ILLUSTRATION BY  Joshua Pawis-Steckley

ILLUSTRATION BY Joshua Pawis-Steckley

I needed help and this was all I had

Ryan McMahon recalls the man – and the music – that saved his life at the corner of Queen and Bathurst

On a grey morning I found myself on a familiar stretch of Queen West, at Bathurst. It was raining, the cold reaching my bones, the smell of roti and street rot hitting my overloaded senses. I lived nearby for six years in the late ’90s and this corner is still exactly how I remember it: loud, busy and vibrating with overwhelming energy from all four directions.

I had a place on Massey Street, in a cold, damp basement apartment, across from Trinity Bellwoods. My upstairs neighbour was K-OS’s A/R manager. We shared a small, fenced-in backyard. She had parties I’d crash once in a while, never knowing who’d be there. Sometimes those parties would spill out into the park.

I found this stretch of the city back in 2000, when I was first invited to Gypsy Co-Op by some friends I was going to the Second City Conservatory with. The place had decent food, and music you wouldn’t really hear anywhere else. We’d end up there a lot. There was always different music playing – experimental noise, hippy-dippy duos, an eclectic mix of weirdos. It was perfect for me and my friends – we were eclectic and weird too. We’d drink and engage in the obnoxious and competitive one-upmanship reserved for comics desperately trying to launch a career for themselves. There were a lot of late nights spent there, but I remember the music the most.

Gypsy led me to Element, a two-floor dance bar a few blocks east, and its hip-hop scene. I found it accidentally one night while on my way home. I walked in alone and I loved the place: the burgeoning musicians, the scenesters and producers. I was a kid from small-town northwestern Ontario, and Element took me beyond the hip hop I’d hear on Much Music’s Big Shiny Tunes and into the places where the music was from. One night, friends and I packed in there because we’d heard that Kardinal Offishall and Swollen Members were going to be there – they didn’t show up. A DJ played, a few people rapped, and I got to feel like I was part of something, whatever it was. And I still remember the music.

Over the next couple of years, I took a lot of long walks down Queen West. Most of them helped me sober up after a long night of drinking. I was a lost young man and Queen West eased the stress.

It was on one of those walks down Queen Street where I found the guy who ultimately saved my life. I’d never seen him before and didn’t know who he was. He was a Native guy, dressed in too many layers – old jackets, pants hanging off his shrunken hips, shoes untied, just trying to live his life. Most people would have looked at him and thought of him as a rubby, a drunk, a blight on the city. The truth is, he and I were the same; I just wore cleaner clothes than he did.

It was a particularly bad night of drinking for me. I used to have those a lot. It was one of the darkest times of my life. I was, by then, homeless, in between places, and had nowhere to go. I had a friend who let me crash at her house every now and then, but I felt like I’d overstayed my welcome.

I was across the road, waiting to cross Bathurst, and I remember him shouting toward me, “Go to Anishinaabe Health, it’s just down the street!” He yelled it over and over. I think he was shouting it to me. Even if he wasn’t, it felt like he was and I pretended he was. I wish I would have walked over to him and talked to him. I didn’t. I think it’s because I recognized myself in him, and at the time, I hated what I saw. I come from a long line of recovered alcoholics and drug addicts, family that has long carried the effects of the Indian Residential School system. It was around this time I realized I hadn’t escaped this fate. These were my demons, too.

A short time after, I got sick – really sick – with pneumonia, and I needed to see a doctor. I made my way to Anishinaabe Health. I told the doctor that I had been drinking and partying for quite some time and that I had a persistent cough that never seemed to go away. While I waited to receive my X-ray appointment, I struck up a conversation with an old man sitting in the lobby. It turns out he was the Elder who ran the sweat lodge there. His name was Sugar Bear. He was a healer from away, a well-known and respected member of the Native community in Toronto. He assured me the sweat would help clear my chest and that I should come. He said, “Looks like you need it.” He told me 7 p.m.

I don’t know why, but I went that night in spite of myself. I had joked about sweat lodges with friends, but had never considered that I’d soon be sitting in one, facing myself and all of my struggles. I’d never thought this is where I’d discover the rest of my life.

The sweat was in a fenced-in area behind the health centre. It was weird, being on a pad of cement downtown in the largest city in Canada – the noise of the streets, racing police cars, the scream of fire engines speeding by – as we smudged ourselves with sage before entering the canvas-covered lodge. But I needed the help and this was all I had. I crawled in on my hands and knees, fearful and shaking, a humility I’ve never forgotten.

For four rounds, we prayed, sang, prayed, sang, cried and sang some more. The songs sounded familiar, though I’m certain I’d never heard them before. By the end of each song, I’d have caught it and was singing along with others who knew it. The longer the songs went, the louder I sang. I sobbed my way

through all of it. A heavy weight was in my chest and I continually asked to leave, but that’s a no-no. In ceremony, you are supposed to finish what you start. So I did.

I finished the ceremony on my knees, in tears. When I climbed out of the sweat, I looked up and saw the CN Tower, “the largest Eagle Staff I’ve ever seen,” I’d joked then.

I remember leaving feeling different than when I’d entered, like I’d finally found a community that accepted me for who I was, as fucked up as I was. And it was beautiful to sing. To find my voice. It helped me pray in there, it helped me leave some things behind in that sweat. I don’t remember what I prayed about, and I don’t really remember who else was there, but I still remember the music.

paperRyan McMahon