Norman Allan
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Short Stories







Learning the Language of Poverty

"Father," I said, when I was four years old. "Teach me the language of the poor." Iíve been poor ever since.

Yesterday I walked into the Future. Thatís the Future Cafť. Iíd a spare hour in the morning before going to "observe" with Dr. Panocci. Iím going to work for Panocci, do chiropractic for him for forty percent of the take until I can make my eclectic practice thrive - till I can pay my bills. But first I had an hour spare, between my breakfast "networking group" and Levinstein, to read the paper and drink some Earl Grey tea: my heroin. At the coffee counter I stood next to John Whatís His Name.

"The Government turned down my appeal. Every time I get sick, Iím back out on the street. This is the third time. I phoned the Community Legal Centre, asked them if thereís anything I can do about it. "Get a good blanket, a warm blanket," they told me. If I get back on my feet Iím going to fuck every one. Fuck them all. No more Mister Nice Guy."

Just a few years back John (Whatís His Name) was making a film on spirituality. Interviewing people about the divine in their lives. Oh, how the heavenly fall.

Johnny Bee (Bee for Bad) rolls by. Heís living in his studio above the Future, a one room studio. Heís painting back-drops for the National Ballet nowadays. Fifteen years ago he was on the street, an alcoholic Indian (earning his Bee for Bad). He still wears his punk Mohawk hair from those days. He is Mohawk, and he found the Great Spirit, or the Spirit found him - pulled himself together - an example of reclamation, restitution. Johnny, after he sobered up, created an international network of aboriginal teacher and shamans, put the infrastructure together, the website and all. Now his moccasins tread the path of the artist. Johnny strolls by with just a nod and the gift to me of calling me "brother".

And hereís Jai, who was Jason, just back from the Woodstock III thugfest where he hurt his shoulder "body surfing" in the mash. They surfed him to the edge and dropped him to the ground. Ribs!

"Why donít you come by and see me? I have a walk-in clinic by donation on WednesdaysÖ this afternoon, from three to four."

"Oh, Rupert gave me the name of his chiropractor just down the road. 714 Main."

"Paul Panocci?" I ask.

Jai shrugs. "Iíve made an appointment. Iíll come and see you if it doesnít work out."


An hour later, when Iím observing with Dr. Pan, Jai walks in. Jai is focused on his sore rib, ten days old, still hurting. Is it broken? Panocci is focused on explaining "nerve activation" (with visual aids to awe) and how "regular spinal settings" correct the underlying problems and restore optimum function. Does Jason have insurance coverage? If not, "tax receipts" will redeem his fees at yearís end as tax deductions. Jai doesnít pay taxes, and doesnít really hear. "Boy, is he spaced out," says Panocci when heíd sent Jai out the Diana, the receptionist, to send him out for x-rays, and book him in, tomorrow, for a report of findings. But Jai hasnít even got the money for today consultation - "I thought it was sixteen dollars" - and he wonít return.

Panocciís office has an air of Calcutta about it. Paul is spending as much time as he can working at a local Insurance Assessment Clinic - big bucks, and Iím going to stand in for him and do the "nerve activation", the "spinal settings", for forty percent of a small take.

But back an hour earlier at the Future, I wandered out on to the patio with my Earl Grey tea. Ren was sitting there drinking coffee. Ren is a street person of the old fashioned type - not your punk youth. Grey haired, his skin now weathered, Ren has been sitting in a doorway on Main Street the twenty years Iíve been in town. I imagine that his marriage fell apart and he took to the road till he settled on this patch of Main Street. Heís always got a soft smile and a soft word for anyone who is drawn to stop and talk. Heís a priest, of sorts. The worst thing about being homeless, Ren once told me, was the lack of privacy.

Now I join him at his table. How do we get to talking literature? He is talking about Huxley and Somerset Maughan. I should read Maughanís "The Narrow Corner". Ren speaks about the animosity between Huxley and Maughan. "They were part of the Bloomsbury set," I say, with a question in my voice, and I start to ramble through the little I donít quite know. I make mention of D.H. Lawrence as my favourite of that era.

"He was a friend of Huxleyís," says Ren. "The Sonnets, though, are my favourite."

"The Masterís sonnets?" I ask. Ren smiles his shy smile. I look at my watch. Itís time for me to go watch Levinstein.

Whatís the message. Surrender to the world like Ren, or scream against your fate like Whatís His Name.
I walk down the road thinking, "Father, I think Iíve learned the language of the poor. Teach me the language of the rich."