the Dark Side of Calgary

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“Maybe I’ll go on a killing spree! Maybe there’s gonna be human flesh all over the pavement!”

The man was shouting at no one in particular. He was just kind of yelling into the sidewalk. He was in his late 30s, approximately, Hispanic, with a buzzed head and thick lips. He sat on the ground, wearing camouflage pants and a thick black coat, his back to a concrete structure, and he just yelled. He didn’t seem to see me walk by. I only paused briefly, and as he quickly scratched at a purple spot on his head, I determined he was on drugs and kept walking.

Encounters like this in big cities seemed relatively commonplace. Just in the last year, in San Francisco, and again in Seattle, I’d witnessed bizarre encounters like this on the streets. My boyfriend and I, during our travels, had seen one woman scream about the entire world being rapists while she scratched at open sores on her legs, and we’d seen a homeless man in a wheelchair masturbating in a stairwell right outside our hotel. Still, something about the human flesh comment left me feeling a little frightened this time around.

It was my final night in Calgary, Alberta. After a few lovely days of exploring various parts of the city, including the national park, the zoo, a couple of gay clubs, a shopping district, and a professional theater, I wanted to make my last day leisurely. Sunday had been full of church bells, slowly sipped coffee, and contemplation. I’d been writing poetry, thinking deeply about where I am in life, and determining what goals I want to work on next. The trip overall had been deeply healing. And this evening would be my last quiet night before flying home at the ungodly hour of 4 am.

I briskly walked away from the man in camouflage and noticed a beautiful courtyard park in front of a massive church just across the way. It was gorgeous in layout, with steel benches, curving sidewalks, and small manicured gardens in front of the large church. I hurriedly cross the street to check it out.

As I entered the park, I noticed the tall brown building against the dull grey sky. It had been grey my entire time in the city, but somehow it was perfect. This weather is what people think of when they think of Seattle, this gray overcast heaviness. But it didn’t bother me. I liked the drizzle, the clouds over the river. It was music to me.

I looked back down and realized that several different men were watching me from benches. It wasn’t a casual gaze, they were staring me down. I did my best not to make eye contact, but counted four of them, all of them clearly homeless and very likely high. Suddenly I remembered the building I’d passed a few blocks back, the one that had “JESUS LOVES” written across the top in giant red letters, and I realized it might very well be a homeless shelter. Had I wandered into the local version of Pioneer Park? Back in my home in Salt Lake City, there is a downtown park in a prime location that is generally very unsafe and full of homeless people due to its proximity to the shelters. This could be downright frightening.

I paused briefly at a small manicured garden full of what looked like cabbage plants. They were green, purple, and white, and came out of the ground in jagged spikes. I stared at the plants for a few moments, stunned by their strange beauty, yet still aware of the men in the park behind me.

Then I got scared.

“Fuck everyone! I fucking hate humans!” A woman stumbled from behind a group of trees as she yelled into the sky. Her hair was sloppy, pulled back into a shaggy ponytail, and she had far too much face paint on, bright blue over her eyes, pink on her cheeks, and red on her lips. She was slightly plump, likely in her early 40s (or maybe in her 20s but far older than her years). She wore a leather jacket over a black t-shirt that was cut low to reveal cleavage, a pair of jean shorts that had the legs cut off of them (likely with a pair of scissors), fishnet stockings with holes in them, and a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots. I immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

The woman tripped slightly and dropped a white container of some kind onto the sidewalk. “FUCK!” she screamed, then she bent down, nearly falling off her heels, picked up the object, and threw it across the street. “FUCK!”

She then took a leather purse from off her shoulder and threw it hard into a bench, where it landed in a pile on the concrete. “FUCK!” She slumped herself down onto the metal bench near her purse, unzipped her jacket pocket, and wrestled a cell phone and headphones out of her pocket. The cord was tangled up and as she unraveled it, she just kept screaming. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I hate humankind!” Finally, she just dropped the headphones, put her phone on top of her purse, and just collapsed her head into her hands. She started sobbing her eyes out.

I stood there frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. Should I go to comfort her, ask if she needed anything? She shook with deep, silent sobs. I looked closer and saw needle marks up and down her legs under the fishnets. I was just remembering the men behind me and how I needed to leave when another man came from behind the trees, and I immediately wondered if he was this woman’s pimp.

He was bald with a spotty goatee and a patchy face. Shorter than me, he was missing teeth and wore a dirty white T-shirt and blue sweat pants over his white sneakers. He looked at the woman, then looked at me. He had a bizarrely playful look on his face.

“Hey.” His voice was almost calm. “Trust in JC, am I right?” I didn’t answer, and instead gave one last look at the woman. “Hey, that’s my coat, right? You take my coat?” I looked at the red jacket I was wearing, then back up, and simply shook my head. “That’s my coat.”

I almost answered, but instead just turned away and started walking quickly, not running, away from the cabbage plants, the crying woman, and the bald man. I crossed paths with the men with scary eyes again, and turned right out of the park. I kept walking fast, noticing the other people around me on the sidewalk, just regular civilians, realizing none of them had been in the park. I walked a full block before I turned my head around and realized the bald man was following me. He was only 20 yards back. We made eye contact and he playfully spoke again.

“Just trust JC.”

I went from nervous to downright scared now, and walked more quickly. Was he that woman’s pimp? Was he mad at me for having looked at her? Did I step into his territory? Was he mentally ill? Did he just really like my coat and want it? Or was he just high and curious? I walked faster.

Two blocks later, he was a bit farther behind, but he was still following. I was a mile from the Airbnb where I was staying. This wasn’t going to end well. I came on a new block and realized I was passing a business. I stepped inside without looking, and realized I was in an ice cream shop.

The shop was empty except for a small Asian girl working behind the counter. She greeted me, and I approached a bit nervous. As she described their unique ice cream methods, I felt myself begin to calm, and then I heard a tapping behind me. I turned around and saw the bald man standing right outside, tapping his hand softly on the glass. He was staring through the window right at me and wanted my attention. What kind of fucking Stephen King nightmare was this?

I turned back to the Asian girl, and told her how the man was following me, and how maybe we should be ready to call the police. She couldn’t be more than 17. She looked over my shoulder at the man, then smiled reassuringly. “This is a sketchy area sometimes. I don’t think he will come in.”

“No, but I have to go back out at some point.”

A few minutes later, I sat at the table, eating a scoop of mango ice cream that I didn’t even want, and tried to avoid the man staring at me from outside. There were no other exits that I knew of. How was I going to handle this? I opened up my phone and began to Google the Canadian police phone number. There was no way I was walking out there.

When I looked back up from my phone, the man was gone. I waited ten minutes, then wandered up to the window, wondering if he was around some corner. A mile was a long way to walk with someone after me, and I’d been mugged pretty badly once before (back when I was a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia). Instead, I summoned an Uber. The car pulled up within two minutes, and I rushed outside and jumped in, my heart thudding in my chest.

Twenty minutes later, I called my boyfriend to tell him what had happened. Knowing me far too well, he responded simply.

“Huh. That’s scary. I’m glad you are okay! But I bet this will make one hell of a blog post.”

Sisterhood: the Girls of the Valley: Mission District

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“We are, like, legitimately being abused. I mean, like, our grandmothers told our mothers to be nice and, like, trust strangers, or whatever, but that doesn’t apply when there is, like, significant trust being abused.”

Her voice sounded like the voice Nasim Pedrad used to use on Saturday Night Live to parody Kim Kardashian. Pedrad’s face would barely move as she spoke and her voice took on a nasal squeak to it, barely fluctuating in tone, making her sound like the snobbiest, snootiest girl I’d ever heard.

Except this girl wasn’t Kim Kardashian. She was heavy set and wearing sweat pants and a hoodie. Her blonde hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail, and she had no make up on. She was wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses and eating pupusas with her girlfriends at 4 pm on a Sunday. I couldn’t see her friends’ faces from my vantage point one table over, where I sat with my boyfriend, but they were also in sweat pants and hoodies, a bit overweight, with ponytails. I assumed that was their Sunday trend.

“Like, okay, I realize that we weren’t actually dating, right? We were fucking, not dating. But, like, still, he knows who my friends are, and he, like, knew that I hang out with Terry sometimes, and I heard him, like, say that he, like, wanted to get with her. He, like, thought she was sexy and would, like, say that to me. I mean, that it itself is, like, abuse, right? But then, he, like, fucked her! And, like, just casually mentioned it to me like it was no big deal! I know, right?”

I leaned in across the table while shoving a delicious bite of garlic-and-mushroom pupusa into my mouth and made eye contact with the boyfriend. I indicated a fork silently at the girls behind him. “Oh my god, this is delicious,” I whispered. He looked up, thinking I was indicating the pupusa, then realized I was eavesdropping.

“But it was a big fucking deal! He, like, legitimately hurt me! I mean, like, he wants to casually fuck me and also casually fuck some girl that I know and, like, sometimes hang out with, and then he, like, wants to casually mention it to me before he, like, casually fucks me again? I was hurt! I let him stay the night that time, but, like, I was genuinely angry and, like, hurt, and I legit didn’t know what to say.”

I took another bite without looking, my eyes wide on the exchange. This was the most delicious soap opera I had witnessed in some time. The girl’s voice kept rising at the dramatic parts, and she was using her fork to indicate points for emphasis. I looked back at my boyfriend, my eyes wide with enthusiasm, and he simply nodded and smiled patiently. He knows the side of me that likes to eavesdrop on occasion, and he knew I was already planning a blog as a result from all of this. I leaned in and whispered again. “I mean, I’ve heard of valley girls, but these are Valley. Girls.” He just smiled and nodded, taking a bite of beans with sour cream and guacamole. All of the like and legit and genuinely and legitimately and abuse words being tossed around were filling me with joy somehow.

“So, I’m pretty sure I’m swearing off men. I mean, like, that is the only solution for a while. I mean, except for the guys I’m casually seeing, they don’t count. But I’m not going to, like, actually go on a date for, like, a while. I mean, why would I do that when guys clearly can’t be trusted? I mean, this is just the latest example. Clearly, I have a lesson to learn here. Otherwise I’ll just, like, keep getting hurt.”

My eyes widened and I looked back at the boyfriend. I leaned in and whispered. “Hey! Do you remember that one clip from the Inside Amy Schumer show where the white girls are gathered around the table and one of them keeps talking about how the universe is trying to teach her things? Her car breaks down in front of a juicery or something and she is telling her friends about how the universe was trying to tell her she needed to drink more juice? And the point of the skit is that white girls are the worst? This is that! These are those white girls!” He smiled and nodded, taking another silent bite, and I was already looking back at the other table.

“We can be, like, a sisterhood. Cause you girls are there for me. I mean, like, what would I do without you?”

As the girls gave each other a little half hug with arms around the table, I noticed the three baskets of tortilla chips and three cups of salsa they had been munching on, and suddenly they were a little bit adorable. This was a screenplay. Three girls in their 20s eating what they considered to be ethnic food, wearing sweats and hoodies on a Sunday afternoon, and discussing their latest heartbreaks, calling it abuse because they had learned that one of the guys they were ‘casually fucking’ was ‘casually fucking’ someone they knew.

The boyfriend and I finished our pupusas and stepped back outside on the streets, where a large gathering of homeless people occupied one street corner of the Mission District. We walked past them, commenting on the bizarre concoction of concrete, Mexican food, body odor, urine, and cigarettes in the air.

“I think I might love San Francisco,” I said as I grabbed his hand and no one noticed. “I’m not sure I could live here, but I think I love it.”

Homeless

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“This is my brother, Chad!” Sheri said excitedly to her co-workers. She marched me into the call center where she worked, introducing me haphazardly to the employees who weren’t on the phone. “He just flew in from Utah!”

“Chad, it’s nice to meet you!” one of them extended her hand. “I know all about you. Sheri tells me everything. I love your blog!”

I smiled as Sheri rambled on a bit. She talks quickly, full of nervous creative energy constantly. Moments later, she showed me her “fidget” drawer, full of objects she could play with so that she could stay focused on work calls and reading assignments for college. “We have an hour before I work, so I’m gonna show him around a little bit. I think I’ll walk him over to where the homeless guy lives, and then maybe over to the monastery. Then I gave him a list of things he can do tonight while I’m working.”

Sheri gave that weird laugh she sometimes gives although nothing funny had been said. Members of my family do that sometimes, give off a laugh to perhaps fill the silence or to avoid something awkward, though the laugh makes it inevitably more awkward every time. I smiled, remembering how I’d had that habit all through my school years.

Soon we were walking down he hill outside her work at 4 pm, knowing it would get dark in another hour. Sheri asked about my flight in, I asked about her classes, and we discussed plans for the coming days of vacationing together in New England. I enjoy how comfortable I am around Sheri, instinctively. She’s familiar, the sibling closest in age, and the one I had the most in common with.

“So there is this guy who lives underneath the freeway that goes over the dike,” she explained, “and he sets up tables and sells things sometimes. He has this whole section of land to himself. He has like a sleeping area and a cooking area. He is known. People walk through there as a shortcut to the shopping center.”

I found myself smiling. Sheri and I both love random encounters, and we can enjoy most any experience. We got closer down to the encampment and Sheri gave an ‘aww, oh no’ sound. Apparently, the city was changing the local area, taking out trees and building trails. Sheri had heard about it, but hadn’t realized that it might impact her homeless friend. “That’s sad. He’s been there forever. It’s kind of like his home. I wonder where he’ll go?”

We walked by the edge of the area, looking at the concrete pillars covered in graffiti. There were flattened cardboard boxes, a pair of shoes, and a random book, but no either sign of life. “That’s sad,” she repeated, assuming he had already moved on.

We started walking away, back up the hill and across a field toward a local monastery. “Did I ever tell you about the homeless guy from right before I came out of the closet?”

“I don’t think so.”

I breathed in the cold fall New England air, and began telling my story.

“Back when I was Elders Quorum President, I used to have to attend this Bishop’s Council meeting every Sunday morning before church. It would last like 90 minutes, and we’d talk bout ward business, events, members we were worried about, stuff like that. We’d give reports on budget and numbers. Anyway, the Bishop was this older serious farmer businessman guy who was very no-nonsense. One day he noticed that a homeless man had moved into the vacant lot across the fence from the church. There was this giant pine tree, and the man had set up some chairs and boxes underneath there to stay out of the cold. The Bishop was super worried about it.”

We walked up to the monastery as I spoke, and I noticed the stark white statues of the Mother Mary and Christ outside it. Sheri interrupted me, explaining that the church was open to the public, but we had to be silent because nuns lived in the building behind it, and they had taken the vow of silence. I lowered my voice as we walked the perimeter of the grounds.

“The bishop felt we should warn the ward to watch their children around this man. He felt like he could be a danger. He had acted the same way a few months before that when a registered sex offender had moved into the ward, and he had wanted to warn the families not to interact much with him. Anyway, he counseled us to keep an eye on things and said he would get it taken care of.

“During the following week, he contacted the owner of the vacant lot by looking through the records at City Hall. He got permission to go in and chop down the tree. He had the homeless man escorted away and chopped down the tree so no one could come back. All because the man claimed a tree too close to the church.”

On the edge of the grounds, we could see through the tall hedges briefly to behind the monastery. There was a stark white graveyard back there, and one solo nun stood among the graves, arms folded as she surveyed the small plot of land.

“The irony of a church denying a homeless man refuge instead of offering him aid wasn’t lost on me. And then, a few months later, I came out. And I never heard what the bishop said, because I stopped going to church, but I wondered if he worried about me the way he had about the sex offender and the homeless man. I wondered if he had warned people to keep their children from me, to watch me close when I entered the building.”

We walked into the monastery then. It was wide and beautiful, with stained glass Biblical depictions of the life of Christ lining both sides. Two people were there, praying silently on the hard back benches. The old man looked up and waved at me when he heard me enter, then returned to his prayers. A golden shrine of some kind lay at the front of the building, and I watched two nuns leave an offering of some kind and then move off to the side, entering a beeping code into a security device to enter the door that accessed their chambers, presumably. I walked to the front and saw lit candles and a book where civilians could write down the names of those who needed prayers for healing. A note suggested a two dollar donation for the prayer and candle.

Donations for prayers. Vows of silence. Shelter trees being cut down, and the homeless removed from their non-homes. It was all suddenly a bit claustrophobic and I stepped outside, returning to that view of the stark white graveyard, contemplating my old life, and comparing it to the new.

Understanding New York City

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I’ve walked the edges of New York City, and right through the center.

I’ve left my footfalls on sidewalks, over high bridges, in underground tunnels.

Yet the city eludes me.

I gather puzzle pieces, individual experiences, and cram them together,

trying for the full picture.

The small Asian woman ordering passersby into her shop. “You come inside, now.”

The lithe black woman, unnoticed, singing songs of the city in a public park. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

The wheelchair-bound man, blanket pulled over his head, snoring loudly, all of his possessions in a pack tied to his feet.

The perfectly sculpted 20-something walking six dogs, practicing his monologues aloud. “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we of might win by fearing to attempt.”

The red-tied man, donut and coffee in hand, negotiating loudly over cell phone while he thunders down the steps. “Time is money. Buy, buy, buy.”

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This city, in all its scope and slope and texture.

Penthouses scraping skylines, rats scurrying over subway tracks, Broadway ballads, melted cheese, flashing neon, dirty rivers, Tower of Babel-levels of spoken confusion, shined shoes with mud in the treads.

 

This city, that must be lived in transitions:

waiting to be discovered… to demanding discovery

struggle and survival… to testing personal resolve

paying too much for too little… to being paid too little for too much

 

This city, where being stepped on is appreciated, where hustling is a way of life, where living the dream means doing long past the point of wanting to do.

 

This city, where symbols of freedom cast shadows on systems of injustice.

And both, and all, must be seen and expected.

 

And that’s New York.

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