people prefer to sleep inside common areas such as bank foyers, outside under bridges, or behind dumpsters.

In the conversations I recall and write on the pages of my book, Gotta Find a Home, I try to be as truthful as possible. I leave out details that I think might incriminate, but generally, I try to give an accurate picture of the conversations I have with my friends. These people need help, but they want it on their own terms. They don’t choose to be uneducated, unloved, mentally ill, or addicted. Addiction is a disease and should be treated as such. They live on the streets because it’s the best choice they have and they do what is necessary to survive.

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