Thursday, May 03, 2007
Lights in the darkness
A gaunt woman with missing front teeth weaves down the sidewalk, shouting obscenities. Her face is scabbed and oozing, a sure sign of a long heroin habit. I pass a group of three men openly sharing a crack pipe in the filthy doorway of a decrepit hotel. A half dozen people are sleeping or passed out on the steps of the Anglican church. I have seen four quick drug deals while walking as many blocks. They typically involve two people: A dealer, who stands off to one side, and a "hired" addict who actually gives a buyer the drugs and receives the money, taking the risk of being arrested in return for a sliver of crack the dealer will give her when she hands over the sale proceeds.
My work frequently takes me to a building in this area of Vancouver dubbed the poorest postal code in Canada. It is the downtown east side, populated by the most hopeless and vulnerable members of our society. Homelessness, addiction, and mental illness are the norm here.
I often walk here from my uptown office, or from the skytrain station. I am never afraid walking in this infamous neighbourhood, at least not in daylight. The streets are always teeming with people. Many are helpful and friendly, and say "hello", or "nice day" as I walk past. More than once I have seen horrified lost tourists here from the nearby cruise ship terminal, surrounded by helpful locals giving directions. I am comfortable here. No one takes much notice of me, since I am not buying or selling anything, and I'm obviously not a cop. Yet a few years ago, before I had ever been in this neighbourhood except to drive through it with locked doors, I was afraid of it.
I am saddened by the pain and despair in these streets, and enraged by the failure of many expensive, ill-conceived political "solutions" thrown at the area. But I am always touched by the signs of hope and goodness here. Like a carefully tended flower box of geraniums in the window of a run down rooming house. And a storefront turned into a drop-in First Nations friendship centre. The needle-exchange nurses greeting their regulars by name. And the ever-present group of smoking men outside the door to the Salvation Army detox centre. They are trying, at least for today, to fight the addictions that crush them.
At the next intersection, an elderly drunk is starting to cross the street against a red light. He is swaying and his knees buckle. I grab his elbow and steer him back to the curb. "Come on Buddy, wait for the green light so you don't get run over." He stares at me for a few moments, and focuses on my turquoise jacket.
"Honey" he says grinning, "You look pretty as a robin's egg."
My day is made.