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September 15, 2023

Shabby goodness

I have a terrible story on my mind and I would like to get it out before my memory slumbers forever or suddenly fails me. It’s about a person whose name I never knew. A dishevelled man, dressed in rags and foul smelling, begged on the streets of Montreal 9 or 10 months a year. I would see him every day around 5:50 p.m. when I would walk across the park to my apartment. I stared at him, scrutinized him and inhaled his scent of sour milk.

I soon learned from my next-door neighbour that the beggar’s name was Arthur, and such was his kindness, he would always share with those poorer than him if he could. According to my neighbour, the first snowstorms sent him on his way each year hitchhiking westward.

In Vancouver’s warmer weather, Arthur spent a few months each year collecting used syringes and debris left behind by drug addicts living on notorious Hastings Street. He fed the afflicted, consoled the desperate and encouraged young addicts to get help. Arthur also begged from time to time, gathering quarters to help feed homeless persons in greater need. He lived off soda pop and fried-noodle leftovers from local Asian eateries.

I crossed paths with him often in Montreal. Arthur always had a strange way of moving as if he had been stung in the behind. He hobbled, swayed, dragged his leg and yelled at the flies to leave him alone. In my last year of college, my father had rented a room for me downtown so I could avoid the long commute from our house in the suburbs. That’s how I came to cross paths with homeless Arthur each weekday.

I had many questions after learning his story from my neighbour. Who was this mysterious man? How long had he been begging for money on the streets? Instead of leaving my small room during the Easter holiday weekend, I decided to stay in town and secretly observe Arthur. I was going to sit in the park with the morning paper and a notebook and pretend to work on a mystery novel.

I arrive very early at the deserted park on Good Friday. The wet grass moistens my boots. I wave to a young policeman on a bike. At the back of the park, under a huge oak tree, a few drunks are sleeping off a night of drinking. Cheerfully trampling the slumbering bodies, dozens of squirrels search for acorns for their breakfast. Sitting on the bench shivering, I pretend to write. I have just read about police captain Jacques Cinq-Mars’ latest exploits in the newspaper and I try to imitate his brilliant skills. The famous officer, nicknamed Montreal’s Eliot Ness, suddenly consumes my thoughts.

Where has the unkempt, big-hearted drifter gone? My eyes search the horizon. Nothing. Four elderly women are walking towards me. They make a sharp right and head straight for a picnic table where they sit and speak in hushed voices, as if they have something to hide.

The early morning is long gone and its dew is evaporating. My mystery novel is going nowhere. I’m guessing Arthur is still asleep since I still haven’t caught sight of him. Is he waiting for the cicadas to wake him from his slumber; for the warm spring wind to brush his cheek; or for the first raspberries of the season to ripen?

It’s high noon and my eyes search everywhere. They knit together clouds of worry. Where on earth is Arthur? He is nowhere to be found. One by one, the drunks under the big oak tree wake up crumpled like doormats. Would they have seen Arthur? Did they steal from him, rough him up and then hide him?

It’s a different police officer on the bike now. I’m hungry and thirsty, and my legs are numb and hurting. I get up and walk a little. The four elderly women are still whispering. As I move closer to their table, I realize that their tone has changed. The oldest one speaks louder and faster, as if charging towards something terrible, threatening and scary. What a strange sensation!

In the distance, a siren cuts the air. The four women jump up from their table and run towards an ambulance. A crowd of onlookers circles the park. I try to question a few of the homeless, but no one answers me. They all know what’s going on, but they keep quiet. Several regulars pack up their few belongings and leave. They must be frequent visitors to the park – neighbours, tired passersby, well-dressed elderly folks, artists waiting for inspiration, people out for a stroll and maybe even those out of work.

The next morning, I return to my park bench and start writing in my notebook as planned. I spend a few hours there. Several tears dilute my fear.

Arthur had died. I eventually heard that his big heart had stopped beating around 3 p.m. on Good Friday, April 12, 1968. His body, stripped and fatally beaten, was found in an adjacent alley.

Later I learn in Journal de Montreal that Captain Jacques Cinq-Mars was handling the investigation. I also find out a few weeks later that Mr. Arthur V. was once a wealthy and well-known man who had suffered terrible hardships. His wife and four children had perished abroad in a fire at one of their vacation homes. Arthur wanted to give all his possessions away, so he spent the rest of his life helping the needy.

To this day I regret my furtive surveilling of homeless Arthur. Appearances are often misleading.