We call our neighbourhood sex workers our sisters.
Making eye contact with them is always awkward, like peeking around a corner only to be met with another corner. They’re there, leaning against the broken phone booth, but their eyes are closed with fear.
Their eyes glint with the divine when they’re open though.
I wait on the corner to cross the busy street near my house, to catch the bus, and I feel the eyes, feel the drivers lumping me in with them. I am a turtle in my backpack, scurrying across, praying, Please see my backpack, the length of my skirt. They are for sale but I am not.
The best weapons I have are my earphones. I sigh, tired, and jam them in. For me, escape is the voice of a white man singing songs about open fields and quiet homes and places where vomit on the sidewalk isn’t an integral part of the landscape.
The bus lumbers, lurches in the potholes, and arrives. It is crowded, packed with the old and the sick and the almost-always housebound. The smell is a mix of alcohol and weed and sweat. Everyone knows that bedbugs live in the cracks of the seats but it’s so crowded that you grab a seat when you can.
My music drowns out the poverty, fights it out with electronica and punk. The higher the levels of conflict between my fellow passengers, the higher the volume. When the mothers and the seniors scream at each other and joust with their strollers and walkers and electronic wheelchairs, I drown it out. Hunks of raw flesh, humans worn red with diabetes and disabilities and diapers they can’t afford sit beside me, twice a day, all winter.
Today she asks for four quarters for a dollar. He offers some and she calls him babe and her voice is too loud. He doesn’t want to talk to her but she doesn’t know that, doesn’t care. He had reached out a hand and she took his arm and clung, koala-style.
And she is beautiful, and smiles with a sweet terror and honesty in her eyes, wishing all of us a good day as she gets off.
And with that it is all too much again. Too much brokenness. Too many quarters needed for too many dollars, and I can’t keep giving them away. Her humanness, her smile, her likeness (to Jesus, to me) is demanding, begging to be seen.
Today I can’t do it. Can’t pass another sister on the corner. Can’t handle seeing another door or wall scrawled with the word “crack” and keep believing that it is a joke, playful graffiti.
Today I hobble home under a sky ripped through with pinks and blues, slit with the zigzag of the roofs of the houses on our street. This winter of the soul is slow and is sanding down my resolve.
Meg Schuurman lives in Hamilton’s gritty East End, where she tries (and fails most days) to live in solidarity with those on the economic margins. By day she helps run RE-create Outreach Art Studio, a drop-in art studio for at-risk and homeless youth in the downtown core.