She is walking towards me on the street. Bundled up, I still know who it is. She has a distinctive posture. An agressive stance that surrounds her like an aura. She reminds me of an angry bird looking for justice and feeling helpless after a hawk has raided her nest.
I smile as I get closer. I'm coming back from a meeting downtown, walking towards the shelter where I work. I have another meeting to get to and want to keep walking. To keep moving along but she stops. Right in front of me. I stop too.
"I haven't seen you in awhile," she says by way of greeting.
"I haven't seen you either," I reply.
"Harrumph. Well, I've moved out," she says. "But I'm wondering. What about the blanket drive. Where are you at with it?"
I'm a little confused because I don't know anything about a blanket drive.
"You know, the blanket drive. You must be doing one." She's insistent. Pushy.
"We're not doing a blanket drive right now," I tell her. "We are doing a towel drive though."
"Oh. No blankets?" She pauses. Stares into my eyes as if to confirm I'm telling the truth.
I peer into hers. Dark. Unfathomable. They are lined in heavy black eyeliner. Top and bottom. Her cheeks are rouged. Her jet-black hair forms a halo around her face where it escapes the confines of her red woolen hat.
"We only do drives for items when our supply is low. We've got blankets at the warehouse."
"Well. I need a new one. The one I've got is not very warm and even though I pay good rent on my place, they don't heat it enough." She pauses again. Looks at me to ensure I'm listening. "Do you have new ones?"
"I don't know," I tell her. "I don't get too involved in the specifics of what is in the warehouse. You might want to check at the day office and see if they can help you."
"Harrumph. I just came from there. I go every morning for breakfast. You know, I pay $800 for rent and there's not much left over at the end of the month for food. So, I spend my day walking and trying to get the things I need for free."
She's about my height. In her early sixties I think, but when I get back to the office and check the logs to write a note about finding a new blanket for her I discover she is in her early 50s. I know her by one name but in our database she has two. Sometimes, it's hard to keep track of who is who in a homeless shelter.
I wonder about her life. About what has lead her to assume two distinct names. To have been here at the shelter for the four years she stayed before moving out. The fact she finally got her social assistance straightened out and was able to move into her own place is a blessing. But, with an average cheque of $1200 a month, she's left with about $300 after rent to cover her costs. $75 a week. That's not much.
Back on the street, we keep talking. She asks me about the recent announcement of our Executive Director's retirement.
"He's been here a long time," she says. "It was time for him to go."
"He agrees," I say with a smile.
"Doesn't make sense to keep working at his age, he'll lose his Canada Pension," she informs me. She shakes one mitten covered hand in the air as if challenging an imagery foe. Her body quivers like an indignant squirrel chattering at passers-by. "They do that you know. Take it away. He's 68. If he keeps working the government will just take his Canada Pension and then what would he do?"
I'm a bit at a loss for words. I don't think his Canada Pension had much to do with his decision to retire.
"Mostly, I think he wanted time to relax, to take care of his health and enjoy his grand-kids," I say.
"Yeah? Well it's good he's not letting Canada Pension take his money. It's his. They've no right to take it."
I tell her I have to get back and remind her to check with the Day Office on her blanket. We part and I keep walking back to the shelter.
As I walk into the building another client greets me with a big smile and a wave. He's in his forties. Struggled for a long while with an addiction that wouldn't let him go. For the past year he's been clean and sober and has struggled to find work. It's tough he's told me in the past. At his age he's not as strong as he used to be. Lot of young guys out there beating him to the job. It's discouraging. But, he won't give up. If he can beat his addiction, he can beat the young guys to a job. That's all it would take, he's said. One job to get him out here.
Today, his body is encased in a huge down filled jacket, fur trimmed hood. Beneath it, he's wearing several layers, down vest, sweater, another sweater. He clenches a pair of thick gortex gloves in one hand. A pair of work boots dangle from their laces in his other hand.
"Wow!" I say. "You're really dressed for the weather."
"I got a job!" he tells me excitedly. "I'm off to the north. It's gonna be cold but I'm ready." And he pats his down jacket with his gloves. "Got this in the clothing room this morning. It's real warm. Gonna need it where I'm going. But I got work. I'm ready."
"I'm so happy for you." I reply.
"Yeah. It's great. Twenty bucks an hour to stand out in the freezing cold and tear down fences and put up new ones. Twenty bucks. I'm gonna get out of this place!"
I laugh as he does a jerky leap into the air and attempts to kick his heels together. His big puffy jacket floats up around him. The sound of nylon rustling reminds me of an angel's breath whispering into the frosty cool of the morning.
"I'm gettin' out of this place!" he says again as he gets on the elevator with me. "I gotta go up and clean out my locker. Gettin' picked up in an hour." He smiles a toothless grin. "I'm gettin' my life back in order!"
Two different encounters. Two different perspectives. Two different attitudes.
And a world of difference in how the world greets them where ever they go.