No one wakes up thinking of a stranger,
a life away, falling.
Dionne Brand, thirsty
It isn’t my neighbourhood. It isn’t my car, either, but I seem to be driving it, my slick hands slipping on the steering wheel of this borrowed vehicle that carries me in such a protected fashion through my city, the car’s gleaming metal skin between myself and the people who like to lurch their legs right in front of traffic on Main Street, as if to say a human body should be value enough to stop two tons of gasoline-powered steel. They flaunt sloppy smiles and missing teeth and bruises on cheeks and tracks on arms like the ones that once marked my brother. I follow signage. Store fronts, street signs, even the words on people’s T-shirts directing me to the next light. Each sign holds a secret code and if you read them all together they form one long beautiful sentence that will tell me where I can find my beloved. Let’s call him B, that bulbous letter we learn to shape so soon after the first one that is all straight lines like these streets. I keep driving, past Granville Street and turning on Burrard Street, along Burrard Bridge, two letter Bs under the lucid blue sky, and I know it isn’t safe for me to be driving, not when every piece of the alphabet is ricocheting within the car even now when I’m no longer rattling down Seymour Street but see more and more sky above as if the car could lift right into the horizon. I park the car, a few blocks west of South Granville where the lawns are green and the houses tidy and people obey crosswalks, no one chicken dancing against all the rolling wheels. I throw away the keys or at least they are gone, those keys to that car that is not mine and I know this neighbourhood really isn’t mine any more than the last one but I am walking through it now, and asking strangers—so many strangers—if they can help me to find Liberty, the store where my sister works where I am sure my family is holding the surprise wedding. Sunlight glints off glass storefronts. On South Granville the women are wearing heels and the men talk into smartphones. No one I pass has signs on their T-shirts. I modulate my voice to sound reasonable. Excuse me, can you tell me where to find Liberty? They say left, and I think about being left wing, I think about being left, how my beloved has left me. Now I am sure B can be found if I could just turn left but I have turned left too many times and again I ask a stranger and she says right, and I think of human rights, and my right to be free of that other human, let’s call him D, the man who harassed me at an American college so far from this shiny bright neighbourhood that is not mine. I can see his face now in the faces of strangers even though I have flown away from that American college where D once left a gift inside my locker inside the woman’s changing room, private space inside a private space. But here I am in public, here these are the people of the neighbourhood, the shopkeeper and the hairdresser and the waitress in the restaurant where I ask to use the washroom and I am once more in a private space and as I wash my hands I can hear the lyrics on the sound system giving me clues about how to escape D and find B and I am looking for freedom, I am looking for liberty, can you tell me where to find Liberty.
On Thursday, August 9, 2007, I am involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility, restrained to a bed, my arms and legs bound, my body locked within solitary confinement behind a double door. On Monday, August 13, 2007, the day I am released from solitary, still unfree but at least allowed to wander the ward and to speak to the other patients, Vancouver police confront Paul Glenn Boyd on South Granville. He walks incoherent on the same street that I had wandered just days before. He recognizes friends in the features of strangers. He swings a bike chain, and then releases the bike chain, and uses his hands instead to crawl on the ground as eight bullets puncture his flesh. That long street, that innocent weekend, together form a hinge joining one mad woman to one mad man, both gap and connection between life and death.
This essay is about moments that neighbour each other. It is about the minutes and seconds before the police arrive. It is about people who pass each other, who by some accident of proximity become for a fleeting time neighbours. It is about what I long to say, as a neighbour, to those who could have lived.
On that bed, my bound limbs formed a letter “X,” all the voices in the psychiatric ward crossed out.
From Dionne Brand’s long poem, thirsty:
would I have had a different life
failing this embrace with broken things,
iridescent veins, ecstatic bullets, small cracks
in the brain, would I know these particular facts,
how a phrase scars a cheek, how water
dries love out, this, a thought as casual
as any second eviscerates a breath (1)
You might say I mean strangers. I have used the word “strangers.” And when I speak of the ones the police come to shoot, you might even say I am speaking of the strange. But what if we are neighbours, not just those of us who inhabit our stationary homes beside one another but all those of us travelling by foot and bicycle, wheelchair and subway, taxi and even car through our cities? Dionne Brand writes of neighbours. She writes of lovers, sure, and friendships, aching familial loyalties, bone-deep bonds, strangers too, those people who pass each other unnoticed, lives shadowed by indifferent urban edges, the “caustic piss of streets,” “discarded shoes,” “all the hope gone hard,” but Brand captures something else that I want to evoke here: a contingent and temporary intimacy, and from this moment of intimacy, a responsibility, “as if we need each other to breathe” (thirsty 5, 24, 11).
and this, we meet in careless intervals,
in coffee bars, gas stations, in prosthetic
conversations, lotteries, untranslatable
mouths, in versions of what we may be,
a tremor of the hand in the realization
of endings, a glancing blow of tears
on skin, the keen dismissal in speed (2)
“But who calls the police?” my friend asks. “White people,” she says, responding to the question that she knows does not need to be asked. “Who do not call the police? Black people. Black people know better.”
On a subway in the opening passages of Dionne Brand’s novel What We All Long For, we spend a moment with a nameless man “who hardly understands English at all.” He welcomes the “tinkle of laughter” of a group of young people who serendipitously travel with him, their boisterous pleasure in each other’s company rousing this man from the tempered corridors of his own life, his own loss: “the laughter pierces him.” He has never heard it sound so pure. (4)
“What floats in the air on a subway train like this,” Brand tells us, “is chance. People stand or sit with the thin magnetic film of their life wrapped around them. They think they’re safe, but they know they’re not. Any minute you can crash into someone else’s life, and if you’re lucky, it’s good, it’s like walking on light.” (4)
Let’s say on South Granville I have no way home now that the car is gone, now that I don’t know which bus to take, now that I can’t read street signs without reading my beloved. Let’s say I can be found curled beneath a placard, somewhere near South Granville, a caterpillar rolled into myself waiting for some kind of transformation. Let’s say I get thirsty. Let’s say I get scared. Look at me now climbing away from my hiding place and wandering again these streets and no longer trusting that I can ever find Liberty. The game is up. The letters give no direction. Instead, I look for a car with a child seat. That driver will be someone to trust. I stand on the street and car after car passes me until one taxi driver’s face catches mine. A kind face, a brown face—Indian I learn as I settle into the back of this blue taxi. My favourite colour is blue. B for blue. The only problem is that I cannot remember where I live. Instead I tell the man that I am going to my wedding. I am laughing so close to him inside our temporary moving blueness. His eyes find mine through the mirror. The red lights on his dashboard reveal to me my beloved. How am I going to find him? But this kindred man speaks to me, somehow, as we neighbour each other in this taxi zigzagging this way and that way in this city as I try to remember where I belong. He listens to me through the criss-crossing chaos of my words. Syllables bounce inside his cab and he too is laughing now. We take a journey beyond payment. Bridges seem significant, so I keep telling him to cross one, then another. When we finally find where I am staying—when through the intricate puzzle of our speech here emerges the surprise of my childhood home, the address I could never really forget—I look for evidence of the wedding. I ask him the cost. He says to pay him what I can, if I can. I give him my age in dollars, my beloved’s age in coins. I never see his face again, this helpful face that brought me home safe.
The man in the taxi, this immigrant to my childhood city, fills me with longing to talk to those who could be neighbours, the ones who are shot, before they are shot, in those moments that neighbour the time of the bullets, when I could have listened to their voices, and asked them what they have come so near to find.
Are you okay? I say to Michael Eligon who is wearing a hospital gown and carrying a pair of scissors. He is strolling through a Toronto neighbourhood that is not mine. Are you lost? His face flickers with recognition. Do you need a glass of water? The simplest statements, in a gentle voice, my desperate fingers prying open the moment before anyone has called police, before any bullets tear through the possibility that time still gives.
In the psychiatric ward we spoke to each other when understanding wasn’t necessary, when all that was needed was the warm human hum of a voice. Orchestra of crazies. You might say we talked in poetry, the pleasure of homonym meeting homonym, sound echoing sound.
“You are living in a poem,” Naomi Shihab Nye says to us all. “Before you know what kindness really is,” her poem says, “you must lose things.”
Hiking a mountain neighbourhood, Blueridge, North Vancouver, all that blue air streaking yellow with the stretching evening light of early summer, I am listening to the radio when I hear the news that another has been shot. Through the June air I run. Downhill like water, downhill the way I was once told to escape a bear, as if I could race my feet out of this month and into an earlier moment when blood still flowed within its contained circuitry of veins. As if I could flee the flat truth of that CBC voice, the crackling words of this crack in time, my feet pounding past suburban windows, past empty streets and pansies on lawns, past the syncopation of sprinklers and the spread-thighed stasis of all those homeowners sitting on sheltered back patios sipping iced tea alive alive alive. I knew before I knew. Yes, a faraway colleague responds to me immediately with what knowledge she too held in her body before it was announced. He was Black. She uses the past tense; I am using the past tense, but in death he remained Black. To lie unbreathing at the feet of the police is one possible condition of Blackness. He was mad, she tells me. Those words too are located in the past. For now that his mind is no longer chasing its loops, his hands no longer shaking from the effects of antipsychotic drugs, in death he is no longer mad. He had been unarmed, guilty only of disrupting his neighbours when he used his fingers to rip apart the small room he was about to lose, in those losing moments after the notice of eviction and before the ecstasy of bullets.
To be a neighbour is to be near someone—neigh—but also to exist with them, from bur, dwelling, and bheue, to exist, to live, to grow.
I want to ask the neighbours of Andrew Loku what they said to him, before they said their address on the phone to the police. I want to hear the minutes and hours that neighboured the bullets, the days before bullets. I want to ask the neighbours of Pierre Coriolan what they said to him before they said their address on the phone to the police. What are the other words to say, what would you say? Where is your poem? What is your blue taxi?
Before you go further, says the poet Juan Felipe Herrera
Let me tell you what a poem brings,
First, you must know the secret, there is no poem
To speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries.
When I ask us to listen and to speak as neighbours, in and through our moments of crisis, even to attend to the very words of these crises, their image and metaphor—and to risk speaking back in image and metaphor, to do more than offer that glass of water, but to hold the word that is offered, let’s say it’s a strange word that the other gives you, this now recognizably mad other, let’s say you hear something that sounds to you like nonsense and instead of rejecting it you simply give another neighbouring word in return, blue for orange, tramp for trampoline, standing on the street corner, talking not talking, just holding each other in the rhythm of syllables, for a moment, before the moment of the bullets—I am not in this request ignoring the precise historical conditions through which we fail to see each other as those with whom we live, we exist, we grow. In my neighbourhood, in the neighbourhood that I now call my own, I walk by Christie Pits Park, where in her long poem thirsty, Dionne Brand’s Alan sings his prophecies before he is shot. In my neighbourhood, I have walked rambling my own visions, but I know enough to hold a smartphone to my ear when no one is listening, secure that this pretence of elite communication with a distant other will protect me, confident too of course that my whiteness in what is now a white neighbourhood will keep me breathing. Even the vulnerability of femininity, when it is white, creates some buffer. I am not a threat. When speaking in metaphors that slip free of their sentence, I retain my blue-eyed innocence. If I hail a taxi, the taxi will stop. If the police are called, and the police have been called, at least their guns will not be pointed toward my flesh. My neighbours will not get to see my blood.
“How come how come,” Dione Brand’s poem asks us, “I anticipate nothing as intimate as history.” (1)
Desperate for retreat from his raucous neighbours who would not respect his entreaties for quiet, and perhaps aiming to escape the Sudanese nightmares such noise upstairs could invoke, Andrew Loku used to leave his own apartment to curl atop the coils of an old mattress left in the laundry room, finding temporary solace in the collective smell of detergent, finally dreaming some precarious trust in this moment when the machines too stay dormant, lint gathered in their crevices like a ghost’s hair. If you lived in that building, you might have carried your basket downstairs in the wee hours, after a late shift or perhaps to complete a chore because your legs won’t rest, balancing your jug of Sunlight as you come across him, on the floor and silent, his eyes closed, his chest rising then falling as he lets what is outside in.
Thank you to Idil Abdillahi and Carmel Shalom for correspondence, dialogue, and listening that inspired and informed this writing.
Brand, Dionne. thirsty. Toronto: Vintage, 2005.
___________. What We All Long For. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002.
Herrera, Juan Felipe. “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings,” Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 2008.
Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Kindness,” Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Portland, Eighth Mountain Press, 1995.
A settler from Vancouver, Erin Soros has published fiction and nonfiction in international publications. Her stories have been produced for the CBC and BBC as winners of the CBC Literary Award and the Commonwealth Award for the Short Story. Her essay “I Call This Institutionalized Rape” (The Fiddlehead), was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Her poem “Weight” received the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. Soros has been a visiting writer at four universities, most recently the University of Cambridge. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. Erin can be found on Twitter (@ErinsoroS) and Instagram (@erinsoros).