thoughts and recollections: on women who dig through garbage bins

I woke up to another flash anecdote from fantasy author Jonathan Carroll in my inbox. Besides the fact that I follow him on Twitter, I’m not sure where along the way Medium picked up that I fancy whimsical writing a la Carroll. The Medium also acts as a platform for published novelists to share snippets of writing in between books. “What will she keep?” is the title to Carroll’s latest piece, which watches a homeless woman dig through a garbage bin. I was drawn to this piece because it triggered the memory of my own encounters with women digging through garbage bins. At my old address at Queen and Bathurst, in Toronto, I would often see women who were in this unfortunate position.

 

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Queen Street West, Toronto

Our backdoor balcony opened onto an alleyway shared with a few popular Queen West restaurants, bars and cafes, and where all sorts of characters would wander through. I once saw a man wearing a skeleton mask and rolling a suitcase through there, and the Backward Bicyclist also used to pass through. Sometimes I thought I conjured these things but I don’t give my imagination such credit. The women I remember, however, were very real and therefore very much ingrained in my memory, both for their circumstances and for the ease with which they would drift in and out of the periphery of my life.

Shopping Cart Lady

There was this one lady who used to cart her stuff around in a shopping cart while a trail of stray cats would follow in the shadow of her round figure. I don’t know how she always kept them in tow but I remember watching her discipline them on a few occasions, and how they always obeyed. I suppose she was my favourite of the characters, because when I first moved to Dubai I thought about her fondly in passing. I always wondered what was in her shopping cart filled with bags. On a visit home in 2012, I decided to walk through my last Toronto neighborhood in the dead of winter. Lots had changed at Queen and Bathurst; a Loblaws supermarket had popped up and the corner store had been replaced by a tattoo parlour. I didn’t expect to see her but looked for her nonetheless, almost hopefully. And, of course, there she was, standing on that corner wearing a thick winter coat and guarding a multicoloured stack of plastic milk crates. I don’t know where her cart was and those cats were nowhere in sight, but she was fully intact and well-padded for the season.

stray cat queen street west
a stray cat in Toronto

McDonald’s Lady

On the same visit to Toronto, which was rather somber due to the grey weather and the wrinkles it highlighted on the aging flesh of my hometown (more pronounced considering I live in a city that prefers to destruct and reconstruct rather than age gracefully), I found myself watching another lady. I was staying at my friend Justin’s at Queen and Parliament, which is also where several years ago I had my first encounter with a man shooting up in the alley behind his apartment. At the time, I’d freaked out until Justin told me the guy didn’t even notice my existence.

On this night, we had been partying and I was one of those hungry losers ordering McDonald’s at 2am. I was by myself with no one to talk to and, besides, when you live somewhere as sheltered as Dubai, you’re all the more sensitive to other people’s troubles and you find yourself observing a fair bit. It had been some time since I’d seen a woman reach into a garbage bin and dig around. She was looking for a cup so she could grab a free refill at the soda fountain. I thought about her for the next several days. I want to say I was shocked at the sight of a homeless person in a state of desperation, but that would be a lie. There was something about the practiced ease with which she reached into that bin. I knew she’d been doing it for sometime and that this is probably what her future also looks like. It was part of her daily work, just like mine involves brushing my teeth and pouring myself a cup of tea.

 

McDonald’s soda fountain

Garbage Bin Lady

Finally, this is the last of my memories of garbage bins and ladies in Toronto. I call upon this memory because at the time I found it quite hilarious and normal. I was being picked up at 2am (so much happens at this hour!) from my Queen West apartment by my mom and a friend. We were embarking on a road trip to New York, as the friend was visiting from Dubai. After locking up and throwing my stuff in the car trunk, I said hi and noticed my friend was staring out the car window in shock. She was pointing at my garbage bin which, evidently, was moving. I didn’t get it at first – this was a regular sight for me. But I should’ve realized that not everyone has a little Chinese lady crawling through her garbage bins looking for bottles on a nightly basis. I used to see this lady at all hours. She was a greying, hunchbacked street urchin of a sort, always scuttling about our frontyards with hands outstretched. Sometimes we would put our empty wine bottles directly into her hands, and other times we would come across her helping herself to our leftovers. Nobody really minded and she never got in the way.

 

garbage bins in toronto

Toronto garbage bins

None of these women make a huge mark on any of our lives. Their purpose? To train stray cats, to collect our discarded bottles, to stay hydrated and keep to themselves. Their role is, quite simply, to fade in and out of the background of our routines. I suppose that’s what it really comes down to. These women never get in the way, but they stay on my mind, and now I’ve written about them to confirm that yes, they are real, and they aren’t poems and they’re not passing memories. They happened and they continue to happen, I just don’t see them anymore.

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