Content Note: subtle tones of violence, drug use, mental health, homelessness.
The sound of a match strikes against the friction of the book and ignites a flame, the smell of sulfur dioxide is instantly released into the air followed by the smell of a newly lit cigarette. The match flicked into the street, a few puffs and we begin our journey.
It’s a beautiful autumn morning. The sun peaks in through the buildings and alleyways and a cool breeze is coming in from the ocean. The city is stirring, it has been up for a while now; 9am and I feel late, yet I’m right on time in my daily route. Only in the early mornings just before the sun rises are the streets quiet. All except for the City of Vancouver workers with their trucks cleaning up the garbage along Hastings. Sweeping it onto the road for it to be picked up. When the city awakens, there are many moments of laughter, brief moments in time where joy is shared between one another, sitting on their milk crates, stools or on stairs in entrance ways where people trade and buy smokes. Wrinkles that are exaggerated with their smiles, eyes lit up and for a moment, I forget where I am. I see now that there is a sense of belonging, a sense of community. For many, this is their home. Home.
The downtown eastside is its own little chapter, its body stretches from Princess ave. to Cambie street where it completely drops off its edge and normal life resumes. Convenience stores line each corner of the intersections. Rats scurry underneath garbage bins in piss alley and the birds are addicted to nicotine, one does not want to get on the bad side of a crow in this realm this is their purgatory. They cling to tree branches with watchful eyes. Watchful eyes.
The city is rich with culture, diversity, and opportunity. It is a living and well-oiled machine pumping out vessels onto a conveyor belt to do its bidding. The noise of traffic is deafening. Bright lights are over exaggerated at night and it clouds the starry sky. Walking past the quint pastries shops, the smell of sugar and bread tickle my nose. I especially like the one on Cambie and Hastings just on the border of light and darkness. The chocolate croissants are large and flakey; hunched over like a wild beast over the sink is often what it takes to eat one. Starve the beast.
Standing there at the intersection of Main and Hastings outside the Owl Drugs Store I can almost feel the heart that beats underneath this city. Every single pound is deafening. Duh-duhn, duh-duhn. The beating gets louder and louder.
WEE-oww-WEE-oww, the wailing sound rises and descends slowly in pitch, loud honking, and colors of red and blue flash past me, I am startled awake.
I walk along Hastings towards Carrall Street. Pidgeon Park resides on the right-hand side of the intersection, the sun does not hit this space. No shadows are casted on the sidewalks or buildings. This is where you can go to buy cheap smokes, 4 bucks a pack and you can get yourself some quality Rolled Golds. I’d sooner quit smoking before resorting to Reserve cigarettes. Sucking them back and picking wood chips out of the paper, any bit of nicotine in them is merely residue from an ashtray. But business is booming. It’s Welfare Wednesday after all and there is a line up of people down Columbia street outside of Pigeon Park Savings Credit Union, impatiently waiting to cash their cheques.
I close my eyes and find myself mapping out this body. Running my fingers along its curves, and down its spine. Gore ave., Blood alley, Pender street, Abbott street, Cordova street, Powell street, Columbia street. Interlocking bones, this skeleton is deteriorating. Bites, bruises, and track marks run up along the arms of this frail body, it is diseased. Eyes dulled from years of self infliction, existing. Only existing. Oozing and rotting flesh known as Cellulitis runs through the legs, swollen. Ribs battered and broken; I shutter thinking of the screams being held within this cage. Rape, murder, overdose deaths. Each crevice, each corner holds a story. Haunted. I chuckle at the thought of comparing the city to one of the frail bodies that occupy the hotel rooms that have long been retired. Desensitized.
The sun shines on the brick walls of the old buildings and the shadows flee into the alleys. These hotels, many now known as SRO’s house the houseless. Famous hotels like the Regent Hotel, Hotel Balmoral, Hotel Empress, Portland Hotel are known for their nightmares. Broken windows line the outer walls of the buildings with blankets covering them. How many of those rooms have seen dead bodies? Cockroaches, bedbugs, and rodents infest the hallways, unlivable conditions. Many buildings are unmarked, gated and look abandoned. Graffiti spills over them, making the doors near invisible. The untrained eye would not know whether it was an SRO building or the backside of stores and shops.
Walking down Cordova street towards Main there is a chill in the air, it comes West from the cobblestone streets of Gastown, it sweeps through my hair and I hear whispers. I turn around, but there’s nothing there, no sun shines down this street, the light is blocked by the buildings that hang above. I take a turn left on Main street and head towards Crab Park. Many people who were residing in Oppenheimer Park fled to Crab Park when the eviction notice was posted and temporary blue fencing with security spikes were installed. Displacement. The parking lot owned by the Port of Vancouver beside Crab Park now has a permanent 10-foot-tall fence with barbed wire running along the top. When it was being installed, a security guard patrolled the parking lot 24/7. The houseless residents of Vancouver had fled to this parking lot beside Crab Park prior to the installation of the fencing. An uninhibited parking lot never used by anyone and the Port of Vancouver attempted to take legal action in convicting these people who had nowhere to go. They were pushed out and they made their way to Strathcona Park, where now nearly 400 reside. Pushed.
Salt stings my nose coming off the ocean, it blankets my face. The smell of piss from the portable toilets installed along the path through the park reeks. My eyes shift elsewhere, I turn back. Up and over the bridge above the train tracks, I am close to completing my route. Main and Hastings, we meet again I say to myself as if it has been a lifetime since we had seen each other. I sigh in relief, sunlight again, the warmth calms me. Carnegie Community Centre towers over the streets, large concrete grey pillars stand tall around the stairway to the entrance. The courtyard to the left is busy. People shifting, mocking, and buzzing. There’s so much movement here, it blurs together into a mixture of colors and sounds. The heart of the body lays underneath my feet once again.
Police cars are parked out front and an Indigenous woman is screaming at the cops as she’s being arrested. It’s a sight to see. A sight I have seen many times before on this block. I wonder what it is this time that warrants an arrest. She screams, “you fucking pigs!” Others join in, it doesn’t take long before a crowd forms. It dissipates quickly. Discrimination.
I head on Main towards Keefer street, my destination. Tim Horton’s. Time to refuel. It’s not noon yet and so the storefront is quiet. A woman kneels at the entrance of the shop in a hunched over position asking people for spare change. She is currently between me and my caffeine. She has mid length greyish white hair that is wild, she’s wearing the same clothes as the last time I saw her. She doesn’t recognize me, although why would she? She was a client at the homeless shelter I work at and I remember her outbursts. Drugs had taken whatever mental capacity she had long ago. Diagnosed with a history of drug induced psychosis and schizophrenia. A common combo on the downtown eastside for many occupants. Looking into her eyes, I am reminded of my own battle with drugs, I am reminded of my Mother who also had struggled with mental illness. That lack, that longing, like a hole in your chest that can’t seem to be filled by anything, drowning in pain and seeing no way out. Trapped.
I give her the only change that I have, a loonie. Dissatisfied she asks for a 10 or a 20.
I say “sorry, that’s all I got.”
I go inside.
“Hi, may I take your order?”
“Yes, I’d like a large double double. That’s it”
“How will you be paying?”
“Ok, go ahead”
I grab my order, take a sip and as usual they never stir it properly, and yet here I am everyday buying a large double double. I chuckle at the irony.