The feeling of the present moment, of leaving my job and standing only as myself, was like buzzing static. I’d heard about the high of crack-cocaine, of uppers — especially if they were injected. Blood pressure can rise so suddenly, people are left with an incessant, electric ringing of the ears, until finally their senses return — leaving them with the supposed ability to hear everything around them with unusual clarity. Sometimes, in the panic of trying to gain perspective within that, people freeze, or pace, in paranoia. I was nowhere near freezing. This was a sober version of increasing blood pressure. I could see things differently. Where I used to be afraid of letting go, I was now free — I was alive and alone enough to hear everything and see every synchronized, tiny moment for the manifestation of culture these derelict city-blocks represented. This, was waking up to the numbing delusions we cling to — addicted or not.
The structured noises of traffic on these soggy, blood-stained streets — the wailing sirens woven like melodies into the maddening, cacophonous choirs of slimy, cheap losses down here — they were as unsettling as the puddles of piss, shit, rig wrappers and coagulating blood– as shopping carts passing in gutters and on sidewalks. These sounds of time continuing, of the world spinning madly on, tossed me out of mind and back to the present. Here, on these monochromatic corners, the familiar realities could always be found — the evidence of time passing but very little changing– the same shopkeepers, the same tacky multi-colored lights, and all the many signs lost in translation.
The sight of Carnegie’s staircase all lit up — my glowing beacon of safety and reassurance. InSite down the block, with its sidewalks packed from end to end with people seeking refuge, belonging, dope or debts-owed. And occasionally, the lost face of a mother seeking her daughter, her son.
The same old Delica van with the poster of a missing boy taped to the back.
The Ovaltine Cafe sign blinking off rhythm, worn out but still masquerading. The woman in the leather jacket with curly black hair, pacing, waiting, headphones blasting — passionately screaming lyrics no one could make-out.
And finally, there — that bus stop across the street, where I would sit — sometimes for eight hours — believing in the hope that she would choose a walk, over Heroin. Maybe. Just fucking maybe — even once would be worth it. Those were the nights when the threat of missing the last 135 Bus into Burnaby drew people over — out of bars, out of studios, heading for home — to the little bus stop on Hastings where I could often be found passing time in the rain. Meeting other strangers in waiting, having them ask why I was so comfortably sitting, wrapped up in my scarf reading and writing, became a part of the dialogue surrounding the bigger picture. It was interesting to watch, and later reflect, while people struggled to figure it out, trying to break it all down. With a shake of their heads they would laugh and plead for me to either go home, or admit it was foolish and I was being used. I was ready, expecting it. It was the typical train of thought people rarely explored. It was the typical soundtrack of our culture, our times, our clinging to individuality, self-protection and selfishness. It was part of the same bull-shit justification for the War on Drugs and the endless isolation of addicts in our society.
How silly. How obviously silly.
“Am I? Am I really foolish? This world moves at a pace much quicker than I am comfortable with on the best of days, and we leave each other in these gutters, calling it progress — calling it development, safety and self-protection, waiting for the ones we’ve left behind to catch up to us again — not knowing they have long since fallen asleep, and this little dope-dream became confused for home. We leave. Our hearts break. We believe we can’t take anymore, so we remove the addicts from our lives. We judge them for being here. These gutters — they become dangerously comfortable, and they are murky, and they fucking eat people. I am aware of my boundaries and my strength of mind, and so I wait, wrapped up in my scarf, for the moment when someone who trusts me chooses a walk, over dope. Two hours, four hours, six hours — does it seem that long? It’s nothing. Nowhere near long enough.”
In those moments, people rarely stopped their minds long enough to silence the chatter of everything they had already digested as fact. They rarely dared to question it with me. On the upside, though, one young man sat with me at least one night a week — sometimes for up to three hours, while I waited. We talked about things that mirrored the current moment — the things we use to signify and define progress, and the sacrifices we make in our relationships in order to attain a fictional notion of success. I didn’t have answers, and I never claimed to. I just wanted to find people who were willing to try new things — new ways — or at the very least, to talk. Yes — my body was motionless in those moments. It was doing very little. And sometimes it seemed foolish and out of place. But I was using everything in my power to challenge aspects of that environment that killed people — the monsters in those gutters I wished I could breathe life into, just so I could choke it back out of them.
There were days and nights so heavy in that job, walking the long way home would mean a winding detour through a numbed out, thought-filled, six hours. Yes, I wanted to suffocate those monsters, those traumas, so instead I would find a forest to scream in, to stomp around, because for the most part, my coworkers didn’t want to talk about it. We didn’t explore creativity. We became as comfortable in our dangerous delusions as the people at our doorsteps. I chose to wait, because in waiting the opportunity for a new way of doing things sometimes surfaced. The opportunity came, for people to connect to someone outside all the dope, and the misery, and the typical worker/client relationships people rarely trusted anyway.
Despite intentions and thoughts of a walk, 32 would sometimes fall asleep. It was Heroin. I was always aware of Heroin, and with a shake of my head I would hop the last bus or start the walk home. The difference was that I was here — I was alive. I was a conscious being, where Heroin was only a substance. I could out-wait it. I could out-do it. I just had to be there, swallow my pride, dissect, and look at the big picture.
I found it alarming, complex and heartbreaking, that even in those gutters, simple acts of kindness and compassion were questioned more than our blindness to the dope, and the violence. We could accept the trauma and walk beside it, but we feared the open space of digging, of trying new ways of engaging with people — of connecting with people outside of working hours. My job didn’t teach me to respect boundaries. It taught me to fucking hate them, to work around them in defiant silence after communication led itself into tighter cuffs, holding patterns and gossip-circles. Collaboration shouldn’t scare colleagues, and cooperation shouldn’t mean complacency. It should excite us to dig.
Agencies were scared of potential liabilities — fair enough. But couldn’t they see it? The liabilities they feared were hypothetical — in the present moment, they prevented forward motion due to phantom fears. The destroying of paperwork, the shredding of facts, the removal of a persons ability to live in reality and face the consequences — Christ! We were, at times, keeping people comfortably asleep. I understand non-judgment. I understand acceptance. But I couldn’t dare allow myself to confuse that with complacency. We were enmeshed in violence and denial — becoming a part of the landscape and denying our own accountability to the people who came to us for guidance — to the few who were begging us to challenge their dope-dreams and help reveal them as the nightmares they really were.
At first, when people are beginning to wake up, they will test the waters and gauge the responses of the people around them — just to see where they are coming from, how many angles there are, how many layers of judgement and criticism they are going to be forced through in order to get to their point across. And it’s in these moments, we need to separate ourselves from the rest of the noise going on around us, as workers, and we need solid colleagues to take over that weight. We do not need to waste time checking in to see if our colleague is hurt because they never dive into building relationships. We need to be given the room and space enough to have the tough conversations. They take time, delicacy, awareness and reflection. They require absolute presence.
It’s in these very real moments of waking up, that we need to embrace creativity and get out of the environment in order to dig at it alongside another. Most of us are aware that we need to stand outside of situations and concepts in order to dissect them. We can rarely do it with clarity, from the inside. In my opinion, it is much the same on the DTES and in environments like it. To communicate, sometimes we need to get outside the walls that contain us.
Her eyes were blackening, and the contrast of her grey hair made the moment feel heavy and threatening. She was in major, major pain. She wasn’t seeing where she was. She was screaming at everyone who entered the kitchen — and then, the threats began. My colleague had the phone in her hands, threatening to call the cops. I flew into the kitchen,
“NO! No, hey — just, get outside with me! Come on, this way…come on, man, let’s go…”
“WHY THE FUCK WOULD I DO THAT?!”
“Because you are literally STUCK in these walls, and your energy is taking over the place — LETS GO, NOW, OUTSIDE, and SMOKE — lets just go and breathe a little, NOW, please. Come on. “
As I spoke, I was putting my jacket on, walking near her, careful not to take over her space, but still very strongly suggesting she get the fuck outside. Now. We had a lot of very strong, physically capable women, quite enraged at this point. And it was the start of the next shift, and the end of mine. This needed addressing. Right now. But did it need the cops? NO.
She came with me, and began to calm down as soon as we stepped outside. She leaned against the wall of the building, and we both felt it — like an immediate release. I lit her cigarette for her, with my trembling hands. She continued breathing. I didn’t care if I sounded cheesy — I was going to tell her exactly what just happened when she let herself walk out of the House and be vulnerable in front of everyone present at the time.
“Do you feel that? As soon as we opened the door?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“The weight lifted and the energy changed. You were stuck, and the energy in that House, it can get stuck sometimes with us, you know? We all need reminders to come outside and breathe. To get out of it. A lot of things go on in there. I can do that with you sometimes, if you want. If it helps.”
She was softening already. This woman, she was in pain. Major, debilitating pain — emotionally and physically. The cops couldn’t help her through that — what could they do? Why was that the stock answer to difficult scenarios? No wonder people lost it further when we called the cops. It’s stupid — it’s the stuff made up of no longer trying. Plus, it strains the relationships between us and the cops. It’s just stupid. Half the time calls to the cops were made, it was legitimately embarrassing.
Another confusing realization, was that we had extremely small numbers of people who wanted the challenging conversations. There’s a difference between people who want it, and those who don’t. My heart broke when I saw the few people who were still putting their hands up for support, while we lulled them back to sleep — only for us to turn around and justify it to ourselves, congratulating each other. It was the equivalent of covering vomit with rugs, spraying some Febreeze, and calling it clean. Attempting to open dialogue around this rarely went well. I had one colleague say, “Hey — these are graveyard shifts, and I just want to come here and do what’s expected, okay?! I don’t want to talk about what we do!” Welcome to the reality: even when you are dealing with the lives of other people in crisis, sometimes your only partner in crime is a complacent fuck. For eight, painfully long, cell-phone oriented, hours. Yep. Not only are they complacent, they may as well have been fucking their cell phones.
The manager saw it, too. We talked sometimes. She had a heart like mine, but had to contend with the anger of some of the childlike employees around her. Dealing with her, taught me to word things in a way that appeased professional hoop-jumping, so we could both justify our bending of the rules. We tried to brainstorm ideas to generate dialogue. She was right all along, and looking back, I feel sorry to have let her down. But towards the end, I felt like we were never really working. We were stuck, rarely challenging the environment. It would have been scary to do that — to face things. So we slept, too, in between cooking meals and handling crises that demanded immediate attention. But even in crisis, people just wanted to tidy it up by calling the cops — afraid to make room for people to simply release their pain.
My heart always broke down there — and I see now — it didn’t break over the difficult situations; it broke over the destructive choices we made to look the other way, convincing ourselves we were embracing non-judgment. We weren’t. We were making our own shifts easier to digest by appeasing dysfunction.
These, were my reasons for staying there, and my reasons for finally leaving. These, were my reasons for wanting to go to court and color outside the lines for people. On the days I felt the enormity of the paradigm we operate under, even in Harm Reduction, I could sit and wait for hours. Most days, I could be found right in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, talking, sitting with people while they sold whatever they could to make ends meet. I heard stories of workers I began to admire — and I met those workers tucked away in corners of the best agencies.
Sometimes, with Head Office meetings and investigator-like phone-calls always lingering and taunting from the background, the waiting turned in on itself — the minutes turned to hours, my curious eyes became tired and tear-filled, closing in respite to the carnival outside. I started to see agencies as helping to bubble-wrap dysfunction, as a means of keeping themselves, and their funding, alive. The waiting felt suddenly heavy, and vacuous. The meaning behind it, became devastatingly uncomfortable when I recognized an umbrella-like resignation to chaos — by everyone. Everywhere. On those days, I numbed myself to the details until every word spoken, every face and every siren, just bled into the next series of attempted intrusions. Finally, the greying, flat-line affect sunk in, and the waiting was easy with crappy pizza and cheap ice cream.
Where only hours prior I’d been humbled by the resilience of these souls, these cast out beauties, there was suddenly an absence. This, for now, was it. These were the spaces it was easy to get lost in — the ones bred of battles won and a necessary gap in momentum for the sake of catching breath. In these times, I didn’t notice the stories of resilience, couldn’t appreciate weathered faces as evidence of lived experience.These were, my gaps in time — the moments I needed, in order to catch my breath and dig for purpose again.
I didn’t care anymore, to try and burn into memory the fragmented sentences, so heavy with the horrid wisdom gleaned through tragedy and loss, that there was no room left to breathe. Those spoken gems — those rare, revealing and devastatingly resounding fragments — they were so delicate in composition, made up of so few words, I was afraid moving would cause them to crumble and scatter, revealing all the dead space between them. Now? It was all bullshit. It was all nothing. At least despair had an energy to it. These moments were not unlike staring into the murky, muddied wastes of puddles settling in gutters, bleeding and draining into sewage.
It was in these isolated moments that her arrival meant the most. Despite the fact she was exiting InSite, despite the fact she may have just spent two hours trying to get a shot of Heroin into her veins — despite the fact the sidewalks were stacked and packed to overflowing with distractions and techniques of avoidance — despite it all, she was choosing a different trajectory. And I call into question every person who says, “It’s because they were ready to get out of addiction.” I disagree. It’s because another avenue was offered — something different to connect with. She met me downtown, but we left. Every time.
It is connections people are missing, because they aren’t available outside contractual agreements of client/worker, bound by ethical jargon and antiquated, professional elements of removal.
So don’t stay away from these areas. Do the opposite. Parade the streets with what you are — your genuine, authentic intentions, and you will find scattered plea’s and painted calls for connection on every last one of the sidewalks. If you open up and listen, you’ll hear beyond the sirens and the cussing, beyond the proclamations of ROCK-POWDER-DOWN. People are scared of it, and when you ask them why, there is rarely a clear answer. So challenge it and call this paradigm out for the fear-based practices it packages as sanitary and professional. The medical/professional paradigm we operate under, in my experience, negates the most humane aspects of human services. It wishes to sanitize reality. Life, is extremely messy. When we embrace that truth, we embrace creative, curious approaches to healing ourselves and each other, because we let go of tidying up and micro-managing our base motivations to death. It’s okay to connect, so give it all you’ve got — and if people who have lost so much are still asking, and still reaching? Applaud that. Always applaud that — and respond to it, in kind.