Cain is sitting in a recessed doorway on Queen Street as we approach. He holds out a dirty hand when Boris introduces us. And he begins to talk. Over the course of the next half hour, I’m dazzled by the reach and complexity of this kid’s thinking. He begins by analysing the reactions he gets from passersby as he sits panning for spare change and simultaneously selling the small, colorful artwork he’s made. He makes references to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and how their experience as labourers and hoboes influenced their work. He holds a sign in one hand, marker on a piece of cardboard, that reads, “I’m not begging”.
I couldn’t begin to describe how his conversation flows. But the kid is curious about everything it seems, and wondering and constructing theories about it all. Boris said that after first meeting him, he thought to introduce us, figuring that I would be able to get on his wavelength. And he’s right. I’m immediately intrigued by the obvious braininess of this young man. I ask him about the Ayn Rand book I see lying beside him.
“Yeah, I’m reading it,” he says, “but I have to alternate chapters of it with chapters of this one.” And he points to the other book sitting there, a metaphysical tome about the function of chance and randomness in life. Cain does a little riff about how determinism figures into Rand’s thinking, and puts forward his objection to the notion of people, events and outcomes being controlled by any formal process. As he speaks, he makes little tangents into chaos theory and quantum physics, then mentions the spontaneity of Miles Davis’s recordings of the Jack Johnson sessions.
I ask him how old he is. Twenty-one. But he usually doesn’t tell people, having realized they make too many judgements about wisdom and maturity, and then issue arbitrary constraints accordingly. Along the way, he mentions the music of Sun Ra, and the writing of Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney and associate of Hunter S. Thompson, who appears in the latter’s work as Dr. Gonzo. The phrase “How does this kid know all this stuff” has by now become a repeating mantra in my mind.
Where’s he from? How long has he been out here, doing this? He’s from Manitoba, he says. And he’s been out wandering the middle provinces since he was about fifteen and began to really feel the limitations of what small city life and doctrinaire parents could offer him.
All the time that Cain and I are dialoguing, Boris is quiet and still, observant and within himself. The concern he’s expressed to me is that this kid is so afloat in his sea of ideation that he may never generate any movement in the concrete world. So I begin to ask Cain what he’d like to do. I point out to him that his powers of analysis and observation could create many opportunities in the world, that he could think and philosophize and construct theories – and even share them – in greater comfort than what’s to be found sleeping in doorways and parks.
He ruminates on this for awhile, then expounds on the potential worth of not being comfortable, of doing without, as creative impetus, and how he wants his life and art and writing to be rooted in an earthy reality. This might have seemed a page out of the “nobility of suffering” credo of starving artists everywhere, but it wasn’t. Cain was giving thoughtful expression to notions about how we as human beings function, how we find our best, what pressures are useful, and what freedoms limiting. And I couldn’t but feel that he was substantially right. As we talk, we’ve been sitting on a recessed stoop on the hip and happening stretch of Queen Street. We’ve faced a steady stream of empowered and beautiful youth, decked out in their fashionable don’t-you-want-to-be-me duds, practicing the look of vacant disinterest worn by those who are both watching and being watched while pretending to do neither. And I feel an admiration for Cain, who is so decidedly looking beyond all of this, and looking backward too, into himself, figuring out where he wants to go, before making his move.
I also feel the danger and seductiveness of this journey of his. I was so like him, thirty, almost forty years ago. I’d read and observed and pondered a lot too, when I was his age. But I think I wasn’t nearly so bold and skilled at synthesizing it all, at using all that to power my walk into an aimed walk. But Cain hasn’t aimed his walk yet, either. Brilliant as he is, he’s still a twenty-one year old, panning for change and selling simple designs on the sidewalk. And how easy it is to get lost after all. It happens even to the brilliant.
Cain is glad to have met me, I can tell. He’s as thrilled as I to encounter a kindred spirit, a mind that explores some of the same mysterious terrain as his own. I offer my services, I tell him, as an employee and representative of the people of this city, to help him to find a place, a stand, a perspective, a position, a path that will serve him, in health, hopefully in happiness as he pursues his explorations.
He’s thinking about it.