I stood on Elgin Street, in the falling snow, waiting for a bus on a Thursday night. It was the second week of March and though there was no one with me, I didn’t really feel alone. It seemed like I was surrounded by ghosts, both living and dead.
I sought shelter beneath the overhang of a burger restaurant and for a moment I was reminded that the spot where I was standing was once the entrance to an old downtown movie theatre. Where I saw Rocky in 1976. Where I saw an Indiana Jones movie the first time I skipped a class. That building was an important part of my childhood and now there’s no trace of its history except for those who were there and for those who remember.
Nearby, sitting on an overturned milk crate, was a homeless woman of about fifty. She had a coffee tin in front of her that collected coins and snow. She greeted most of the people walking by, mostly twenty-somethings going to or coming from busy bars and oyster houses and comedy clubs. Couples holding hands, carrying on conversations about subjects that are relevant to twenty-five year olds who wear thousand dollar parkas. Some were friendly to the homeless woman and some ignored her and some didn’t notice her at all. She said to me, “if you believe in God, please say a prayer for me tonight. I’ve slept in a stairwell six nights in a row”. I promised her I would. She then told me that she hoped I wouldn’t have to wait too long for my bus in such nasty weather. That made me smile and be sad at the same time.
Across the street from where I stood was a hundred year old Presbyterian church. It has been an integral part of this downtown neighbourhood for years and within its walls, generation upon generation have been both christened and eulogized. It may well have been the most important building in the neighbourhood for countless families for nearly a century. I’ve never been through its front doors and I’m not aware that I know anyone who attends church services there but I’ve been in that church a few times nonetheless. And I know many people for whom it is still the most important building in the neighbourhood. If you walk along the side of the church to the back door, which leads to the basement, every Monday night you’ll find nearly a hundred people attending an A.A. recovery meeting. There they share stories, embrace one another, support one another, laugh and cry and pray together. The door to the most important room in that church for many people is nearly as invisible from the street as the entrance to the movie theatre that hasn’t existed in twenty-five years.
A block from the church stands my old high school. I graduated thirty-four years ago but the building itself has stood for a hundred and forty-five years. And while I marvelled at the age of the building where I once spent some of the most formative days of my life, I came to realize that the place where I now stood is a place where I’ve stood for parts of five decades.
A block in the other direction stands an impressive old house that was once my family’s ancestral home. My great-great grandfather had been one of the preeminent jewellers in all of Canada and his success was reflected by the grandeur of his mansion. The family wealth was gone within a generation or two and few of his descendants would even be aware of their connection to this once proud home. But I’m aware of it. Now it is an apartment building and where there had once been stables and a servants’ entrance, there are locked bicycles and recycle bins. And I am reminded of the impermanence of it all.
The last person I spoke to on my commute home was another woman of about fifty. She and her male travelling companion looked like they might also have been homeless, wearing ragged clothing and looking more than dishevelled. We shared a shelter as we awaited our buses. The woman was missing teeth in spots where you’d notice and I wouldn’t have given her a second thought until she approached me and began asking me questions about the book I was reading. She spoke of the different characters in the book and told me who she liked and didn’t like and we discussed the merits of another book by the same author. It was a brief but altogether pleasant and unexpected encounter. When my bus arrived, we said goodbye. We may never see each other again, and if we do, we might not even know it.
Yes, I travelled by myself on my way home that night but I was never alone. I was kept company by the ghosts of my ancestors, the memories of my classmates and friends, the nearly invisible homeless, and the souls who are re-born anonymously in church basements on stormy nights. I was reminded that much of the world remains hidden from me until I allow it to be revealed.
I haven’t found the path to wisdom and I likely never will but if I ever do I wouldn’t be surprised if it begins on a sidewalk I’ve walked my whole life.