At the corner of comedy and tragedy

May 26, 2011
David Driedger |

About ten years back I was the caretaker of an apartment block that a church had renovated to provide low-rent stable apartments in Winnipeg's West End.  The visionary and work-horse of this and many other projects was the late Harry Lehotsky.  I can still remember coming back to the apartment one evening seeing two faces peering out of what should have been an empty basement suite.  I went to check it out and there was Harry and the superintendent who oversaw all the blocks.  They were on a 'steak-out' of sorts waiting to see if . . . well I can't remember what they were watching for . . . something suspicious I am sure.  We chatted for a while and in the course of the conversation we talked about why people would want to intentionally live in a neighbourhood like this (the caretaker before me was murdered as one case in point).  Harry said a few things but I remember one line being, "It's part carnal and part spiritual."  Some people may not resonant with that statement but I do.  In addition to the (preventable) hurt that I see this neighbourhood there is also an allure and a particular drama that is not performed (much) in the suburbs or the country.  I suspect some of you recognize this drama as well.

I don't know very much about the classic categories of comedy and tragedy but this is my take on them.  Comedy exists to the extent that it can flirt with the boundaries of destruction and meaninglessness while tragedy is destruction by meaninglessness or meaningless destruction.  There is a sort of dramatic attention that humans give to both comedy and tragedy.  I find these elements both amply present in the West End and most 'inner-city' contexts that I have experience.  Here are two recent examples.

My wife and I were out for a walk when I saw a bike pass us.  Well that was at first glance.  It was an adult riding the bike . . . with another adult riding on the handle bars . . . with a bottle of alcohol in his hands . . . in the middle of the street . . . going the wrong way down a one-way.  Once I put all those things together I had to pause in amazement at the seemingly unconscious achievement performed by these men.  Really I am almost afraid to ask what more they could have added to the comedic but nearly tragic performance?  All I could think was something to the effect of there goes trouble.  To be honest it made me smile even though I knew wherever they were coming from or going to was probably not good.

The second scene could have been taken out of a Kids in the Hall sketch except, well, it wasn't.  I was walking back to my house more or less keeping my head down and as I approached our gate I looked up and saw a man walking towards me.  He was walking with purpose and determination, with some agitation perhaps.  There was a sort of dullness in his appearance.  But his walk and appearance gave no initial insight into what was going on (other than some agitation as I mentioned).   His clothes were a little worn and maybe had not been cleaned recently but from the top of his head was the unmistakeably pure colour of blood red.  Not a little red.  Quite a bit, and it was flowing.  This only seemed to be partially bothering him.  I was a little shocked Holy geez man are you okay?  I asked.  He was a little disoriented.  I got him a towel and told him to put pressure on where it was coming from.  I drove him to my intended destination of the hospital but as we approached he said he lived close by and asked to be dropped off there.  I didn't argue.  As he left the car I realized afterwards that his disorientation and pain had crystallized into vengeance and anger.  I suspect that his next stop was not the hospital.  Tragic.

I don't exactly know why both of these elements attract me to this neighbourhood.  There are enough heartbreaking sights and experiences as well as potential fears that could easily prompt someone to just 'visit'.  But I really do love it.  And I don't essentially want to change anyone here.  I do want to learn how to intervene and engage individual and structural expressions of violence but really I am not looking to change much of the other drama that exists here.  So much of the comedy and tragedy also dances alongside the realms of truth and beauty.

Author Name: 
David Driedger
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