Funny how I find such power in words that when vocalized I seldom trust. Maybe it’s been too long listening to politicians but I find the written word far superior to that of the spoken. For this reason, perhaps, I have always found it difficult to write fiction—it is hard to write a non-truth. Not that it is easy for me to tell a lie but I find a lot of people, including myself, are prone to hyperbole. It is something I try to amend whenever I feel it bubbling inside but because of this innate tendency I usually add a grain of salt to words spoken by another. (Because I do it, you must also). As for writing, I have my own auto-correct built in: whenever I am not quite writing my truth it feels like I am trudging up a steep hill with 100 pounds on my back. The written word is sacrosanct to me.
That said, I do write fiction but most of my tales seem to have at least some foundation of truth. I discovered that it is just a matter of taking that hyperbolic tendency and stretching it a little bit further. My friend, “Sam”, was instrumental in helping me break through this literary barrier.
When I first told Sam about my problem he gently berated me for equating fiction with untruths. You have to look at it another way, he said. His theory is that because there must be countless solar systems and, in them, a myriad of civilizations and experiences, somewhere , sometime, whatever my imagination dreams up has to be based on someone’s reality… just not my own. Makes sense in a weird way. I keep it in mind anyway.
Sam and I have been friends for over ten years: he’s a man of great generosity and, having been around the proverbial block a few times, one of the true survivors. I met him in the late 90s when I was working at an emergency shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Sam didn’t live at our facilities but would come to visit in the evening or stand in line for the sandwiches made from surplus food. One night he came to watch some TV when a particularly nasty neighbourhood denizen was also visiting. “Keith”, like Sam, was a survivor but his longevity was steeped in amorality—he was a good looking, smooth talking bully among the defenseless. Knowing this the shelter staff kept a close eye on him whenever he was present and therefore, that night, when he started verbally abusing a middle aged mentally challenged woman, I was on him immediately. I ordered him out. He complied but not before letting us all know, in very colourful words, exactly what he thought of me. Sam, by this time, had had enough and got up to defend my honour. More words were shouted and physical stances made before I separated the two, got Keith out with an indefinite ban and watched the night settle down to its normal craziness. A while later Sam left. He came back the next day with a black eye and swollen face. Keith, it seemed, had lain in wait outside the shelter, beating him up as a cautionary warning never to get involved again.
I left that job about a year later, lost contact with Sam and eventually moved to a calmer neighbourhood on the north shore. Walking home one afternoon then, I was more than pleasantly surprised to see Sam binning in the back alley. I walked up to him and, reminding him of how he defended me, gave him a hug and teasingly called him my hero.
It has been about eight years now that we’ve shared the same neighbourhood. Sam prefers to sleeps rough. Although he has been known to take the generosity of folk who offer him work as a house sitter he finds construction sites and parks more to his liking than soft beds and warm feet. One Christmas, I gave him an IGA gift certificate. I meant well but I embarrassed him—he prefers to give rather than get and his “getting” is always the result of a barter or a dumpster find. Most times I see him pushing his shopping cart down the street or juggling great big garbage bags full of cans and bottles on his bike. When we see each other we always stop and chat. I keep it short when he’s been imbibing over a certain limit but more often than not we find something meaningful to talk about. But not, that is, before he has offered me a gem or two of what he has found… it is amazing what people throw away.
I like Sam, even admire him, but I have never invited him home for tea. I kid myself and say it’s about the alcohol and how it triggers certain familial memories. Then I think, no, he’s just too dirty. But I am not so sure either of those reasons are my truth.
My home is my sanctuary: my own fictional tale of the perfect life. His life is messy, uncertain and, at times, precarious: a reverberation of my own reality tale. I try to keep the two separate but … maybe this is why it is hard for me to write fiction… it exposes too much.