The second assignment was to edit the first portrait to reflect what was discussed in the lectures and readings.
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 more than once for the cash deposit on drink cans and bottles. 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.”
After his meal, he leaves the newspaper for the next person and goes out to the bench beside the sidewalk, between the coffee shop and the street of one-way traffic. There is one plastic water bottle in the trash can beside the bench, which he crushes and adds to his bag. He sees his friend coming down the street, the one who declined housing to stay in a tent with his dog in an inconspicuous bramble of trees in one of the city’s parks. Some do not have the same life goals as the families you see living the cookie cutter lives of nine-to-five jobs, marriage, big screen televisions, SUVs, excess and suburbia. Some prefer to live off the grid, but still go into town for supplies. “Hey man, how’s it goin’? Haven’t seen you in a while,” the man with the dog says as he sits on the bench beside him. “Oh, you know, same old- same old,” he replies. They talk about the weather, warm and windy as usual.
“He was just a puppy when I pulled him outta the stream by Saratoga Park. I didn’t know if he’d even make it. I saved his life, now he saves mine. I feel safer knowing nobody gonna mess with the guy with the guard dog.” This vagrant prefers an alternative way of life, but he has needs we all share, such as safety and companionship. The dog provides both. The dog, the abandoned German Shepherd crossed with a few other breeds, the squirming sinking lump that turned out to be the strongest swimmer of the litter, a survivor.
For the most part, the people he encounters in the community are kind and generous. There are also those who cast judgmental looks of disgust or shout taunts at him as they drive by. Usually a variation of, “Get a job, you lazy bum!” or, “Frickin’ freeloader!” He tries to understand where their hate is coming from. They think he is taking something they are entitled to. They see him as a parasite. They make assumptions about substance abuse and his mental health. They think he is a lesser lifeform than themselves. They think the government should spend tax money drug testing welfare recipients. He once overheard two men talking loudly in front of the Royal Bank, “I don’t work my life away to have to give it all up in taxes to those lazy commies. I bet they never worked a day in their lives, or known sacrifice like I have. Greedy. Just looking for the next handout, riding the gravy train.”
He says goodbye to his friend and continues his dumpster route down an alley. He thinks about nights he spent in cold, drafty places, beneath bridges and in gutters and hidden away in nooks and shadows. A tent and a dog would feel like camping, feel like a choice. His apartment has everything he needs, running water and more privacy than the homeless 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 a hit to your ego 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. He used to work construction, but because of the seizures he lost his driver’s license and his job. Just wasn’t safe.
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 wants. He likes to read non-fiction. He has read more than most college graduates, but never got a 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 on his breaks from rescuing usable unwanted items. He is reading about local history. The Gas City was settled when the railroad was built across Western Canada in the late 1800s. It is known for its underground pockets of natural gas, referred to as All Hell for a Basement. Many of the people here are reliant on the oil industry to make their living. With the recession leading to massive job loss there were desperate times for many who never imagined it would happen to them. Unemployment can happen to anyone; sudden financial difficulty is not always a result of bad choices. He remembers how he heard someone talking into their thousand-dollar pocket computer how they had to sell their house to live in their trailer, but that the trailer was worth over three years of his AISH payments.
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 during daily excavation. He is content, he is productive, and his high quality of life is reliant on social programs.