6 Figures and a Coat for a Pillow

great-depression Migrant workers. Itinerant workers. Hobos. The scourge of locals. Thousands and thousands of us are out there, in every corner of the world, and it’s getting worse. This is just one story.

We all have unique situations, but we’re all the same – going where the jobs are, pulling up roots, disrupting families, adding insecurity to the lives of our kids. Attached, but flyin’ solo.

So there we all are. All alone, wandering the streets of the world’s cities. Shuffling like zombies on the weekends through empty downtown core shopping meccas, resting on replicas of the momentary plush seats we used to wait on outside the dreaded shoe shops, clothes stores and e-game stores, while the wife and kids danced with the alluring princesses of consumption. We appear to be carefree, masters of our own domain, but beneath the facade we are fighting. Fighting for what really matters …. feeding the mouths of our children hundreds and thousands `of miles away. This is our reality.

The following tale is for all those fathers and husbands I met along the way, forced by circumstance to work thousands of miles away from their families.



UnemployedMarchCalgary, one night, 2009

A yellow school bus idled outside the caged entrance to a run-down 3-storey building in Calgary’s downtown core, an ‘outta-sight, outta-mind’ section in the hustling, bustling palace of the New West. ‘Hotel Skidder’ was a place to lay your head and recharge your batteries … if you didn’t get killed.

The mission across the street delivered salvation with a lecture. The next building over delivered both salvation and resurrection in a bottle. A quaint little outhouse called the Liquor Barn, presided over by ‘Somali Joe’, efficient movements and deceptively dead eyes that scanned everyone for signs of danger. He seemed totally incapable of leaping into action – surprising considering the desperation etched in most of the faces as they made their choices and counted their coins. Denial of that urge could quickly lead to a fight or a flight. Joe was either a trained assassin, or he had a ‘safety valve’ within reach beneath the counter.

Hotel Skidder was 2 blocks from where he’d landed the highest paying job of his life, 2 blocks from the country’s premiere ad agencies and  marketing firms, 2 blocks from a handful of wickedly luxurious high-rise condos, and 2 blocks from the Stampede Casino, where you could get a square meal 24 hours a day … but not if you were a guest at Hotel Skidder.

He passed by there seven nights a week on his way away from and to work (aka, ‘home’). Passing this scene took him back many years to his workaday world in Toronto. Filled with hope, optimism, and bravado, he had steady employment, an apartment near downtown. It was going well. And in case he got too cocky, there was always ‘Bugs’. Bugs liked the nearby bus shelter. Bugs, it was rumoured, was an eccentric millionaire who chose to live on the street, chose to shuffle around in feces-stained pants, and his street-grime attire. Whatever his real story, Bugs was a daily reminder to him that, no matter how good and steady a job I had, he was only a few mistakes away from the same fate.

So, several mistakes later, here he is – Calgary, 2009. $150 in his pocket until his first paycheque. 2 weeks. No problem, free coffee at work, grab a sandwich for the day, walk everywhere, and … find accommodation? He’d worry about that later. First, nail the job, get his feet under him, then something would work out. Busy all day, busy all week, no time to worry about where he was going to lay his head, something would work out. His wife had long given up on counting on him to make anything substantial, so with realistic expectations, he just wanted to make enough to provide some monetary relief for his family back in Toronto. So, he worked, worked hard, was on, always on, had lots to prove – to his employer, his wife, his kids, himself.

Weekends were the hardest. That’s when he couldn’t help but think of how much he missed the kids. He haunted the movie theatres, shuffled around the empty malls, strode endlessly and at times, aimlessly around the empty streets, rode the empty trains to the ends of the line and back.

After watching “The Road” at the local repertory cinema, he vowed not to see any more movies that made him feel things. That film crushed him, made him miss his kids until his body collapsed in a chair in a deserted food court in a deserted urban mall. Still, when he started to feel numb to the kids’ absence, he watched that movie three more times before it’s run was over.

This was his second stint out West. It was easier the first time. No kids, young, full of energy, he could take on three and four jobs at a time. It began in Edmonton, he fell in with some questionable characters at the downtown Y, stumbled around, learned how to do acid, and how not to do acid. He drank, partied, played with numerous strangers, and after saving a roommate from getting killed, ended up in B.C., where he drank, partied, played with numerous strangers, and did a memorable junket as a tree planter.

This time would be different, he said. It had to be. No jobs in Ontario. This ‘too-good-to-be-true’ plum job landed in his lap. This was his last chance. It would turn everything around – his wife’s bouts of cancer, hiding from creditors, the slow, creeping onset of depression. He was leaving his family behind and going on a noble quest – to make money. He thought he was unique, and to a certain extent he was – not many would have the guts to take the risk. What he soon began to realize is that he was not alone. Wandering around the downtown core on the weekend and in the early mornings, were any number of easily recognizable fathers and husbands doing the same thing. These same beings haunted the same movie theatres, coffee shops and empty malls that he did. He saw these guys every morning around 6 am, in the Starbucks on the ground floor of the Weston, as bleary-eyed as him, trying to suck it for another crack at the prize. They all watched the talking heads spew forth last night’s sports highlights while sipping bold coffee and espresso.

This is where he and I met and where he told me his story. Everyone’s got one, we just need a friendly stranger to tell it to. I was that stranger.

We struck up a conversation – one bound by ‘The (unwritten) Law of Strangers’.

I bought him a ‘tall bold’ and a perpetually stale, tasteless croissant. That paltry gesture invited him to spill his guts.

He had a secret. A secret he was literally protecting with his life. Tucked in the right hand pocket of his pants, checked constantly while we talked, was his pass card. Not just any pass card, it was the pass card that let him in and out of his workplace.

That pass card was the one thing he had to hang onto tightly while out wandering the streets until he was sure that everyone had gone home for the night. That was his only way to stay warm and dry and secure at night. He was earning six figures, but sleeping on the floor of the office. He wondered how many others he saw at the theatres, coffee shops, and malls were doing the same. In a city filled with landlords who didn’t know or care that there was a full-blown recession everywhere but here, it was next to impossible to secure a legitimate place.

The first two weeks without any money, food or accommodation set him on a course of no return. Yes, he would keep it up as long as he could. He would sleep a few hours on the office floor, get up before anybody was even out of their beds at home, dress in his work clothes, and leave the building. He would march over the Weston, watch sports, drink his java, then ‘head into work’ like a normal person. When everyone went home, he would continue to work until a normal time to go home for dinner, then pack up his things and head ‘home‘. With no money for anything, he walked, and walked, and walked.

He saw skidders all around him, pushing grocery carts filled with bottles and cans to take to recycling centres around the city. They told him, they’d earn enough for a bottle and a bunk at Hotel Skidder, then start on their quest all over the next day. They told him they had routes, they called it ‘turf‘, and they were willing to fight to the death to protect it. They worked this 9-5 job with constant overtime, early shifts, and weekends. He thought this was unique to this city of sharp divides between the affluent and effluent, but with some research, he realized this was a worldwide phenomenon. The world had gone in the crapper, and the smart ones became resourceful. They knew by instinct that like the Great Depression, one had to scratch out a living anyway they could. In a consumerist society where waste ran rampant, that meant rummaging through bins. In this city, there were thousands of young Turks, their pockets filled to the brim with cash to be burnt through, with all sorts of things to be thrown out.

Payday finally came for my friend. He hadn’t anything to eat for about 5 days – not a problem according to his skidder friends, but tough. What he did have was the sincerest appreciation for the little things, but that didn’t fill the belly. He marched with his earnings into The Keg. Yeah sure, a chain, not fancy, but when that steak dinner was placed in front of him, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Nothing had ever tasted sweeter.

Several weeks went by, we went back to being strangers passing each other in the night. I saw him from time to time scuttling past Hotel Skidder on his way to the Liquor Barn and back to the office. There was a frightened look on his face each time he saw me. He had revealed something to a stranger, but that stranger had broken the unwritten rule with his reappearance. I was a threat. I could end his last chance at any time with a malicious word to his employer. Never did. Never could. There is a common bond between all of us disenfranchised fathers. I would protect his secret with my life.

The last time I saw him was at the last showing of “The Road”. A bag of popcorn and tears in his eyes. His coat was worn and rumpled. We nodded. Didn’t talk. Didn’t need to. The fear drained from his face, replaced by an intense sadness. Something was terribly wrong. Then, I noticed he wasn’t checking his pocket any more.

I never saw him again.



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