Monday, July 19, 2010

Thank you Don, where ever you are.

As a young student journalist, I wanted to do a documentary about street people in Regina.  Yes, we have them, like every other city.  In the research process, I wanted to find someone who could educate me about life on the street.  After months of being turned away and turned down by various helping organizations,  I booked a meeting with a counsellor at the Regina Friendship Centre to tell him about the story that I was hoping to write, and to ask for his help.

When I arrived at the centre, a 28 year old man named Don met me.  He was about 6 feet tall, thin, with sandy brown curly, tossled hair.  His voice was soft and kind, and kind of crackled at times.  When we shook hands, his skin felt thin, and his hands felt weak.

We went to his office to talk.  I had explained my story concept, and after he sized me up as to whether I was trustworthy and genuinely interested in telling an untold story, he offered to help me.  It turns out Don was posing as the counsellor.  He was a self described "street person" who was originally from Winnipeg. I didn't believe him until he showed me a letter that was addressed to him from Social Services.

I explained that the story would take about 4 weeks to develop and he would need to be available at least once a week. I asked if he could commit to that, and he said, "I would like to. It will be the first thing in my life I have ever finished." So Don had a story to tell, and I had a story to listen to.

Don explained to me that the term "street person" refers to one that can live on any street, any where.  He said that "we" tend not to want to be part of the every day rules of society, but there are rules to live by if one is going to make it (and by that he meant be alive) living on the streets.

Over the weeks, Don took me to all the places in Regina that "street people" hung out. He showed me where he / they lived, and where they ate. He showed me who to avoid and he showed me who I could trust. During my time with Don, I felt safe.  They accepted me.  All I had to do was be sincere, and open minded to learn what they had to teach me. I had only but to listen and not judge. To be earnestly and genuinely interested in their lives.

One day in January, I was meeting Don in front of the Army & Navy department store. He was waiting for me at the bus bench across the street as planned. It was about 30 degrees below zero that day (Fahrenheit).  I looked down at Don's feet and he was wearing men's shoes, but they were not leather.  He had no socks.  I asked him where his socks were and he said they were stolen from his room overnight.  His face was banged up so I guessed the two incidences might have been connected.  I asked him to wait for me and went into the Army & Navy department store where I bought him 3 pairs of men's wool socks for $5.00.  I came out and gave them to him.  He cried, and then he put them on.

I never gave Don my home number, but I could reach him at the Queen's Hotel anytime.  Don kept his promise to me, with the exception of 10 days when I thought he had left town, and I would have to start over.  I called the Hotel every day and left messages with the bartender to call me when Don arrived.  Finally, I got the call that he had returned. I phoned him and we talked.  He explained to me that he was very sorry but that somebody was after him and he had no choice but to run. Such was the life of Don. I thanked him for coming back.  "It was least I could do," he said. "I said I would do this and I want to do this."

During our time together, Don told me all about his family, his life and his childhood. He said he didn't know where they were anymore, and he didn't blame them for not telling him where they were living.  Don told me that he started running when was 14 - got mixed up with drugs and alcohol and did whatever it took to feed his habit, including being a male prostitute at the age of 14.  Don said that his parents and family tried to bring him home, but every time they tried, he just ran further and faster.  "Eventually they gave up on me. I can't really blame them. I burned them out."

Don and I did finish the radio documentary.  And then I never saw him again.  I have often wondered what happened to him - if he found another street to live on in another city, or if he found his family, or possibly is living a normal life somewhere.

But each day when I go to work downtown, I see many of the people who I met with Don during our travels, and I think to myself - there but for the grace of God go I.  And then I remember to smile at them when I pass them on the street. And if they need a dollar for coffee, and I have one, I give it to them. If I could see Don again, I would thank him for teaching me something about humanity, humility and grace.


Anonymous said...

Very touching story Lynn... and you are right, there but by the grace of God go I - who knows, one wrong turn early in life and everything could be different. People who look down on street people need to remember that and show compassion instead of ignorance and disdain. I too do not hesitate to buy a meal or a coffee for a person that has a less fortunate life than myself, because you just never know. And I also try to remember that everybody has a story. Thankyou for sharing Don's.

Windnsnow said...

Seems like the good story stays with us forever - be we the writer or the reader. I do challenge, however, the assumption that comes out of the statement: "living a normal life somewhere" as if, some days, living off the street, in homes or condos is any more secure, sane or sanctified.

Lynn Larson Armstrong said...

That's a good point Windsnow. What is living a normal life. For Don, I hope he is safe whereever he is. I think about him often and I still look for him. But I never see him.