Thursday, December 08, 2016

Vancouver: Stolen Holiday -- Days 3-4

Day 3

A Dingy, one-railed stairwell of The Pinnacle is better than nothing
Wendy starts her conference today, so I am on my own. That means no plans and a much less traditional type of tourism.

So far, Monday is wet and crazy. The locals I have asked seem to think snow in downtown Vancouver is a rare event, but apparently their odds of having a white Christmas are about 1 in 5. However common or rare, I quite enjoy seeing the city display a fun mix of panic and wonder. The fervour with which our quickly jaded population rediscovers the selfie as giant flakes cling to needy lashes brings a glow to my Grinch-like heart. By no means immune to our cultural obsession with sharing our lives, I also partake in the ritual.

A man of many rituals, I set out today to find some stairs to climb. After my various successes in Calgary, last year--with the notable exception of The Bow--I was sure that the easy going, West-coast vibe of Vancouver would yield many exciting opportunities. Not so. Building security is omnipresent in many places. Where it is not, they likely have key passes required to gain access to areas above the lobby. After several hours of wet, slushy failure, I return, disappointed, but not defeated to my 19-story hotel to get a mid-afternoon climbing fix.

After her conference day is done, Wendy and I consider going out for an evening adventure. The thought of a 30 minute bus ride coupled with our state of near-exhaustion is too much. We opt. to visit a nearby Italian restaurant for supper. At Zefferelli's, our meal unfolds and I am again disappointed. Not because the meal is bad. It is actually excellent and the ambience of the place is classy, but boisterous. No. The problem is that I am not hungry. After a small appetizer and a paltry 2 pieces of pizza, I have to sheepishly ask our server for a take home bag. At least I will enjoy the pizza again, tomorrow.
Zefferelli's Pizza Funghi

Day 4

Wendy is at her conference again, today. Yesterday's snow didn't make for much more than a few selfies, sure to make friends in Saskatchewan (or anywhere else in Canada, for that matter) laugh out loud. I start walking. The streets are still pretty slippery in places. Even though it is getting above zero, not very much sun falls to the streets with all the skyscrapers around.
The neighbourhood of Gastown (Vancouver's original downtown core) has an earthy steam-punk feeling to it.  I manage to find a few small alleys to give contrast to some of the more spectacular neighbourhood buildings.
Sneakers on power lines... even more popular on the West coast! 
Finally, I manage to get into the stairwell of one of these historic structures.  Narrow and winding, the stairs are beautiful white marble. At the top, a tantalizing window. I am about to open it and step with trepidation out onto the roof, when I notice a tiny alarm connection in the upper left corner. Nooooo!!! Foiled at the last moment.

Back on street level, I find myself standing around the ChinaTown train station. Two young men start talking loudly as they approach me. They have marked me as a tourist and begin discussing how much they could get on the street for my large camera. I make a snap decision to engage them, rather than walk away... and the course of my day is set.

The loudest (and smallest) of the two young men is the trouble-maker. He scans me. My clothing. My phone, shoes, camera. He is clearly the kind of person who lives or dies by such snap decisions. Im not nearly so astute, but I do notice a small tattoo behind his ear. It is a music note and I make a quick guess. Asking him about the kind of music he makes totally changes his demeanour. Suddenly, he imagines me as some sort of mystical guru with the power to see inside of his soul or something. Not only does he tell me about the hip hop music that he loves, but he pours out a story about his new kid and about how he has just broken up with his girlfriend of ten years. This is an area that I do know quite a bit about and I feel pretty comfortable talking to him about his problems. He gets a call on his phone. A friend of his is waiting at a nearby Tim Hortons. 'E' (short for Ian) asks if he can buy me a coffee. What the hell...

Over the next 45 minutes, I have coffee with E and two of his associates. E puts his phone on speaker so that I can listen in to a conversation with his probation officer and he shows me texts from his ex-girlfriend who is concerned about getting their son to his vaccination appointment. I receive assurance that the probation is a joke and that he was illegally searched and will probably get off without any problems. E pulls several phones out of his messenger bag and offers one to his friend from Montreal. There is a brief discussion of how much could be had for the phone in minutes on Craigslist, followed by a attempted swap for a never worn pair of brand-name hightop shoes.

The one thing that really peaks my interest is E's description of Hastings Street. He tells me about his mother who, after many years of separation thanks to social services, he has recently found there strung out on drugs. He assures me that she is lucky because she has a place to stay, rather than being on the street. E is irritated that part of my job in Saskatoon involves reading to kids at the women's crisis shelter and in the paediatric ward at the hospital. He agrees that it's good for those kids to get attention but thinks it's "fucked up" that his tax burden (not his words) is greater because of it. He is pretty certain that the rich aren't paying their fair share.

I try to decline his offer to show me some staircases in a few residential buildings he knows that don't have cameras all over the place. He tries to convince me by suggesting that anyone I see will think I'm a cop because of my camera. Fortunately, before I am forced to seem ungrateful and reject his tour, he tells me he has to meet someone to try and secure a room to rent off Craigslist.

Left on my own, I can't stop thinking about his description. He used the words "war zone" to describe the neighbourhood. I am only 5 minutes from Insite, the supervised safe injection site that the problem-ridden downtown Eastside is infamous for. I start walking.
Carnegie Community Centre in the old library
I couldn't bring myself to take pictures. A twitching addict mumbles a nonsense stream of words while shaking a tin cup. Two more are organizing pills on the filthy sidewalk and still others who don't even seem to know there are other people near them remind me of a scene from The Walking Dead. I don't want to be a tourist in this miserable existence. At the same time, I need to see this ugly scar that rhythmically haunts my news feed. I take a single photo so that I can't forget that I have been here.

War zone isn't quite right. It is shortly after noon and, except for the occasional siren, it seems too quiet. It dawns on me that I am in the third world, here. People litter the streets--as dirty as the trash that sticks to the curb. Some shuffle around, wandering through a pathetic flea market of CDs, clothing, and ancient electronics that I wouldn't touch if they were free for the taking. It has a certainly legitimacy. A woman runs a tiny propane grill near the entrance, providing this outdoor bazaar's equivalent of a food court. Out on the street, less legitimate deals are also in session. several times I pass small groups setting items out on a shawl or scrap of fabric. One man carefully lines up 3 bottles of hand lotion next to earbuds and a badly scratched pair of children's sunglasses. He arranges them with a determined precision that belies the paltry value that these items may have. I don't believe that anyone will pay or trade for any of these things.

After an hour of agonizing observation, of keeping my gaze down so I don't stare, I find myself at the bottom of the steps to the Carnegie Community Centre. A once-upon-a-time library, it is the sole building in this area that appears to have an architectural pedigree. Proud bones fallen on hard times. I'm reading the sign outside which implores the able bodied to find Jessie for a volunteer assignment. Perhaps I will come back tomorrow and ladle soup, I tell myself. But, I don't want to come back here... ever. I am overwhelmed with shame, disgust, and powerlessness.
Iridescent Salmon in Stainless Steel
I know I do things to try and help others. I donate time. I donate blood. Through my work, I encourage, educate and inspire another generation to fight and make things better. Most importantly, I have raised 2 children who are smart, strong and able. Still, it just doesn't feel good to be making it up stream, fighting the rocks, the predators, and the current while watching so many of my fellows roll over on their sides and drift back out to sea.