Monday, March 22, 2010

Last day in Vanier, for now

I'm in Vanier right now, Ottawa's crack-infested francophone slum, at my friend Bill's.  His daughter, Sasha, who's also a friend, invited me to stay a couple of days.  It's eleven o'clock in the morning.  I've been up since ten-thirty, woken by Silas, Sasha's dog, who's sleeping on the bed he chased me from.

For the last month or so, I've been camping out at John's.  John lives in a one-room apartment in a subsidized block, what in England they'd call a council estate.  John's a big boy.  There isn't room for two on his double mattress, so I've been sleeping on the floor.  It's not too bad.  I have a pad, like a yoga mat, that's self-inflating.  It provides enough of a cushion that I can't feel the linoleum underneath.

The place itself is cramped, to say the least, about the size of a cheap room in a motel that rents by the hour.  The walls are cinder block, dirty beige and streaked with tar from cigarettes.

John suffers from some sort of non-specific mental illness.  He lives on a tiny fixed income provided by the provincial government and spends most of his days at home.  I, too, spend my days at home, working at my laptop.  If it weren't for the fact that both of us are good at retreating into our heads, we'd have killed each other by now.  As it is, we manage to co-exist in total silence for hours at a stretch, John engaged at his computer, me at mine.  We smoke up from time to time, usually in the evening, to take the edge off living in close quarters.

Last week, Sasha offered me a room at her and Bill's for a couple of days.  She likes John and wanted him to have a break.  Couch surfing, I have to take these kinds of offers, even though I dread them.  Carting my possessions from one place to another, I'm reminded how precarious my living situation is.

Today's my last day here.  I've enjoyed the little room Sasha let me use.  It has a real bed and, more important, a comfortable reading chair.  At John's, there are no chairs except a rickety spindle-back, adequate for working at my laptop, little more.  It's been a treat, having someplace to relax and read.

I have no feelings about returning to John's.  It's neither better nor worse than Bill and Sasha's.  If John's place is absurdly small, theirs is absurdly cluttered.  Floors, tables, chairs and desks all strewn with papers, books, dishes, laundry, cardboard boxes, broken lamps and garbage from a recent bout of renovations.  Every step, there's something in my way; every surface, when it's needed, has to be cleared off.  On my own, I couldn't live like this.  As it is, I've been navigating through the mess without complaint.  It is, after all, not my home.

Tomorrow, I have a meeting with a social assistance caseworker.  Social assistance in Ontario is called Ontario Works—a grimly Orwellian formulation.  I wonder if the bureaucrats who coined the name had any idea.  Most likely not.  If they did, their arrogance is even more alarming than their lie.  Ontario doesn't work.  Social spending has been pared to the bone.  Health care is a shadow of its former self.  The school system has become a travesty of real education.  Minimum wage is entirely inadequate to cover the cost of living.

The caseworker is supposed to help me find some sort of work.  She'll ask to see my CV.  After reading it, she'll express surprise that a man with my experience, qualifications and accomplishments is in the situation I'm in.  I know; I've done these interviews before.  Then she'll set the CV aside and tell me there's no place for my talents in the current job market, with an injunction to take the first minimum-wage job I can find.

Homeless and useless.  Thanks, Ontario Works.

No comments:

Post a Comment