Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Speaking Secret Streets

Remember that gorgeous film, “Wings of Desire” about the angels overlooking sad, black and white Berlin? They wander and listen and observe, tapping into the secrets, fears, the desires; listening to the thoughts of the despairing, the lost, taking that lonliness in, silent witness and sharer of each lonely burden.

Arrogant as it is to compare us to the angels, I’m honored to be part of a team that recalls to me the feeling of watching that film. We do street outreach to the homeless in downtown Toronto. Most of our connections with clients begin in street level entryways, on the tops of sidewalk grates, under the expressway that slices through the downtown core, in parks, kneeling beside them while they panhandle, and in the tiny encampments along the Don
Valley or along the shoreline of Lake Ontario.

These isolated beings make me think of the night stars, in that they can be so invisible in the glare of day, in the raucous energy of a bustling metropolis at noon. But in the silence, the stillness and the dark, stretched space of the night and early morning, they seem almost to reappear, though they’ve been there all along. And the more still and silent one remains in that darkness, the more of them reappear, until, like the stars, the night is full of them.

I love city streets. And from the beginning, I felt blessed to have a job that required that I spend hours walking them. Streets are like stories...slowly unwinding, letting go their secrets, inviting you in deeper, to where you can't turn back. Most streets are short stories, quickly revealing their nature, building quickly and surely to release, telling their one and only tale. But some are complex, winding, long, weaving sub-plots and cross purposes. The buildings are like paragraphs and chapters, and on the streets of Toronto they tell a jumbled tale that jumps genres and styles with abandon. And so the city becomes a kind of living library.

And the homeless denizens of these streets are like the portions of these stories that have been edited out. They are the disconnected bits of a city that has grown rapidly and unevenly, beautifully though stressfully. And they speak the mangled, jarring bits, the Freudian slips, the mixed metaphors, the spewed Tourette epithets that aren’t deemed fit for the published manuscript. And yet, how much of the story these characters speak. All the two sharp language, the too graphic descriptors, the bite of the story are in them, these homeless, these displaced.

And I, our team, we’re that part of the writer that doesn’t want to let go of these morsels of pure, unsanitized truth. We’re entrusted with going out into the streets, with our ears and hearts open, to listen, listen, listen. To see, see, see.

During my first month in street outreach, walking up and down, with no pressure to get anywhere, but with the license (representing the people of the city) to be open and to connect, I found myself approached by these homeless. I looked at them, didn’t turn away, moved as an invitation, without destination but with purpose. And they, the street people, responded. They looked, they felt, they opened their mouths and spoke, sometimes with the force of the long-unspoken, the long unheard, the forever whispered. So often unintelligible, but always felt. Always real, and part of the as yet untold story.

I’m moved by all this. Inspired. So much so that sometimes I finish my day nearly intoxicated. And, perhaps like Wim Wender’s angel in the film, a respect sets in, a kind of recognition, a longing even. To be so human, so vulnerably, indefensibly, pathetically yet nobly human. To the point you no longer can or care to cover it up, to the point where public becomes your private, where everything is exposed and on the table.
No, I won’t go there. Of course not. It would be too rash. Would require too much courage, too much of the suicidal. But to recognize, at least to recognize, kinship with those whispering souls. To at least feel and recognize the heat of those distant, brilliant stars, shining out of a cold, dark night. To know those whispered words we don’t speak, but that scald our secret tongues and bleed out hidden hearts.


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  3. very well written, Kirby, a taste of the lava within