Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Foggy Night

Foggy Night

3am: The afternoon's freezing rain has shellacked the sidewalks with ice; my walk home is treacherous. The night (the morning?) air feels cool and humid on my cheeks. Someone has poured rich fog into the air; it has swallowed the city. The streetlamps glow, but the fog absorbs much of their light, enveloping the lamplights in an orange aura. I'm having trouble seeing -- navigating the slippery paths is hard enough without having to worry about crazed bikers materializing in the darkness and running me down.

I should have been home long ago. I spent too many hours surfing the Web tonight, losing myself in other people's lives, reading of trips to Venice and Barcelona, of eating in fine restaurants, of cute tyrannical kittens and the people they own, of siblings calling each other evil names out of love. These are the things I will never experience personally -- the best I can do is slurp up these tales of other people's lives. As I walk, guilt hangs over me, thicker than the fog, because reading webpages is not productive. I have papers to read, stories to write. School starts up again soon, and I will have nothing to show for my two-week break. Once again, I wasted too much of my time.

But what's done is done -- I have already committed my sins, and there's nothing I can do about them now except face the consequences. Now, all I want to do is get home and sleep: I'll deal with my disappointments tomorrow.

I've finished my walk down the Laurel Trail -- walking through the parking lot and past the llamas and over the bridge and past the St Jacob's-Waterloo train sleeping at its station. I'm almost at Waterloo Town Square now; I have two roads to cross at the intersection before I reach the Zehr's parking lot. The streets seem deserted, but I am not prepared to take chances in the fog, and I wait for the lights to turn before crossing. I cross the first intersection; I can hear a car approaching, but it's slowing down. Once I have crossed the street, I see that it is a police car. It reaches the corner, starts turning the corner in front of me... and stops.

The passenger-side window opens. I see the policeman's face, young and clean-shaven, looking at me.

"Where are you heading?"

"Home."

"Where's home?" (He thinks I'm homeless, doesn't he?)

"Kitchener."

(What if I didn't have a home? Would he arrest me? Take to a hostel? He has that right. Thanks to the "Safe Streets Act," he can arrest me just to check my identification. If he decides to keep my identification, what will I be able to do?)

"You're going to walk all the way to Kitchener?"

"Yes, sir." (He doesn't believe me, does he?)

"Where in Kitchener do you live?"

"Past City Hall." (I don't want to give him my address if I can help it; he might offer me a ride home.)

"What do you have in the bag?" (Which one? I'm carrying both my backpack and my canvas tote bag.)

I take out the broken grey umbrella out of my tote bag, holding it up so that he can see it clearly. Then I open the tote and hold it up to the window, so that he can see the papers and debris inside.

"How about the backpack? What do you have in there?"

(I'm tired. I want to go home and sleep, not deal with this police officer's interrogation. But I know better than to say anything: any lip and the officer will really start hassling me. I don't want to get myself arrested, or to spend the night in a holding cell.

I give thanks that I'm not currently homeless. I spend a lot of money each month to rent an apartment; that gives me respectability and an alibi. The fact that I've done nothing wrong means nothing; having a home and an alibi means everything. Even I know that much.)

"Books, mostly." I shrug my backpack off my shoulders, undo the clasps, pull the drawstring open and pull out three novels I had purchased from a used bookstore that day. I think I have an orange and a binder in my backpack as well, but the officer doesn't push the issue.

"Where are you coming from?"

"The University of Waterloo."

"You're a student there?"

"Yes." (I hope he doesn't ask what I was doing; I would rather not tell him I was surfing the Web until 2:30am.)

"What department?"

"Computer Science." I prepare to reach for my wallet and my WATcard, to show that I am indeed a student, albeit a graduate student. But again, the officer does not press the issue. In fact, he seems satisfied.

"Okay." The officer takes off the Bad Cop mask and puts on his Friendly Community Defender persona. "You have to understand that it looks a little suspicious. People walk around late at night, stealing cars. They put their tools in their bags." He rolls up the window, finishes turning the corner and drives off.

As soon as the light turns, I cross the second street, shaking my head. I don't believe the officer's explanation. Unless he thought I was trying to disguise myself by appearing absurd, I would think that a potential criminal would want to look a little less conspicuous than I do: A short, slouching gnomelike creature wearing taped-up sunglasses and a big bushy beard is probably fairly easy to pick out of a police lineup. I think he thought I was homeless, because I look homeless and I was walking the streets late at night.

If I had been homeless, what would he have done? I couldn't get that question out of my head.

(Poverty is not yet a crime in Ontario. But I think that, for all intents and purposes, homelessness is. The Safe Streets Act helped take care of that. The police can legally harass people they think are homeless. They can ask for identification, and can arrest people to get it. They can accuse people of panhandling too close to schools or transit stops. They can throw you in jail for sleeping in a public park. If they think that you are insane, they can force you to "get treatment," which usually means you have to take mind-altering drugs.

I fear all of these things. I look homeless: I have been stopped by the police before, and I will likely be interrogated again. Furthermore, I am never more than one step away from homelessness, and some would call me mentally troubled. I understand that if I ever do anybody any harm, I will forfeit all my freedoms, and the authorities will have the right to take my life into their hands and mistreat me however they want. It frightens me to think that I have no rights even though I have committed no crime -- but I think that I have given up many of my rights because I look different and act differently from normal people. To the police, I am suspicious. But maybe I should not complain, for I have made choices that have led to my appearance; other targets of suspicion -- such as young black men -- cannot say that much.)

Thoughts of homelessness and the police fluttered through my head as I walked through Waterloo into Kitchener. As I crossed Union Road I saw another police car drive by -- perhaps it was the same officer? It did not matter; the car did not stop.

King Street was quiet. Very few people seemed to be awake this late at night. All the good boys and girls were asleep in their beds, it seemed. All but one, perhaps, for just a little past the Kitchener bus terminal I saw the goods of somebody's life strewn on a curb.

Many of the goods had been stacked into boxes, but the boxes had been stacked haphazardly, and some things had just been thrown into piles. Here sat a box of books, and here a pile of toys, partially obscured by an old comforter. Here were two colouring books, abandoned on the ground, and there some clothes in a box.

What had happened? I thought that a family doing its midwinter cleaning or preparing to move house would have organized the boxes more carefully than this. This mess looked like the spoils of anger, of an argument, perhaps of an eviction. Who belonged to these things? For an instant, I thought of rummaging through the pile for salvagables, but then I realized how evil that would be -- not because of any stupid laws prohibiting curbside salvage, but because somebody might want these things back. How awful it would be if I took something that somebody wanted, something that had been abandoned in anger, I thought. I left the pile alone.

There was nothing I could do, I realized. Even if I knew who belonged to these things, I wouldn't be able to do anything. Whatever tragedy had dumped these belongings on this curb was none of my business, and all I could do was hope that the players would reconciliate, that they would make up and turn this sadness into comedy. Feeling helpless, thoughts of this night's madness hanging heavy in my head, I continued my walk home through the fog.