He walked along muttering and cursing, but not at me, I was pretty sure
The man on the street was wearing a Hawaiian shirt: white background, red flowers. He was yelling at a man and woman who were passing in front of the door I’d just stepped out of. The couple looked sleek and clean. They wore dark tailored coats, and the woman’s hair swung as she turned quickly to look back at the man and then forward again at her mate, who was hurrying along beside her. I couldn’t catch what they were saying. I had just stepped into the street myself, so their passing was more of an impression than a scene. The yelling man’s words were clear: “Fucking yuppies,” he yelled. “Fucking fuck.” He turned and walked in the direction I had to go, muttering to himself. He was far enough ahead that if I walked slowly I might not catch up to him, but if I stayed on that street, I knew that meeting him would be inevitable—as if there were a string, long and slightly elastic, pulling me into his orbit.
I had just come out of the Shebeen, a tiny pub in Gastown, where I had attended a friend’s literary book launch. (Elegant words, friendly company. Add alcohol and stir.) I’d given a little speech at the launch, which had made me excessively nervous, so I’d gulped at my beer afterward as if it were ointment that could settle inflamed thoughts, create ease, turn me into a person I will never be. It didn’t work exactly, but there on the street, even though it was Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, and it was night, and many people I knew thought of it as a place of such darkness that once one entered, one might never get out again, I felt comfortable. I’d had the beer, and I’d spent enough time there in daylight to know that the dangers, if any, were more inside me than out, and that these were more likely to threaten me in other settings. Still, it was night. I’m a woman. The street was dark, and my mind was full of its usual tensions.
I soon caught up to the man. As I overtook him, he stopped gesticulating and muttering, looked me in the eye and said hello. I said hello back. He wasn’t a big man. His hair was dark and trimmed, so aside from the swearing and the shirt, which stood out mostly because it was winter and not because there was anything especially strange about it, he looked much like anybody. He said, “It’s a weird night out here,” and I said, “I know,” and hoped that would be the end of it. Sometimes people just need the courtesy of acknowledgement, I told myself smugly, comparing myself to the angry couple. I kept walking, and he walked behind me, muttering and cursing again, but not at me, I was pretty sure. We were approaching a busy intersection, a place where the road curves and cars speed around it as if their drivers think they’re in the Indy or are afraid of getting caught at a stoplight in the Downtown Eastside.
I stopped a few feet from the curb, and the man continued past me without slowing. A car sped toward us, about half a block away on the inside lane. “Whoa!” I yelled at the man, and “Whoa!” again as he hovered between a lurch forward and a lurch back, inches from the street. His eyes were steady on mine, but not focused, as if I’d interrupted him mid-thought and he was still swimming back from it. I was terrified he’d step out in front of the speeding car, so I opened my mouth and hoped words would come. “You’re all right,” I managed, trying to project confidence at the same time wondering why those words. When my husband said them to me, I usually answered, “How can you tell me I’m all right, and what do you know?” But this man didn’t argue. His body grew quieter and he stared at me as if I knew what I was talking about, as if, in fact, I’d given him some necessary information. Then I wondered if my husband had always intended the words as a comfort, not an assumption. Was I understanding this for the first time? The man stayed there on the edge of the curb, cars rushed past, the light stayed red. At a break in traffic, but still against the light, he lurched across the street and seemed to disappear into the darkness on the other side.
After he was gone I went back to thinking about the launch and my friend and the things I would do tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. But when the light changed and I crossed the wide street and saw the man leaning in the shadows against a building, I knew he was waiting for me.
“What’s yer name?” the man said as I got closer to him. I didn’t answer. He said it again. I turned my head and shook it “no,” worried he’d take offence, but not wanting to give away something so personal. My beer brave was wearing thin. I imagined him using my name the way bullies did when I was young, or my mother, when she was disappointed in me. What if he found the right cadence to make me think in some way I owed him?
“You’re not going to give me your name?” he said, sounding nonplussed. I stopped and shrugged. Could I even explain it without feeling small? Then he nodded, and I realized that I had liked him right from the start—maybe his inappropriate shirt and the sleekness of the people he had been yelling at, maybe the slightly submissive posture of his body and the reedy sound of his voice. Did he remind me of someone I knew? Or was he just some manifestation of self out there lurching through the world? We both started walking again, him keeping pace, but far off to my left. He called me “ma’am.” Told me he’d had a bad night and just wanted to get out of there, go home. I said I understood. By that time we were in a stretch where there were hunched shadows against the buildings, and the light was especially dim. He walked past the shadows with me, then said, “I just need a twenty to get on the bus.”
A twenty? I thought, feeling disappointed, or just stupid. What had I expected? “I don’t have any money,” I told him.
“You don’t have a toonie?” He sounded incredulous. His voice went high at the end.
“Oh, a toonie. I thought you said twenty. I don’t have twenty.” I opened my wallet. He drew nearer. I handed him a five. “Here, get a coffee. Go home,” I said speaking the way I had at the curb, like a mother, speaking like I had any business telling him what to do.
“Thank you, ma’am. God bless,” he said. “If you’re ever here again and need help, I’m here for you.”
I smiled, my idea of the relationship restored, and said goodbye. Just before the SkyTrain station, in a section of exceptional darkness, I saw a man bent in apparent agony. Some force twisting his body, and I wondered, in this new Florence Nightingale view of myself, knowing what to say and all, what on earth could I say to him? I worried that he would fall against me or suddenly rear up. I walked faster. Near the station, an old man sitting in the shrubbery called out as I passed, “Can you spare some change?” I said nothing, the way I so frequently do.