Angel and old man

of The Vans

June 1985


Jane Rule got this in a letter of July 1985, about an encounter I'd had a few weeks before. We had been talking about caring for others: the need to do it; the limits of it -- things we'd learn a great deal about in the next few years. "It has to come as a matter of course," I'd said, "not nobility."

Here, as I wrote her then, I found myself "in a quandary about my motives."

"Do you smell a fire?"

It was about 12:30 am, on Bloor Street near Bathurst, and this kid, looking lost, asked me that. I did: we were passing a building that had burned a few weeks before. I probably said that.

And then he simply asked if he could talk. I was heading off toward the Annex Diner, hoping to find a (recently) former boyfriend, but asked if he wanted to sit down somewhere and have a coffee.

He said no, told me he had three bottles of bitters in a little bag, and planned to go back to a parking lot where he'd stashed all his clothes in plastic bags, having been put out on the street by his roommate, to get drunk and, as he said, kill himself.

"I've got the razor. I'm gonna do it."

I told him to tell me where he was, and that I'd come back.

"You won't come back."

"Yes I will."

I did. My ex wasn't at the diner, so I backtracked to the place this boy had told me about (checking for suicide lines in phone books along the way), and found him sitting on his bags, jammed between a fence and two parked VW vans, drinking.

We talked for perhaps an hour, about his alcoholic father who'd died and whom he missed, about his own alcoholism, about how abandoned he felt. And then he did indeed reach into his jacket pocket and pull out a matchbook, from which he produced a blade I couldn't make out very well (it turned out to be one torn from a plastic disposable razor).

I didn't want to try to grab him; I didn't know how much danger I might be in. He slashed his left wrist, dramatically. It took a few seconds to start bleeding; at first I wasn't really sure he'd done it.

I told him I had to go get help; he said if I left he'd slash his neck. He cried hard. "Can you hold me?" "Not until you put that down," I said, and he did, thankfully losing track of where he put it.

I did hold him, and talked him into letting me call the Salvation Army suicide line. His experiences in AA made them seem more trustworthy than the police or an ambulance -- which he warned me not to call.

I went and tried that suicide line three times, got a busy signal each time, so dialed 911. I went back and lied, saying the Salvation Army had said all they could do was send an ambulance.

We got one and, as I discovered, the police cruiser that arrives automatically as well when you call the emergency number.

So from then on it was a night of bureaucracy, of ambulance drivers and cops and doctors and nurses who'd seen all this a thousand times and were distinctly unimpressed.

As they should have been: it was all a show. In the ambulance, the attendant said, "Let's have a look at that arm." He held it out, one fresh horizontal gash still bleeding -- and perhaps fifteen scars I hadn't seen in the dark.

"What's your name?" -- the obligatory forms at the ready. "Michael." "Last name?" He stated it, then spelled it out. The attendant repeated it, then said: "Oh. I've seen you before. You do lots of OD's, right?"


At the hospital he got hold of a pair of gauze sheers and made a few stabs at his chest; they were blunt ended. They brought all his bags in and stashed us and them in an examining room, the door always open and the cops always in the hall right outside, swapping racist jokes.

From another room I could hear a doctor asking questions of a woman who, it became clear, had been beaten by her husband ("I didn't want to hurt him, you know. I don't want to hurt him"). In yet another a nurse regularly woke someone who probably had a head injury (they don't like to let them fall asleep).

Michael dug in his bags, found some slippers he told me he'd made in jail, found quite a few bottles of cologne. He had a few sips from one but decided it was too much for him even in his drunken and bloody state.

Two doctors came in, the first a young intern, I suppose, the second a psychiatrist, a woman in her thirties with what I assumed was a Hungarian accent. Michael was alternately docile and aggressive, and they'd spend no more than three minutes before deciding to pass him on to the next level of the machine.

The last official visitor -- apart from the police, who made me nervous: Michael kept saying he wanted to try to get one of their guns, which looked quite easy to lift out of their open holsters -- was a nurse who came to take a blood test.

"What's this for?" Michael asked.

"They won't take you at Queen Street [the bin] unless we've done these tests."

"Is that where I'm going?"

"Looks like it is."

"I can leave, can't I? I'm free to leave."

"Not anymore."

I left him in that room at 3:30, walking back up Bathurst Street to find the corner we'd been sitting in. I discovered my pack of cigarettes (two left, and I very much wanted one) with a thin rim of blood along one edge. I scouted for the blade he'd put down. I found it: a flimsy little thing; running a finger over it I realized how dull it was.

I stuck it in the cigarette pack and took them both home. Ward, thankfully, was up packing for a business trip to Los Angeles; I very much wanted someone to whom I could explain the blood on my shirt.

Well, motives and quandaries. The initial quandary was whether I had done the right thing. Knowing what I know about him now, I imagine that if he'd had no one to perform for he'd have simply got drunk and fallen asleep.

It might only have been a matter of time, though, before he ended up at Queen Street one way or another, and perhaps it's best he did. Still, on that night I felt I'd helped put him there and didn't feel very good about it.

But I also knew I couldn't take care of him. I lied when he asked me where I lived; when I was leaving I was hoping he wouldn't remember he'd asked for my phone number. He didn't. In all, I feel that was for the best.

Max Allen [a producer at CBC Radio, noted porn aficionado and anti- censorship activist], when I told him this, asked why I stayed at all. He had worked in a mental hospital in New York; to him the whole pattern was instantly familiar.

I said I wasn't sure, thought harder and said: "He was really attractive."

And he was. He wasn't a boy, really. I found out in the ambulance that he was 28. But he seemed one: thin, blond, a handsome face with what appeared to be a once broken nose.

And I wasn't getting a routine. The crying was real, the pain was real. He asked me if I was gay, said he didn't believe me when I told him I was, and then said he was too. He did know some of the bars but he also mentioned a girlfriend later; that too fit a pattern.

Mostly I wanted him to trust me, wanted to find something there I could like and care about. In the examination room at one point he dug into his bags and found his glasses. He put them on, looked up at me and grinned a little -- bloody, tear stained, snotty nosed from crying -- and sheepishly said: "They don't suit me, do they?"

For a second he was simply a real peach of a kid. I knew that wasn't all he was, and I knew there wasn't any more I could do. So I left.

Max said to me: "People like that have their antennas out for people like you." He's probably right. The last cigarette in that bloodied pack went to someone who stopped me on the way home from that parking lot, decided to walk with me, and never stopped talking for a second -- about medieval battles, armour and axes and heads and arms lopped off.

All the way to my door.... I said nothing buy "goodbye" as I left him; he went right on as I closed the door behind me.

But he too had one good line. He was on about some medieval lord who fought lots of duels, killing lots of people, until Henry II decided to have him executed.

"That Henry," he said. "He was quite a guy. You'd have really liked him."

Needless to say, it was quite a night. But the blood came out of my shirt in a cold water wash, and I've stopped glancing at that space between the fence and the vans when I go by almost every day on the streetcar.

Another lesson about limits.

Jane wrote me in her next letter:
"Your night street life has taken too melodramatic a turn. I find myself hoping I would have behaved as you did with the drunken, miserable boy. It simply isn't true that those who talk about suicide and try it a number of times are simply bluffing and won't do it. You couldn't touch the deeper problems, but you could bear simple witness to the value of his life by staying with him as you did."

Well, I suppose. Perhaps it wasn't just a show. I never saw Michael again -- but then I wasn't likely to, whatever may have happened to him. His blade, nestled in that bloody cigarette pack, I kept for quite some time.

784 Euclid
784 Euclid Avenue:
My place at the time, another room at the top.
Not far from that parking lot, if further -- in perhaps more
ways than one -- from Michael in that room
at Toronto Western Hospital.

Ward Beattie was my housemate at 784, along with his lover Terry Farley. Both were good friends, at times also involved with The Body Politic. They were used to odd visitors, if not bloody shirts. But I'm glad Ward was up that night. For more on our menage, see Promiscuous Affections: 1989.

For "the bin" -- 999 (now 1001) Queen Street West -- see Not at liberty, among the many tales in One street; Many stories: Queen.

Next episode: VIII: Touch

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