Lesson 12- The People Give Who You The Most Are The People Who Have Very Little
Dog sculpture by a friendly boarder in Regina
The coldest night I had ever spent in my life was in Edmonton Alberta.
In Canada, when I was forced to have a day off, Edmonton was quite a good place as it has the West Edmonton Mall. It is Canada's biggest mall so I could spend all day in there, look at all the things couldn't afford to buy, watch people and most importantly; keep warm. It didn’t cost a penny.
On this particular time I was particularly poor but the mall provided an abundance of sights like legendary Canadien Hockey player, Guy LaFleur! He looked exactly like him (famous people always do look like themselves, I find). I also saw a goat walking down an escalator. If that wasn't strange enough, as the goat got off the escalator, it screamed, ‘Hey!’ I thought maybe a goat would, 'baa' or something. I didn’t know as I never encountered them in my home city. We just have raccoons.
I saved a little money to go to the movies in the evening to go see, "Kill Bill". When that finished, I was going to call my friends, Kimmy and Lyle to stay at their place. I had organised it the last time I was there. As traveling musicians themselves, they were always more than happy to open their door and let me come and go as I pleased. Also, they always had cold bottles of Pilsner waiting for me. They didn't bother putting them in the fridge. They just kept them outside on their porch. It was cold enough in Edmonton in winter that it would act like a fridge. On this night, it was a freezer.
I had been calling Kimmy and Lyle all day and kept getting their answering machine. I thought perhaps they were out at work but when I got out of the cinema I called and still no answer. This was the late show, too. It was nearly midnight, the mall was closed and I was, as usual, exhausted by the driving, drinking and bad food or lack there of.
Eventually, I decided to cut my losses and sleep in my car. I had no money until I got my guarantee the next night and thought; I'll find a suburban street to sleep on, put as many layers of clothes on that I could and covered myself with my sleeping bag and all the blankets I had. And that's what I did. I fell asleep almost immediately.
I woke up at approximately 4 am, shivering from the cold. Blurry-eyed, I looked around and saw that the inside Windows of the car had frosted up. I jumped into the front of my car to start it up. I had to get some heat in there. I’d never felt so cold.
This is when I truly discovered why a lot of the northern cities in Canada have electrical sockets at every parking spot. If you don't plug your car in, it will freeze up. I got the car started but when I turned the heat on full-blast nothing but freezing cold air came out of the vents. After 10 minutes of waiting for the heat to start working I went into panic-mode. I scrapped the inside frost off and drove to find the nearest Tim Hortons (a Canadian coffee chain. There is one or two on nearly every neighbourhood. 24 hours, always fresh. Well, it used to be. I've heard things have changed).
As I was driving the window glass kept frosting up so I semi-successfully scraped the inside of the glass, drove, and navigated on this cold, snowy, Alberta morning.
I left the car running in the hopes that it would warm up, if someone wanted to steal it, it seemed like a small problem, at that point. I went into Tim Horton's, got a a large regular coffee, went back into the car and headed towards the mall. Where I could get some free warmth.
My car-heater started working about half way there. I slept a couple more hours in the running car and eventually went in the mall. A few hours after that, I gave Kimmy and Lyle a call. They apologised that they missed me. Because they had offered months before, they understandably forgot I was coming and went out to play poker in the casino the night before. I really should have called to remind them. As always, I was welcome to stay that night, after my gig.
This story might be less interesting if I had a lot of stories about sleeping in my car, streets or parks. The truth is that almost everywhere I went in Canada, people would put me up in a spare room, couch or a floor.
These experiences have really made me believe that deep-down, people are good. I can think of countless people who came out to my show and put me up when I pronounced that humbling one-liner; "I know what you're thinking: I wish the fun would never end. Well, the fun can never end by letting me sleep at your house tonight. No really, I need a place to stay."
I think about Orian and Misty in Regina Saskatchewan, who booked me at their venue, let me stay at their's the night and then, noting that I had a few days off, introduced me to their friends who would feed me in exchange for CDs or a few songs played. I ended up staying five days and it's still one of my favourite places in the world.
I'm reminded of Meg and Rob in Winnipeg who put me up every time I came to town. The couple who escorted me out of the cinema (the first time I saw Kill Bill) after having a stress-fuelled panic attack and passing on the toilet floor, accidentally exposing myself to all the staff as I walked back to the cinema. They left the movie early and got me back to their place to make sure I was okay.
There was Aubrey in Calgary. She and her friend showed me around town and even took me to a few work events when they found out my other option was camping in the woods. They didn't owe me anything after they paid the price of admission at my show. What they gave me really was priceless.
All my friends: Caroline, Brent, Shelagh, Leah. Some were friends before but most of them were perfect strangers, opening their hearts and homes to a guy following his dreams. I get a little choked up when I think about it. Those tours could have been a lot lonelier than they already were.
A remarkable thing about the people that put me up is that it was never the rich people with big houses with lots of rooms putting me up. It was often the people who had humble means that would give me everything they have. A friend once said that “it's because they had nothing to lose.” I don't think it's that simple.
I think it's pretty easy to empathise with people struggling when one has struggled a little, themselves. It's not to say that people who have had it easier can't empathise but I can’t help thinking when a person is down on their luck, it's often circumstantial, not a result of them being bad or lazy people, like a lot of people think.
I spent the better part of two and a half years on the cold, Canadian roads before I moved to London and I only had to spend about five nights, sleeping in my car. When I think about it, that is not a bad ratio.
Post script- I once played a show in Thunder Bay and the one of the only members of the audience came up to me after the show to offer some compliments. He also gave me the shirt he was wearing (from his business, Thunder City Cycles), left and brought back a bunch of friends for my second and third sets. I'll never forget the day a guy literally gave me the shirt off his back.