The rooming house

Isotropic. It’s a 1,000-pound word that refers to the experience of having everything look the same in each direction. Astronomers invented it.

Isotropic. It’s a 1,000-pound word that refers to the experience of having everything look the same in each direction.

Astronomers invented it.

In the starkness of space, where there is no up or down, east or west, everything is stars, darkness, and the whirl of cosmic activity.

It’s a directionless void, savage in its eternal beauty.

Here on the frozen platter of the lake with the mountains hulked up around me, I get a sense of it.

Spring’s coming, and the dog and I ventured out while the ice still holds, to see it all from the middle. White. Unbroken. The sky above us grey, tufted with cloud, and the ragged line of mountain snared us, set us there like we were impaled upon it.

An isotropic view can happen in a life too. We’ve come to discover that, my woman and I.

Fifteen months ago, she invested in a rooming house that caters to the poor and marginalized.

Since then, we’ve been privy to life’s struggle when you’re hung at the edges.

There are 14 people able to live there and we’ve seen them come and go regularly.

A parade of the invisible ones.

When she bought it, the rooming house had been allowed to decay.

Oh, the structure was sound enough, but it had atrophied from a decided lack of attention, of care.

 It’s a normal looking building on a regular street in a small, ordinary city.

There’s nothing to distinguish it from thousands of other apartment buildings anywhere.

But the previous owners lacked mercy.

When she saw the interiors of the rooms for the first time, it was shocking.

People were living in Third World conditions.

Some had nothing to cook on. The stoves had been allowed to fall into disrepair along with the small refrigerators.

There had been no paint in decades.

The floors were filthy and the central hallway on the lower floor was bare concrete, thick with mould and mud.

Drug addicts lived there.

Without any degree of custodial management, they’d grown used to treating their home as disrespectfully as their body.

In the relentless to-and-fro of addiction, windows were broken, garbage was strewn everywhere and the front and back doors were left open every night.

It had become a flophouse.

Other tenants wrestled with a variety of mental health issues. In their obfuscated world, the conditions were normal, regular, par for the course.

They’d grown so used to not having a voice that the idea of complaint, of pressing for even the most basic of human rights, was lost in the struggle for daily survival.

We were appalled. But my partner is a resolute and compassionate person.

She set to work to change it, to provide essential services, to clean it up, to renovate, and to offer a human presence in the wasteland of their existence.

When she first started showing up there to work, all doors were shut and there was a palpable sense of cloister, of hermetic shutaway.

She offered a big Christmas dinner in the first month.

The tenants, when they showed, ate quickly and retreated back to the insular safety of their rooms.

None of them were comfortable with being seen, with being in company, with having their backs open to a room, with having anyone care.

Gradually, as change happened, as rooms were cleared of the unsafe, unpredictable, violent and actively addicted, doors opened.

We worked hard at cleaning it up.

As a room cleared, we washed walls and painted, scrubbed floors and hung curtains, fixed stoves and plumbing, carpeted hallways and secured the front and back doors.

She began screening prospective tenants, enforcing strict rules on behaviour and decorum, and word soon drifted out to the street that the rooming house was now a lousy place to drink or fix.

But the most important thing she installed in the renovation was humanity.

No one had ever spoken to these people before.

Not in any meaningful way.

She took the time to sit in their rooms and listen to what they had to say, no matter how garbled, unintelligible or outright loony it may have been.

She looked at them.

She saw them and they responded as best they could.

Oh, there was no miraculous transformation.

They continued to get drunk, fight with each other, isolate, misbehave and get evicted, but gradually, over time, the house has settled and a small group of tenants have become able, in small ways, to get a handle on a predictable, regular, stable life, or at the very least, to glean its value.

Some have grown. Others have left for the street, addiction, drunkenness and despair.

We’ve learned a lot from this experience.

We’ve learned how little we actually know of a marginalized life, even though I, in earlier years, had lived it.

We’ve learned that life, when it happens to you, can pulverize a spirit.

We’ve learned that private pain, private horrors and agonies, manifest themselves in the problems we shake our heads at when we see them from the safety of our cars.

Yes, the concrete of the street cements in the soul and it takes time and mercy to salve it, heal it, maybe someday, end it.

Hopelessness is isotropic.

All things look the same everywhere.

That’s the nut of it. It’s hard to change when all you see is the same. But it happens. We’ve seen it.

What it asks of us, is to admit to our lack of knowledge, our miseducation in the world of the street, to the life of the marginalized, and to try and see them as someone’s daughter or someone’s son.

My people say that each of us is a story, a part of the great, grand tale of humanity.

When you offer a tale in the Ojibway manner, you do so for the story’s sake.

If we could honour that way, and allow each voice to resonate and be heard, what a clamor that would be.

No one voiceless.

No story left unheard.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.

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