the true stories
Welfare Wednesdays were always busy days on the Trail. A sortation case is a piece of maple furniture and the desk portion of it is about three and a half feet wide. On welfare day, my welfare cheques would face-up, tightly packed, three quarters of the way across this surface. Many addresses got multiple cheques, if not the majority.
In large apartment buildings the novice postie would be greeted on these days by a large crowd milling around the lobby boxes. Hands would go fishing into the open boxes while other hands thrust every manner of exotic ID cards into the my line of sight. The following day would be an exercise of avoiding the sprawled bodies of those whose money was being processed by their compromised livers. Heroin, cocaine, booze, tobacco, marijuana, pizza and taxi purveyors all posted their monthly bonanzas.
Sometimes the customers were desperate and thus very aggressive. A missing cheque could bring out a lock-blade, a screw-driver or a good old-fashioned fistful of skull rings. Many mail-boxes were broken from being pried open due to theft or lost keys. The cheques for these had to be hand delivered which took up precious daylight during the winter.
Various methods of crowd control had to be learned to avoid the inmates running the institution scenarios. Sometimes a threat to walk out of the lobby with the goods worked once. The second time this would be useful only in identifying the most aggressive denizens who would come forward with threats of their own. The vacant wet eyes of the unwed mothers and snot-nosed babies made it impossible to get any consistency.
Once when doing a new block that had been added on to the Trail after a restructuring, I took a short-cut through a tall cedar hedge. It was a welfare day. There was a street of dilapidated mouldering stucco houses with a large apartment on the corner. The hedge was for the apartments. Unbeknownst to me the building had been dug five feet into the hill when constructed.
I weighed about 200 pounds including my two satchels of mail. I pushed open the yielding branches with a particularly beautiful Shing-I move I had learned in Pa-Gua lessons. I stepped into a void. I kept one-point. I move at a good clip as most mail-carriers do. My legs cycled like a cartoon character and I landed among the roots of the trees about two feet forward of the wall.
It was muddy and the impact was compounded by the weight of my burden. I landed like a cat on both feet. My knees rose up, split my lip, bloodied my nose and blackened both my eyes when they came to rest. I figured I had saved a good fifty paces. There were long scratches down my arms and legs. My shirt was ripped where it had caught on a stubby branch.
I stood up cursing my luck and brushed most of the twigs and mud off. I saw myself for the first time in the reflection of the lobby doors. The welcoming committee of cheque recipients was already assembled. I had arrived at a later hour than their previous mailman. I turned the micro-switch and let myself in. There was mud and blood all over me, my equipment and the mail itself.
The knot of people broke away from the vicinity of the mailboxes like grease does when you drop soap into dish-water. There were murmurs and a few exclamations. No one asked for any favors or special treatments. No one showed me fake ID. This was more than compensation for the pain and suffering of my fall. It was as quiet as a kindergarten class on the first day of a strange new teacher. I started to feel much better. I deposited all the cheques without any molestation and locked everything back up snug.
On the way out I turned to the those assembled and said, “ You should see the other son-of-a-bitch.”
On the street in front of every second house would be cars and trucks idling. ID would be thrust out the window and claims would be made to have just moved in or out of a premises nearby. Every mailbox would see four or five different cheques dropped in. Some for the main floor and some for the basement. Many yards had individuals standing in the rain waiting to get their cheque rather than waiting inside “their” house.
One fellow was a real clown. He always enjoyed the latest big-screen TV and he had a green Cadillac parked outside his hovel. He sat on his sofa everyday smoking a bong and was always ready with a comment about how easy my job was. He particularly loved to tell me I was late. This is a peeve to a postie as we work with an array of variables beyond our control. In fact, there is no set time of delivery to any given address beyond being able to state whether or not that call will see mail before or after noon.
Seven out of ten people on the street will stop and look at their watch when they see a mailman go by. It used to irritate the hell out me. That is until I realized how ridiculous they look. After a year or so I was able to spot the seven out of ten and beat them to the punch. A cheap spiral notepad whipped out after consulting the wrist-watch coupled with a disapproving glare helps to put their thoughts back on their own damn business.
Another fellow was a young father of a son. He met me every welfare day out on the street at my relay box while I loaded my satchels. He always bummed a smoke. He was a big strong guy and talked about his pretty wife and his baby boy. His address was a basement suite down the block. I figured he was just lonesome and anxious to get to the cheque cashing window as quick as possible. We spoke of many things.
One welfare Wednesday he came out for his cheque as usual. He looked distraught. We had a smoke and began to chat. To my surprise he began to cry. Not a loud blubbering, just a red face and some salt-water streaming down into his black beard. He told me he couldn't carry on. I asked him what he meant. He told me that he didn't live at the address on the cheque nor in that neighborhood. He was collecting multiple cheques at multiple addresses with ID he bought for a few bucks in Chinatown. He said that the guilt was eating him up like a grub in an apple.
He said he was ashamed and that he really did have a wife and son. He said he was going to stop the con-artist bull-shit and begin to sweat for his daily bread as an example to his son. He handed me the cheque and it was my turn to get itchy eyes. We had another smoke and I clapped him on the back, shook his hand and assured him that it wouldn't be easy but that's why the Great Spirit had gifted him with physical strength, a heart and a brain. I never saw him again.
Not long after that I was at the Cadillac house and he hoisted his bulk off the couch and came out to his screen door to register his disapproval of the post office, the posties, the system and me in particular. He had pizza sauce on his tee-shirt and smelled like a dead thing. An old Cherokee saying came to my mind. Translated from the Tsalagi it means, “Walk on my back and I'll carry you as long as I am strong enough, but if you try to wipe your moccasins, I'll tear you a new ass-hole.”
I started a little project the next welfare day. It took four full years to complete. I had to use the Swedish love of perfection, the German expertise in organization, a Welsh enthusiasm and the Irish gift of the gab. It went like the following.
I systematically knocked on every door of every house, basement suite and apartment on the Trail. The task took four years because many were not home on any given welfare Wednesday and I only had one shot per month. I was verifying the residency of the names on the cheques. I only accepted the officially approved ID options. I did not deliver to car windows or to hands in the front yards.
Sometimes this made for comical scenes. There was one guy who had been standing in a ice cold rain for hours in “his” front yard. He was unable to produce ID. He gave a version of a story I had committed to memory in its essence, though in detail it was always tailor-made. It involved moving in or out, a mean negligent landlord, a psychotic girlfriend, lost ID and inter-provincial hassles of all kinds. I asked if I could use his toilet inside since he had “just moved in.” Then we could forgo the lost ID. He stammered that he had meant to say that he had just moved out.
I pointed out to him that the old man who had lived there for fifty years had died a week prior and that the neighbors had already disconnected his cable and spliced in through their basement window next door. The three cracker-jacks waiting thirty feet away in a van laughed so hard it made the guy dangerously angry at me. I pocketed “his” check. I knew that the cheques were around $350 each.
I decided to try a new tack and told him to that for about five point seven two percent of the take, I could deliver it right to the van and he wouldn't have to get wet. That is about twenty bucks per cheque and I had already reckoned I could get well over five grand a month off the Trail in non-residence charges alone. His face screwed up and he started to clench his fists and stammer. His mates could barely drag him back inside the vehicle to go to the next borrowed address.
The turnaround time from a person's death to their mailbox being co-opted in this neighborhood was about three days. In the whole four year exercise, I found not one person willing to share twenty dollars out of their fraudulent cheque even when I explained that by knowingly giving them such a bogus cheque, I would have been an accessory to their fraud and thus was entitled to be paid my share of the loot. These guys never heard of honor among thieves.
The cheques that were culled out were returned to the welfare department properly endorsed with the reason for their return. One house had been the recipient of a half dozen welfare cheques as well as another half dozen unemployment cheques. I had never found anyone home to verify these. One day several years into the project, I was relieved to see a man cleaning up the weeds in the front yard.
I asked him about the recipients of my fistful of cheques. He replied that he was an absentee owner and that the house had been vacant for about ten years. As I was endorsing the cheques and the man began nailing sheets of plywood over the window where squatters had found ingress, a black leather jacket walked briskly up to me. He was rude and demanded the cheques. I told him no. He sized me up. I began to walk away slowly keeping my eyes on him and he followed for a block uttering threats unbecoming of a biker dude. I stopped and asked him if he'd ever seen a cute lil raccoon when it gets its fur up. Evidently he had.
Over his shoulder I could see the cafe where the pimp played slot-machines and we were only several doors down from the house where a son had stabbed his father to death. My fur was up and I guess it showed a bit. He pointed all his skull rings and bracelets at me and told me to watch my back. I watched his back as he stomped down the sidewalk toward the cafe.
At the end of the four years, I had about four inches of legitimate cheques to deliver on welfare days. Did I make any exceptions? Yes. One. Let me explain why. I spoke to a woman one afternoon who had been a social worker. She explained to me that many of the people coming in from war zones had literally been born and raised in transit camps and detention centres. In this world, corruption rules by necessity. She had worked with Vietnamese war refugees in Vancouver.
When these people are relocated to host countries, they don't automatically unlearn what they already know. Neither do their children figure out new ways sometimes for a generation or so. This phenomenon has no race, creed or gender. My research into gypsies had taught me the same things the woman was explaining to me. When you put metal in fire, you harden it. When you put people in dire straights, you foster their cunning.
In gypsy culture, for example there are many taboos to do with males and females. These restrictions seem very strange to the gadjo but are completely logical and understandable. These people had been put in transit camps and concentration camps in the distant past when being transported to the middle-east from India as a gift to a foreign dignitary for the amusement of his over-taxed subjects in order to entertain them and so avert a revolt.
While in these camps, the women and the leading good men had created a new culture of mystique surrounding the powers and danger of the females. Males could not use the same implements as women nor even touch certain things belonging to women or girls. The worst curse that could befall an unfortunate man (and there were some bad ones) was to be “flashed” by an offended woman. This entailed her raising her skirts in the direction of the male person to be cursed and showing her genitalia. The poor sucker, so cursed had not long to live and he knew it as surely as the sun comes up.
Why do this? In the unnatural environment of close quartered imprisoned men, women and children it is only a matter of time before women and children begin to suffer at the hands of their own men.. That is unless there are some cleverly-wrought taboos in place for at least two generations so that they become built into the psyche and culture acting as deterrents. In a natural environment much of this becomes unnecessary in my reckoning.
My one exception happened to be a nice Vietnamese woman. I guess she was about forty-five years old. Someone's sister, someone's mom and someone's wife. When I asked her about the names on the cheques that came to her house, she broke into tears. She gripped both my arms and sobbed on my chest. She pulled me inside the house and closed the door. When she could speak, she told me that the names were all of young men who had never lived there. She knew some of them from her own family and community and some were strangers to her. She had been threatened with violence if she didn't continue receiving the cheques for the bad boys. They would be there today later to pick them up. I gave her the cheques and my word to continue to do so for as long as I walked the Trail.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.