Friday, November 18, 2016

A TARNISHED JEWEL


I picked this place. Not once but twice. And it’s not a wholly irrational decision. After all, Vancouver is beautiful. It consistently makes top ten lists for world’s best cities. Usually it’s number one in North America unless you count affordability. A trivial factor, right? Just peek out from under your umbrella and look at the mountains as you amble along the seaside walkways and get passed by Lululemon-uniformed joggers pretending sun is overrated. Our license plates say, “Beautiful British Columbia,” an intentional act of brainwashing as we wait through a succession of ill-timed red lights in a city that refused to build a highway.

And when I returned to Vancouver, I specifically chose my neighborhood. It was a matter of convenience in that I still faced a major commute and needed to be near a particular transit line. I’m in a central location, mere blocks from the sports arenas, parks, the water and the oldest parts of the city in Chinatown and Gastown. It’s a vibrant scene, peppered with trendy businesses. But even at surface level, all is not bliss. I am adjacent to the poorest part of Vancouver and the most troubled place in the country, an area bursting with people struggling with homelessness, drug addiction and untreated (or undertreated) mental health issues.

A block from home
Most of the time, that’s a part I like. Reality in Pleasantville. I chose this area because I’m a do-gooder by nature, a naïve liberal who has in the past spouted off all sorts of cures for the struggles of the less fortunate based on a reading of a few newspaper articles, a free lecture at the library and some documentary downloaded online. I’m done with being naïve. I know there is much more that I don’t know than that thimble of insight I’ve gained from hearing a few interviews and digesting statistics in colorful pie charts.

This morning, as I walked to a local café to write, I cut through an alley littered with the discards from a shooting up session. Heroin? FentanyI? I confess, I don’t have a clue how you consume either. And I still have no idea when to call for medical attention. Is it when I pass a person who is semi-catatonic? Because I see that an awful lot and everyone just steps around them.

I emerged onto a sidewalk where a young woman berated a pigeon. Seriously. It was all-out harassment as she ridiculed its “rude voicebox” and followed as it pattered in semicircles on the concrete. The bird appeared unflappable but it must have wondered how much more of a dance it had to do for a handful of breadcrumbs. A half-block later, a man seized on the opportunity to manipulate some premature festive goodwill, wishing me “Happy holidays” as an icebreaker to “Spare some change?” I walked on and overheard a brief exchange between a customer exiting a Chinese bakery and a man sprawled on the sidewalk. Was the patron ridiculing the man? Or was this some sort of happy banter after the patron had perhaps done better than me and parted with a quarter or two?   

In a year and a half in this neighborhood, I confess that I haven’t learned much. I’ve gained a clear sense that there is absolutely nothing to fear here. We coexist. Parallel societies. Aside from the gentle requests for money, we don’t interact. I’m a Have here. The Have-Nots don’t even see me. I’m not prey. I am nothing. There is a social fabric amongst the Have-Nots. It’s genuine. In fact, they seem better connected than the rest of us in this pristine city which is routinely regarded as a tough place to connect. (Maybe we’re too busy staring at mountains.)

I don’t have any clearer idea for how to foster positive change. Only a few surface-level improvements. More trash cans, emptied more often. The Give a hoot, don’t pollute message never made it here. There are too many more pressing needs. Social and environmental responsibility are not the focus of day-to-day survival. Of course, the garbage improvement makes things better for me, not them.

But I think everyone can agree on more bathrooms. I smell urine as I pass alleys. At this very moment as I type, a man is pissing against a wall behind a telephone pole across the street from the café. The restrooms are locked in many of the local establishments. You have to be a paying customer. You have to ask for a key or a combination. (I hate handling these keys. I know too well that there are many soap-averse paying folks.) I’ve seen arguments between shop owners and the downtrodden. And I get it. I’ve heard two homeless people having sex in a café bathroom—sex should be a basic right, shouldn’t it?—before employees and an apparently bloated customer started banging on the door. I’ve seen another person doing an impromptu laundry load with liquid soap in another café sink. And, yes, I’ve noticed syringes on the bathroom floor.

But where do they go? Can’t there be a shred of dignity in a blatantly undignified existence? Whoops, that’s my naïve liberal voice creeping back in. All I know is the few public bathrooms that do exist cannot meet the needs of all the people here who have no other options. Don’t we all deserve a few private moments for whatever reason? Despite our progressive-sounding mayor, this city, the provincial government and the federal government don’t have the will to handle the influx of desperate people, many of whom migrated to the West Coast from colder, even less hospitable environments. So much time gets sucked up by jurisdictional buck passing.

And I continue to spin in place, ever aware of my ignorance, ever hopeful that I should come upon an epiphany. I’m fortunate that it’s in my backyard. There is no chance for change if we strive for NIMBY-thinking—out of sight, out of mind. Please don’t let me ever come to accept things as they are. This too is Vancouver.




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