RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
Sometimes I still worry about her. Whether she’d gotten enough food to eat, a place to stay and warm clothes to wear on any particular that day. She was, as I came to think of her, “My Bag Lady.”
She worked the corner of Laurier Ave and Elgin Street in Ottawa. I would walk by her, on my way to work at ITC or ICC, as I rounded that particular corner. Sometimes I would spot her while riding the bus. She’d sit in that one corner day after day.
One fine day, a sunny one I believe, I’d paused to look down at her upturned face. A nice enough face, with fine lines of either concern or humour set in a somewhat plain aspect. Yet what struck me the most at the time were her cornflower blue eyes. She looked like she had spent a lot of time in the sun, and had somehow absorbed the colour of the sky.
I sat down and asked her how it was that she had ended up on the street. Laughing nervously, she said, “Got an hour?” I sat and listened. We sat on an old church bench and ignored the curious stares from pedestrians.
We must have been an unusual sight: me fairly dark and dressed in “corporate” clothes, sitting with an ageless woman in bizarrely eccentric garments, which had obviously seen better times. And, oh yes, hair so blond it looked platinum. She was like a fairy godmother from a fairy tale gone terribly wrong. And that was how her life-story unfolded.
I can’t say she poured out her soul. After all, I was a total stranger. She owed me nothing. After a while, she paused for a minute to say that I was “okay.” She had apparently seen a sparrow dead on the sidewalk after I had walked by. Those sparrows — damned if they didn’t report her to the police all the time. They spied on her. Damn things, she had to watch out for them.
I left her with a bit of money and she said a profound thing. She told me that whatever thing might sort out her life was a thing for which money was no substitute. Strangely, I was tempted to agree with her on that one, even if I didn’t on some of her other philosophies. Even if I didn’t know exactly what the “thing” was.
I asked her what she was going to do come winter. She guffawed loudly and said that she’d be way out of Ottawa by then. She’d leave, with the birds, to sunny California. I offered her my old parka and perhaps a blanket.
Sorry, she said she didn’t accept gifts from people. You never knew if they would be deliberately contaminated, no offense meant. Same when I went to shake her hand. Medical experiments had been done on her and other homeless people, she claimed, and she didn’t want to pass on any viruses to me. I guess a hug was out of the question.
Of course I asked the obvious question of shelters. Too many kooks, she said. And some were violent. I felt so badly that there wasn’t anything I could do but pass her a few measly dollars. Then I went home to my warm, comfortable apartment, whose only problem was whether the curtains were a “neutral enough” colour.
Close friends and family suggested not getting directly involved. You never knew what could happen to you with someone so mentally ill. I continued to chat with her whenever I could, and sometimes she would have coffee with me in some Java joint.
I could even, at times, understand her logic. Somehow, I knew that was more important than anything. Despite all what life had thrown at her, there was still some warmth and hope.
One day, as I was reaching to pass her a bill, she grabbed my hand and said “You be careful now. Don’t let them get to you.” Then I never saw her again. I assume she’s flown South for the winter, with the birds. But not sparrows. They remain for the winter.