For quite some time I’ve had the desire to spend a day hanging out in the DTE of Vancouver. Besides driving through now and then I’ve been to Union Gospel Mission in the neighbourhood a few times, and went along to an eye-opening Christian 12-step meeting at Mission Possible once. But I never felt I got a true ‘feel’ for the area.
Today was the day to do that, I decided. I went down there at about 9am and started walking around, covering the whole area like a grid. I only lasted 3 hours, and found myself needing to get away from the weird, foreign and broken world down there. I thought I was tougher than that, but I wasn’t.
At that time of the morning many are still asleep on the sidewalks, so there is not a whole lot of activity. The first thing you notice that you miss driving through is the smells coming out of the alleys. We’ve just had our hottest days of the summer so far, and so the smell of urine, feces, garbage and whatever else had a certain ‘baked’ quality to it that concentrated it even more. There was more activity in the alleys than on the sidewalks. The ambitious were combing through the overnight garbage for things they valued. That process left garbage that had no value to them strewn around the alleys.
There are many social agencies in the neighbourhood I walked. I have been told that if you know where to go in the area at the right time, you can get 7 free meals a day, 2 showers, and any clothes you need. That may partly have contributed to the number of coats and jackets that were left lying on the sidewalk, as the overnight need for them was gone. I was struck by the fortresses the social agencies had become, as well as any shops in the area. All had heavy iron fences and gates.
I came to a park and decided to sit there for a while. There was a current newspaper with a Starbucks sticker on it on a bench, so I sat and read between looking around. The park was full of people, some with tents, others had household easychairs. It was around 10:30am, but there were quite a number of sleeping bodies around still. A young native girl came and sweetly and politely asked from a distance if I had smokes to sell. A guy came to the next bench beside me and lay down to sleep. At this point I saw the most positive thing of the morning. There was a native fellow riding his two wheeled stallion around the park. He had tan pants on and no shirt. What drew my attention first was his hair, which was buzz cut along the side, but the rest was in a long pony tail. I then noticed that he wore a white flap of cloth tucked into the back of his pants. This immediately suggested what we normally think of traditional native attire. He wore black leather gloves. He stopped near me shortly after I settled onto the bench and for about 45 minutes did his own intensive ‘work-out’ routine with various excercises using a tree as his gym equipment. It was like a cross between Tai Chi, Rocky, and Richard Simmons. It was interesting, and I found it a very positive thing somehow.
Over the course of the morning I began to realise that most of the people I was encoutering or seeing were more like cartoon figures, or even caricatures, than what we would call normal human beings. That thought made me immediately wonder what I looked like in that neighbourhood. I got a clue when a little later a tender-voiced woman who looked about half a century over 20 propositioned me for a date, and when I said that is not what I was there for, proposed I give her a toony ($2) anyway, and when I said I had no change, told me there was an ATM nearby and we could go get some cash. I also got clues from the double furtive ‘casing me out’ looks of some of the rougher-looking people. So it must have been somewhat clear at times that I did not belong there, which made me either a cop or a customer or a contributor. Many people had a strange way of walking that set them apart right away. The best explanation I can give is that they walked as if they were never sure if the next step there was not going to be anything under their feet. I saw one fellow walking like that who seemed to have no neck, so his head sat right on his arms. I saw lots of worn and torn faces.
Another oddity was to see many older Chinese people walking around the same area. ChinaTown begins across East Hastings from the area I was in. When ChinaTown started waking up for business and it’s smells started mingling with those I’ve mentioned earlier it got pretty unpleasant. Negative aromatherapy it was. I found myself getting discouraged, disgusted and depressed, and decided to leave. If I go again, I will have arranged visits to ministries, so I can find out what they do to help. That might help it feel better.