Making the Business of Life Easier

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The Outsiders
Autumn: 3

Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story

By Margaret Philp with photographs by Patti Gower

On these crisp autumn mornings, Fred has been rising at daybreak, gulping down cold coffee and hitting the track.

He is steeling his nerve for a 100-metre sprint, inching his bare toe to the edge of the starting line. He rocks his weight back and forth, from front foot to back. He checks the stopwatch motionless in his hand, his finger poised to push the button the moment he bursts across the line. He exhales noisily.

Finally, he lurches, his arms pumping hard to propel him forward, his legs taking long, jerky strides. As he stumbles across the finish line, he is shaking his head, winded, disappointed with the time he has clocked.

Fred is fast, but, for all the pretense, nowhere near as fast as a younger man.

His timber lies beside the track unused. He has trained so doggedly over the past several weeks that he has rubbed a deep, angry-red welt into the freckled flesh of his shoulder. The wound needs dressing.

In the afternoon, he heads downtown to a makeshift medical clinic in a room leading from the chapel of All Saints Church. It is a historic building faded from glory in a skid-row neighbourhood that has been converted into a drop-in centre and soup kitchen used by the hardest-core homeless people.

A team of street nurses is tending to a rogue's gallery of patients, many showing signs of mental illness.

A woman sits in a chair, her foot in the lap of a nurse carving the calluses from her reddened feet with a scalpel. She is crying and screaming into an old telephone: "No wonder people kill theirself."

A visibly disturbed man, unable to wait his turn, is bursting through the closed door every time he is escorted out.

Fred is an island of calm amid the chaos. He strips off his heavy vest, a mustard-yellow sweater, the layers of shirts underneath and lastly the stopwatch dangling from his neck.

There standing before him is the object of his passion, the nurse who has inspired love poems and sleepless nights in the ravine. As Barb Craig gently cleans and bandages the welt, for once Fred is tongue-tied, his stream of consciousness silenced.

Later, after reluctantly leaving her behind at the clinic, Fred is pensive.

"I don't know if anything will develop with her and me," he says finally. "I hope so. I hope so. I've never wanted anything more in my life. ...

"What have I got? What have I got? I'm just a poet and an aspiring politician. What have I got that's concrete to offer a woman?"

When the nurses first met Fred about two years ago, he was quiet and aloof and more than a little irritated by the do-gooders disrupting his solitude. By dint of perseverance, they wormed their way into his life. And his long-winded stories and heartfelt poems have captured their affection as decisively as they have won over his.

For Barb, who has noticed Fred's sweet bashfulness around her, his crush on her is "quite a responsibility."

"He's the most remarkable man I've ever met," she says. "He's so intelligent, and he's such a thinker, and he really cares about the whole world. He's built his world in the woods there, and he's done it with such humour."

As a nurse plying her trade on the streets, she wants nothing more for the homeless people whose dressings she changes than a roof and four walls. But not for Fred.

"I just can't imagine him having a regular kitchen and bathroom and everything. I don't even let myself think about that with him. I just can't imagine him not living where he is."

It is a frigid night in the dying days of fall, a biting wind warning that winter crouches in wait.

In the dark of early evening on a street thick with traffic, the headlights stream past a low-rise office building with a dumpster in front.

Behind the garbage bin, Jerry Lucas is slumped on a milk crate, leaning against a vent the size of a garage door that is belching waste heat from the office building above. He calls it the "warm spot," this blast of air so deafening that one needs to shout to be heard. He sits here most nights, guzzling beer, staring into space, until finally climbing into bed.

"This is my addiction," he slurs, raising his can of beer.

He pulls out a cellphone that he carries for his job as a bike courier. It is an incongruous sight, this dishevelled blond man huddled against the cold, fingering the neon-green numbers of a phone like a lifeline to civilization. He has just returned to a job he has lost twice before because of his drinking and debilitating hangovers.

His sleeping bag is hidden under the bridge across the street, on a slab of concrete that serves as the foundation for the massive pillars and steel skeleton supporting the bridge.

On the pillars around his bed are colourful canvasses of spray-painted graffiti. In one spot is a red stylized H in a circle next to a heart and the letters LUKE compressed together, a take on Jerry's last name. "That means Harriet loves Jerry," he says. "That's untouchable. Everybody knows not to touch that."

Harriet was Jerry's girlfriend, a private-school-educated daughter of a prominent psychiatrist who on the first day of summer this year slipped out of her sandals, neatly placed them on the ledge of the bridge and hurled herself to her death after a drunken argument with Jerry.

She was an alcoholic, a woman whose promising career in graphic design was sabotaged by her own irrepressible craving for vodka. She met Jerry in a downtown park nearly three years ago when, emboldened by booze, she declared his eyes to be the most beautiful she had ever seen. He brought her home to his bridge, where she lived until her suicide.

Every night since, Jerry has slept under the bridge or out under the canopy of trees on a ledge he refers to as his balcony high above the valley floor, metres from where Harriet landed. The spot is marked with a copy of the H loves Luke insignia spray-painted in red on the pillar beside it.

"I find it really difficult to be under the bridge with what happened," he says. "The only way I can stand it is by being drunk."

Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story

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