Marvin disappeared on the coldest day of the year. It was minus twenty-eight, but with the wind whipping through the canyon of buildings, it seemed like minus forty. There was no reason to be outside, but there I was, standing near the CBC station entrance of the City Centre Mall, my shoulders hunched over, hands shoved into my pockets, and my head stupidly exposed. Snow swirled around me, like white dust devils stinging my eyes, giving me no place to hide from the weather.
It was a good location to work. There were tons of people coming in and out from the bus stop or on their way to the main library branch. But on that frozen day, there was no one except me and a displaced office worker commuting between buildings. Even the diehard smokers and the usual gang of street kids that loitered around this entrance were smart enough to stay inside. I watched the lone commuter from across the street, and waited.
His head was tucked into his chin and he leaned forward to fight the wind. His hands were thrust into his pockets to keep them warm and to decrease wind resistance. He looked up only once, to see if traffic on 102nd Avenue would be a problem, and then dashed across, heading for the door of the City Centre Mall.
And, of course, me.
I knew he hadn’t seen me because he didn’t take the detour to the west side doors. As I waited, I planned my approach. Marvin liked to call my opening lines “The Warning.” He appreciated the way I quickly told my story, that it wasn’t that long ago when I was just like them.
“I had it all, you know; the wife, the two kids, the house, two cars in the garage, a mortgage with a happy banker, soccer practice and dance lessons for the kids. A TV in the bedroom and three weeks’ vacation in the summer. I used to be like you but…” and I’d let it hang there.
Of course, something must have happened to fuck it all up, and of course, something did. There was no need to go into details with people, there was never enough time to explain it all, and everybody figured out their own reasons for my predicament. They usually thought drink or drugs, and they might have been right.
But it didn’t take long, a year, maybe two, and next thing you know, you’re hanging outside the City Centre Mall on the coldest day of the year, sizing up some office worker, wondering if that jingling sound in his pockets was just a set of keys.
The weather forced me to rethink my original strategy. At the speed the worker was walking, there was no time for a story. And with the wind making all that noise, he wasn’t going to hear me anyway, even if he was listening. They usually aren’t. Simplicity seemed to be the best strategy, so when he finally made it across the street, I hit him cleanly and quickly.
“Spare change, buddy?”
He yelped and jumped back. He looked at me, his eyes squinting through the wind. If I looked like Mom instead of Dad, I’d be just another drunk Indian on the street, dismissed without a thought. But I was fortunate that way. There was a second or two of disbelief on his face, as if I was a strange creature from a parallel universe, but then he recognized my genotype. I was no alien, I was human just like him, related by evolution, but from his point of view, we lived in parallel universes.
I expected a brush-off and started to move away. But he surprised me. He reached into his pocket and tossed me a toonie, a two-dollar coin. “I don’t care what you buy, paint thinner, heroin, coffee, whatever,” he said, his voice barely audible over the wind, “just get the fuck out of the cold.”
I caught the toonie in my cupped gloves and before I could thank him, he dashed through the mall doors. I stuffed the toonie into a jacket pocket, took the Suit’s advice and followed him into the building.
The air in the mall was warm and welcoming, but the people weren’t. I barely made it past the entrance to the CBC studios when security was on me. Sure, they tried to be casual about it, but two dudes hanging around like they were about to ship out to Afghanistan—camo pants, pseudo flak vest with the word SECURITY written in bold block letters on the back, and a utility belt that would make Batman envious—stood out like yellow stains in the snow.
I walked past them, intent on ignoring their presence, but they split up to flank me, like watching me was some kind of military exercise. I was followed as I walked past the soft black leather couches that I wasn’t allowed to sit on. Past the flickering of the glassed-in natural gas fireplace that I was not allowed to stand next to, to warm up. Past all the retail outlets that I was not allowed to enter, lest I annoy the paying customers with my presence, which was a reminder of what could occur if they suffered a couple of difficult moments that derailed their lives. And in these times with the U.S. economy tanking and the price of oil dipping below $40 a barrel, oil-rich Alberta was suffering one of its signature bust events. A life on the street was much closer to some of these people now that it was just a year or so ago.
Edmontonians may have had a vision of their city as a liberal-leaning island of good people in a land of mean-spirited penny-pinching conservatives, but their personal reactions to those living on the street was no less harsh.
Especially when a second question, “You sure you don’t have any spare change?,” could have brought on a charge of aggressive panhandling.
So instead of making my way to the Light Rail Transit like a good street person not looking to cause trouble, I decided to have a bit of fun. I headed to the lower level, as the two security dudes a few people behind me on the escalator tried to look casual by chatting about the Oilers’ last home game.
A few steps before I got to the bottom, I gave them a quick, suspicious look and ran the rest of the way down. I took a quick right and started to jog through the mall toward the underground pedway that connected the City Centre Mall with the Churchill LRT station.
I heard one of them grunt “Shit!” and then panicked footsteps rushed after me. For kicks, I stopped at the end of a cell phone kiosk and grabbed a pamphlet with my left hand, feigning interest in the low monthly rates. I kept my right hand in my jacket pocket.
They whirled around the corner, keen on a chase, but almost ran over each other when they saw that I was waiting for them. They stumbled over each other, but feigned laughter and clumsy palsy-walsyness so they could keep up the charade. I kept reading the pamphlet, but out of the corner of my eye, I watched the two security dudes get into character by hitching up their belts and stepping toward me with a sense of law-enforcement purpose. One of them even reached across his chest to activate the radio clipped to his shoulder, tilting his head to alert headquarters of their actions.
I knew that somewhere in this mall there was a bank of video monitors. A number of security officers were now watching those connected to the cameras that covered the area underneath the escalators near a cell phone kiosk.
When I was a kid, my friends and I had this scheme when we wanted to get chips, pop, and whatever from the corner store but didn’t have enough money. We used to walk in en masse, but the owner of the store, a middle-aged Chinese merchant who also ran a bookie business in the back, knew exactly what we were after. So he yelled at us to get out.
As part of our scheme one of us, usually me ’cause I had the more innocent face, went in and would actually buy something, usually small pieces of penny candy. I would slowly count my change, making many mistakes as I did. While I did this, another friend would come in and loudly demand to know where a certain item was. After getting the directions, he would walk through the store, every few seconds demanding to know if he was in the right location. And then our other friends would come in, and while the store merchant was distracted by the idiot counting change and the other one shouting for directions, the others would fill their pockets.
I imagined some of my old friends quietly committing petty theft while the bulk of the City Centre Mall security staff was focused on my harmless presence.
But I wasn’t that harmless. In my right pocket, I gripped an item that would turn what looked to be a typical security rousting of a street person into something more interesting.
I waited until they got closer. I waited until the shorter of the two guards approached me while the other stood a couple steps behind. His right hand was still across his chest with the radio, the left hovering near the can of pepper spray on his belt.
I waited until the approaching guard asked, “Can we help you?,” when in truth the only help he wanted to give me was to leave the confines of the City Centre Mall with as little fuss as possible.
In the old days when I did this, I was trying to score a day or two at the Remand Centre, with hot showers, clean sheets, new clothes, and three square meals a day while I waited to be arraigned on a public mischief or nuisance or whatever kind of charge these guys could come up with. For guys like me and other petty criminals, the Remand Centre was pretty safe. Hardened criminals were on another floor entirely, so there was nothing like what they portray in the movies. In the remand lockup you could watch TV, read some books, and play a little chess. Compared to begging for spare change, it was a cakewalk. Of course, once you were in the remand lockup, there were ways to stretch out the time: a little fight between friends, some laxative to create an abdominal problem, or Imodium if you wanted to go the other way.
And there was another route entirely, a chance to spend the expected two-week cold snap inside, warm and tight. Suicide could always be faked with some superficial slashes on the wrist just before the lights-out count. It was an easy way to score twenty-one days under the Mental Health Act and maybe some extra money every month for disability.
But this wasn’t the old days and I wasn’t going to give these security morons the satisfaction. I looked up at the security guard, smiled without showing my teeth, and then whipped my right hand out of my pocket, flicking the switch as I did. The two guards flinched; the larger one wrestled with the clip on his belt to remove the can of pepper spray.
“Yeah, my name is Leo Desroches and I’m a reporter with the Edmonton Journal,” I said quickly. “I’m working on a story about the life of Edmonton’s street people and I was wondering if it’s the policy of the City Centre Mall to follow and question someone who, in truth, has committed no crime nor done anything to warrant attention from security except to be dressed in a certain way?”
The first guard stepped back, hands raised and palms out in a defensive gesture, as I stuck my recorder in his face. I leaned forward and gestured at the other guard. “Also, is it City Centre Mall policy that its security personnel carry a weapon prohibited in Canada?”
The two of them stepped back again, looking left and right, eyes either scanning the area for any TV news cameras that would be rolling or for any witnesses who might be filming the scene for future YouTube use.
I stepped forward. “Have you used that illegal weapon before? And if so, could you please tell me the circumstances?”
Instead of answering and making themselves look even more foolish, the two security guards turned without a word and walked away. “I’ll take that as a ‘no comment,’ okay?” I shouted at them.
I set the cell phone pamphlet back on the kiosk, ignoring the stunned stares from the kiosk employee and all the rest of the downtown worker bees. I turned off my recorder and put it back into my pocket. I looked up, searched for a security camera. When I found one underneath the up escalator across the mall, I waved at it.
Then I turned and headed to the Churchill LRT station. I grabbed the next available southbound train and for the next four hours I remained underground, out of the cold, riding the LRT back and forth along the free-fare zone between the Churchill and the Government stations. It was annoying to change trains every ten minutes or so, but at least it was warm.
I could have headed back to the newsroom and chronicled the events of my day. But I had only been on this story for a short while. Larry said it was important that I immerse myself in the street culture before writing anything substantial.
I also had to figure out what the heck had happened with Marvin.
Copyright © 2012 by Wayne Arthurson