This constant yearning

We are
like lutes
Once held by God.
Being away from his warm body
Fully explains

By Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky


Snapshot: Scruffy middle-aged man sitting on a park bench looking up at the camera from underneath a mop of dirty hair, squinting and smiling, with a sizeable pack beside him and an old leather bible open in his hand.

Eddy lives on the street. His army surplus backpack contains two spoons, a deluxe toothbrush, a jar of tiger balm from Chinatown, a handmade wooden pipe for his weed when he has it, an old leather King James Bible, three harmonicas in different keys, a tin Irish whistle, a pair of clean wool socks and a fold-up stool from Canadian Tire. Bearded, tanned and leathery, his face is decorated with wrinkles—nice wrinkles, the sort that come from squinting in the bright sun. He shuffles more than walks and is rounded in the middle. His thick wild brown and grey hair looks dusty. Though Eddy is generally unkempt and musty-smelling – not the sickly sweet smell of alcoholics – his hands and teeth are always impeccable. When Eddy speaks, little bits of saliva catapult from his mouth this way and that. In English he sounds Scottish. In French, he sounds quebecois pure laine. It’s hard to tell his age. He could be forty or sixty or any age in between.

I am Alex: 31 years old and hungry for my life. I live in a small, crooked, two-storey home on top of a flat. Absurdly, the real estate agents always call it a cottage even though it is in the middle of a busy city. My house is always a mess because I live with my young kids and I refuse to be enslaved by housekeeping.

One day last summer alone and  kid-less I was like an animal in heat. To get out the door that day I needed to step over a pile of dirty laundry and a soaking doll in a toy bathtub covered in my expensive salon shampoo. Before braving the acrobatic feat of leaving my house, I grudgingly decided to put out the overflowing trash to save myself the unpleasantness of returning to its evolving stench.

I wanted out. Desperately.

I had arranged for the kids to be up north with my brother. I used to roam wildly through life, open to adventures and euphoria of many kinds. A mere eight years ago, I had so few responsibilities that I could have drowned in a sea of time. With the kids to care for now, I have to craftily schedule my little bits of freedom. Slotting in chances for spontaneity is a curious little phenomenon. The distilled intensity of those moments is my new high.
As soon as I stepped outside to take my first breath of August air, everything seemed possible. Walking on clouds, I noticed my neighbour’s tiny rock garden for the first time, and I felt intoxicated by the awareness that I could do whatever I wanted for the next 24 hours. Whatever I want. Yes.

Over my shoulder, I carried my backpack containing a water bottle, my journal and favourite pen, Bruno’s Dream by Iris Murdoch and a fresh pair of underwear (just in case). Wearing my long stretchy peach and crimson tie-dye dress which is that perfect combination of sexy and comfortable, I practically skipped the few blocks Carré St-Louis. Buskers, drunks, partyers, dog-walkers, eccentrics and the mentally ill converged and congregated here at all hours. Within a few minutes, I was revelling in my own suggestibility and impressed that I had so rapidly morphed from burdened Mummy into carefree Adventurer.

Sitting on the edge of the shallow fountain pool, I dipped my feet in the cool water and noticed a familiar street person on the other side. Quickly, I realised that he was that funny guy with great rhythm I had encountered when I played fiddle tunes for cash in the Metro several years ago. He used to stop sometimes, set up his portable stool, and play the spoons with me. I seemed to make more money when he was there, so I didn’t mind much. As long as he didn’t get too close to me, we were fine.

On this particular morning, he was sitting on a bench meticulously brushing his teeth, stroking vertically from the gums down just like the dentists teach, using a cup of water to rinse his mouth and then his toothbrush, camping-style. There weren’t many people around; a couple with their dog, a guy in a sleeping bag under a tree, a small team of city employees gardening in the far corner of the square, an old woman looking in the trash and a fitness chick jogging with headphones.

“G’morning!”, he saluted me cheerfully after I listened to him spit behind the bench and wipe his mouth with his shirt. Yes. That Scottish accent. I remember now. He ambled over to the pool and leaned over to scoop up water and wash his hands. He then took a small metal flute from his bag. A flash of sunlight rebounded off its shiny surface nearly hitting me in the eye with its sharp brilliance.
“Hello!” I could feel my face flush as our eyes met and I was surprised to notice that I deeply wanted him to recognise me. Feeling strangely vulnerable and embarrassed, I put my sandals back on.
“You’re that young lady fiddler from Sherbrooke Metro, aren’t ya?” Pleased that he remembered our spontaneous duos, I nodded. But when he asked me about my current musical activities, I felt deflated.
“Well, I, um, sing to my kids at night, and occasionally take out my violin, and I supervise their practising, but I haven’t had much time for music lately. The children keep me busy. My name’s Alex, by the way.”
“Alex. Luvly Alexandra hasn’t time for music?! You mustn’t be living much then. In a little while, some mates from the old port usually show for a jam. Stop by—and bring your little ones!” He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and started to play. I walked slowly away to the sound of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, a quick-paced, jaunty tune, that did not fit my new mood. That guy just lectured me!! A stinky homeless guy with a flute and a Scottish accent just insulted me with a smile! Obviously he has no kids, or if he does, he certainly has no idea what it’s like to take care of them. He probably abandoned them! Fuck! I can’t believe that on my one day off I already feel like shit. I can’t believe I was actually interested in talking to him! I have got to get a grip. I am going to find a sunny café. I’m going to read the weeklies and see what my options are. Maybe there’s a cool film to go to at noon.

After two allongés, a glance through the paper to find three film listings that were interesting, two brief and empty flirtations with the café owner and a dark-eyed woman, a trip to the fruit store for a pomegranate, and an unsuccessful trip to the used bookstore (the sign on the door said Summer Hours: 2-10 PM), I walked a few blocks in the hopes of being drawn into some attractive current, but I could not stop thinking about Eddy. I was hooked. Heeding the call of this realisation, I turned back in the direction of the square. I wanted to spend some time near him, if he would have me.
Sheepishly I approached my destination from the cobblestone walkway. The late morning sun filtered through the green of the old trees straight ahead. I listened to the sound of restaurant folks setting up their patio furniture for the lunch crowd. In a brief lull as I crossed the little street into the luminous park, all I could hear were birds and the sound of my own heart. Then, I heard the music. The quick paced strum of an acoustic guitar with the wistful cry of a tin flute on top. Eyes moist already, I sat on a bench a little way around the fountain. Peeling a portion of my pomegranate, I noticed a young pony-tailed student type emerge with his drum, eager to join his buddies, from a basement apartment. Despite their obvious differences, the guys warmly nodded him into their sound. He joined the jam with a repetitive bass beat. Eddy noticed me and winked in recognition as he continued his meandering flute song. For a good half hour, the music barely paused. Somehow they all knew what came next. Some of the tunes were familiar to me. Guitar, drum, harmonica, flute and spoons. Feet dancing, I found myself sketching the band in my journal. In the leaf-filtered sunlight, they were a perfectly composed moving image. I wish I was a photographer, I wish I could dance with my kids, I wish I could run around in that pool, I wish I had my fiddle!

After quick consideration, I knew that getting my violin was not a good idea. By the time I got back to the Square they would be gone, or the spell would be broken. Besides, I knew that I was so rusty, I would surely be frustrated and awkward. Their musical stream was flowing too quickly. I was at risk of drowning or pulling them down with me if I attempted to jump in. I lay down on the bench and closed my eyes so I could listen. Celtic music can be so light-hearted and happy. I see rolling green hills and children running, my beautiful children running, with arms outstretched and hair flowing. A bouquet of daisies, a first kiss, a sunny day. Yes. Celtic sadness is so simple too. I see a young woman crying as she watches her true love leave for war on a ship. Stiff and erect in his starchy new uniform, he waves to his weeping sweetheart.

Then, the tune and sound changed again. A new voice began a song over the guitar and drum. Something was not right. Wrenched from my daydreaming, I opened my eyes and sat up slowly, dizzy, to see Eddy ambling awkwardly out of the Square. Swinging into action, I gathered up my things and hurried after him. He shuffled quickly along the cobblestone walkway, and I noticed that the American tourists and day trippers from the West Island were filling the restaurant patios. Eddy looked like such an unusual hobbit-like creature moving through with purpose, his head angled slightly downwards seemingly to counterbalance the considerable weight on his back. After I had followed him for several blocks  I relaxed, as he never once looked behind him. What could possibly be more interesting to Eddy, a minstrel, than a delightful jam in a sunny park?

We seemed to be heading right into the downtown core, passing that funny old Church with the red corrugated tin roof, no, Eddy is climbing the stairs of the Church and going in! Why? Is it an AA meeting? Free soup? A support group of some kind? What do I do now? I guess I can go in. Churches are welcoming inclusive places after all. If Eddy spots me there, I can just say that I was on my way downtown anyway, and I wanted to thank him for the music in the park. Yes. Yes. I’m going in.

As I entered the sanctuary, the quiet overwhelmed me with its presence. It was so comforting. The air seemed to hold me in its heavy stillness.  Mesmerised by the dreamy yellow light coming in through the stained glass, I sat down quietly in one of the back pews.  Hearing some shuffling up front, I saw that it was Eddy entering the sanctuary from a side door. He was wiping his hands on his shirt as though he had just washed them. Crouching down a bit in the pew, I watched and listened as he made his way up the stone steps. On the top step, he sat down, took off his beat-up boots and slowly changed his socks. In stocking-feet, he rose and disappeared noiselessly behind the pulpit into the choir area. He sat down in front of the organ. God! I hope that no one comes to find him here. Maybe he has charmed the music director. Maybe he’s allowed. I wonder what he’ll play … After the sound of flipping switches, the organ’s hum and quiet drone, the music began. I sat there, stunned as he began the vaguely familiar Bach fugue with three distinct music lines. Eddy’s seemingly clumsy and shuffling feet were using the pedals. He was an experienced organist! Recovering quickly from my surprise, I was moved by the music itself and levitated into the fine rendering of Bach’s intricate composition.

I didn’t know what time it was but I knew that I would be here for as long as Eddy continued. I took off my sandals to feel the cool stone floor and felt sure that I was invisible to him. Eddy had his back to me and he never looked into the mirror. Between each piece, there were the whispering sounds of his thoughts and the shuffling of sheet music. By the time he began the next piece, I was fully immersed in the complicated sounds of the sacred organ music.

I don’t even remember how I started. Many times after the fact I tried in vain to recall that moment in the sanctuary when I made a conscious decision to get up and move. All I know for sure is that I found myself dancing—flowing slowly and gracefully, like water, in and out of the stained-glass light patches throughout the sanctuary.  I don’t know how long we continued—Eddy and I.
When he eventually stopped playing, and emerged from behind the pulpit to see me standing there, it was perfectly natural for him to say,

“The church is quite something on a sunny afternoon.” Slightly winded and wiping the sweat from my upper lip, I pointed in the direction of the organ and said  “The organ. It’s beautiful. I didn’t know…I danced. Thank you. Eddy, right?”

We walked then, Eddy and I, along Ste-Catherine Street. I offered to buy him something to eat and we stopped at La Belle Province for a burger. After he had brushed his teeth and washed his hands, we continued our walk, landing in another busier square outlined with vendors and buskers, near the downtown Cathedral. Eddy took out a wooden pipe and put some marijuana in it. After he inhaled a couple of times, he passed the lighter and pipe to me. I didn’t want to be high on weed, but nor would I refuse his gesture. I took a tiny puff for the sake of our communion. Then, while Eddy moaned as he rubbed his shoulders with tiger balm, my mind raced. I wanted to know how he had learned to play the organ, whether he was religious, why he came to Canada, whether he ever married or had children, how old he was and where he slept. But mostly, I wanted to understand what force or secret allowed this poor dirty man to be so inspired.  Eddy didn’t answer me. He told me nothing. Instead, he nodded to folks on the Square who seemed to know him, and took out his flute. “Sing a song, luvly Alexandra” he said. I sang an old lullaby that a folk singer had taught me years earlier. He just listened. Then he answered my song with a sorrowful tune that I had never heard but moved me to tears. People slowed their pace as they passed our bench, and one young woman sat in front of us against a tree to settle in. When Eddy’s buddy Charlie arrived with his guitar, Eddy broke into a fast-paced jig. Already tapping his feet in the Celtic style, Charlie took out his guitar and started his vigorous accompaniment. I stayed for a few minutes and then quietly got up, nodded and smiled towards Eddy who did not notice me, and turned away, walking slowly in the direction of the Old Port and Notre-Dame Cathedral.


Snapshot: Young woman playing the violin on a residential sidewalk, bare-footed, with four children playing violin, flute, guitar and drum, and one toddler with his mother, looking on, wide-eyed.

I see Eddy playing music in the Square fairly regularly, with and without my children. If we are not rushing, we stop for a bit to listen and dance. We formed a family band after the kids’ first exposure to Eddy and his mates—and the three of us play together a couple of times a week before bed. Other families on our block join us on the sidewalk for a jam on warm evenings. On one occasion, I took the children to the church service to hear Eddy play the organ. He always seemed to disappear immediately following the service, missing the coffee hour. While the kids delighted in the crustless sandwiches and lemon squares, I managed to glean a few bits of information from the members of the congregation. Eddy had come from Scotland decades earlier because of trouble of some undisclosed kind. By the time he left, he had trained for ten years or so on the Cathedral organ with his boyhood choir director. Eddy had met the young minister of the red-roofed church at some outreach program for the homeless in the tiny struggling church. They made an arrangement which was quickly supported by the church members. In exchange for playing the hymns, the prelude and the postlude, Eddy receives a small weekly sum, has access to the considerable collection of organ music left from the church’s heyday, and can play the organ whenever the sanctuary is empty.