After a long drive through empty fields and pristine landscape where I am alone with my thoughts, I approach the outskirts of Edmonton. Thirty minutes before reaching the city, the advertisements begin. I feel as if I am driving through a tunnel of billboards and flashing neon, everything screaming for my attention. The setting sun is far away out my left window, a purplish orange bulbous mass of cloud with golden rays of light dropping through. The billboards are fighting for my attention; their survival depends of me (and my money). The sunset doesn’t care whether or not I watch. It is beautiful for its own sake.
After spending too much time wasting gas circling the congested streets of steel and metal and concrete, I park along a row of apartments behind Whyte Ave. I set out with pack and my guitar and an empty belly. I stop to talk to a street guitarist, and soon another guy joins. He’s American, also here by himself, and he doesn’t know anyone either. He invites me to dinner. When I hesitate, he reassures me—“I used to travel too, I know how it is—don’t worry, I’m paying, this is going on the company card.” We head to Hudson’s Canadian Tap House for gourmet burgers and beers. He is based in Houston but the company sends him all over the world, and we exchange stories about India and China and Thailand. He goes inside to find the bathroom and returns with another new friend, a guy who works there in the kitchen. We all hang out and order another round of beers, and when the food gets packed they both give me their leftovers. We part ways when they decide to head to a Canadian titty bar.
As I am walking down the street, the night begins to get strange. I see a guy lying on the ground next to a trash can. I stare at him, but I walk past. Then I turn around. Someone else walks past. I sigh and kneel down next to the guy. “Hey man. Are you ok?” He looks up at me with glazed eyes. “Am—lan.” “What?” Silence. “Are you ok?” “Amb-lance.” “Ambulance? You need me to call an ambulance?” He doesn’t respond. I drop my bag and pull out my phone and dial 911. No, I don’t know how old he is. No, I just found him here, he asked me to call an ambulance. No I don’t know exactly what street we’re on. Ok, hurry. When I hang up the phone, the guy feebly stretches out his arm and insists on holding my hand the entire time we wait.
An ambulance and a fire truck arrive at same time from opposite directions. I stand in the street waving my arm. A crowd gathers in the flashing red and white glow. The guy sits up looking very confused as the EMTs get out. “Hey James!” They say condescendingly. “Have you been drinking tonight?” Apparently this guy is a regular; he’s hospitalized a few times a week for intoxication. “Do you want to go to the hospital?” “Yeah.” They help him to his feet and load him onto the ambulance. “Is that his stuff?” They ask me, pointing at my pack and my guitar and the white box of leftovers. “No, that’s mine.” And they drive off, the crowd disperses, and I am alone on the street again.
The broken sidewalk guides me and I see a woman sitting on a bench with a guitar. When I get closer I realize that she is mentally retarded. Her arm jerks across the strings, a harsh cacophonous noise. “I ACC-EEPPT DONNNAAATTTIONNNSSS,” she moans as I walk past. A piece of my heart cracks off as I ignore her. I freeze in my tracks and force myself to turn around. She looks at me hopefully with huge, childish, uncomprehending eyes. I fish into my pockets and pull out the change, only a few cents, and drop them into her otherwise empty case. “What’s your name?” I ask. Then I stand and listen to her as she speaks, straining to put sentences together, telling me about her favorite foods and her favorite animals and how she was alone on her birthday last week.
In a darkened doorstep, a kid with a cardboard sign offers me a sandwich. Then another kid comes up and sees my burger. “PLEASE CAN I HAVE THAT GIVE IT TO ME I’M SO HUNGRY,” he yells, so I give it to him. I keep walking, now having lost the leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch but carrying a sub instead.
I leave the stuff in my car and then hit the streets, brokenhearted and angry at life for these people, these moments. Not a resentful consuming anger but just a full embrace of how those moments make me feel, an honest and necessary anger, a surrendering to the pain of the world, my heart breaking helplessly for everyone else’s suffering, a good dangerous anger to arm myself with right now so that I can go without fear, because we all need sometimes to walk alone and barefoot down dark and unfamiliar streets. I meet Jay, tall with long hair and parachute pants and bandages wrapped around his right hand, and he offers me drags of his cigarette as he tells the story of how he was sleeping on a bench and the cops woke him up by smashing his knee with a baton. He gave them the middle finger so they beat the shit out of him and broke his fingers, he shows me the Taser scars on his back, and then another guy walks slowly up to us and then suddenly punches Jay in the head and runs away.
“What the fuck,” we both wonder. A moment later a car circles around and parks in front of us. Three guys get out. Jay tries to defuse the situation. “You’re not the one about to get it,” growls a stocky Asian guy, and then he turns to me. “Remember me?” “What?” “From before. You stole my phone.” “Not me, man.” He checks my arms for tattoos and then realizes that he has the wrong person. The other guy apologizes for punching Jay in the head, and we share beers on the street corner. Jay and I start to leave as a drunk girl stumbles over, and I turn around to see her climbing into the car with the other guys and then they speed away.
We walk, running into random people who Jay knows and who give us pizza and Chinese food. Later I say I have to take care of some things and I walk, I talk to another street musician in a dark empty alleyway, then I continue on past the woman again who is still sitting there with the guitar but I can’t bear anymore so I just smile and say hello and keep walking and then find a feather that I put in my hair and I sit down on a bench watching the empty dark brown dusty streets littered with beer cans and cigarette butts and smog and a bum who rides up on a bicycle and asks me for change and then sees my feet, black, and rides away.