So, I play this puzzle game on my phone called Two Dots. It’s a simple concept: join dots of the same colour to clear levels. There are other elements and obstacles involved, which makes joining the dots more difficult as the levels progress. One of the tag lines is, “Eventually everything connects.” I mean to brag when I say I’m on level 1081, although now that I write that, I dunno if it’s anything to brag about… I’ve been playing it for over a year now, so I should be on a high level. In any case, playing it helps clear my mind; it has a meditational element to it and thus allows me to connect the dots in my life. For instance, I went on a bicycle trip half my lifetime ago. I began in British Columbia and was supposed to go down HWY 1 to Mexico, cross through the heartland of the USA where I would work for a month and then get back on the road and finish in Montreal. At the time, it was something to do. I had just finished my first B.A. and was gloriously underwhelmed by the accomplishment: I felt more satisfaction knowing I had worked my butt off the final two semesters to save enough money to be on the road for four months. I ended up being on the road for only three weeks… after a five day stop in San Francisco stretched into two weeks… which turned into a month, which turned into three months and ended up being almost a year. In that time though, I collected experiences like dots with elements that wrecked my world and wouldn’t connect until years later.
There was that one night I was walking with Life, who was reciting a poem about heather and Scotland. “Who’s Heather?” I had asked. “It’s a flower” he replied without a hint of derision. Not a figment of my imagination with whom I was having an existential conversation, Life was a beautiful specimen of a young man. At 6 foot 3, with wispy short blond hair, bright blue eyes and broad shoulders, he was both gorgeous and effortlessly cool. He was one of those people who followed the beat of his own drum and revelled in the journey. Born to hippy parents somewhere in Idaho who had given their seven children names like Petal and Sitka, Life was the youngest. He had made the most of his upbringing and wanting to be a writer, moved to San Fran seeking adventure, truth and creative fodder.
We had met at The Bar, a run of the mill hole in the wall drinking spot. It didn’t look like much, but the real beauty was in the patrons. The Bar was frequented almost exclusively by people who were not from SF. I was the only Canadian, while the others seemed to be equally split into Europeans and Americans. Despite my visible aberration from the homogenous shades of white, none showed any discrimination or racism towards me, and everyone seemed to be educated, or intelligent, and well read. The bar was close enough to the infamous City Lights bookstore where poets, artists and other creative types were, perhaps like me, searching for buoys to help keep themselves afloat as they tread water.
My local hangout at the foot of Coit Tower, the No-End Cafe, closed at 11 and I usually ventured to The Bar when the spirit called. That night the spirit kept calling, and after a few drinks we were en route to another bar somewhere in walking distance. It felt like a school field trip of sorts, no permission slips needed, and I welcomed the adventure. There were about 12 of us in total and we had silently paired off in a buddy system. Life had been pursuing me for a few weeks, and that night I was finding it difficult to fight off his charm and his smile. I had thought he was too young for me although I was only four years older than him, but his eyes hinted that he knew more than I had at the age of 19. I admired his adventurous spirit, his non-conformist attitude and his persistence. Plus, he knew poems about heather! And thus, there we were, bringing up the rear of the group. We had fallen a few steps behind as he laid his arm around my shoulder and recited the poem. Blindly following the noise coming from our talking and laughing comrades up ahead, I was getting lost in the warmth of his voice and the words of some poet long since forgotten.
All of a sudden someone called out “Dee-tourrrr!… Ob-stah-cullll!” in a loud, drunken, sing-songy matter-of-fact manner. I heard it but thought nothing of it until a few seconds later I noticed out of the corner of my eye the group ahead of us change their direction slightly. They veered right 2 or 3 short steps so I prepared to do the same. Still listening to Life, I turned my head to see what the obstacle was. I took another couple of steps and my feet didn’t veer right. What I saw clearly now, was a man in the middle of the sidewalk who wasn’t standing up, nor was he prostrate. He was on his side, kind of in a semi curled up position, propped up by one arm and evidently in some sort of pain. He was dishevelled and dirty and I quickly assumed, drunk. He wasn’t writhing in pain or making a sound of any kind, but his whole being had the look of discomfort and anguish. Life shifted right and that was the last I saw of the young man from Idaho. I heard him call my name a few times but to no avail, as there was something pulling me towards the man on the ground. Kneeling beside him, I asked “Are you ok?”
The man had dark matted hair, somewhere between long and short and that was all I could see of his head until he turned towards me and I saw his face. It was tanned and dirty with more than a five o’clock shadow of stubble and it was obvious he had once been a handsome man. With high cheekbones and a strong jaw line, he looked as though he could be anywhere between the age of 25 to 45. He had that look of someone old before their time, ravaged by suffering, exposure and too many fisticuffs. His eyes seemed to be rolling around in their sockets, almost cartoon like, and he squinted to look at me. He mumbled something inaudible as his eyes widened. Then one eye focused on me, followed by the other. It was like watching a slot machine reveal two cherries and he seemed to awaken from wherever he had been in his mind and he saw me. By the look on his face, it was as if he knew me. He smiled from ear to ear and tried to sit up but could only manage to move the arm he wasn’t propped up on and then reached out for me. “You!” he said with a surprised tone, “Yer wun-uv-me!” he almost shouted, slurring his words together. Somewhat taken aback by his exuberance, I retreated just a bit. I knew immediately what he meant though as we stared at each other. I saw it in his hair, his skin tone and his cheek bones: the guy was first nations and he knew that so was I.
He was much more visibly excited about this realization than I, however. His whole face had come to life as though he’d just been given some great boon and he leaned towards me. It was then that the full blown smell of alcohol and body odor that he was emitting hit me. “Yer an In-dyun, juss-like me!” he exclaimed with glee. I thought to myself that I was not an Indian like him, but nodded and said “Yes”. This confirmation seem to sober him up a bit and he shifted his pained body closer to me. “Where’re you from?” he asked excitedly. When I told him Canada, I saw the smile fade ever so slightly as he processed the answer he wasn’t expecting. “Where are you from?” I asked. “South Dakota.” he said proudly, then added “the black hills of South Dakota” with noticeable sadness as the initial excitement faded. He pulled his body even closer, then wrapped his arm around my upright knee, looked up at me and said “I juss wanna-go-home…. Why won-they-lemme-go-home?” He seemed to be pleading with me. I saw grief take over and his eyes closed. “They took my home” he said, like a lost child, and he slumped further and further until he laid his head on my other leg and began to cry. “Why’d they take my home?” he asked repeatedly as his body started to wrack with sobs. Instinctively my hand went to his back to offer some sort of comforting pat.
As I knelt there with this broken wreck of a man in my lap like a child, I knew I was not like him. I felt his pain and sadness and I had empathy for him, but I also felt like a fraud because I had no connection to my community, to my ‘home’. I had never felt that kind of sadness or pain over the loss of anything, much less my community because I had never let myself feel anything but happiness over being adopted and growing up in white middle class suburbia. I felt like a liar for telling him I was an ‘Indian’ when I knew I was only one by blood, not by experience. I didn’t feel sad over losing something I had never known because I was happy that I’d been given access to education and opportunities that most first nations didn’t have. I was happy that I’d been given the chance to make something of myself, to break free of the stereotype, to mingle with the white folk on their level. And I felt shame for thinking all this. And I felt ashamed of him, for drinking too much, and ashamed of me for drinking too much and ashamed for judging him. And I felt shame for feeling ashamed of a fellow first nation, for feeling ashamed of a fellow being that was hurting. And shame upon shame upon shame opened up and tumbled over and under like an M.C. Escher drawing and I didn’t know which way was up or out.
His words began to sound like a mantra as he kept repeating them, rocking in my arms. “Why’d they take my home? I juss wanna go home.” I don’t know how long we were lost in our own worlds as we sat on that speckled sidewalk. I didn’t even hear the ambulance arrive. Some motion caught my eye and looking up from the drowning man I saw the mouths of the emergency responders moving as they knelt beside me. It was almost is if I had pressed the mute button on the rest of the world. I watched as they gently pried his arms from my legs, bundled him up and placed him on the stretcher. I didn’t move as they struggled to strap him in and he kept reaching out to me, as if in a panic, crying out that he just wanted to go home. And I watched as he gave up the fight. His body went limp as he lay back on the crisp white linen, then he closed his eyes and put the questions out one last time to anyone and no one, “Why cann-I go home? Why’d they take my home?” Then the doors of the ambulance closed, the emergency lights began to whir along with the siren and they drove off, leaving me kneeling on the sidewalk. With tears silently streaming down my face, a heavy heart and the words “I don’t know” ricocheting around in my head.
next week: Connecting Dots