I joined a free online writing course and the first paper was a portrait of someone and how their identity is influenced by their surroundings and social issues. I thought of the man I often see at the dumpster on my way to work. I wasn’t sure I said all I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how to end it. I started worrying I was making too many assumptions creating a fictional day-in-the-life of this nameless man. I started feeling like to do this piece properly I should be interviewing people at Tim Horton’s, not just imagining what could be.
He rummages through the dumpster, looking for recyclables. On a good day, he can fill his reused black garbage bag and stop in at the bottle depot for twenty dollars for a few hours work. He finds other things too in the places people throw things away, items that could be sold or repaired but are easier to dispose of in a wasteful society. He is a thrifter, a treasure hunter, a trash archaeologist, sifting through the layers of the unwanted materials of other people’s lives. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
He smiles and says hello in the early morning, as the woman tosses her bag of kitty litter, banana peels, and used kleenex into the dumpster on her way to work. He can tell he won’t need to go through this bag, but after she has driven off, he pokes at it just in case. The dumpster’s heavy lid is propped up with something he found lying around, and his cane reaches down into the acrid depths of the metal bin. Today he has found a discarded electric fan. One of the blades is missing, another has a crack. He assumes there is a good chance it still works, and sets it to the side. It will be light enough to carry home up the hill, but this is only the fourth dumpster on his daily route, and he will collect it later. The tiny apartment really heats up in the summer, and this is a fortunate find, if it works. If there is some issue with the motor or electrical system he can’t fix, it will simply be returned to the endless supply of refuse. If the broken fan blade makes it spin unevenly, he will remove another blade opposite to balance it. He is good with his hands. He is a problem solver.
Crescent Heights, where he lives, is at the top of the hill. He comes down the well-maintained stairway built into the side of the coulee, and crosses the pedestrian walkway over the busy Altawana Hill traffic. The bottom of the hill is Riverside, with its many apartment complexes and adjoining dumpster buffet. It also has a bottle depot. Passed the Catholic cathedral, the sidewalk leads to the pale green Finlay Bridge, over the river into Downtown. Here is where he spends most of the day, before returning for any items he set aside earlier, on his way back up the hill. He never takes a day off. He goes out and about every day, because you never know when you will find something worth finding.
Familiar faces come and go at the Tim Horton’s on 3rd street. Some do not make eye contact, others greet him with a smile or some spare change. His army camouflage pants don’t blend into the brick walls, but you would sometimes think he was invisible. The pretty lady with the pony tail behind the counter is always friendly to him. “Hey there, how are you doing this morning? Your usual breakfast today?” He nods shyly and casts his eyes down to the counter, setting down some toonies for his small double double coffee with a bacon n’ egg breakfast sandwich. He puts nickels and dimes into the change box of the Children’s Foundation beside the register because he likes to give when he can. He knows every little bit adds up.
A newspaper is left on a table near a window and he chooses that spot. First he flips to the obituaries. At some point in your life, the names and faces stop being folks your grandparents’ age, and you start seeing people your parents’ age, if you had any. Then more and more people your own age appear in the columns until one day it is you. He sees a headline in the paper about how the city of Medicine Hat claims to have ended homelessness. From April 2009 to December 31, 2016, they housed 1072 people, including 312 children. The mayor is quoted as saying, “I wasn’t even on board when I was first elected,” but now believes the program is a huge success, with declining costs in crime and health care saving taxpayers money in the long run. “How do you solve homelessness? You give them a home.”
He knows a guy that still lives in a tent with his dog in an inconspicuous bramble of trees in one of the parks. Some do not have the same life goals as the typical families you see living the cookie cutter lives of 9-5 jobs, marriage, bigscreen tvs, SUVs, excess and suburbia. Some prefer to live off the grid. He prefers running water and more privacy than a shelter. He has a support worker helping him with government forms and paperwork, and he was accepted for AISH funding, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped. You take an ego hit when you admit to being handicapped. Permanently disabled. They paid for his new glasses. They would pay for a gym membership, but he keeps in shape doing the stairs every day.
The library has one of the best public washrooms that you don’t have to buy something to use. He pays five dollars a year for his library card and has access to all the books, music, and movies he can carry up the hill. He likes to read non-fiction, he has read more than most college graduates but never got the fancy piece of paper with the official stamp and signature. He uses the Internet computers to check the weather report and ask Google questions. He likes to sit in the chairs that face out over the river and watch the clouds on his breaks from rescuing usable unwanted items.
The bottle depot closes at 5:00 now, it used to be 5:30. If he has found a lot of bottles after his lunch time depot visit, he will go again. He walks back over the green bridge and sees people fishing, geese and ducks swimming in the river, the occasional beaver. He fantasizes about living off the land, he thinks he could make a bow and arrows, maybe a slingshot. If you have Indian Status you can claim hunting and fishing rights. He was told when he was young his father had some native blood, but he has no documentation to complete the paperwork, all he has of his family history is a name and the memory of his dearly departed mother, taken too young. He has always depended on himself.
Home in time for dinner, he changes out of his work clothes into sweat pants and a clean t-shirt. He cleans and organizes the items in his backpack, sets aside breakfast money, and makes lists of things he needs to do the next day, or things he is searching for in particular during daily excavation. He is content, he is productive, his high quality of life is reliant on social programs. For the most part, the people he encounters are kind and generous. The worst is judgmental looks of disgust or shouted teenage taunts as someone drives by. He has never been attacked, but he’s always home by dark.