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Sad chalk message on the sidewalk

1handFriday morning I was walking to work along Somerset Street. It was a drizzly morning, so this sidewalk chalk message was probably still fresh yet destined to disappear almost immediately.

As I stopped to take a picture of it, my old friend Mike, who lives on Somerset Street, stepped out of his apartment building. We puzzled over the chalk message together, trying to figure it out. Mike thought he probably meant to write “I am a hobo…”

Whatever it meant, we agreed it was sad.

It wasn’t until that evening, when I was downloading the photo from my phone to my computer that I suddenly understood it. The message was written by Henry Cyr, the one-handed homeless slide guitarist, also known as The Only True Blues Man, according to one of my all-time favourite bloggers.

Henry Cyr is a bit of a legendary character on the streets of Ottawa. He used to be a carpenter until he lost his hand in an alcohol & work-related accident on October 6, 1989, and this apparently precipitated a downward spiral in circumstances which has lasted for 24 years now. According to people who know him, Henry Cyr is complicated, creative, industrious, energetic, entrepreneurial, opinionated, stubborn, tough and gritty. He writes songs and plays slide guitar on the streets, with a mug clamped on the end of his stump. He even has a bit of a blog, which he may or may not visit.

Henry can be charming, but he can also be pissy, depending on his mood. Once he snarled at me as I walked past him, something about how I could afford to shop at Eddie Bauer (I was carrying an Eddie Bauer bag) but couldn’t give a hobo a dime. Ottawa’s panhandlers are usually pretty polite, whether you give to them or not, and I know this because sometimes I do give and sometimes I don’t. I didn’t give him anything for quite a long time after that, but I’m not proud of it.

There’s a good piece about him in this somewhat dated but still interesting article about Ottawa’s panhandlers. (The last few pages are about Henry.)

Anyway. I’m sorry to hear he lost his home and his best friend.

5 comments to Sad chalk message on the sidewalk

  • Billy Joe

    Muggy Waters

  • skreedledee

    I have absolutely no compassion for this man, and I only say this because I have had many dealings with him over the years. He is a self serving criminal who takes advantage of the kindness of others. He deserves no compassion or empathy. He made his own bed, let him lie in it. He is probably homeless again because he sold his roommates’ methadone script for crack, or blew his welfare. Mind you, this is speculation, but knowing him, its exactly what he’d do.

    • I’m curious to know how you’ve come to have so many dealings with him over the years. Is he a former friend? A relative? As for him not deserving empathy or compassion…I think those things have more to do with the person feeling them than with the person about whom they are felt. In other words, I think I feel empathy and compassion for people because of who I am, not because they “deserve” it. (That said, I do understand that we can’t feel it for everybody, and it’s especially difficult to feel it for people who have hurt us.)

  • megabytes

    Funny – I took this same picture on my way home on Thursday night. I knew right away that it was about Henry – guess I tend to think about him at this time of year. I like your comments on empathy and compassion.

    I’ve been noticing a fair bit of chalk texts around downtown lately. Very interesting. Despite any bad stories about Henry (and I have my own too from encounters on the street), I really like that some random person has taken notice of a very downtrodden/ outcast member of our tribe and felt the need to comment on it in this very public way.

    • I like the synchronicity in us taking the same picture. :) Have you taken a picture of the “Selfish asshole” chalk message that popped up a few feet away from where the 1-hand hobo message was?
      Incidentally, I just assumed that Henry had written the chalk 1-hand hobo message himself, but after reading your comment I started wondering if someone else wrote it about him…you don’t think he wrote it?
      I’ve been seeing a lot more chalk messages lately too, and I like them. So ephemeral and intriguing, and a lot of people don’t even seem to notice them.