My iPhone told me it was 31 West Hastings but I didn’t know it wasn’t until Carrall that East turns into West. So I parked in front of the Balmoral and walked.
I must be kidding myself if I think I’ll ever be able to tell it like it really is in the Downtown Eastside. I don’t work here, I don’t live here. I’ve been coming here for over four years now to teach photography or give out bananas or talk to certain folks who might want to be in this film or that photograph. But I feel like a total impostor. I’m a middle class, middle-aged kid from a suburb of a prairie town. Born and raised. I’ve never known poverty or drugs or hardship of any kind on a first name basis. So why do I feel so compelled to tell stories about this place from the inside looking out? I’ve become more and more comfortable walking the streets of the Downtown Eastside, but I still often feel like an intruder once my feet actually hit the pavement in the neighbourhood.
I walked through the crowd between Carrall and Columbia where a lot of the locals hang out and sell their stuff on the sidewalk, drugs included. It’s the very stretch where that CNN ireporter guy posted a video saying he barely escaped with his life. What a load of horse shit. Unless he chose to buy some heroin and inject himself with a dirty needle, and then either OD on the spot or die from complications due to Hep or AIDS much later in life, he wasn’t in any imminent danger. The embellishments that give the media their viewership do nothing to serve the people they are reporting to. It polarizes opinion, instills fear, and creates false drama. Drama gets them more eyes, hits, views, and – ad revenue. But CNN vetted the story, so everyone who watched it – thousands of people with wifi and laptops and 50” TVs – believed it was true. The people of the Downtown Eastside are suffering more because of embellishments like these and asinine organizations like CNN. When CNN tells everyone to fear the poor, the poor become poorer.
I arrived at the Cosmo hotel. It was marked only by its address – numbers on a glass door sandwiched between two run down businesses. Through it I could see a long stairway leading up to the second floor. I presumed that reception was up there, like it is at the Hazelwood or the Shaldon. There was an intercom to my right. I pushed the button and a moment later the door unlatched with neither greeting nor protest.
Kevin wasn’t there. There was no reception anywhere. There wasn’t a soul to be seen in fact. Just three stories of long, empty, but worn hallways with freshly mopped floors and I walked the full length of each one. There was evidence that people lived here: a photocopied notice to tenants at the entrance to each floor, a shower running in one of the hallway bathrooms as I walked past, a door to one of the rooms, cracked open just slightly. At the end of each hallway was a common room with a table and a sink but not much else. Tenants pay $375, sometimes $425, for a room in one of these SROs. A little dejected for not finding Kevin here, I left.
Back on Hastings I headed over to Abbott Mansions, the other place where he might be. The guy there at reception was friendly and helpful – but I’d just missed Kevin – he was headed to Mission Possible. I knew the place – I’d filmed him there this summer giving out clothing for the Powell Street film. I was getting flustered though. Without a phone, he is hard guy to reach and we really needed to get this done today so I could finish the film. I walked fast – back to my car by the Balmoral – a good five blocks away, got in and hauled butt eastward to Mission Possible.
I expected it to be empty – it was a Saturday – but there were tents up and a long line of people outside waiting to get in. I parked right in front, got out, and looked among the crowd – no Kevin. There was a guy in an apron having a cigarette. I asked him if Kevin was working – he said no. It was 2:30. I’m supposed to be cooking dinner tonight at my girlfriend’s. I started thinking about rescheduling – a tough thing to do though with Kevin – he’s a busy guy without a phone. I walked a block west to Oppenheimer Park, around the field house, and peered in. Sometimes Kevin hung out here. Maybe I’d catch him walking through the park on the way to Mission Possible. There was one dude with Kevin’s beard, but his gut was way too distended. Not him. I walked back to my car, glancing through the crowd still standing outside the mission. No Kevin. I drove west down Powell, back to Abbott then turned east again on Hastings until I had come nearly full circle. I decided to give it one last try – and pulled over just past the Union Gospel Mission – there were tents there too, blocking off the street, and there was a big crowd inside. I had a coffee here once with Kevin. I asked the woman at the door if she’d seen him. She had no idea who I was talking about but said I was welcome to look inside, and get my picture taken if I wanted. So I did, minus the picture. It was a Christmas party for the neighbourhood. Oh yeah, it’s December. But no Kevin.
As I stepped outside I decided to check Mission Possible one last time. I walked there, down Princess to Powell then west one block. The crowd was still waiting. I looked through the crowd carefully – and there he was, at the front of the line. I squeezed through and put my hand on his shoulder. “There you are! Are you ready to get going? We have a lot to do.” But he wasn’t budging. He reached in his pocket pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was a meal ticket. He wanted me to be his guest at this, the first Christmas dinner of the season. He told me later that last year he went to thirty of these in the neighbourhood. Talk about packing on the holiday pounds – there is an overabundance of excellent food in the Downtown Eastside around Christmas time. (But what about the other 11 months of the year?)
If I was feeling like an impostor before I suddenly felt ten times moreso. How could I? This isn’t me. I don’t belong in a food lineup on the Downtown Eastside. How could I possibly be welcome here? It would feel like stealing. For gods sake I drove here in my paid-off SUV and I was carrying a $1200 camera in my coat. (Many) people who wait in lineups for food are on welfare, live in SROs, or sleep on church steps. On top of that everyone had been waiting here for at least the last 40 minutes and I had just cut (unintentionally) to the front of the line without waiting a single minute. I gushed with guilt on top of the impostor syndrome. But Kevin insisted… how could I refuse his gift? I accepted, reluctantly.
The doors opened and the feast began, with table service no less. Coffee, pumpkin pie, stuffing, potatoes and gravy, turkey AND ham – it was all too much to finish. Around our table: Brent, Patrick, and (I forgot your name) who said I looked like his cousin from Terrace. Smiles all around. There were live carolers to serenade us. I sang two Christmas carols myself – and I don’t sing. The short sermon from the pastor was warm, welcoming, and non-judgemental. Everyone seemed warm, welcoming, and non-judgemental. My self-consciousness that I didn’t belong melted away. We left when we were done and were each given a parting gift of socks, gloves, and a toque to stay warm outside. I offered mine to Kevin to give to one of his friends and he insisted I give it to my girlfriend instead.
Kevin and I walked back to my car and drove to my apartment to do the voiceovers for the film. But first we watched the rough cut together on my TV. I might be mistaken, but when it was over I sensed a slight shakiness in his voice, like he might be a little choked up. Without looking over he thanked me for letting him be a part of the film. Another gift: he liked it. No, thank you, Kevin.
I made some tea, set up the mics, gave him the script and we got on with the recordings.