There but for a roll of the dice

Yesterday I saw sure-fire evidence that winter has passed, and summer is on its way. Out front of the Osborne LC I saw a pair of drifter-types. Two mean looking customers in filthy coveralls, bandanas and boots, carrying massive filthy backpacks and holding the reins on two mongrel dogs, also filthy. A third bag sat at their feet, and soon its owner, clad much the same as the other two, emerged from the LC with a flat of Molson Dry.

The gang burst into laughter, until the dogs started barking, whereupon the woman in the mix immediately lost her gap toothed grin in a fit of rage, barking at the mutt to shut the fuck up and swatting it viciously with her free fist.

Shit, I thought to myself, passing the motley crew and heading into the LC myself, they’re back. I shot the woman pummeling her dog a nasty look, only to receive one more spiteful in return.

I am no stranger to these hobo-punks, or whatever they call themselves. I’m sure you’ve seen them yourself: congregated beneath bridges or in dark corners of public parks, swilling Lucky Black or Molson Dry or Stone Cold, fighting amongst themselves or their flea-infested mongrels.

The sight of these perennial transients brought both a sense of muted revulsion and more than a tinge of nostalgia. While I was never one of them, I have certainly partied under bridges, by rivers, in alleys, in dive bars, decrepit houses and apartments with many who’ve chosen this road less traveled.

When I got home, I put on a split 45 that my old punk band put out with some other Podunk punks back in the day. Degenerate losers from B.C.’s backwater all, of the four groups on the platter, only one is still kicking. Kelowna’s HippieCritz are still playing dives and basements across the Okanagan, swilling Pacific Pilsner and refusing to shower.

Most of the other players on the disc have moved on in one direction or another. One guy is married with two kids and does tattoos up North, another just had his first kid and is doing small-scale farming in the Caribou. A few have gone AWOL, while others still play music, work shitty day jobs and pay the bills.

My buddy Ty, who was the singer in one of the bands, has turned hobo himself. I’d heard rumours of his passing through Winnipeg a few times and had always expected to run into him unexpectedly on a day such as yesterday. It finally happened in November in Victoria, B.C.. He walked into the bar while I was singing a tune on stage, filthy backpack, face tattoos and all. He dropped his bag and started dancing.

After the show, I sat outside with Ty and a few other friends from the old scene in the doorway of some business closed for the evening. We drank Pacific Pil, Growers and whisky, smoked a greasy joint. Eventually I had to leave, and as I said my goodbyes to Ty he was pissing into the corner, barely able to stand. He laid out some half-baked plans of passing through Winnipeg soon, and I told him I’d see him in the future — hopefully with his pecker in his pants.

After spending years in a scene that self-identified as “podunk scumfuck,” I’m happy to have survived with a few broken bones, a couple scars, chipped teeth, bad tattoos and a short-lived skin condition or two. Others haven’t been so lucky.

My natural instinct when I cross paths with the drifter punks that crisscross this country — in wave after smelly wave — is revulsion, with a hint of anger. Why would they do this to themselves? However, when I take a moment to reflect the path that has led me to cross theirs, I see many points of convergence. There but for the grace of Spacelord go I, as the Christians say.

But I don’t think it has anything to do with divine intervention. It has something to do with circumstances, choices and chance, and likely the personal secret histories that everyone carries with them on this death march to which we are all part and parcel.

I have no idea why some people live their lives like Ty or the flea bitten drifters I saw outside the LC yesterday. I have no idea why I am sitting in a warm apartment, typing on a computer while others sleep beneath bridges. There but for a roll of the dice go you, or I, or anyone. Be kind to one another friends, and judge not lest ye be judged.

Sheldon Birnie has enjoyed two years of being Comment Editor at the Manitoban. See you in future, motherfuckers.