Nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize.
Sandra pulled the car over to the curb. The sunset reddened the treetops but left the dilapidated row housing of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side in shadow. Women emerged from doorways, stumbled down steps, converged on the car, hands outstretched. They jostled to get close, peered into my half-opened window and cut off the light of the July evening. Voices clamored over each other, raucous as crows.
“I want …”
“Peanut butter, not tuna.”
“You got chocolate? Coke?”
The car was hot. I was wedged into the corner of the back seat by the boxes of sandwiches, drinks and “treats”. My chest tightened with fear. My first night out with DAMS. I didn’t know what the acronym stood for, something to do with drug and alcohol addicted women, but I knew I was no good at this. A middle-aged, middle-class woman handing out food and drinks to prostitutes and drug addicts? I had dressed down for the night, jeans, a T-shirt, no jewelry, but it must have been obvious I didn’t belong. A part of me hoped it was obvious.
“Wait, wait, one at a time, give me your names first,” Mary said from the front seat. Miraculously the faces retreated. I took a breath.
A native woman with long black hair, jeans and a tight red T-shirt leaned in toward Mary. “Sammy.”
“You want any …” Mary began.
“Yeah. Condoms and a ten-pack, please.”
“Lube or non-lube?”
“Lube and some of those flavored ones, yeah, strawberry. Thanks.”
“Here, take a Bad Date Sheet.”
“No, I don’t want to know.”
Someone behind Sammy said, “I want one, I’ll take it. Shit, look at this. July 14, last weekend, just two blocks from here. Five foot ten, dark hair, two hundred pounds, driving a blue Honda Civic, beat up worker when she asked for money.”
“Yeah, that was me,” said a gravelly voice. The woman had two black eyes and a lump on the side of her jaw. She was moving as if her ribs hurt and her face shone with sweat. “Real bastard that one.”
“Jesus, Randi, did you go to the hospital?”
“Yeah. They kept me overnight but I’m okay.”
Sammy had moved to my window, her hand tapping impatiently on the door. I fumbled with a paper bag.
“Peanut butter. Yeah, juice. Can I have two?”
“Only one,” Mary said over her shoulder. “We’re just starting out and we don’t have a lot of juice.”
I glanced up apologetically, put a single juice in the bag with the sandwich, a half-frozen Starbucks muffin and a handful of individually wrapped candies, and passed it out the window to Sammy.
Randi took tuna, pop, poppy seed cake, candies.
The next woman clutched the ten-pack of needles Mary had given her. Josie – ancient and toothless with dead eyes. She didn’t speak, just pointed to what she wanted and nodded when I picked up the right thing. She took a tuna sandwich, shook her head at the candy, pointed to a can of pop.
Sandra kept up a stream of greeting and commentary as women leaned into Mary’s right hand window. Both Sandra and Mary knew many of the women by name. They worked regularly at DAMS, an organization that helped women on the Downtown East Side. I’d met them for the first time an hour ago. Sandra, the driver, was in her mid-twenties, cheerful, unruffled and apparently completely at home. Mary was a First Nations woman with long black hair and a lined face. I had the feeling that she looked older than she was, like many of the women around us. Her job was to fill in the logistics sheet and hand out the serious supplies. I got the back seat and the food and drink. I didn’t fit.
I was all thumbs with the paper bags, kept mixing the tuna sandwich box with the peanut butter, “Careful; I got allergies!” dropped candy everywhere and got more and more flustered. Finally the crowd dissipated, clutching bags, moving off. I wiped sweat from my forehead. Sandra put the car into gear.
“Did you see how banged up Randi was?” Mary said to Sandra.
“Yeah. I bet she’s not a hundred pounds. What a scumbag!”
As they chatted my breathing slowed. It hadn’t seemed so bad when we were loading up the car at the start of the night. Then before we began the regular route we drove Amy, a grim, thirty-something bottle blonde, to an out-of-the-way drug store to collect her medications. I tried not to stare at her neck, at the long, blood-encrusted cut where her boyfriend had tried to slit her throat five days ago. She was afraid to travel the streets alone because he was out on bail and looking for her. “He’s only like this when he drinks,” she said. “He hasn’t been sober since his residential school hearing three weeks ago.” She still called him her boyfriend. Mary had nodded sympathetically. But I was appalled.
Sandra guided the car slowly along Pender, her eyes scanning traffic, sidewalks, and alley entrances.
“Over there,” Mary said, jerking her head at a woman standing in the shadows. Sandra pulled up and Mary leaned out.
“Hey my girl, you need anything?”
The girl teetered out on platform shoes, her eyes unfocused. She looked about sixteen. Candy. Tiny skirt, skin tight halter top. She took some flavored condoms and a bottled water, shook her head no to food, needles, Bad Date Sheet.
“Just use the flavored ones for head, they’re not strong enough for anything else,” Mary called but Candy wasn’t listening. She pirouetted on her platform soles, head tilted back, nearly spun into the car, righted herself at the last second and lurched back into the shadows.
“She’s new,” muttered Mary as Sandra pulled into an alley. Four men huddled together in the lee of an overflowing dumpster. I looked away.
“Rat, rat,” Mary yelled. “First rat.”
I squeaked, tried to pull my feet in their open-toed sandals up underneath me.
Sandra laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s our weekly game, who can spot the most rats.”
I suppressed a groan. I didn’t belong here, couldn’t help anyone, couldn’t even keep boxes of sandwiches straight. Afraid of everything and everyone in this grimy, drug-riddled part of Vancouver. This was to be the summer I volunteered, got to know my adopted city better. I’d tried to sign on at Bard on the Beach, the Shakespearean Festival overlooking English Bay, but I was too late; all the jobs had been taken. Two days later the minister of my church had passed on a message saying DAMS wanted volunteers to help on Wednesday nights and I’d shrugged and left my name. She had hoped I’d volunteer for a minimum of six months. She was going to be disappointed.
Same alley, a block further down, a pregnant woman came silently to Mary’s door. She looked about six months along, eyes sunken in her face. Mary checked her name off, patted her hand, said “Double tuna sandwiches and double juice” over her shoulder to me. The woman took the bag and muttered her thanks.
Sandra glanced at me in the mirror. “It’s tough, the first time you see a pregnant woman down here.”
I nodded, looked out the window without seeing anything. You handed out double juice and two tuna sandwiches to a pregnant woman who worked in the sex trade because it was her best – maybe her only – way to survive. Probably an addict. What chance did that baby have? You couldn’t refuse but how was that dribble of food help?
A beautiful girl whose breasts spilled out of a low-cut turquoise T-shirt waved when we approached her corner. Tears brimmed in her eyes.
“What is it, Suzi? What’s wrong?” Mary passed her a tissue. Suzi choked back her tears and said she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had two more nights on the street before she was due to go into the hospital for surgery. Mary was silent. My hands crept protectively toward my own chest, just as they did a year ago when my aunt had a mastectomy.
“We’ll pray for you,” Mary said at last. First mention of prayer. It wasn’t a religious organization.
“Can I have some water?” Suzi said to me. I groped for the bottled water. “I’m so glad I saw you tonight,” she added to Mary, who nodded but didn’t speak.
A block later Mary found her voice. “That’s what I’m afraid of. You try so hard just to survive and then you get clubbed by something you can’t see coming. She’s not even thirty.”
My breath seized up without warning. My husband had died unexpectedly of cancer six months after we married. I’d been thirty-nine. I hadn’t had a drink for three years after that. Just instinct, not logic, but it served me. The Downtown East Side people must have had a lot more pain. Maybe they ignored their instincts; maybe they couldn’t go on without pain-killers.
On Clark Street, we stopped when a woman waved from a doubled over position. She was taking off her running shoes and jamming brutally high heels on her feet. The arthritic joint in my big toe throbbed. I had to give up high heels at forty. A moment later she tottered over to the car and accepted a peanut butter sandwich and juice along with a ten-pack of needles. She shook her head when I offered her a power bar.
“Got anything soft? That’s too hard on my teeth.” Several were missing. She looked tired. I offered a couple of caramels.
“These would be alright if you suck them,” I said. There was a muffled sneeze in the front seat. When Sandra drove on, Mary turned round to face me, wheezing with laughter.
“Never say ‘suck’ to a hooker. That word’s only got one meaning here on the street and it sure as hell ain’t about caramels. Jeeze.” She laughed so hard Sandra turned into a service station for an unscheduled pee and cigarette break.
“What brought you out tonight?” Mary asked, when she came back from the washroom and lit a cigarette. I couldn’t hear any sarcasm.
“Church minister wanted volunteers. I’ve lived in Vancouver for five years but I’ve never got down here. I thought it was time.” Time to step out of my protected little nook. Bleeding heart liberal, me. But what’s the alternative? Go shopping? Pretend it’s not happening?
“You got any connection at all to this kind of life?” She leaned against the outside of the car door and blew cigarette smoke into the night without looking at me.
“No, not really. My sister is a foster child. She came to live with us when she was fourteen. I was eighteen but I was away at – I wasn’t living at home. I got interested in the Children’s Aid then, worked there for a couple of summers.” I’d caught just a glimpse of what could happen to children who weren’t loved, weren’t protected.
“I was fifteen when my kid got taken away by the Children’s Aid. My boyfriend dumped me at Hastings and Main and went back to Saskatchewan. It took me twenty years to get clean and off the street. I haven’t seen my kid though. She knows where I am but …” Her voice was level but I imagined the accusation in it. And the pain. There can’t be anything worse than losing a child, unless it’s a child being abandoned. Mary had experienced both. Where had she found the strength to get clean?
Sandra came back from the washroom and we headed out again.
We drove past a billboard with a black and white photo of a woman who stared out with expressionless eyes. Have you seen this woman, the caption read. Reported missing in April. There was a number to call. I stared up at the blank gaze until the billboard was out of sight, but the face haunted me. No hope, no anticipation, just endurance.
“When did we last see her?” Mary asked Sandra.
“She was at the Christmas dinner. I think we saw her a couple of times in the winter.”
“Still some Robert Picktons around,” Mary said. Sandra nodded. I shivered though the car was warm.
By ten thirty only a few “treats” were left in one box. Sandra had spotted nine rats to Mary’s five when an angry voice at the end of the alley silenced them. A security guard in a car hurled abuse at two teenage girls who stood still and watchful.
“Nickel sluts, take your drugs and die, I’ll even buy them for you.” His voice was raw with hatred. I recoiled in the back seat as Sandra stopped, making it obvious there were witnesses. He kept screaming, so she wrote down his license plate, and the name and phone number of the security company, from the side of his car. Mary got out of the station wagon. Despite her age and her skinny legs, she looked menacing.
“Don’t you speak to these women like that,” she growled. “They aren’t doing anything.”
“They won’t move,” he bellowed. “If you don’t want them killed, get them out of here.”
Sandra leaned out of her window. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure they find another spot. You go.”
But it took Sandra, Mary and a male passerby on the street ten minutes to persuade him to drive off, while I cowered amid the empty cardboard boxes in the back seat. We could still hear him yelling as his car disappeared. Only then did the girls turn and move down the alley.
“That man’s got no right to treat people like that. I’m gonna report him.” Sandra turned the station wagon into the parking place as my heart rate slowed.
“Seventy-six women.” Mary handed Sandra the logistics sheet. “Kind of a slow night.”
We unloaded the empty boxes, cleaned the car, put the supplies away and secured the office. I felt exhausted.
At midnight, knowing I wouldn’t sleep, I took a beer out to the patio of my apartment. Depression, like a dead weight, dragged down my shoulders. The night was pleasantly warm, nothing like the suffocating July heat I remembered in Toronto. I heard a siren a long way off. Downtown East Side or some wealthy suburb? I couldn’t tell. Thought of my sister, now a successful lawyer in Toronto. Sometimes when she first came to live with us, I’d seen contempt in her eyes for my naïveté, but she never said anything out loud. At eighteen, I’d had this straight, supportive, middle-class upbringing, never even seen my parents fight, let alone drink too much. I believed in love and peace, democracy and equality, all the values of the decade. In the inherent goodness of people. Did I still? I wasn’t sure. I knew now that pain could warp the strongest person. At eighteen I wasn’t prepared for child care work in Toronto. And at sixty I wasn’t ready for the Downtown East Side of Vancouver.
I survived that first summer job with the CAS by reminding myself that the money was good and the experience would add serious depth to my resume. But as sweat dripped from my forehead and trickled down between my breasts every day on my way to work, I yearned for the cool gray lake in Algonquin Park where I’d spent the summer before. It had been more than forty years since that Toronto summer but I could remember the stifling heat, the damp patches darkening my clothes, the misery of the Receiving Centre, the two-story, two building residence that housed the displaced children of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society.
I worked with the younger girls, five to eleven-year-olds but I knew the others because everyone shared the fenced yard out behind the two buildings. I wouldn’t have coped in the other units. The boys were so full of energy they whizzed around like deflating balloons and I was scared stiff of the teenage girls, only four or five years younger than me, but tougher than anyone I’d ever met. They were blatantly sexual, verbally violent and never backed down from a physical fight. I’d hear them yelling at passersby from the upstairs window, knew they sometimes flashed the street if the staff were busy somewhere else. I felt like a middle-aged virgin around them.
If I’d ever imagined my fourteen-year-old foster sister might have been like them I’d have said a flat no when my mother called me at university to say she and Dad were considering taking in a foster child and what did I think. What I said was the first thing that came into my head. “Is she going to have my room?”
“No, no, of course not,” my mother said. So I was on the hook. How do you say no when your parents propose helping out someone who is disadvantaged? I’d had everything given to me and now I was away at university nine months a year. Fortunately Marg turned out to be bright, civil enough and watchful. She kept her knowledge of the violent, alcohol-fueled family she’d come from to herself.
I remembered only the occasional face from the Receiving Centre now. Susan, a silent fourteen-year old, who always wore long-sleeved T-shirts, regardless of the temperature. She was due to testify to her father’s sexual abuse. Under her sleeves she was pushing straight pins into her veins. The staff only found out when someone glimpsed the long red streaks of blood poisoning as she was dressing.
I remembered a small boy with dull eyes and vivid carrot-colored hair, and the day that all the other little boys pissed on his head in a corner of the yard. “His hair’s on fire and we had to put it out,” they said.
I remembered Cheryl, an exquisite six-year-old, long charcoal lashes, blue eyes, sun-streaked brown hair; Cheryl would pull down the fly of any male staff within her reach. She’d been sexually abused too. I remembered Debbie, beseeching brown eyes, a hopeful expression and scars all over her legs and buttocks. Her mother had tortured her on the stove top. I was the first staff member she met the day she arrived at the Receiving Centre from the hospital and she’d imprinted on me like a duckling, followed my every move, watched me with agonizing hopefulness every shift I worked. I could hardly bear to look at her.
When I returned to work there the next summer they’d all moved on. Susan had been sent back home after refusing, finally, to testify against her abuser in court. Debbie had been murdered. I knew nothing about the others.
Maybe they were happy, married and successful like my sister but it seemed unlikely. Probably they were out on streets like the Downtown East Side, or in jail. Or dead, like Debbie. The women I’d seen tonight would have had similar stories. And I – I had pushed Debbie, Susan, Cheryl and the little red-haired boy out of my mind for forty years. I was retired, still healthy, with my own apartment and good food in my fridge. I tilted my aching head and let the rest of the beer trickle down my throat.
I’d have to go back.