Jill Coubrough: The cold and the cold, hard truth
The cold. It’s one thing Manitobans can recite and unite on.
This week, every conversation turned to it. It’s so cold our cars don’t start.
Yesterday, my window got frozen in the Tim Horton’s drive-thru — five cars behind me waited as I shimmied my payment and my coffee around the open door.
“How Manitoban,” I told the cashier.
It was so cold that my iPhone died with its battery at 45 per cent.
“It’s that cold,” I said to all my friends and family who live in warmer places.
But that kind of cold is just superficial. It’s not until you go looking for it, trudging through it, seeing it, hearing it, feeling it, that you get a real true glimpse of what cold is.
This week I had that chance to get a small glimpse. Not much, but it was enough.
I heard about the real “cold” at Samaritan House from Ossie Jandrow.
His coat wasn’t warm, like his smile. And what he lacked in eye contact he made up for in honesty: alcoholism drove him to the streets. It kept him there for three hard winters.
Always in pairs
He wouldn’t show me where he slept, but his rough, chapped hands were telling enough. He’d curl up outside the old fire hall, the tracks in the west end, but he spent most nights beneath the Eighth Street bridge.
Always in pairs, he says. It’s safer that way.
“Warmer?” I asked.
No, just safer, he said. “Nobody bothers you then."
He wouldn’t show me where his friend froze to death, or where he was found last winter that sent him to an emergency room for two weeks to thaw, but I heard all about it.
I saw the cold when I hauled my camera through the snow and ducked under the Eighth Street bridge. I saw my breath, a frosty log — a makeshift bench — and a rock-solid water bottle.
As I filmed the bridge's colourful graffiti underbelly, where so many of Brandon’s homeless wind up, my camera cord stiffened straight. I thought it might crack in half. The camera’s battery was drained, and the snow flew past the lens.
It was a cold you could see.
Of course, like any Manitoban, I’ve felt the cold. But it was on a whole new level when I visited a warm soup kitchen and met Ray Corkum.
I just happened to approach his table. I asked if he wanted to share his story with me — I was on assignment, looking to gather some tape for radio of people in need this Christmas.
Ray said no. I didn’t really push like I normally would. I just asked him again, "Are you sure?"
Slept in a freight trailer
Ray's story is tough. He described living out of his truck for years. I thought that was bad.
Then he confessed his latest reality: he was sleeping in a freight trailer. The back door was jammed open by about 70 centimetres, enough to crawl inside.
He took me there. You saw the cold again: your breath, a six-pack of bottled Diet Coke frozen solid, frosty blankets.
But it wasn’t until you climbed up inside the rusty 50-foot car that you felt the cold. It was out of the wind, but your pants stick and freeze to the floor when you kneel.
I set up my camera to interview Ray. Again, the cord stiffened. After 10 minutes in the trailer, so did my whole body.
We might have spent about 20 minutes in total there. He spent more than 30 nights.
No Manitoban knows the cold like the ones who are sleeping in it, braving it, fighting for their lives in it.
This week, things improved for those who know the cold in Brandon. An emergency shelter finally opened this week, after organizers struggled to secure enough funding to staff it with security.
And Ray’s life got a bit warmer. A CBC viewer offered him a place to live that he can afford. His homeless nights are over.
As Ray and I parted ways he said to me, “Why did you pick me?”
“To interview?” I said.
"Yes, the soup kitchen was full," he said.
I replied, “I can’t really say I consciously did.”
The universe works in funny ways.
But it got me thinking that we can all consciously pick somebody who needs a step up, and we should. It’s cold out there.