Sunday, July 17, 2011

Culture Skirmish

I’m standing on a borderland of cultures. Queen and Bathurst on the west end of Toronto’s downtown. It’s the tail end of the morning rush hour and I’m waiting to see if one of my clients will show up. She’s a nineteen year old who is being bombarded with a whole slew of stresses these last months: breakups and emotional blackmail, a parent arrested, a landlord threatening eviction, drama and fistfights among friends. She’s experiencing the dulling efficiency of booze to numb her and the encroaching enticement of crack; discovering the power of her sensuality in her arsenal against lonliness, and its very different power as a porn commodity. It’s all so much that suicide becomes an inviting dance partner on her horizon. But she doesn’t want that dance, and has instead opened the door to counselling, has in fact become a demand for it.

But when I phoned last night to tell her that a colleague had arranged a quickie, shortcut intake, she suddenly cooled to the plan, was full of excuses. “I’ll be there anyway,” I told her. “I have to be. The guy pulled some strings to make this happen.”

That made her angry. Emotional blackmail again? “Well I don’t know,” she said via text message (she wouldn’t take my live calls). “It’s just not a good day for me.”

“Fine,” I told her. “I’ll just go, and we’ll talk later.”

So I’m there now, in front of the clinic, waiting, hoping she’ll turn up. A small group of Native Canadians are packing their sleeping bags into a grocery cart and about to make their way to the Meeting Place, the Drop-In across the street. The Health Centre makes no bones about them sleeping there nightly, so long as they vacate once the doors open. Among the guys is one of the first people I ever housed through Streets to Homes. He and his girlfriend have shared a tiny bachelor in a run-down low-rise a few blocks from here for almost two years now, but he still prefers to sleep outdoors with his friends most nights. We share small talk while they pack up, and while a steady stream of young office workers crowd from the streetcars to the various businesses nearby - tech, fashion, publishing and retail.

There’s an entire range here: those who are at the pinnacle of the culture, in their designer wear, in sleek hybrids, on scooters and expensive bikes. They frequent the bistros and boutiques and the high-end tech and fashion shops that are springing up, replacing dying, old businesses that thrived in the last century. Then there are the young fringe-dwellers, with their multitude of piercings, tattoos and hybrid hairstyles, some of them on skateboards or their own different class of bikes.
It’s fascinating to see this inter-mingling: those at the very point of the culture’s forward thrust, those trying to break the culture sideways in various directions – political, musical, sexual, conceptual – and then, all those almost beyond the fringe, living off of the dregs, some threatening full release into self-destruction. These require an entirely different level of metaphor; the angle of relationship is more skewed. Those on the outside came to there from every segment of the culture. Some, if you probed deep enough to where it seemed to matter, would reveal beliefs that are entirely conservative; others would espouse progressive beliefs, or thought patterns that were woven along spiritual or mystical lines.
Heavy in the equation is an element of dispossession.  It’s not only the sense of the new coming in constant waves that replace the old and the dying. It’s also the sense that what’s being sought so avidly through the sharp commercial energy, leaves out something that was sought and thought precious before. It’s as though life has been simplified, but in a way that devalues flavours and accents that can no longer be tasted or heard. There’s a sense something like that of waking from a delicious dream that’s fading so fast in the light of day, that even as its flavour lingers, there’s a certain knowledge that you’ll never be able to explain it or recapture it. In fact, you know that quarter of an hour later it will all have evaporated, and whatever notes you’ve jotted down, as signposts, will ring hollow and meaningless.
It sounds and feels grim, put into words this way, but the experiencing of Queen and Bathurst this morning is anything but. What I’m feeling as I lounge near the intersection, is a settledness that transcends the shifting skirmish. It’s a feeling that says, “once in existence, impossible to destroy.” It’s reassuring, somehow timeless.
I’ve sometimes, as an African American descendent of people who were enslaved, reflected on the experience of the native people of these lands. While I, in the body of my forebears, was taken from my land and culture, and stripped of my knowledge of it, there has always been the knowledge – to my own generation and the ones that have followed, if not always to those that preceeded us – that Africa remains there, rich in culture and history, with a population too large to decimate. It is a gift that I think must be similar to the gift of being a parent, of knowing that the individual self will be survived, by something larger and more permanent.

But what must it feel like, to be indigenous to a land that has been overrun by the other, where hardly a trace of what was yours remains, where even your numbers have been reduced to a hardly acknowledged fraction, to a presence that seems sometimes to be merely symbolic? It must be painful on a visceral, existential level, and I sometimes wonder if it isn’t this pain that animates what sometimes appears to be a determined and defiant disconnect with the dominant society.
But there’s life here on this corner rather than death. When one is part of the seething crowd, it’s the crowd that seems to matter, to be the focal point. But when standing here, silent and still, it’s different. Time takes on a different energy and weight. I get then that while the wind makes the weather, it’s the rocks that endure. The skirmish is among styles as fleeting as breezes. That which was solidly in existence, is not so easily destroyed. That the wind won’t carry it may only mean that it’s too heavy for the wind, weightier and slower moving, richer and slower to the touch, subtler to the taste.
My nineteen year old came after all. She sent a text message, just at the time of the appointment.

“I’m walking down from Dupont,” it said. “I know I’m late, but I’m on my way.”

“That’s okay,” I messaged back. “I’ll wait here for you, and we’ll make something happen.”

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