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14 August 2012

This morning I met Andre in front of Starbucks. “Hi Andre,” I said,”How was your weekend?”

“It was rough, man. I woke up Sunday morning and I had the shakes so bad I couldn’t do anything. I just lay there in the hut all day. I drank plenty of water, but couldn’t eat a thing.

“Monday morning, Shakes came over with a bottle. That made me feel a bit better — helped with the shakes a bit. I couldn’t even work. If you’re panning and someone sees you shaking, like I was, they know any money they give isn’t going for food.

“One good thing happened though. The Salvation Army came by and gave both Hippo and me sleeping bags. It’s been three months that I’ve been sleeping in this thin jacket. They also signed us up for housing and O.D.S.P. (Ontario Disability Support Program). They’re going to line up some places for us to see. From the O.D.S.P. they’ll put $450.00 towards the rent each month. I asked, ‘So, where do I go to meet you guys?’ They said, ‘You don’t have to go anywhere. We’ll come to the park tomorrow and should be able to arrange something.’ Imagine that, they’re coming to see me!”

I said, “I see Alphonse across the street. I guess you heard that he and Magdalene  lost their baby.”

“Yeah, he’s trying to show a brave face. Imagine, trying to smile, when you’ve lost a kid. He’s really broken up.”

I said goodbye to Andre and crossed the street to talk to Alphonse. “Hi , I spoke with Magdalene last week. She told me that you and her lost your baby. I’m so sorry to hear that. You must be heartbroken. I wish there were words to express to you how sad I feel. You both looked so happy the last time I saw you together.”

“Yes, it’s very sad, but what can I do? It’s out of our hands. The baby was induced early because Magdalene was using crack. We stayed at Ronald McDonald House while the baby was in the incubator on life support. After a week they told us that he had a hole in his heart and his lungs weren’t developed enough to supply his organs with oxygen.”

“Cocaine use during pregnancy can affect a pregnant woman and her unborn baby in many ways. During the early months of pregnancy, it may increase the risk of miscarriage. Later in pregnancy, it can trigger preterm labor (labor that occurs before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or cause the baby to grow poorly. As a result, cocaine-exposed babies are more likely than unexposed babies to be born with low birthweight (less than 5.5 lb/2.5 kg). Low-birthweight babies are 20 times more likely to die in their first month of life than normal-weight babies, and face an increased risk of lifelong disabilities such as mental retardation and cerebral palsy. Cocaine-exposed babies also tend to have smaller heads, which generally reflect smaller brains. Some studies suggest that cocaine-exposed babies are at increased risk of birth defects, including urinary-tract defects and, possibly, heart defects. Cocaine also may cause an unborn baby to have a stroke, irreversible brain damage, or a heart attack.” (Wikipedia)

“There was no hope for him so we consented to have them pull out the tubes. I was holding him when they took him off the ventilator. His breathing became very shallow. He died in my arms forty-five minutes later. At the very end, as the doctor said would happen, he made little sounds like he was drowning. Then he was silent.

“Maggie asks me why I haven’t been sleeping with her. Since she’s been on crack she sells herself on the street. I try to watch out for her. I want her to be safe. I see her go away with men and come back about an hour later with a fistful of cash. She spends it all on crack. I’ve contracted syphilis and other sexual diseases from her. Luckily, they were treatable with antibiotics, but some diseases aren’t. I can’t risk my life to make love with her. I don’t know who she’s been with.

“My brother and sister came down from Labrador, to be with us, after the baby died. Maggie was jealous. She thought they had come only to comfort me. I told her, ‘No, Maggie they came for both of us.’

“I still love Madgalene. I don’t know what to do.” Tears were falling from his eyes. I put my arm around his shoulder and said, “I love you, man. Let it all out. I know you still love Magdalene, and so you should. She’s young, only twenty-four years old. She needs to mature. If she decides to get help, perhaps you can be together again like you once were. Perhaps, it can be a new start for you. No one knows the future. All we know is this moment.”

“I know I can’t control what she does. I just wish she’d get off the crack, before it kills her.”

I said, “I have to go to work now, Alphonse. Will I see you at the park this afternoon? You take care. I love you, man.”

At the park this afternoon were Andre, John, Joy, Outcast, Wolf and his dog Shaggy. Shakes was asleep on the grass. Nick arrived later. We shook hands all around. When I came to John I said, Don’t tell me your name… it’s John, like the toilet.”

John said to me, “That’s right.”

Wolf asked, “Dennis, do you have a cigarette?”

“No, I don’t smoke.”

“Outcast, do you have a cigarette?”

“No, but Debbie has some at her place. She’ll sell you some. Go ask her.”

“I’d prefer, if you could phone ahead, let her know I’m coming.”

“Phone, with what?”

“Phone with, I don’t know, fifty cents.”

“You expect me to spend fifty cents so you can get a smoke. I don’t think so.”

Wolf said, “It’s just like when you told me that Debbie would lend me her library card. She said to me, Wolf, pay your thirty dollars in fines, and get your own card.”

I asked Andre, “How has your day been since I saw you this morning?”

“It’s been good. A lady at Starbucks bought me a muffin and a large coffee with some kind of syrup in it. I couldn’t taste the syrup until I got to the very bottom, then I could taste it. I was really shaky after I drank that. I find Starbuck’s coffee really strong. I really didn’t need that. Someone else gave me an apple. I gave that to Al. I can’t eat apples. I don’t have enough teeth to chew them.

“See this space where my bottom tooth was. I pulled that myself at Innes (Ottawa-Carleton Detention Center, on Innes Road). The tooth was loose and wobbly. It hurt when I bit into anything, so I got a piece of string, tied one end to the tooth, the other end to my bunk, then pulled. I had a package of salt — that’s when they still let you have salt — put it in a glass of water and gargled. That’s supposed to help it heal and prevent infection. It healed fine.

“For the past twenty-five years I’ve been in and out of prison: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.”

I asked, “Which are the worst? Which are the best?”

“There isn’t anything good about prisons, but I’d say, of all them, the best were in Quebec. The very worst was the Don Jail in Toronto. They didn’t ask you to do things, they made you. I remember when I first arrived, a guard asked me to put my feet on these yellow footprints on the floor, and my hands on these hand prints on the wall. I guess my hand wasn’t quite in the right position. He took it and smashed it against the wall. If you mouthed off, the guards would take you to a locked room and beat the shit out of you.

“Millhaven is bad too. It’s a super maximum security prison. I’d done some bad stuff to get sent there. I’d been high on coke, acid, ‘shrooms and my nerve pills. I got into a fight with this guy over something, I can’t remember what. I slammed his face into a painted concrete wall, again and again and again. It left red face prints all over this yellow wall. When he came to court his entire head was bandaged, except for his left eye. He had one of those casts on his right arm that held it perpendicular to his body. His left wrist and right ankle were also in casts.

“When I was in Maplehurst, I worked in the kitchen and on maintenance. I walked into a store-room and found two empty five gallon, plastic pails. I thought to my self, home-brew. As I was walking down the corridor, back to my cell, I threw kites (messages) as I went along. I tried to get them under the cell doors, but some fell just outside. That wasn’t a problem; with the flick of a towel they could pull them in. Everybody was pretty excited about this brew. I had access to everything in the kitchen including a couple of fingers of yeast.

“The brew was coming along really well, it was aging nicely when the head cook found it. He poured in some dish detergent, then dumped it down the drain. He said to me, ‘What do you think of your brew now?’ That got us really mad. I got some salami from the kitchen — some was whole, some was sliced. I stuffed it into one of the toilets as far as it would go. I stomped it with my foot. Some of the round part was still sticking out, but the toilet was really blocked. We had all agreed to flush our toilets at a specific time. When we did, water shot out everywhere. It was four inches deep in the kitchen, they couldn’t use it because of the electrical appliances. The guards changing room was flooded — everywhere.

“I asked the head cook, ‘Does it still seem funny that you spoiled our brew?’ Mind you, I was also on maintenance. It took me until one o’clock in the morning to mop up that mess, but we showed them.”

It was time for me to leave, Nick said, “I’m making up to eighty sandwiches a week that I hand out to homeless people. I start below the Rideau River Bridge. There’s a group of homeless people who gather there, just like they do here.

“Andre,” he said, “I walked past here his morning, but I didn’t see you.”

Andre and John were wondering what to do with Shakes, since it appeared that it was going to start to rain.

I walked with Nick towards my work. I asked, “What kind of sandwiches do you make?”

“Egg salad, peanut butter and jam, meat with mustard and tuna. I’m up at about four in the morning. I use about two loaves of bread; pack them in my rucksack with my bible, and distribute them until I run out. As people are eating I read God’s word to them. After that I panhandle to get the cash to do the same thing next day.

“Yesterday, I was panning on Bank Street, where I’ve panned for fourteen years. I was sitting on the sidewalk with my hat out when a cop came along. He said, ‘You’ve got your cap out. Are you panhandling?”

I said, “Yes officer, my cap is out. Do you see the cross on it, and my bible? I give food to the homeless and spread the word of the Lord. I read from my bible, and if somebody is hungry, I give them a sandwich. I don’t sell it to them. Those don’t come cheap. They cost me money. I’m just trying to get enough change to carry on my work.”

“So, you’re like Robin Hood, collect from the rich, give to the poor. That’s a nice story, but you’re going to have to move along.”

“I’ll move along, but I’ll set up some other place.” I went to the next block. He came again and motioned me to leave. I moved three times before I decided to call it a day.”

We approached Elgin Street, when Nick said, “I left someone behind here.” I walked to a bench where Bearded Bruce was sitting.

“Hi, Bruce, I haven’t seen you for a long time.”

“I just got out to-day. I didn’t have to serve the full term of my three-month sentence, but I’m now free and clear. It’s the first time, in five years, that I’ve been able to say that. I can make a new start.”

I didn’t ask, but I suspect that reason that Bruce didn’t want to go to the park was because of the temptation of drugs and alcohol; the very things that got him in trouble in the first place (twice he’d tried to sell crack to an undercover police officer). I said to him, “I’m just on my way back to work, but you and Nick could probably use a sandwich. Am I right? Here are a couple of Tim Horton cards. Maybe, you’d like to have lunch together.”

“Thanks, Dennis,” they both said as I walked away and waved.

Nick said, “I’ll say a prayer for you.”

“Thanks, Nick, I’d appreciate that.”

From the Ottawa Citizen, July 22, 2012:

Acclaimed Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook pregnant and homeless, living on the street in Ottawa

OTTAWA — One of Canada’s pre-eminent Inuit artists, a woman whose work has earned huge acclaim in Europe and the U.S., spends her time on Rideau Street these days, peddling her pencil-crayon drawings to passersby for cigarette money.

Annie Pootoogook has fought demons all her life — beatings, sexual abuse, alcohol and drugs. Pootoogook has lived in Ottawa for the last five years and recently came off another binge of substance abuse, during which she largely ignored her craft. But she is finally drawing again, doing much of it on Rideau, where she has become something of a centre of attention — at least with those who know who she is and want to buy her work.

She usually produces one drawing a day. But it is sad to see how little the shy, diminutive artist accepts for a drawing — $25, maybe $30. Her earlier work, from her days in Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, sells for $1,600 to $2,600 per drawing at Feheley Fine Arts, the Toronto art gallery that kick-started her ascent a decade ago.

But even sadder is the thought of the destitute woman —currently five months pregnant — curling up at night in a bushy area overlooking the Rideau River. Pootoogook, 43, and her boyfriend, William Watt, 49, have been living outdoors in various secluded spots in and around Lowertown since spring after spending the winter in shelters for the homeless. They didn’t like the shelters because they had to sleep alone, in the segregated men’s and women’s areas.

At least outside, they can be together. Still, there are downsides. Bugs for one. Snide comments from those who sometimes spot them through the bushes. And recently, they were both issued $276 fines for trespassing on NCC property, their sleeping bags and meagre belongings hauled away.

Pootoogook can’t take the bugs anymore and says she’s losing her mind being bitten while she tries to sleep.

They are desperate to get off the street, even if it is just into emergency housing for now. With a baby on the way — a girl whose name will be Napachie Marie Pootoogook-Watt — the father-to-be says they are focusing on setting their lives straight. No more booze. No more crack cocaine, a drug on which Watt says he spent $3,000 over a few days last November.

When Watt and Pootoogook, who met in 2010, woke up from that crack binge, they lived in a tent for two months at the “Occupy” encampment at Confederation Park. Then it was homeless shelters for the winter, though Watt spent 32 of those days in jail for stealing booze from an LCBO store. He says he has been in jail a few times for petty crimes, and it was while he was incarcerated last winter that Pootoogook found out she was pregnant. She surprised him with the news when he was released.

Pootoogook is the birth mother of two boys, now 23 and 16, who were born in Cape Dorset. They were adopted by relatives. “There is no interest in having this one adopted,” says Watt, who has a son from a previous relationship.

The couple wants to get out of the Lowertown area, as they say they have too many acquaintances there who were a bad influence when they tried before to stop drinking and drugging. And with Pootoogook pregnant, Watt says his girlfriend has become fearful of those people.

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