It is mid afternoon. I am walking on a main thoroughfare, a block from the river that leads into the downtown core. As I walk, the high rent skyscrapers give way to empty spaces and a seedy hotel.
The shelter where I work is here, amidst the rundown, worn out architecture of the east end of the city core. Much of it is under construction. Giant earth movers scuttle back and forth carrying the dirt and debris of change. Orange fences surround gaping holes where once low rental housing leaned into the wind and provided shelter to the working poor, the addicts, the prostitutes, the human effluence who lived on the edges of our society in a place where poverty was the common ground. At this end of the community, however, the construction is only visible on the road ahead where dirt laden with giant tubes of concrete has replaced the tarmac of the road that snakes along the river. The pathway along the river that was once accessible from the road is now fenced off to keep people safe from the construction.
Beside me on the avenue, traffic speeds towards me, racing to reach the safety of the downtown core. It comes in spits and spurts, regulated by the light at the other side of the bridge that connects this part of the city to the northern shore. I walk. Traffic stops coming. The avenue is empty.
Ahead, I spy a group of people sitting on a small knoll. Two men stand facing eachother. One tall. The other, hunched over. His grey jacket slumped back off his shoulders, his hands forward, palms facing up. The group is watching the duo. Faces turned up in anticipation of the drama about to unfold. Drama I am not prepared for.
Suddenly, the taller man flips the younger man to the ground. He laughs. Says something I can't hear to the crowd. I want to hear nervousness in their responsive laughter. I could be imagining it. The taller man leans over the body of the man he's flipped to the ground. He tears the earphones from his head. Rips the CD player from the pocket of his jacket. He looks around. No traffic. He musn't see me. Or, if he does, he doesn't see the threat in a lone woman walking down the street. He stands up. Lifts his boot and stomps it on the head of the man on the ground. He steps over the man and sits down with the group.
I am stunned. Not quite sure I actually saw what I saw. I am alone. One person. A group of four or six sitting on the hillside. I know the tall man is the dealer. I know the others are his clients. I know I need to do something. I don't know what. I am at risk.
I keep walking.
I look for a police cruiser. There's normally one in the neighbourhood. Around the corner, at the side of the hotel, I see one. I walk over. The officer knows me. I tell him what I witnessed. "I'll check it out right away," he says. With a wave and a parting, "I know where to find you if I need you," he flips on his lights and spins around, turns the corner towards the group.
I walk back to my office. Behind me, I see the cruiser in front of the tableau of people sitting on the hill. I know nothing will happen. I know the man whose head was stomped won't say anything. I know the group will not reveal the perpetrator of the drama that unfolded. I know all this and still I want it to be different. I want them to stop doing what they're doing to kill themselves. To stop hurting eachother. To stop giving up on themselves and life and living. I want them to awaken.
I have no questions today. No answers. I know I cannot change the world. I know I cannot stop anyone from speeding down the wrong way on a one way street to destiny. I can only do what I can do. I can only give my best. Do my best. Be my best. My best is good enough.
And still my heart cries. My soul weeps for those who have lost their way and find themselves in the hellhole of an addiction, living on the street, living by their wits, living off the drugs dealers peddle that keep them from turning away from street life back to mainstreet.
Yesterday, in the self-esteem course I was teaching one of the students asked me after we had talked about attitude and the benefits of staying your course to reach your goals, "But how do I do that when I get out of rehab and have to come back here? How do I quit using when everyone around me wants me to keep being who I was and keeps encouraging me to go back to my old ways?"
"Do you want to go back to your old ways?" I asked him.
His response was fast and vehement. "No."
"I don't have the answer for you," I told him. "All I can tell you is, the choice is yours. If getting out of here is your goal, measure every step you take against your goal. Does it take you closer, or further away from where you want to be?"
"Yeah, but these guys are my friends. When I won't go partying with them, they make fun of me, they even pick fights with me."
"Friends don't hold you back from attaining your goals, but an addict will always try to keep you from breaking free," I told him. "If you break free then that means they could too. And what addict wants to know they can get away from the thing they use to ease their pain? You are an inspiration, and a curse. In you, they see the possibilities. And possibilities are scary."
"So, I could be a role model?" he asked. (We had spoken of the kind of man he wanted to be earlier. A role model was key.)
"You are their role model. You are their light, their hope, their possibility. They're afraid of what you're doing but they want what you're doing to be possible for them. Facing their desire, however, is scary. What you've done is the unknown. The dealers got what they know and he knows how to keep them using."
"Yeah," he agreed. "The last thing the dealer wants is to lose another customer."
Another student piped up. "Who cares. There'll always be another one after the last one."
The reality of addictions. "There'll always be another one after the last one."
For that young man lying on the hillside, there is always hope he will awaken. As long as he stays alive.
For the dealer, there is always hope he will awaken too. As long as he stays alive. Perhaps one day he will face the consequences of his actions. Perhaps one day, someone will do to him what he did to another human being and he will awaken from the darkness.
I don't know. I do know that to give up on those who are lost is to give into the darkness of their despair. To give up would be to give over control to those who would want to deal with impunity in the underbelly of someone's addiction. To give up would be impossible.
I am proud of the work I do. I am proud of the people I work with. The courageous souls who will not give up on anyone, even when that person has given up on themselves.
I am grateful for the work I do. I am grateful there are those who will not give up, who continue to fight for the oppressed all over this world. I am grateful for the officer who so quickly responded to my call. I am grateful for the students in my class yesterday who are courageously moving forward, even while they struggle to make sense of the world around them. I am grateful I live in a world where possibilities exist, where spirits can awaken to the beauty of our human condition, where ever they are in the world today.
I am grateful I can make a difference. If not me, who? If not now, when?