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.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful Eastside downtown observation. Love Mum.

Voyager said...

Wow! Mom, you've navigated the "leave your comment" section. I think you are surpassing Dad in geekville.

Dumdad said...

A lovely piece of evocative writing, both sad and uplifting at the same time.

"As pretty as a robin's egg" - great payoff line.

This surely qualifies for your Fave Posts?

Alda said...

An excellent post - evocative and moving. Thanks for sharing this little sliver of your life.

Voyager said...

DD, Thank-you.
The robin's egg compliment was the seed that started this post. How often does one get delighted by being compared to an egg?

Alda, Thank you too.
I am very glad my job has taken me to an area I would have otherwise avoided. Seeing and meeting the folks that live there evokes compassion, replacing contempt. And the realization that, only some poor decisions, perhaps a crappy background, or illness seperate me from them. "There but for the grace of God....."

Ian Lidster said...

Powerful stuff, my friend. Having spent three years as an addictions counsellor I can empathize profoundly. Shades of 'Through a Blue Lens' in your descriptions. And thanks for helping the poor sad drunk. You have a good heart and are as pretty as a robin's egg, too.


PS: Haven't forgotten your questions; you will get them soon.

Dumdad said...

P.S. I also liked the photos which enhanced an excellent post; did you take them?

Voyager said...

Dumdad, no the photos are not mine. But they portray the downtown east side well.

Jocelyn said...

This is my favorite post of yours I've ever read. Lovely.

And your mum is lovely, too. I'm glad she made it here.

CS said...

To me, those unexpected and slightly off-beat compliments are the best. You helped him, he said something nice to you. Karma.

Voyager said...

Jocelyn, Thank you for the kind words. And yes, my Mom rocks. She is my most faithful reader.

Cs, Quirky compliment indeed. My turquoise jacket, which I did not wear often, is now my favourite.

Diana said...

It's been almost 15 years since I've been to Vancouver. (We lived in Bellingham, Washington at the time and Charles commuted to UBC for a year.) Coming from the perspective of the States, we were surprised how even the "really, really bad" areas weren't as devoid of hope as they seemed to be down South. People were warmer in Canada and things didn't have the desperate feel. While the social services in Canada are far from perfect, at least they are better than they are here.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Lovely story.

Your simple act not only made the old drunk realize that he still had value, but gave him back a long-buried memory of picking up a broken robin's egg as a child and knowing he had found a treasure.

Jazz said...

Great post. Society too often forget that these are people too...

Voyager said...

Diana, We take our social services for granted, and tend to blame them first when they can't fix everything. It's good to be reminded to be grateful for them. Especially at tax time!

HISF,What a nice thought!

Jazz, Glad to see you're back from you're trip.