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.”

IT and our childhood fears

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Recently, I saw the movie, IT, based on the classic Stephen King book. While I’ve read several King books over the years, I’d never read this one and didn’t know much about it except that there was a scary clown who goes after children.

(Spoilers below for those who haven’t read the story).

In a small town in Maine, a parasitic creature wakes up and needs to feed, and what it eats is fear. Using some sort of telepathic abilities to read the fears of children, the creature then appears as their very worst fears and terrorizes them before consuming them, distorting reality around them as it becomes what they are most afraid of. For one kid in the film, its zombies, literal creatures from the undead. For another, he turns into a leper, representing the boy’s fear of germs and disease. For one girl, he is a creature of hair and blood, somehow manifesting her fear at the hands of abuse from her father. For the young boy at the opening of the film, the creature becomes a friendly stranger, who then does harm to the boy.

As I watched the movie, trying to figure out its secrets and intrigues, I grew fascinated by this concept, and my brain immediately began going back to my own childhood, and I wondered what fear the creature would have manifested for me. When I was six, I was convinced that there were ghosts living in my mother’s closet upstairs (and no, the irony of the closet here is not lost on me). When I was ten, I was constantly afraid of rejection by my peers, being picked last at recess for team sports or being called a sissy for not knowing how to ride a bike. When I was fourteen, I was frightened that my friends might discover I was gay. At sixteen, I was most afraid of condemnation of God.

I wondered how IT would have shown up at each of those stages: the ghosts in my mother’s closet escaping me and pulling me inside; my peers morphing into horrible creatures who made fun of me and exposed my secrets; the vision of God himself shunning me and striking me down.

And yet the fears for everyone would be different, at differing ages. My mind wandered to my clients, my loved ones, my children, wondering what they might be afraid of. It was a brilliant, and absolutely horrifying concept.

The creature took his primary, and preferred, form as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. And he was damn scary, with frightening off-centered eyes, flaky white face, and dripping red lips, standing there creepily with a single red balloon.

I sat next to my boyfriend Mike in the film, and part way through, when a needle came out for an injection, I watched him squirm like he hadn’t before. “I hate needles,” he muttered, and later, during a scene with lots of blood, he similarly exclaimed, “I hate blood.” Out of all the scary things we were seeing, from demons in basements to headless running creatures, it was the needles that got him.

I began wondering what my own current fears would be, and it immediately hit me. The thought of my children being in danger with me unable to help them, that filled me with a dread I could hardly comprehend.

Ad it was around that time that I noticed the small child sitting behind me. The movie was about one hour in when I heard a mother in the row behind me whisper, “Cover your eyes on this part, honey,” in reaction to a bully in the movie literally using a knife to carve his name into the abdomen of another child. But before this, there had been severed arms and horrifying clown monsters, and now this mother was asking her daughter to cover her eyes.

I turned my head and saw a young mother with a few friends, and her three-year old daughter seated next to her. And suddenly, I was overcome with fury. How could someone drag a three-year old child into a film like this, filled with blood, gore, dismemberment, and death? Did she assume the child wouldn’t remember? Maybe they watched frightening movies at home regularly. I mean, as a parent, she had the right to make her own decisions, but I couldn’t imagine my children in this room, withering and crying out of fear, and the nightmares that followed. For the rest of the movie, I was aware of the child sitting behind me, and I wanted to snatch her up and cover her eyes, and also to yell at her mother.

As the final credits ran and the lights came up, I sat there. I turned my head, making eye contact with the mother for a moment and conveying my disapproval, but she averted my gaze and quickly got her child out of there.

Mike and I sat in silence briefly.

“Um, that was good.”

“Yeah.”

“And scary.”

“Yeah.”

“And I’ll be thinking about that for like three days.”

“Yeah. I’ll probably have nightmares.”

(And later, he did. And so did I.)