Every time I return home to Edmonton, I make a point of walking Whyte Avenue from 99th Street to 109th Street.
Whyte is a shopping and bar strip near the university that’s the closest thing passing for culture in Edmonton. It has some of the city’s oldest buildings (about 120 years old), and, depending on the time of day, is a reliable place to find suburban yoga moms doing coffee, hipsters looking down on their betters, breeder yahoos getting in vomitous fights, and lurking inner-city urban poor (mostly First Nations).
Walking from 109th to 99th takes one from the more upscale residential university side of things, across the tracks to the light industrial, more inner-city, crack-ridden, stabby parts. I grew up just off Whyte, and worked for ten years on Whyte’s dodgy side; pumping gas and fixing tires at a full-service gas station and automotive shop (Edmonton’s last in operation, in fact).
So while I’m no street-hustling hard-case, Whyte Ave is one of those places that I can walk and a feel the pulse of through the soles of my feet. It was my hood, and when I get home I like to poke around and see what’s what.
Not all that much has changed, really. The station where I worked is now just a chain-link fence enclosing a heap of contaminated dirt, and there’s been a couple of new horrid, yuppie condo/retail developments. But that’s all window dressing; the pulse and vibration of the place is just the same as always.
At Joy’s Lucky 7 Food Store on 101st (where, along with your regular convenience store fare, you can get Chinese kitsch, crack pipes, pepper spray, swords, telescoping batons, and flickknives), I noted that the Somalis were now managing the retail crack business in the parking lot. Interesting! That used to be strictly a Native street gang deal. Now, those same cats seem to be slinging for young, willowy Africans with exquisite bone structure. I suppose that refugees with real AK47 time in a civil war can carry more water than the local talent when it comes to taking care of business for the 1%ers.
Good to know.
On we go, down to the center of the commercial foolishness: the Calgary Trails (North and South). Oh so many breeders and yuppies and suburban duds wandering around slack jawed looking for a reason to keep breathing. Let’s get a Starbucks and listen to a busker! Oh yes, lets. How does Dave like his new truck? Oh yeah? No doubt, eh?
It was around here that my old street sense perked up, and I pulled my gaze from the Lululemon encased ass bobbing all around me to a shady doorstep for an upstairs property. Sure enough, there was one of Whyte’s many homeless occupying the prime real estate. This was no poseur, neither. A real career professional.
Dood was about my age, white, and looked healthy enough. He was decked out in rugged, well-worn bush gear, with a rucksack and all the rough camping stuff you’d expect. He had a big dog tethered to his thick, shoulder-high walking stick. Also, dood was sporting a head full of dreds and his face was covered with a badly done, full-on, “Maori” face tattoo.
So, a real unique, beautiful mess. Which was staring right at me.
I make a point of making eye-contact with the homeless. That way, with simple body language and stink-eye I can get right out in front of letting them know to fuck off. And I will talk to them, sure, but their approach had best be fucking correct.
Now, this guy was not just looking right at me. He was taking me in. I’ve been around enough to know that when a homeless person starts such a personal interaction, they have probably decided that you represent something for them right now. This is never good. When it happens, it’s time to get your feet under you in preparation for fight or flight, and reorientate yourself with your pocket knife’s location.
But Guy didn’t make a move on me, so I gave him the jail-house, reserved, respectful, “I see you man” nod before breaking eye-contact and moving on down the street. A couple of shoulder checks over the next bit to make sure he wasn’t tailing me, and I was on with my day.
At this point it is relevant to mention that I was pretty high on this walk. The kind of high you can only get from smoking a bong of hash and weed salad when you’re totally jet lagged and have been completely sober for two years previous. So as I kept walking, I went into an emotional deep dive on my five second interaction with the homeless man.
The kick off was a quick indulgence in schadenfreude. Basically, an exploration on the theme of, “well, I can see that face tattoo is really working out well for you!”
I have to say, the interaction remains satisfying to me on this level. With one foolish and egregious cultural appropriation, our dipshit hero managed to completely burn through his reservoir of white privilege.
“You know what I want? I wanna have the visible minority experience of the 1950s. You know, where the vast majority of people who first meet me assume I am some mixture of criminal, moron, lunatic, wastrel, and pervert. But I want that without the benefit of any real community of my own. This is gonna be tits!”
The next stage of my dive was one of self-congratulation. There I am, high as a kite, walking a semi-dangerous environment for the first time in years, and I spot the potential danger and deal with it correctly. The scary homeless dood with a weapon in hand and a big dog as backup tried eyeballing me and I backed him off with a look.
There’s no question the guy tried to intimidate me. Skillful beggars will usually blend eliciting sympathy with intimidation. They’ll start with the sob story, but if that doesn’t get traction, they’ll build up the threat level as the interaction continues. The goal is basically to achieve a non-criminal mugging, where the target winds up paying a fee for the privilege of being left alone. This means there’s nothing strictly criminal taking place to get the beggar in trouble, and the target also has the face-saving measure of engaging in charity to alleviate any wounded pride at having been extorted.
When the guy noticed me looking at him, he looked back. What with his whole deal, probably only about one in a hundred passersby ever send anything more than a peripheral glance his way, so he’d have to take advantage of every interaction he gets. But he read my look and posture and saw it was a nonstarter, so he let me drift by without pushing it.
However, there was some pensive element to his look as he disengaged that stuck with me. It wasn’t shame, and it certainly wasn’t fear (I have no illusion that I’m capable of eliciting fear from a tough homeless guy like that; I was simply able to communicate that I’m more trouble than I’m worth). It was more exhausted embarrassment.
It was a couple of blocks later that I became pretty sure I went to high school with the guy. Not someone I ever spoke to, but a person that I was in a number of classes with. His was a face I had spent many a bored moment glancing at.
Then I realized that all of that confrontational and tough guy thinking was possibly bullshit. The guy probably recognized me and was trying to place my face. And, all posturing aside, I was scared of him, so I thought his attention was an intentional attempt to intimidate. (The visible minority experience indeed!)
But I didn’t recognize him, and treated him just as so many others had. He didn’t blame me (how could he), he just took it on, along with so many other small, troubled moments. Just a bit more weight to carry. Because yeah, it’s all his own doing. It’s his mistake playing out yet again, keeping him on the path he can’t escape.
I wonder what he saw in me in that moment. Did I represent to him some road not travelled? What might have been if he hadn’t fucked up his face in a willful expression of self-vandalism?
Probably not. Probably he thought, “fuck that guy.”
But I did think on it.
Hey, look! I’ve looped back around and we’re at the Second Cup coffee shop. I think I’ll pick up a brew to take back to my dad’s house. Maybe I’ll walk by Old Strathcona school on the way; I’d like to see that again.
And so it goes…