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A young homeless man taught me the trigonometry of alienation

nate kitch The Globe and Mail

On the busiest street in Whitehorse, a small crowd sprawls outside the Salvation Army shelter in the early morning. I approach and nod hello as I work my way through these friends, all wearing multiple layers of dark clothing.

Inside, people are slumped over the plastic dining tables sleeping off a rough night, or a rough life. But for more than a week now, a stranger who seems out of place has caught my attention. Science Boy.

This kid is barely out of his teens and is never hung over, never under the influence. A pyramid of science and math textbooks sits beside him. He's drawing Spirograph-type designs on graph paper. Math equations are scribbled on the perimeter of the page. He's pleasant when I ask if I can join him.

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Science Boy sleeps on a shelter bunk at night and sits here all day with papers and books. I ask him, "What's up with the drawing?"

With a lowered voice he replies that psychedelic drugs opened his mind to geometry and math. Psychedelics? People here choose vodka if they've got money, not hallucinogens.

I drag my chair in closer to talk. I've been visiting the Salvation Army and its intersecting alleys for a few years since I took early retirement (read: quit). This is my university to learn what I was too busy to see before – how the street people, most of them residential-school survivors, make it through a day. I've learned a lot about alcohol abuse, but not much about drugs.

So I ask Science Boy what's for sale on the streets of Whitehorse. He draws three sets of drug categories, which he says parallel the Yukon's best-loved overlapping triangles of beer, wine and hard liquor. I get a primer on the prices and effects of doctor-prescribed drugs, hallucinogens and chemicals. He tells me there are drugs designed to attract kids with their shapes of dinosaurs, stars and Pokemon characters.

There's kiddie pricing too. "A toonie can buy you Ativan to calm your fears," he says, "and ecstasy will take away worry."

Fear? Worry?

"Kids are under a lot of pressure," he explains. "We have a hundred different stressors that parents just don't get."

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He's right – I don't get it. So he patiently describes the world as seen through his prism. School class sizes of 30 bother him as too impersonal. He's anxious about the planet. And, to my surprise, this boy in his early 20s goes on a tangent about the sexualization of youth, saying it's too much pressure too soon.

Was childhood killed by my generation, or did it just get sucked up in the vortex of our lives?

"We do drugs to escape the empty feeling," he continues. "Adults recognize when they are depressed, but kids don't understand it. So we just don't feel anything."

In contrast to the void he describes, my young friend almost wells up when I ask what feeling he gets from psychedelic drugs. He sighs and smiles like a boy in love, saying it's too beautiful for words. I sip more weak coffee and wait.

Eventually he blurts out: "It's being connected with something other than myself. Pure acceptance. It's divinity. Everything is right, where it should be, and I'm part of a whole something."

I stare at this boy who is just a few years younger than my own child. Why didn't my generation give our children the feeling of being connected, of being accepted? Oh, now I remember – we were busy chasing the high-school graduation mantra, "Reach for the stars." But stars are cold, isolated and inhospitable to human life. Our children grew up floating alone and feeling the chill. Joy reached the vanishing point.

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Science Boy is clearly worried about kids younger than himself.

"Everyone has to be online, on stage constantly, until we've become social monkeys with no down time."

Ah yes, this is familiar territory. I'm just surprised that people my age have been so easily duped into feeling flattered by the demands of technology. We're like children who pull the string on a doll to make it say "feed me" and then feel important to be asked! We've become technological nouveaux riches with garish results.

I imagine we will all calm down in time and develop a better balance in life, but Science Boy doubts that. He has his own theorem of probability:

"I predict a new mental illness in the near future," he says. "We will be two people at once. We'll hold two different yet parallel personas. Instead of having an imaginary friend we'll have an imaginary identity. One minute I'm this and I like these things. The next minute I'm someone else with different likes. We'll jump between identities."

I let Science Boy get back to his geometry, but over the next few days I arc back to ensure our lives intersect. Then he disappears. Someone says he left the Yukon. I am hoping he finds the solution to the new algorithm he was working on. It was an unusual formula. Science Boy was trying to find the co-ordinates for human connection.

Roxanne Livingstone lives in Whitehorse.

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