Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Conflicted


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The interpreter was walking along a forest trail. It was a mid-October day and what birds remained were listless. Nevertheless birdwatchers came to the park. All birds could be extinct for years and still they would come with their binoculars and long lenses. Such was their conditioning. He rounded a corner and there were two of them, heavy-set, forty-five or fifty years old with cameras on tripods. The camera lenses were swathed in camouflage-patterned fabric.
“Good afternoon,” said the interpreter. “Anything good today?”
“Just the usual suspects,” said one, who was in a blue jacket. His hat was from Aransas.
“It’s that kind of day,” said the interpreter, which was meant to be his parting comment, but the other birder, in a green jacket and hat from Point Pelee, didn’t give him space to pass. Rather, he extended his arm to halt the interpreter.
He said, “We should tell you what else we found.”
“Oh?” said the interpreter.
“A tent.”
“A tent?”
“A squatter,” said the blue one. “About 30 metres east from the big spruce on the middle loop trail. We heard an odd chip. We couldn’t let it go.” He was explaining why they had obviously gone off-trail, one of the clearly posted prohibitions at the park.
“Understandable,” said the interpreter.
“And then we saw an orange tent, tucked under the low branches of a hemlock.”
“Okay, thanks,” said the interpreter. “I’ll check it out.”
He watched the birders stroll toward the parking lot. The closed tripod legs waved to either side like metal oars.
He really didn’t want to know about a squatter. There was no happy solution. You couldn’t ignore squatters because of the damage they did at their campsites: the litter, the flattened flora, the grossness of human waste, or more serious potential damage, which is to say, fire. On the other hand, who wanted to roust a homeless person who was just clinging to something?
Perhaps the tent was just a short-lived fort set up by some kids. Perhaps it contained nothing more than comic books. Did kids still read comic books?
He came to the big spruce and quietly picked his way into the forest. He was very good at moving silently through the woods. He saw the tent almost immediately, beneath a hemlock as the birdwatchers had said. He knew that beneath the very same tree, a coyote last year had raised a litter. From inside the tent came a hacking cough, the cough of a grown man.
He back-tracked to the trail and phoned the park operator, a bear-like man who had worked in the park for decades, but now rarely left the trailer that was his office. The park operator listened as the interpreter described the situation.
There was a pause. “Hello?” asked the interpreter.
“Where are you?”
The interpreter described his location.
“Stay there,” said the park operator. “Just wait there on that log. I’ll give the cops a map.” Then he hung up.
Cops?
So now the ball was rolling. It was out of the interpreter’s hands. Once the police were on scene, they decided how the story ended. The interpreter could only watch, and help if needed. He sat on a log and waited for what seemed a long time. What if he sang loudly, or yelled friendly hellos to imaginary park visitors, would the squatter rouse himself and be gone before the cops got there? Although fiercely law-abiding and disapproving of activities that damaged the park, the interpreter found himself rooting for the person in the tent.
Out of boredom he took out his cell phone and played with the features he understood. He looked through the list of numbers he had called and the numbers that had called him. Neither was anywhere near the limit the phone could hold. He was reminded by the cloud of icons he had never opened that this cell phone did many things he did not understand. The smaller and lighter cell phones became, the closer they nested next to his body, the more threatened he felt by them.
Eventually he heard footsteps. A tall, young police officer with slick, close-cropped hair was carrying a trail map. He wore a blue Kevlar vest outside his shirt, and there were yellow stripes down his pant legs. The interpreter stood up.
This was not a big-bellied cop from American television. This one was a muscle-bound recruiting poster.
“Hi Buddy,” said the young police officer. He handed the interpreter the map. There was an X drawn with a pen exactly where the interpreter had been sitting. “So where’s the guy?”
The interpreter led the young police officer off the trail. “There, see the tent?” he pointed through the branches.
“Any idea who’s in it? Is it just one guy?”
“I heard a single male voice.”
“What was he saying?”
“He just coughed.”
The young police officer patted the interpreter on the shoulder. “Hang back,” he said, as he stepped forward.
The young police officer approached, making no effort not to step on twigs. Nearing the tent, he took what looked like a small flashlight from a case on his duty belt and flicked it. It snapped into a rigid black rod about a metre long. He called out, “Whoever is in this tent, this is the police. I need you to come out of the tent right now.” He circled to the front of the tent and tried to lift the flap with the end of the black rod. The flap was zipped tight. “Do you hear me? This is the police.”
The person inside coughed again, then said, “Wait, okay? I’m putting my pants on.”
“Hurry up,” said the young police officer. “And come out hands first.”
The tent sides bulged and sank as the person inside moved around. The young police officer stepped back. The interpreter saw that he had shifted the black rod to his left hand. His right was perched on his gun.
The tent unzipped slowly, and a thin, balding man of average height and twice the age of the young police officer emerged, hands held out. He stood slowly, and looked like a statue of Lenin, but defeated and broken, not victorious and defiant in a long, sweeping coat. Then, for some reason, he turned and reached down into the tent for something that looked to have a stout, wooden handle.
The young police officer yelled, “What’s that, a machete?” and with the black rod whacked the squatter’s arm.
“Ow, no.” The squatter staggered sideways. “It’s a Chinese flute.”
“Stand over there,” said the young police officer. “Let’s see what else is in here.”
The squatter backed away from the tent, rubbing his arm. He didn’t look healthy. He looked toward the interpreter. The interpreter avoided his eyes, and, turning, discovered he was standing next to an ancient stump covered in very intriguing lichens. He leaned to examine them, and wondered if the young police officer had meant to strike the squatter so hard.
“Okay,” said the young police officer. Nothing dangerous or illegal had been found.
The young police officer interrogated the squatter: his name, his previous addresses. Did he have any ID? He then spoke into the almost imperceptible headset attached to his left ear.
“You have to pack up and leave this park—right now,” said the young police officer. He pushed on the tip of the black rod to make it telescope back into the small thing that fit in its case.
The tent was dismantled and folded. The remainder of the squatter’s belongings were piled onto a blue plastic tarp that had served as a ground sheet. It was mostly clothes, a sleeping bag, few plastic cups and bowls, packages of noodles and cookies--and the wooden Chinese flute. It was a sad sum of someone’s life.

They walked, carrying the dismantled camp. The young police officer was ahead, the squatter and interpreter following. The squatter said, over his shoulder, “I would never harm this place. I love it here. This is the only place in this city I can breathe. I have immune system issues. I can’t live indoors.”
The interpreter mulled this over. He heard himself ask, “HIV?”
“No, not HIV. Don’t worry. You’re not contaminated.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said the interpreter. But it was. He had already checked his hands for breaks in his skin.
“I know you,” said the squatter. “You’re a nature guide. I’ve even been on a walk you were leading. You explained how mushrooms are attached to trees.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember,” said the interpreter. “I’ve led so many.”
“It was a number of years ago,” said the squatter.
They didn’t talk for the rest of the way through the woods. The squatter’s blue tarp was folded like a hammock around his belongings. He carried the front while the interpreter held up the back. The young police officer had taken the tent. He was far ahead, at the parking lot.
As they neared the trail head, the squatter paused and lowered his end of the tarp. It was not a cold or wet day, but he was shivering. He said, “I need something sweet to drink. I feel like I have low blood sugar.” He added, “Cops really scare me.” He tugged on the tarp and they made it to a bench at the parking lot.
“I’ll get you a drink,” said the interpreter. “There’s a pop machine inside the nature house.”
“Is there anything uncarbonated?”
“There’s orange juice.”
“I’ll have juice.”
“I’ll get you one.”
“I can pay.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a dollar coin. He handed it to the interpreter, and then leaned forward with his forearms on his knees. The young police officer had dumped the tent in a heap on the asphalt and was now far out in the parking lot, talking to someone somewhere else.

The interpreter pushed the heavy door open with the juice in his hand, to find the young police officer leaning into the squatter’s face, shouting at him. “I can be a total hard-ass you know. I went easy on you this time. But you come back here and the result will be a helluva lot less pleasant!” The interpreter froze. The young police officer saw him, and left the squatter wide-eyed and shaken on the bench. He took the interpreter by the arm and turned him away. “That ought to do it,” he said. “I’ve called a cab. It’s going to take him to a shelter.”
“Will he have to stay there?”
“No, but that’s all we can do. What he’s done here isn’t an arrestable offence. It’s basically just trespassing.”
This was some relief to the interpreter, that the squatter would not be locked up, although he doubted a shelter would be the answer either. This man wanted to be in a forest. Another police car drove into the lot and parked next to the first. It contained another young police officer. The first young police officer waved and walked over. The interpreter took the orange juice to the squatter, who had closed his eyes.
“Here’s your...” He placed the juice on the bench, and stepped away. The other young police officer stayed in his car. The cops were friends. They laughed about something.
The cab arrived and the young police officer directed it to a space near the bench. He put his hands on the roof and spoke to the driver. The trunk popped, and the young police officer started loading the squatter’s belongings inside. The interpreter came to help. He put the wooden Chinese flute on top.
“Okay, let’s go,” said the young police officer. He followed the squatter to the cab, and when he was in, shut the door. The cab drove from the park.
The can of juice remained on the bench, untouched.
“I feel bad about this,” said the interpreter.
The young police officer said, “Come with me.” He led the interpreter to the second police car. The second young police officer reached out his window with a white plastic spray bottle. He sprayed the first young police officer’s hands. “Give a hit to buddy here, too,” said the first young police officer. The interpreter held out his hands and the young police officer in the car sprayed them.
The two young police officers looked at each other, then at the interpreter. He realized they wanted him to leave. He said, “Well, thanks for your help. I have to go fill out some paperwork now.”
On the way to the nature house he scooped the can of juice from the bench. Inside, Amanda was on desk duty. “For you,” he said, and he placed the can on the counter.
“Oh how nice,” said Amanda. “What’s the occasion?”
The interpreter said, “What do they call it? A random act of kindness.”

10 comments:

Seabrooke said...

Poor guy. Camping out in a forest would be a whole lot nicer than living homeless on the streets in the city. I was half expecting the interpreter to discretely give the cab driver new directions to some crown land outside the city or something...

Tim said...

One of my favourites. You capture the human condition beautifully.

Victoria said...

Thank you for telling us these stories - they are always very thought-provoking, and often entertaining as well! I worked at the wildlife rescue centre my first summer in university, but I wish I had spent more time in the park itself as well.

Take care!

randomtruth said...

But what were the lichens???? :)

There's a little of that guy in all of us. Nicely written Hugh.

Dave said...

Excellent story, filled with the bittersweet tragicomedy of real life. (Sorry, tha'ts a little trite, but I suck at lit-crit.)

Laura said...

what a somber story. I'm sure he will find his way back to the woods. Thank you for writing this.

Hugh said...

Seabrooke, I didn't think of that. It would have a downside too, because homeless people need to be near grocery stores.

Tim, thanks. It took a longer to write than most of them.

Victoria, I'm glad you like them, thank you. Did you work at Wildlife Rescue out here? I worked in that park for a while.

RT, Thanks. The lichens were all spectacular new species.

Dave, thanks for that. I worked very hard on this one--unhappy with it, kept pushing it back--but finally decided it was time to post.

Laura, Thank you. And I think you're right.

Karen said...

Sigh. I can picture that dilemma exactly - the interpreter's job to protect the natural space, but not wanting to cause suffering to another human. I'm with the homeless guy on cops - they scare the @#$(* out of me too. I wonder what one of them would do if he lost his police job, had no money, got beat up in shelters (okay, that part seems unlikely) - these days, it seems like it wouldn't take much to fall off the wheel and have to figure out what to do.

What is it with birders? I shouldn't over-generalize, but I have met some pretty rude ones too. Sometimes I feel like they deserve a little walk too close to the tripping bench, with all that fancy expensive hardware...

Urban Wild said...

This is one of the saddest things I've read in some time. There are so many folks that are homeless, and some of them are harmless--just down and out. This poor guy just wanted a piece of nature. I know they can't live in parks, but jeez, I would have liked to have kicked that cop's ass. Maybe someday that little wiseass will end up on the street and find out how it feels to be on the receiving end.

spinyurchin said...

I liked the fact that the homeless guy had, once upon a time, in more carefree times, been on one of the interpreter's walks.
Lots of shades of grey in this story. Complex.