This piece won the 1st prize in the Academic category of the 1st Terry Writing Challenge.
Just the other week I attended a provocative poetry recital. The poet: Bud Osborn, previously unknown to me, a denizen of Vancouver’s notorious downtown East End. His project: alleviating the woes of his neighborhood’s many indigents and drug addicts. He speaks with intensity, aiming to rile his audience. When he communicates his indignation, he demands that people join him in his cause.
There are enough resources here, enough money, enough energy, so that no person should have to live without a home, to go days without eating, to die in back alleys from poisoned needles and overdoses of adulterated drugs. There are enough resources here so that no person should be forced to live without dignity. Give! Give freely, to everyone who asks.
He takes the opportunity of a collected audience to climb upon his soapbox, berating politicians for dehumanizing the lower stratum of society. We do not need increased police patrols or a war on drugs; we need safe-injection facilities, havens for the homeless, medical care for the addicted.
But, as a West Ender suggests, drug addicts cannot be left out on the street. The drug problem is impinging on even the affluent regions of the city. He mentions the problems he sees around his high-income neighborhood: the strung-out users on the corner of Bute and Davie—the Crystal Meth Corner—the very corner on which I reside.
The rich man argues: addicts with 100 dollar-per-day habits, under threat of excruciating withdrawal symptoms, will do anything to appease their pains, just as a tortured prisoner will confess to even the most bogus claims to gain respite. The human animal can only endure so much, and consciousness always eventually succumbs to the instinctive impetus for self-preservation. Having crossed an unspoken threshold for suffering, all but the most perverse humans revert to their primordial urge to go on existing, no matter the circumstances or consequences.
The first time I ever saw somebody smoking rock in person was as I walked down Bute Street to my apartment. The florist shop next to the alley was a common hangout for drug users; they often made use of the shelves—which, during the day, held roses and tulips and other sweet-breathed flora—as benches and even shelter during cold rainy nights. I walked past these people every day, and although I felt obliged to avert my eyes when they held lighters up to the small tubes that they appropriated as makeshift pipes, I never feared for my safety. Rarely was I even acknowledged as I passed by, and when I was, the most offensive sallies I suffered were requests for spare change.
One cold night, while walking home from the grocery store, I heard yelling coming from Crystal Meth Corner. Somebody was shouting angrily, menacingly. As I turned the corner, I saw a man in tight jeans and a leather jacket gesticulating and carrying on as he shouted at a group of glassy-eyed addicts, who were dumbfounded by the unexpected confrontation. We’re coming back here tomorrow night, with baseball bats, and if you’re still here, we’ll make you wish you weren’t. You’re ruining the neighborhood. I don’t want my kids growing up with screw-ups like you hanging around—you’re a bad influence.
Apparently he considered his own act of vigilante aggression a good influence. That was probably the most threatening situation I have encountered in the year and a half that I have lived on the corner.
Occasionally during the summer months, as I slept with my windows open, I was roused by the incoherent hollering of intoxicated quarrelers. I never heard any dispute erupt into physical violence, but often the unrestrained desperation in the voices of these unseen noctambulists who argued over negligible sums of money was disconcerting. Their impassioned shouting could be heard down the entire block, and the violence in their voices hammered home the hardships of their lives.
As I would listen to their childish, illogical arguments, I was struck by the hackneyed expression, “It could happen to you, too.” Of course, this phrase is intended to warn us of the terrible potency of addictive drugs. It says, “If you play around with these drugs, you too could become addicted—so don’t place yourself in danger.” This is true, but the expression speaks to more harrowing profundities. What is truly frightening is not to realize that you are susceptible to addiction, but to comprehend that you also might transmute into one of the very same raving ghosts that screams outside your apartment window at four in the morning.
To realize that there could come some unthinkable day in which you would readily sacrifice your home, your career, your future, even your family, to appease the merciless addiction imposed upon you by drugs; to realize that even the most abject life of squalor and decrepitude would not motivate you to mend your ways, that even the most agonizing, dolorous days could be temporarily forgotten with the assistance of the next injection, to realize that even though your entire life be one of misery and melancholy, utterly wasted, still you would place the conciliation of your addiction above all other concerns—this is to truly understand that clichéd utterance.
It could happen to you, because, regardless of the particular path by which one reaches such a state of addiction, when one arrives, all individuality is reduced to one implacable velleity, conscience is made subservient to craving, and your unique qualities and abilities remain useful to you only insofar as they help you to meet the exigencies of your habit. To envision how your face would appear as you wake up in the morning—picking yourself up off the soiled sidewalk, detesting your weaknesses, yearningly desperately for change—only to wander the streets, collecting coins and cigarette butts, seeking the next high that will distract you from your failures, knowing that tomorrow will be all the more unbearable because of tonight’s indulgences—to put your face on the homeless you pass by every day—that is what it is to understand that it could happen to you too.
And what of those that it does happen to? The less punitive communities ignore them—so long as they don’t cause too much of a disturbance. So long as I am subjected to no worse than a little panhandling here and there, I keep them out of my mind. When, upon seeing a young lady gesturing wildly, a hypodermic needle held casually in her hand like a cigarette as she converses emphatically with herself, my stomach shrinks and a chill passes down my spine, I stop for a moment, empathy usurps indifference, and I grieve, momentarily, for her and her plight; but then I walk on, as I must, I continue in my own tribulations, as I cannot avoid, and I remember once again that it could happen to me. But it hasn’t, at least not yet, and when I walk past the Crystal Meth Corner, I know a comfortable apartment and a hot meal awaits me. So I push her and her needle out of my mind, so long as she does not impress herself too forcefully upon my life.
And if she does? If she and her fellow sufferers manifest too big a blight in our fine cities? Then we must incarcerate them, or force them into neighborhoods more suitable to their tastes: ghettos and landfills. After all, this great city of Vancouver is to play host to the entire world for the 2010 winter Olympics… we don’t want the world to see how many impoverished and drug-addicted supplicants call our streets home, do we? We can’t very well leave them be, because they might attack innocent tourists who want to watch the slalom and curling events without fear of being accosted. They’ve even become a problem in the rich neighborhoods, now, don’t you see? What other solution do we have but to toughen our stance, lock the dangerous ones away and scare the rest into the dark, out of view of the public eye?
Or so the argument goes, as the poetry reading devolves into a shouting match, the champion of the indigent, Bud Osborn, on one side, the representative of the wealthy on the other. The poet spits venom; his logic is twisted by his passion, he exaggerates, generalizes, contradicts himself—and yet, one can’t help but take his side. When cornered, he cannot formulate a satisfactory solution to the problem; at best he advocates partial solutions or clamors for specific amenities like safe-injection sites. But he always falls back on the incontrovertible truth that there are enough resources, there is enough money, for everybody to enjoy at least a passable quality of life, even if it does mean that the rich and successful have to fund the addicts’ habits. Give! Give freely to all who ask.
It is nearly 10 when I leave the stuffy conference room in the basement of the central branch of Vancouver’s public library. The night is black, punctured along the sidewalks with blue Christmas bulbs, left spangling year round. I walk the few blocks down to Granville, to wait for the bus that will take me back to my little corner of the world. From a block away, I can hear the plangent melody of Stairway to Heaven, played out by yet another regular specter of the streets. He sits on a collapsible chair across the way from the bus stop, a small portable amplifier connected to his electric guitar, and dolefully, slowly, he strums out the plaintive chords.
A man tries to sell me a bus ticket that’s good for another thirty minutes; another surreptitiously bounces the word weed off every potentially interested passerby, hoping to peddle a dime-sack or two. A longhaired beggar in tattered clothing passes from person to person with a few dollars of change in his outstretched palm and a wild desperation in his eyes. Can you spare some change? Do you have any change? We stand, waiting for our bus, all of us acutely aware of his presence, all of us a little anxious about his erratic behavior—it seems possible that he might lash out at anybody, so wild is his demeanor. Nobody seems to have any change, either. Me, I only carry plastic, because cash seems to flow through my hands too quickly. And the others? Well, they need the quarters for laundry, their children like collecting pennies. In abject despondency, the man’s self control snaps momentarily. He stares pitiably at his hand and shouts with all the hysteria of a rabid hyena, to nobody in particular: Heroin! Heroin! I need some change for Heroin! Change! Heroin! I need change! Then, his paroxysm passed, he resumes his subdued begging: Do you have any change? Can you spare some change for a cup of coffee? All this while we stand among him, looking straight forward but following him from the corners of our eyes, on our toes, ready to react—but only if he does something truly crazy.
I don’t see many drug users on Crystal Meth Corner these days. Now the florist has removed the bleachers that once gave shelter outside his shop. Now the police come by regularly, loading any suspicious characters into large paddy wagons and hauling them away to some place out of sight. The man I used to greet daily has not been around for the past few months; perhaps he has moved on to better things. And the others? The lady with her syringe, the late-night arguers, the rock-smokers, panhandlers and jive-talkers? What rug have they been swept under? I don’t know.
Yet although there have been no memorials marking their absence, they are not forgotten. Their parents, their friends, their teachers and lovers remember them—and even I, in my own humble manner, keep their memories alive, because, in the final analysis, not so very much separates me from them.