Lady at Tim Horton’s by Johnny D Trinh
Tim Hortons was closed
So she paced back and forth
Crossed the street
Crossed back again
Staring at the coffee house sign
Seeking something I feared eye contact could not answer
The young and the drunk
Pulled on the doors
Walked passed her
Walked through her
If the bus had not left without me
While I stood at its door
Invisible in the rain
I would not have seen her
“Maybe she was waiting,” I hoped.
She didn’t smell homeless
Whatever illness she may have had was as invisible to me
As she was to police that kept riding past her
I was on the verge of asking them to stop and help her
But my fear of them rationalized my courage away
I was on the edge of speaking to her
But the ensemble of homeless people around me
Made me question- “what could I really do?”
Because the last time I asked for help they said,
“It’s great that you care, but look around you, if she isn’t in danger, there is nothing we can do.”
Everytime I asked in the past- the human connection didn’t last past this Good Samaritan fix
I rummaged through pockets finding only
Negative dollars in the account
Barely the token in my hand
CAMH* down the street not 30 minute walk away
All the narratives my imagination created to bolster my privilege
Because I need you to know that I’ve asked in the past.
Maybe she WAS just waiting just like me
It wasn’t until the bus came again
When I saw that she wasn’t getting on board
When I realized what I had done.
She was waiting
I was waiting
She’s been falling and
She was waiting to get caught
I’ve been falling
And I caught myself
I caught myself
I caught myself doing nothing.
I dripped my way onto the 99
Playing pokemon go
Trying to catch a snorlax
Trying to give me a semblance of doing something.
The snorlax got away.
*CAMH – Centre for Addiction & Mental Health
I keep saying it’s a privilege to work at the John Howard Society as Artist-in-Residence. I have the honor of going in to provide some fun, offer art, facilitate transformative community building. I have the opportunity to leave it behind when our time is done. But I never, really, leave it behind. I know a few colleagues who have the ability to leave their work “at the office.” When their contracts are complete, or when their sessions are over, they’re able to slip back into their daily routines. Setting boundaries in community based art is vital for a healthy practice, and a necessary part of self-care. I’ve spent 15 years learning my strategies… often after a heavy day you’ll find me cooking or baking for friends.
You can check out my instagram: @johnnydtrinh to see some of my best strategies.
When I first began this residency, I was really focused on supporting the program and filling in because we needed an artist to do the work. In my previous blogs, I talked about my methods for establishing myself, building those initial connections, and introducing new practices to the clients.
In my experience, I’ve worked with a range of folks who face barriers including mental health challenges, substance use, poverty, discrimination, and any number of traumas.
Though I may be more familiar with the subject matter, nothing ever truly prepares you for the stories when they arrive. Over the past month, we’ve been gifted the presence of an amazing practicum student,Walter, who has been playing guitar, and helping me hold the space, as we lead the clients through music jams. Through improvisation with guitars, pianos, percussion instruments, and vocals, we’ve been creating music (and noise) at the CSO. [I want to give a shout out to Bonerattle Music (http://www.bonerattle.com/) in East Vancouver who offered discounts on instruments for the clients to use.]
The staff has been so supportive, and open to our sound creations. We’re building up to create a performance at the Community Arts Council of Vancouver’s Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival from August 9-11 at the Roundhouse Community Centre.
On a functional level, the music practice is accessible, familiar, and uncomplicated.
Through experimenting with instruments, playing them, interacting through them, we’ve been able to facilitate some amazing dialogue. Clients, who up until now, have been relatively closed off, have opened up in incredible ways. Rebecca lives nearby, there have been more weeks where she has slept through our weekly sessions than weeks that she has attended. But when she does, she is always pleasant and willing to engage. When I first met Rebecca, she sat at the far end of the CSO, she nodded, came over to our workshop area, snacked on some berries and left.
Over the weeks, she would stay longer, maybe 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, or leave and come back. She was always happy to share her daily/weekly activities, told us of the sports she liked. She was more interested in observing the art, sharing company, and chatting. Two weeks ago, she came in and picked up a maraca started playing and spent the entire session with us. The last time she stayed for the entire session was a month ago when we created terrariums with guest artist, Robin Lough.
After an hour of jamming, we decided to take a break. As we were snacking on Cheesies and crackers, Rebecca came and sat down next to me.
“I really enjoy it here. It’s great to sit with people instead of up in my room. A few years ago I tried to kill myself. It’s great to make friends here, this year I’m playing basketball.”
I asked her what position she enjoyed playing, and if she was following the Raptors. The quiet breakthrough sat full in my chest. We hadn’t spoken much up until that point. Her casual revelation of experiences with suicide, details of her struggles with mental health, and friendships she’s made since then demonstrated a trust that we were building. These unexpected expositions of traumatic moments have increased in frequency. I take them in, hold the space, and I find it harder to let go.
To be more accurate, it’s not that I’m trying to let go. It’s more that I’m being constantly reminded. These stories of violence, suicide, trauma are juxtaposed with stories of joy and triumph. But these stories are still intense, and the reality is that so many people share them. Everytime I take the bus, whether it’s the 9, 20, 3, 14, 4… I see folks who could be John Howard clients. More frequently, I see clients. We nod, we chat, but we
have to renegotiate boundaries because we are outside the “safety” of the CSO. It’s always a joy to hear the wins, it’s hard to hear the challenges, it’s harder still when it’s a bad day and we are able to witness the challenges as they occur. Maybe the point is that we are never supposed to forget.
I am not speaking for a place of pity or guilt. Part of this work, and what is affirming from all the staff I’ve worked with at the John Howard Society, is upholding the respect and dignity of our clients. We are in no way in a position to pity anyone, we simply do our best to be compassionate, patient, and ready to help when we’re able. Recently, I’ve noticed that some clients aren’t showing up. I haven’t seen them in the neighbourhood. I heard they’re going through a rough patch. You can’t help but worry, fear the worst, but then you have to check yourself, check your assumptions, and realize that we’re all trying to live our best lives. For some of us, that’s really hard. I hope they’re ok. I hope they’ll be back soon, so we can jam some more.