You see them on the street corners and in the parks of most cities in North America: the sad, angry, and broken people we call the homeless. We see them everyday, yet we don’t, as we have trained ourselves to look through them in the hopes that if we pretend they are invisible they won’t see us and ask us for anything. Why are we scared of their requests for spare change? If it’s spare why should we resent handing out a quarter or two to someone who obviously needs it more than you and I can even understand?
Maybe we’re scared of what they don’t ask us for, but what we might have to admit to if we stop to dig our hands into our pockets or open our purses. If we stop, and turn to face them and look in their eyes we won’t be able to deny their existence anymore. We are afraid of the demands they will make on our compassion, for how can we “see” them as individuals and not feel something? As long as they are part of the faceless, nameless and impersonal group known as the homeless, we can ignore them, or at least reduce them to a social problem to be tutted about over our morning newspaper and coffee. Most cities have a couple of square blocks for the hostels, soup kitchens, and drop in centres where somebody else does their best to not treat them like a problem, but as humans with a history who came from somewhere before their hope ran out.
It’s not very often you’ll find an author willing to write about these people, let alone able to do so without turning it into some sentimental Hallmark Card, movie of the week bullshit. Yet that’s exactly what Richard Wagamese has accomplished with his forthcoming novel, Ragged Company, being published on August 12, 2008 by Random House Canada.
Wagamese has never made a secret of the fact that he fell victim to the Native Canadian curse of alcoholism, and in the acknowledgments for Ragged Company he gives thanks to the people in the hostels, shelters, drop-in centres, and missions he stayed in through his years on the street and those “who showed me the way up when all I could see was down.” This book isn’t his story, but it is a way of being that he knows very well, and one that each of us, if we are honest, can see in it something that we recognize. We all have something we are running away from that we don’t want to think about ever again, and we all have our means of accomplishing that task.
One For The Dead, Digger, Timber, and Double Dick have been watching each other’s backs and sharing their spoils for years now. They all have their own reasons for coming to the street and their own pasts that haunt them, but that doesn’t matter in the present, what matters is getting through each day. Those aren’t their real names of course, they don’t have a use for the names from a past they don’t want anything to do with, so they’ve each let the street name them over the years. One For The Dead got her name for spilling a drop out of each new bottle onto the ground for the dead, Digger because he digs through garbage and sells it to survive, Timber from his former habit of drinking too much without knowing until he stood up and went down like a felled tree, and Double Dick because his French father and English mother named him Richard Richard so they could each pronounce the name the way they wanted.
Winter is a dangerous time for street people, and during the day there aren’t many places they can go to keep warm. It was the really bad cold snap that killed three of their own that year that gave our four the idea of seeking shelter in movie theatres, setting in motion the events that changed their lives forever. Fate, or chance, had them sharing the theatre the first two times with an ex-reporter named Granite – his real name – his father had been a stone mason and named him for his favourite material. Like the four companions, he was seeking shelter in the movies, but for him it was shelter from the emptiness of his life.
Even when the cold snap ends they continue to go to the movies, sometimes Granite will be there in the cinema waiting for them, and other times he won’t, but for the four of them it becomes something of a ritual that helps bind them together, and Granite is gradually drawn into their circle. On the way to meet the others one day Digger kicks what he thinks is an empty package of cigarettes (you kick things when you’re on the street on the chance they might have something inside them) and when it skids across the pavement instead of flopping end over end he picks it up. As if three quarters of a pack of tailor-made cigarettes isn’t enough of a present, there’s also sixty bucks curled up inside, along with a yellow piece of paper with numbers stamped on it – a lottery ticket. A winning lottery ticket worth 13.5 million dollars.
As none of them have identification, they turn to Granite for help in cashing the ticket, and then dealing with the ramifications of winning. They have all lived on the street for so long that they can’t even begin to understand what it means to have money and the ability to get what they want when they want it. It’s a steep learning curve that doesn’t end with figuring out how to deal with their new found wealth. Being on the street one never had time to think about the past because you were either drunk or trying to scrape the money together for a drink, finding a flop, or sleeping. Now the past doesn’t have anything to hide behind anymore and One For The Dead, Digger, Double Dick, and Timber have to figure out how to live with a future that includes the past.
Wagamese has split Ragged Company into five separate narratives, with each of the five main characters telling us what’s happening from their point of view. While we learn One For The Dead’s story right from the outset of the novel, she’s a survivor of the Residential School system that saw Native children stolen from their families and sent off to school, and it was her that brought the four of them together in the first place, it takes the others the rest of the book to gradually reveal themselves. Like life in prison, on the street you don’t ask anybody anything, and you don’t owe anybody any explanations as to where you came from and why. Even after knowing each other for fifteen years it’s only now that they are learning their friend’s real names.
As we hear from each character, our picture of them develops and our understanding of their lives is deepened. Wagamese is uncompromising in his depiction of them, as they make no bones about who and what they are. Even after their monetary fortunes change, the three men continue to drink from bottles stashed in pockets and hold on to the code, even when it becomes obvious that doing so has become a threat. However, although you may occasionally feel like reaching out and slapping some sense into them, you never feel like you’re being asked to judge them for their behaviour. We become so immersed in their world that without noticing it we accept their perceptions as normal. They aren’t the ones who are different anymore, we are.
With the character of Granite acting as the intermediary between the worlds, they begin to gradually shed the street from their souls, and we in turn absorb the lessons there are to learn from the struggles that each of the four go through overcoming their pasts. There are no pat answers, nor short cuts to salvation when you are a member of the Ragged Company, and sometimes even a second chance isn’t enough to repair the damage incurred during the first. There aren’t many books that can rip your heart in two and not put it back together, yet still leave you feeling better about life, but somehow that’s just what Richard Wagamese has managed to create. Without sentimentality, without bullshit, but with a lot of heart and soul, this book takes you on a journey into the human spirit, with the unlikeliest of guides, that you won’t forget for a long time.