Living Edgewise

homeless familyI have acquaintances who say they like to live “on the edge.” They boast of vacations bungee jumping over Victoria Falls, mountain climbing in the Alps, skiing the Rockies steepest slopes that are accessible only by helicopter. They go winter camping regardless of the cold or hike great distances through uncharted wilderness days away from civilization. They shoot rapids, skeet and craps.

Yet I’ve realized over the past several months that they’re not living on “the edge”; they are indulging their ability to do crazy things thanks to their financial stability. If they really want to live on an edge, exchange places with me for a few days.

I’m not merely living on the edge, I am living edgewise.

Living edgewise means not knowing if you will sleep indoors tonight, or if you can eat today and whether anyone knows if you’re alive or sick or dead or lying bleeding in a gutter because somebody wanted your almost-new backpack.

Not long ago, 60 Minutes did a segment on homeless families living in old cars and even older trucks, and how they have to sneak their kids into public schools because district educators won’t enrol students who don’t have a fixed address. After all, they might be illegal aliens and we can’t have them striving for a better life that doesn’t involve bathing in the foul sink of a gas station. So, compared to my situation, these throwaway adults and kids truly are living edgewise. At least I have some incredibly generous friends who have banded together to throw a lifeline to me. I’d thank them here but I don’t want to forget one inadvertently and thus insult the entire group. The people in Steve Croft’s piece had no one.

Spare Change

Thanks to those same friends, I’ve managed to find a warm bed in a dry house to sleep in every day, even if it was a close call on a few nights.

For example, earlier this week I didn’t have a place to stay until very late in the afternoon when a woman I know tracked down a friend who offered up her place for the night. It turned out to be a tart’s parlour and the tart, named Heather or so I was told, was busy with an overnight outcall in Ottawa. She had a posh three bedroom condo on a high floor of a building smack in the middle of Toronto’s toniest shopping district. With the Four Seasons across the street, the Intercontinental around the corner and the Hyatt Regency a block away, I’m sure she did quite well. I am also quite sure her name was anything but Heather.

I haven’t had to spare change anyone on the street, either, although I’ve cadged a few cigarettes off of people. Turns out, bicycle messengers garbed in those weird outfits that only they wear are the most generous with their smokes.

When I had a bit of money, I’d always give quarters and Loonies – what one dollar coins are called in Canada – to people stuck in the same place I am right now as long as they weren’t loitering in front of a liquor store or screaming nonsense at the world after going off their meds.

I remember one fellow who trolled the concrete garden outside a concrete tower where I had worked for a while. He had good days and bad days. On one of the good ones, he approached me but I demurred, honestly not having any coins in the pockets of my financial district suit.

“That’s OK,” he said, “because I really need five dollars.”

I laughed and handed him a folded bill, saying, “Good comeback, but you can’t hit me up again for a week.”

He nodded, flipped one arm in an almost Gaullist d’accord as he walked off, and steered clear for at least 10 days.

Pay It Forward

I’m not quite sure how things will turn out for me but hope truly does spring eternal. If I am ever in a position to pay forward the help I’ve received, I know how I’ll do it: By getting involved in an activist group that advocates for the homeless. I’ve sort of taken the easy way out so far in my life, raising money for a food bank. But writing a tax-deductible check is much too easy, I’ve realized, and I want to do something more direct that might, maybe, possibly, do something tangible for a few people.

charley jamesI still can’t see the light at the end of my particular tunnel but each day that I can eat and every night I can sleep in a bed is a step in the right direction.

To those of you who have been helping, you have my eternal gratitude and thanks. For those who are still waiting for help, I’ll get there as quickly as I can.

Charley James

Charley James is an American journalist and writer who lives in Toronto. His memoir, “There’s A Monkey In The Yard!” is due to be published next summer.

Posted: Saturday, 2 June 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on June 2, 2012
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About Charley James

If you are born in Milwaukee, chances are you're born a Democrat. So, I gravitated naturally to liberal politics as an activist and a journalist. I've been writing since I was eight and, after working in newsrooms for far too long, I have devoted much of the past decade as an independent investigtative jouralist. For much of the past year, I've been writing about homelessness - America's immorality play.