I recall clearly the first time I came across this event. It was some thirty years ago when I was first in recovery from severe addictions and a life on the streets. Though no doubt I’d been trained as an altar boy to attend the service each November, my youthfulness did not allow me to take in how profound the day really was. A decade or so later it was different.
And by on the streets I don’t mean I was homeless. Far from having no place to live, I had many. In fact, one year I had thirteen addresses. Try getting your taxes done chasing mail at that many places. That may have been the year I stopped filing for a while.
No, on the street wasn’t a reference to no place to live. It just meant a place other than jail.
I was out on my own at age 15. My father suffered burnout at his job and decided there wasn’t room under the same roof for two roosters. Since it was his roof, I was out. What followed was more than a decade and a half of decline, a descent from living in a rooming house and holding a job to eventually living completely off the avails of drug trafficking.
I remember my room on Gilmour Street clearly. Drab and dreary, I had used furniture and a two burner hot plate stove. No fridge, so I put my milk for tea out on the window sill in winter’s cold to keep, subsisting on Clarke’s Stew and Kraft dinner, peanut butter and jam when I could. More than once I had to kick down the door of the communal bathroom in the middle of the night and evict the rubbies holed up there, one curled up drunk in the oversized bathtub, another on the floor in front of the toilet, whilst they protested my disturbing their sleep.
Though that room cost me only $13 per week, I often panhandled in front of the Hitching Post tavern at Bank and Gilmour. Every Wednesday, I’d take the #1 Bank and Heron to my father’s home to report in and get my stipend of ten dollars, my allotment until age 16. I had the wrong clothes and a big chip on my shoulder, drifting from job to job. From making sewer pipes to working jackhammer on a road crew to warehouse work at a cleaning supply place and a swimming pool supplier. I went through many jobs. I lacked structure after dropping out of school and losing touch with all my friends and family.
It was also a time of counter culture, where I overturned my religious roots while the Vietnam War and Nixon’s white house played out on the airwaves. There was a certain nihilism to the times along with the threat of an imminent nuclear attack during the cold war’s prolonged stalemate. I didn’t expect to see age thirty. That was also the consensus among my peers.
After meeting new big brothers out on the street to replace the ones I had left behind, I drifted into drugs. I entered the black market trade just as Canada’s immigration policy opened up its borders to influences from around the world.
On any given Friday, you could walk down Montreal Road in Vanier (a square mile of crooks we called it) and buy the best of any of drug producing country. Ottawa was “hash capital” we often said, fed primarily through the port of Montreal. The Edgewater and Mapes in Pointe Claire were key points of contact while the influx of immigrants to Ottawa, descendants of Phoenician traders from the Mediterranean, facilitated things so that a full complement of the world’s drug offerings were available.
Branded hashish like Black Pakistani, Green Moroccan, Blonde, Brown and Red Lebanese, water-pressed Kashmiri, and the strongest Afghani from Mazar Sharif could be had from peddlers accosting your walk every few yards along the route. For more, you’d go just off the main drag and down a few steps to the basement tavern La Broue, where you could buy anything in any quantity. There the guys would all lift the table and reach under its center and pull out bags of quarter pounds of everything available.
My rule was if I stuck with hash, I’d never go wrong. I had good intentions. Ten years later I had been carrying a gun for many years and was actively dealing harder chemicals, fully immersed in the criminal element. That’s the problem with this sort of thing. The fistfights and taking sides in informal gangs as a teenage punk soon give way to the serious gun play of adults fighting life and death over turf as an organized crew.
Sure I did some time for shooting people and was shot in return. I’ve been hit with ball bats and hit back. I took knifings and broken bones in stride. I gave as good as I got.
But this one day I sat in a little Anglican church on James Street, not far from where I had started my life on the street a decade and a half earlier. If only I had been able to foresee the future I was about to live, but it doesn’t work that way. I was in church trying a version of the religion I’d been brought up on. It was Christianity and I was prepared to give it another shot.
That day the priest gave a little speech about the dead, about the importance of remembering on this special day reserved for them. We were invited to think of their names, to reflect on their lives and departure to a better place, and to light a candle and say a prayer for their souls. I knew I had lived, survived, where many others had not. This weighed on me deeply.
Daydreaming away in my pew, I began to think of all the people I’d known who were no longer with us. I began to count how many candles I’d have to light, asking myself, should I light one for each of them?
I thought of Tommy, shot in the back a few blocks away escaping police, he dies while jumping the fence in what was coincidentally my sister’s backyard. Tommy and I had peeled potatoes in prison, where he used to sing in a high falsetto, “Big boys, they don’t cry aye aye” and make me piss myself laughing. Speaking of pissing, he told me once “You know something Chris, a cold beer on a hot summer’s day is like little angels pissing on the end of my tongue.” That’s always stuck with me as the most apt description ever. I’ve thought of Tommy often in summer since.
I thought of Dave who died the day before he got out of prison. He was this handsome dude with Popeye arms who had been my partner for a while. He’d rob banks and I’d drive and we’d deal drugs and he’d do rips. He had a lazy eye and had an amazing insight to how the street worked. It was he who helped me escape after I’d been shot and stumbled out into his Lincoln. He first thought I was over-amping on some really good shit, until I showed him I was plugging a hole in my chest with my finger to prevent the air from hissing out. He apologized as he dropped me off at the Riverside, telling me he was sure I understood he couldn’t stick around. By then all I could do was nod in agreement as each breath filled my lungs with more blood, kneeling on the ground before the emergency doors while he peeled off as attendants rushed out to get me. Dave didn’t live through the getting out party thrown for him by the guys in Collins Bay Pen.
I thought of young Mikey, who died while sitting in a chair in my living room while I slept in the bedroom. He showed up one night with his partner to pay off a drug debt. When I told them no more hash until Monday, they wanted to party. My gal and I and another couple were doing heroin. Mike and his partner were chippers and had done it plenty of times. I told them to help themselves and they did. At one point, I advised Mike’s spoon was too full and took some of the Persian Brown heroin out. He may have added more when I wasn’t looking. While I was in the bedroom nodding off with my gal, the other couple and Mikey’s partner let him die right in front of them. He was cold and blue in the morning. What a waste, he was such a good kid.
I thought of Greg, who was part of the couple there that night. He ended up getting busted for heroin and was facing prison. His girlfriend started dating one of the narcs on the team that investigated him and he spiraled into depression. He had this really nice red Trans-Am he let me drive whenever I wanted. We lost touch after his bust but one day, just before he was to start his sentence, he drove that car into his mother’s garage and left the engine running. She found him, cherry red lips and all, dead and cold.
I thought of Charlie, a good old boy from up the valley in Pembroke, son of a cop. Chuck was handsome and had a winning smile with brown curly hair, an improved Gino Vanelli look to him. He was funny and a brother to me. But he was a wild man: fast cars and fast women, and the drugs and booze that went with it. He died on Conroy Road after hitting a train in the fog in the wee hours. With him in the pickup was a gal who was getting married the next day and another dude, all gone in a fiery death. The debris went up the tracks several hundred yards.
My list went on and on. I sat there a long time after mass was over, taking time to think of the dozens of people who had perished from what was really drugs and booze. Sure, some were shot enforcing for others, for revenge, even under contract, but all were related to the drug trade. I’m not sure if making drugs legal back then would have helped any of my friends. All I knew is I had lived where many had not. Call it survivor guilt if you like.
It’s been several decades since the day I sat in on this Christian tradition we call All Saints. If we believe we are all forgiven our trespasses while here, and eventually make it into the Kingdom of Heaven, then the occasion has even greater meaning.
Something tells me if this were even only partly true, I’d have to spend some time in purgatory first. In fact, I expect I’d see many of my friends there, still doing time, never having been able to rectify things while alive to make it through the Pearly Gates. I’m not opposed to a reunification.
If you call me tomorrow and ask me how I am, it’s likely I’ll tell you the same thing I tell most people when I’m asked. It may sound flippant, or a little woo woo for some, part of that positive thinking personal growth overreach we commonly see lately. But each day, I wake up and find myself breathing I consider it a gift. It’s what I’ll tell you tomorrow: I got to wake up and give it another shot at life. Many didn’t make it overnight.
Though I’ve long abandoned a strict commitment to religion, I still appreciate many of its charms. I respect half of us are probably hard-wired to believe in a power greater than ourselves. Indeed, for a long time I’ve co-opted a Christian prayer, giving it an agnostic twist. I like to say each morning, “This is the day the universe has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
I know that alone is probably grounds for a sentence to purgatory. I’ll take my chances.
But there is something to be said for the traditions of the church. Its great Cathedrals, its ornate décor, the high ceilings with frescoes of various biblical scenes. The chanting and singing together as a congregation, the rituals of birth, marriage, death and burial. There is that sense of awe, the idea that some things are best left unsaid, or that cannot be expressed with words alone.
This is a calling within us all I think. I feel the same way when I look up to the clear night sky and allow my mind to drift among the stars. Words don’t have the kind of reach to adequately describe what we can contemplate in that instance. All things are possible is the message I get.
And there is reflection, a gentle reminder to think of those whom have passed before us, however their journey ended. We do it to honour not only their memory, but also to reaffirm our own commitment to this existence.
Perhaps then, it’s a day for all souls, the living and the dead. This is worth remembering. After all, each of us lose cherished ones in our time here.
Today, I share my soul cake with you.
Christopher K Wallace
All Saints’ Day
All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian festival celebrated in honour of all the saints, known and unknown. (from Wiki)
Roman Catholicism; Eastern Orthodoxy; Anglicanism; various Protestant denominations;
All Hallows Day, Solemnity/Feast of All Saints
White (Western Christianity); Green (Eastern Christianity)
Church services, praying for the dead, visiting cemeteries, eating soul cakes November 1