I skulked through the back alleys and side streets of the Exchange District one sunny May afternoon, smoking half a joint as I went. I crossed some street and came head on with a middle-aged man coming toward me. Judging by the state of his eyes and the tatters his clothes had long since become, I knew he wouldn’t mind the smell.
I popped the latter half of the joint into my backpack and carried on. I crossed Ellice Avenue, heading toward downtown Winnipeg. As I started across a mostly filled parking lot, I was stopped by a woman who looked to be somewhere in her 40’s, though she may have been a rough 30-something. Her skin was worn deep by whatever it was that brought her here. She was missing most, if not all, of her top teeth.
“Excuse me, sir,” she began as I slowed to look at her. “Maybe you can help me. I’m new to the city and I’m not getting assistance cheques for another week. I’m not asking for money, but I need someone to come with me to the store.”
“Why do you need somebody to come with you?” I thought aloud.
“I need baby formula.”
“You need somebody to buy baby formula for you?”
“For my three-month old” she nodded.
“Shit,” I said to myself. “I can’t go with you” I told her after a moment, “but I have a bit of money. Just a couple bucks.”
I dug through my right pocket and gave her the ten quarters I brought for a cup of coffee. “I don’t know what baby formula costs, but I hope this helps.”
“It’s 15 dollars” she said as she slowly shook her head, looking off, down the street.
Her shoulders fell into a slouch that showed the truth of her situation. But there is an infinite chasm between what I felt in that moment and what I knew. If this was a ploy to lure me deeper into this rough slice of Winnipeg, toward some person hidden away, waiting for me, she certainly wold not have told me so.
We each turned our separate ways, and I continued through the parking lot, steering away from downtown and wandering toward Winnipeg’s Central Park.
It was a short time getting there. As I wandered the sidewalk perimeter of the park, I looked across the street at two massive, heaving apartment complexes. I thought of the single mother I met one morning at the breakfast table who lived in one of those buildings with her daughter. She told me about her time spent as a cocaine dealer and the deep anxiety she felt about former clients coming to rob her of money and blow she no longer had. I wondered if she was still in there, if her nightmares had ever come true.
I don’t recall the turns I took, if I took any at all. Nevertheless, I had wandered through a business district and into a residential area. Up ahead, standing on a front lawn, was a young black man with a smoking something in his hand. He reached the joint out to a round headed, bald, white man walking 15 or so strides ahead of me. The man leaned away, bringing his hand up to say no. As I walked past, the same smoking gesture came my way.
”I’m good” I said as politely as I could.
“It’s weed” he said, confused at my response.
“Oh, uh, well, I had already some this morning, man.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” he yelled through a laugh and a smile. I pointed a finger gun in his direction, bringing my thumb down as a mock hammer as I went by.
I wished I could have taken a hit of the thing, even just for the sanctity of the moment. I’m sure it was just weed, but I’d rather never know than learn it was a lie.
Hours passed and still I wandered on. I smoked again as I came over a long, busy bridge. I came to pass a mother pushing a stroller toward me with a toddler walking by her side. I butted the joint out, putting the rest away. She scowled at me as I came by, seeing me as just another shit head, stinking of drugs around her kids. A title I deserved as that’s precisely what I was doing.
I eventually found my way back to Central Park, six or so hours after I’d first come through. An older man with a grey ponytail stood tall ahead of me. I felt a thin, pot scented paranoia that he might be a cop so I gave him a silent nod as I came by.
“Nice day, huh?” he said as I walked by.
“Beautiful day” I said, turning to face him with a full smile.
We both lived through the same miserable winter and, chances are, we were both going to sit through the next one to come. Those long, frozen days aren’t a problem for today, or tomorrow, or any sun shining days between here and that icy flipside. We talked and laughed about things of no real importance before we wished each other well and I carried on.
I walked on for only a few minutes before I came by two Jehovah’s Witnesses. I glanced over at the booklets they were giving away and it seemed they still had every booklet they brought with them that morning. I thought of what I would say to them but said nothing as I passed.
“They’re free” said the lady next to the very full brochure stand. She was a mid-30’s white woman, with a mother’s love in her eyes. Her smile reminded me of someone I’d known long ago.
I stood and talked with her for 20 or so minutes. She agreed, emphasized, even, the existence of literalities as well as metaphors throughout the old, Good Book. I asked her to state one literal truth which acts as a major pillar of the free literature beside her.
“There will come a day when Jesus comes back and returns the power of the earth to the meek. All evil will be removed from the earth and the meek shall inherit it.”
“And this will literally occur?” I asked.
“Yup,” she said enthusiastically, relieved at my understanding. “Isn’t it great?”
I said something about evil being inseparable from humanity and that acts of evil will always exist. To think there will literally come a day where all the evil in the world ceases to exist is impossible to believe. A thought which later occurred to me pertains to the fluidity of definitions. Even if the Lord were to rid this plane of all evil, there would soon be a modified definition of Evil within the newfound Eutopia. Whatever is believed to be out of line with the contemporary religiosity will decidedly be labelled an act of evil, and the concept shall survive.
The conversation ended with smiles and handshakes. As I turned to leave, I stepped into a pothole and stumbled onward. Perhaps the hole had been dug by the Lord Himself as a mechanism of correcting my misguided ways, though I suspect it was more a result of the nearly finished joint that stunk a hole in my pocket.
The heat of the day clung to the evening. I met a brother of mine at the University of Winnipeg and the two of us went for a walk-through East Gate, an historically rich neighbourhood. We drooled over the castles standing on each side of us, wondering what could be used to fill these many rooms.
I turned us off the main stretch of this Yellow Brick Road, down a brief street that ended at a dumpster, behind which was a small bit of bush line and the Assiniboine River.
We walked into the trees, through which there was a short dirt path that we followed down hill. I saw people standing in a clearing that lay ahead of us. As we approached, we were welcomed with a waving hand through the foliage.
“Greetings!” yelled the man beyond the bush.
“Hi there” I said as the two of us walked up to the two of them. He wore a jean jacket and black cargo shorts, while her hair erupted in a vibrant, sunrise-shade of purple that poured out of her black hoodie. They were sitting on a log, each drinking a Pilsner.
“You can walk right down to the edge of the water if you wanna,” the fella said after a bit of small talk. “Especially you,” he pointed toward my feet “with your fancy-camo-hikin’ boots.”
I told a story about going halfway to my knee in mud at the edge of this very same river in these very same boots.
“You’ll catch more than just fish in that water” I said, and we all laughed at the murky, rotten joke of it.
We talked another few minutes before my brother and I went back on our way. We headed back toward nowhere in particular, back through this big small town called Winnipeg.