It’s was 10:30 in the morning and the bus was full. Most of the people were on their way to some kind of productive activity many likely going to work or perhaps school others out to spend money and support the economy. I was working on a freelance project and was heading to the downtown library to do some research.
The bus stopped around Main Street and Dufferin and a Native couple got on board. They looked to be in their early to mid-thirties and had the shiny faced visage of a long night becoming day. In his arms the man clutched to his chest like precious twin babies, a pair of two liter plastic bottles of Stone Cold Beer. This is a locally brewed Manitoba product that has a strong 6.2% alcohol content and is a 2 liter bargain for under $9.00.
Is it possible for an entire bus to tense up at the same time? Maybe. I know I did. I have been a public transit person for most of my life. I have been on the bus through the core of Winnipeg thousands of times. I have seen this scene more than a few times. A Native person gets on board and they are highly inebriated and they want to get the attention of the entire bus. Sometimes in vulgar and inappropriate ways.
It isn’t long before the man begins to make his presence known. He speaks loudly to the older man sitting directly across him as they are both up front where the seats face each other and not straight ahead.
“Hey Buddy, Do you know who I am?”
The older man shakes his head.
“I’m A-Nish-A-Naw-BAE”. He says it like that. With much emphasis on each vowel, not the smooth way that some people say it and he really punches the "BAE".
The older man nods his head.
The man sticks out his hand, “Welcome to my country!” I have to hold back a smile on that.
The man turns to his partner whose face I cannot see but for some reason I feel holds a look of amusement. He says “So you know what I said to the first old white man?”
“I said Hey Buddy…I’m a little short.”
“And he gives me .35 cents”
“And you know what I said to the second old white man?”
“I said Hey Buddy…I’m a little short.”
Now, I can hear his partner chuckling. She is clearly admiring her raconteur.
“And you know what? He gives me .50 cents”
“And look at me now.”
Here he takes the two bottles that he had been hugging to his heart and lifted them up in a raise the roof motion.
He says triumphantly, “Two Stone Colds.”
It was a great performance and his partner chuckled with appreciation.
There were a few more exchanges but that was the most memorable. They got off at Winnipeg City Hall and the collective sphincters upon the bus relaxed.
I thought how this plays out in this city in different ways and how this is something that the regular Canadian can’t stand. They can deal with the notion of a street person or someone living close to that life being ashamed, being timid and being beaten down. This is not always the reality.
I have had experiences where a street person has punctured my own ego. One time I was heading to a meeting and I was dressed up, suit coat, nice shirt, pants, shoes and running late. I had gone to the wrong downtown hotel. Now I was walking frantically down Portage Avenue and was on my fancy new blackberry texting away to my boss trying to get directions. Suddenly, I hear, “Hey, Big Sot! Big Sot!”
I look up and this dude has a grin on his face and when I make eye contact his smile widens.
“Heeeyy, BIG SOT!”
I smile, he’s got me.
He holds out his hand and I give him the change I got all the while nodding my head to let him know that I know, "That's right I'm acting like a Big Shot."
But you know. The thing I think about Native people is this. And I know some people won’t like this, because I have said it before and it never goes over. But what the hell, this is it. In all my travels across Turtle Island one constant that I found was that one of the Creator’s teachings was to be humble. Now the Creator should not have to keep telling you to be humble unless you got a problem.
Yet to be clear, there is a huge difference between being humble and being humbled. Still that is only part of this story. The other part of it is that people who live on the street or who won’t work don’t want to play this game. They don't want to be part of this capitalist society of birth, school, work, death. They have opted out of the system. They are off the grid in the middle of the city. They don’t want to have to bow down to some boss or company or government that they don’t like or respect just so they can have money.
Most of us on the bus had a place to go and something to do that we felt we had to do even if we didn’t want to do it. Maybe in our secret hearts we wished we could be so free as to answer to no one and to be so confident and full of life as to share stories with a bus load of people, make our partner laugh and raise the roof with a hearty - “Two Stone Colds!”