Brief Encounters: Strangers, Drugs and the DTES

Living where I do, I pass through Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES) almost every day, either transferring buses on my way to work in the morning or passing through to Gastown on the bus for dinner or a show on the weekend. For anyone not familiar with the DTES, it is a place unlike any other in Vancouver (or Canada). This part of the city sees a high rate of drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. It is also alive, buzzing, colourful. In other parts of the city, it is the distressed and marginalized who become invisible to the world. In the DTES, it is me, with my lack of involvement with life and work in this area, who becomes invisible–an observer, and occasionally, a listener.

With the arrival of spring (and the warmer weather), I have had the opportunity to see and interact with more people in my brief journeys through their landscape. Some of these encounters have stuck with me, snapshots tacked on the mirror. I can’t condemn or judge. I have no solutions to offer. I can only tell.

ONE.

It is evening and TC and I are riding the bus. We have a reservation at Jule’s in celebration of my birthday. I’m sitting gingerly, careful not to wrinkle or dirty my dress. I’m playing with my necklace, a birthday gift. A man in his thirties makes his way towards the back of the bus (and us), swaying dangerously as the bus moves. He sits down across from us and makes a funny comment about his difficulty getting to his seat. TC and I laugh. The man begins a conversation with us. I assume he is drunk, but he has a nice smile and nice teeth. We are not at all bothered by him. The man tells TC that his “wife” (i.e. me) “has a good sense of humour.” TC agrees and I cover my left hand with my right so the man will not see that I have no ring and be embarrassed by his mistake.

The man tells us that he is going to Main St. to take drugs. He says he has a wife and three children. His wife does not know that he’s using crack–she doesn’t know he has ever been using drugs. He says, “I know it’s supposed to be bad to lie, but sometimes, you have to. To protect people. I know I’ll have to tell her sometime though.” I think to myself, this man is an addict, the way I would think, this man is a hippie, or this man is a Canucks fan. Just a marker for a stranger.

He tells us he has only been using drugs for two weeks. I’m surprised but I believe him (I imagine that long-term crack use would damage his very nice teeth). He has only been using for two weeks but already it has claimed his Friday evening and probably several days and evenings since. He is angry that he ever took crack in the first place, and blames a friend for getting him into it. But he gets off the bus at Main Street, and tells us he just wants to get back that feeling.

When I tell my co-worker this story, she asks if either TC or I attempted to convince this man not to use drugs that evening. I say no. We didn’t. He wished us a good night and we said thank you. And that’s all that happened.

TWO.

I am returning home from running errands at 2:00 p.m. I switch buses at Main and Hastings. To my left, I am joined by a Young Man who seems more like a boy–he could be my age at most but I’m not sure he’s even 20. He’s wearing a white undershirt and his skin is pocked and scarred. He is otherwise a good-looking young man, with a wiry build that suggests energy and activity, but today he is so tired he cannot lift his head from the hands resting in his lap.

To my right sits a man in a ponytail and clinical scrubs. He seems a little wired and very sociable. He remarks loudly to the fellow beside him that he was on his way home from work but has been called in to return to cover the rest of the day. He is asked what he does. The Man in Scrubs replies that he works at a methadone clinic.

At this the Young Man riding beside me raises his head. He turns and asks (over me) about which methadone clinic he should go to. He has a referral for one, but he’s not sure if it’s the one he should visit. The Man in Scrubs tells him kindly (and cheerfully) that it is best for him to go to the clinic he’s been referred to, that it’s close by, and not to worry, he will be taken care of there. The Young Man looks tired, and sad.

As the bus nears my stop and I leave my seat, I hear the Young Man tell the Man in Scrubs that he has relapsed today. The Man tells him not to beat himself up about it, it has happened, and to just keep going. I get off the bus and I wonder what the Young Man was like before he began a methadone program. I wonder about his energy (did he have more before, or less?). I wonder how old he is.

THREE.

It is 7:30 a.m. and I am waiting at Main and Hastings for the bus that will take me to work. I’m looking up periodically, always afraid that a bird will shit on me (crows constantly congregate on the electrical wires at Main and Hastings, and pigeons live under the awning of the Rickshaw Theatre; seagulls, of course, are everywhere). Two men near me have a small argument, and one of them walks away.

The other approaches me and says hello. He tells me that he wants me to see something and holds out a stub for a federal government cheque. He tells me to look at the amount. The cheque had been for $326.

He says, “I helped ten people buy dope yesterday because I had this [the cheque]. How much of that do you think I have left today?”

I say, I don’t know. I can feel my features making a sad face and I say, Is it gone?

The man holds up a toonie. “This is all I have left,” he says. And then, “I’m not telling you this because I’m asking for money. I just wanted to show somebody because I’m ashamed of myself. I needed someone to see what I did.”

I nod as my bus pulls up. He tells me to have a good day. I think I say, You too. I hope I say it.

———————————————————————————–

These stories are true, to the best of my memory. These stories all happened in the past three weeks. I’m sharing them not because I have anything to say about them, but because they made an impression on me, and because I want to.

I don’t know about drugs or addiction. I haven’t seen it in my immediate life. I hear and read good things about harm reduction and recovery programs available through places like Insite and the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver. But I don’t know anything. Stories brushed against me, and I just wanted to tell them.

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3 thoughts on “Brief Encounters: Strangers, Drugs and the DTES

  1. THIS. SO. MUCH. THIS. I have tears in my eyes, Lauren. Your writing is beautiful and your storytelling is compelling. These three stories really touched my heart.

    • Thank you Raul. I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as stories in the DTES go, but sometimes even strangers can catch meaningful glimpses of one another. These people stuck with me. Continue to stick, I guess. Thanks for reading (and commenting!).

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