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The last winter I was on the streets, I met a young man named Jason. He was funny and witty. And he played the blues harmonica. When we were in his car, everytime he stopped at a red light, he would whip out his harmonica and throw a few soulful notes before the light turned green. I liked that. It warmed my heart.
If my memory’s good, I met Jason at the Biftek Bar on St-Laurent. My usual spot… He worked in IT support and quickly explained to me that he had a great solution for me. One of his major clients was the owner of the Saint-Sauveur church located at the corner of St-Denis and Viger. In exchange for his work, he provided Jason with an appartment: the presbitary.
Jason kindly offered me the keys to the boarded up, abandoned church. It became my home for the winter. Occasionally some squatters would break in, but I had bigger problems to deal with and was willing to share my shelter in exchange of a few cigarettes.
I’ve had some magical moments in that shurch. All the benches had been removed and all that was left was the alter. Jason woudl sometimes join me for dinner at the big table. We would sing and drink cheap wine until too many bats came flying down at us. One time, we even went down to the crypt to see what we would find…
Therefor, you can only imagine how deep my heart sank when I saw that it had been demolished to leave room for the new CHUM…
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In no specific order…
1. The outdoors – when you live outdoors, there is a sense of oneness that you build with the world that surounds you. You start recognizing different clouds, feel the wind the brings a storm, become familiar with the neighboorhood squirels… There is something magical about constantly being outside, in the metropolitan nature that I sometimes miss, if not crave.
2. The absence of responsibility– let’s face it. No schedule, no rent or bills to pay… That’s something we could all do without.
3. Random people talking to me – sure, lots of people are grossed out or have no respect for you at all when your holding your palm out to them asking them for change. But some are quite intrigued or compassionate and come up to you. You can see their thirst for knowing your story in their eyes. The best way to describe it would be raw human contact. From my experience, an intereaction such as a conversation, becomes so much more intense, emotionally wired when one of the ends is completely ,or at least perceived to be, completely vulnerable. I miss bearing my soul to complete strangers.
4. Hopes and dreams of a tomorrow. Simply – now I dream of a healthier planet, robots, unicorns or having super powers. But there was a day where my head was filled with the hopes and dream of having a home and food for the week, if not just waking up alive the next day. I used to dream of having friends over for a big filling diner. I can be greatfull that my dreams have come true… But I miss having realistic dreams, simple dreams… Unlike going to work on my unicorn and having a robot for a boyfriend.
5. Eating birthday cake for lunch – even when it’s not your birthday. Simply because it’s the cheapest thing at the grocery store. And that’s a pretty cool novelty, to eat a messed up cake. So what if I’m not Greg? And I used to love the feeling that I was saving that botched birthday cake’s life. Even though the baker screwed him up, he got to wish someone a happy birthday.
6. Calling collect and saying everything I had to say in a few seconds – ” you have a collect call from : hi dad it’s me I just wanted to wish you a merry Xmas! Do you wish to accept the charges?”
7. Making a big deal out of everything – When I was homeless, everything was exciting. A new pair of socks, a wrapped sandwich in the dumpster, a dollar coin found on the sidewalk. I think I can owe 100% of my child-like amazement for the little things in life to those few years that I spent fighting for my life on the sidewalks of Montreal. A warm winter day was a blessing. A warm meal was like Christmas day.
8. Satisfying a need – Although I take nothing for granted, given the fact that I know that we are all, at some point, a paycheck or two away from being homeless, there is a slightly masochist side of me that misses really needing something (food, a shower, shelter…) and getting it. I enjoy my daily morning or post-workout shower. But the showers that felt the best were the ones when after a week or two or gallivanting around, finally got to sneak into somewhere or go to the local shelter and feel the warm water running on your skin.
9. The stories – Everyone you meet on the streets has an incredible story to tell. Everyone.
10. Finding awesome things in dumpster – It felt like treasures. It felt like you were playing God and giving a second chance at life to some random object. I guess it’s the only kind of power trip a person without any possession can have.
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I came home from school to find myself face to face with boxes and bags filled with my stuff and a teary-eyed mother. WTF?! For a 16 year old girl who has just moved from New-Brunswick a few months ago with dreams to find a better life in the city with her mother, that scene is rather alarming. My mother struggled to explain to me that she would be living with her husband from now on, and that there was no longer a place for me in their “home”. Husband?! What husband? She wasn’t even dating anyone when I landed on her doorsteps during the summer, which had just turned into autumn. What was going on? What was this husband non-sense?
That day I learned a few things. I learned that I would now be living in a crummy studio at the corner of Sauriol and Lajeunesse (mother had found it and would be paying for it). I learned that my mother was getting married (to a man she had met about a month ago in a bar). I learned that you can’t always predict what will come your way. The last thing that life taught me was that you can’t be lazy.
Nine hours, 17 boxes and bags, a dozen Verdun-Ahuntsic/Ahunstsic-Verdun trips and many hand blisters later, I had moved in to my new place. Taking a cab there and back would have been too expensive. Needless to say that a single trip would not have sufficed, I would have needed at least two. I remember waiting for the bus to take me from the corner of my mom’s house to the LaSalle metro station for the first time that morning and thinking to myself “No big deal, you’ll be done by noon” . I also learned that I was foolish that day. All day, I traveled back and forth from Sauve metro, which was about a 10 minute walk from my new apartment, to LaSalle metro, then on a bus to my mother’s apartment with my arms weighted down by overfilled bags one way and my spirits weighted down from the thought that I had to do that all over again at least a couple more times the other way. Grab stuff, walk, take the bus, metro, down stairs, up stairs, switch metro lines, up stairs, walk, up stairs, drop stuff. Come back and repeat.
That night I went to sleep on a bare mattress, too exhausted to hunt for sheets (that’s if I had any) and slept for the entire next day, and night.
I learned that you can’t take anyone’s trust for granted.
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So it’s NYE of 2003. I am sitting around in my crummy studio at the corner of Sauriol and Lajeunesse, listening to the ” So Long & Thanks for All the Shoes” album by NOFX. I’m bopping my head to my favorite “Falling in Love” and living the dream of a rockstar just for a moment in my head while I get up and sing along to “Bob”. I am imagining that I am on a stage in front of thousands, millions of fans. So good, I need a cigarette…
Ugh. A cigarette. Ok. A cigarette? Ugh. Here we go… I pick up the cigarette butts I collected earlier that afternoon from the heater where I had set them up to dry. One by one, I crunch and squeeze the tabocco out of them. Once I’ve extracted enought tobacco from these poor nicotine hand-me-downs, I roll it. Ugh. Roll it. Ok. Roll it? Ugh. Here we go… I grab some news paper (they hand the gazette free once in a while) and my glue stick. Cut out a “rolling paper sized” square, fold it, drop my tobacco, roll it and glue it. TA DA!
The phone rings. Wow! that’s a suprise! Everyday, when the phone rings it’s like a little gift from life that it hasn’t been cut yet. (Which will later end up as an unpaid bill to Bell, not so much of a gift, but hey) It’s Celine. Let’s party. What can we afford? Nothing. We could always go to Biftek and hope someone buys us drinks. It’s NYE. Let’s make it special. Let’s go bowling.
“C: How much do we need to go bowling?
S: Hmmm… I think it’s 3$ each for the shoes, and then maybe 2$/game?
C: Ok, I’ve got 5$. That’ll cover my shoes and a game. what you got?
S: 2$. But I should use that for food… I have a 12 pack of empties here. We could bring them back and get 1.20$!
C: Ok. Let’s do that. Go to the corner store. I’m on my way.”
30 minutes later…
Celine walks into my apartment (if we can call it that) and is greeted by my classy self folded in half over the balcony showing off the daily contents of my stomach. She can tell that the horrible stench in my place might have something to do with why I’m hurling, but has no idea where it’s coming from. I explain to her that the corner store guy didn’t want to take my bottles because they had rotten (did I say rotten, I meant “was walking around in my bottles” rotten) lime in them. So in order for him to take them, we need to extract the lime from them. One by one, with a knife. I remember wishing I had a fondue pic. Not 1.20$ so that I wouldn’t have to perform this nasty operation. No. A fondue pic. Because that’s more feasible.
So NYE ended with Celine and I having finished our one game of bowling way to fast and getting kicked out of the bowling alley at around 10:00pm for loitering because we weren’t playing or drinking. And I thought to myself:
“You’re smoking newspaper, you’re throwing your guts out to afford one fucking game of bowling. That’s how you’re starting 2004. You’re in deep shit.”
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On a daily basis, little things remind me of when I was homeless and living on the streets of Montreal. I’ll catch myself going out of my way to pick up something that “seems valuable” on the ground, and then realize that I don’t need to. Or I have a strong urge to pick up that half-eaten plate in the food court and keep it for later, and then a realize that my fridge is full and there is no need to indulge in strangers’ left-over chowmein.
Being a small town girl from an upper-middle class family, the odds of me ending up on the streets of Montreal are pretty slim. “How does it happen, Syl?” most of you ask. Here’s how it happens. Here is the day I left as I remember it, taken from passages I have written for a future book maybe(?).
“My dad pulls over. We’re stopping at one of those tourist areas with nothing but a pathetic canteen, washrooms and a million picnic tables. This beautiful (and when I say beautiful, I mean kill me now)scenery is mostly filled with families on their summer vacations stopping to let the kids run or old folks stopping to let their poodles run. I sit back comfortably, turn up the volume of my “Discman” and wish I was already in the big city. My dad and Uncle Gene are grabbing a couple of vomit inspiring hot-dogs. I have absolutely no idea why Uncle Gene came along on this trip. Probably t avoid dad from having me next to him for an eight hour drive. His brain would fry from the effort of coming up with something to tell me. Of course something along the lines of “Be careful out there, sweetie”, “I love you” or “You’re too young to move to Montreal” would’ve never crossed his mind. I couldn’t wait to be free in Montreal. Or at least to get back on the road.
The GM Safari tilts to the left as my dad gets in. He ties his seat belt and does this throat clearing thing before turning the ignition. He always does that. It drives me crazy. I can’t help but wonder how my step mom deals with that tick. Dad always drives over the speed limit. Maybe that’s why I live on the fast lane now. The roads are lined with corn fields. Nothing like what I had imagined. The road to the big city resembles way too much the country where I grew up for my taste. I press my head against the windshield and watch the yellow lines painted on the asphalt disappear. One by one.
At fifteen, I think I’m indestructible. The sky is the limit. Or at least as far as Montreal. I decided to move away from home about a month ago. Simply because I am looking for people who will be interested in me. I have found two: my mother, and Joseph. I found my mother with the help of a couple long distance phone calls along with annual wish cards. Joseph came along with the new millennium: the internet.
We’ve passed quebec city. Montreal is my destination, my dream and my future.”
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Bio: This bubbly Plateau gal spends her days labouring as an administrative assistant at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, but, eager to launch a career in media/communications, and with zero interest in acquiring a university degree in the field, she’s recently signed herself up for the latest MusiquePlus VJ Recherché contest. Now one of 24 hopefuls vying for the celebrated gig, Sylvie has a somewhat awesome angle that could work in her favour: a life story that she claims includes living on the streets of Montreal at the age of 16.
How Sylvie wound up a homeless teenager: Feeling somewhat fucked over by her comfortably middle-class father and stepmother in Beresford, NB, the “straight A student” came here to live in Verdun with her biological mother. But within a few months, her mom, “who was a little unstable at the time,” married “this Muslim man she’d only been going out with for two weeks” and shipped Sylvie off to live in a studio apartment “way out in Ahuntsic.” Agreeing to pay Sylvie’s rent, yet never once doing so, Sylvie was soon evicted, and with neither of her parents seemingly too concerned about her situation (“I called my grandma, everyone, but nobody really cared”), Sylvie says she “did what I had to do.”
What she felt she “had to do”: Quit high school to couch-surf, eat out of dumpsters and do the homeless thing. She says she’s a better person today for the experience.
How she earned money on the street: Panhandling “and doing whatever else I had to do.”
Might giving head to strangers have been one of those things? “I have a motto: you can’t rape the willing, you know? You don’t like it but sometimes you have to sleep with people you don’t want to sleep with, it’s just part of surviving, and whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—I guess. Everything’s a decision. Shit happens and life goes on. Once I turned 18 and was able to enter L’Arrêt-Source, a house for women in difficulty, I got my shit together, taking some programs, finishing high school, eventually finding a job and an apartment in NDG, all within a year and a half of moving in. Had it not been for this place, I probably would’ve been on the street a lot longer.”
Is there any truth in the popular assertion that a person can earn top dollar via the panhandling profession? “Yeah, for sure. Some days you make good money palming, maybe $100. I’m a cute girl, clean, I’ve got some good breasts, and that helped.”
How she kept those “good breasts” of hers clean and lovely while on the street: “I had a gym membership. It was the best, you could kill time there and shower too. I dunno why all homeless people don’t get gym memberships. It just makes a lot of sense.”
Something she “hates with a passion”: “Weekend squeegees” who panhandle for sport.
Last book read: Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.
Musical preferences: Socalled, Santigold, Radiohead.
Words of wisdom: “If you’re ever attacked, strip out of all your clothes and throw random projectiles—like pennies—at your attacker. Nobody wants to fight some crazy nude person.”