Welfare Wednesday comes around, as it always does. Right back down on the Eastside, waiting in the cold for a client to arrive, trying to stay on top of the chaos.
“Fucking gave him Narcan but he’s still dead,” a little old lady yells to no-one, as though the gods might descend from above and make it all go away. She paces up and down outside the single room occupancy hotel at 99 Pender Street in her dirty white parka, pulling on a cigarette like it’s going to save her life. Her mouth is mostly collapsed in, and her chin points out in a caricature of a witch. She looks over at us waiting on the edge of the sidewalk.
“Sure I’m a crack head,” she explains, “but I never did…” Her speech trails off as she takes another hit on her cigarette. Her ginger hair is longish, but thinner at the back. There is almost nothing on top.
“The kids today…” she says, but that train of thought is lost again to the cigarette. “I said, I said, that’s not heroin, that’s fucking elephant tranquilizer…” She trails off as though her meaning is clear, as though her utterances are complete in themselves and need no further explanation. She shuffles back indoors again, out of sight for a moment.
MaryJane and I have been watching her since we arrived about ten minutes ago. Hopping around inside the building, behind grimy glass doors, skipping up and down the short set of stairs leading up to the hallway and elevator. Dancing the Hastings shuffle.
As soon as the ambulance arrives, siren wailing, she runs back out of the glass doors, straight past us and out into the busy street without looking. “Over here, you fucking idiots,” she yells. “He’s over here.”
The ambulance pulls a U-turn in the middle of the morning traffic, and double-parks in front of the SRO. As three paramedics pull an assortment of bags, gas bottles and hard cases from a compartment in the side of the vehicle, I notice a small sticker beside the front door reading ‘Los Angeles’. The ‘A’ in ‘Angeles’ has a small hoop hovering above it. As the paramedics approach, the glass doors open before them, and the whole teams floats up the stairs and out of sight.
All the while, we’re here waiting for our client Suzie. We don’t have her room number, and we’re not sure if she’s even at home today.
Today is cheque day. The last Welfare Wednesday before Christmas.
The little old lady is dancing on the sidewalk again, seems to think her Good Samaritan role is over. The left-side glass door of the SRO opens and one of the paramedics sticks his head out. “Hey there. Yeah, you. Jitterbug Jenny. Are you going to show us where he is?” She twists through the doorway, skips up the stairs and disappears into the waiting elevator. We’re left waiting on the sidewalk, wondering what’s going to come out.
Almost immediately, the glass doors swing open again, and a large man dressed entirely in black with long black hair and a black baseball cap pushes his way out. On two leashes he has three very large dogs, and he is carrying a large skateboard and a long rope which trails behind. As he descends the steps, two dogs hang back behind him, while the other pushes in front. He must have the strength of Hercules to haul these beasts around. To regain his centre, he turns an entire 360 on the wet stairway before finally reaching the terra firma of the sidewalk.
As he sits on the wall to the side of the doorway (stage right), Hercules moves a large, wet shopping bag out of the way. The bag is made of beige paper, with bright orange handles. On the front the word ‘Plenty’ is printed in capital letters.
“This is my girls and boys,” he announces. He may be speaking to us, or to someone else, or perhaps to an imagined audience. It’s not clear. Also not clear is how just three dogs can contain a plurality of both females and males. The dogs are spread out across the sidewalk, and become entangled with a blue and grey electric wheelchair heading east. It’s a gong show.
She was supposed to meet us out front, but there’s still no sign of Suzie.
I’m wondering what’s going to emerge next, but I should really have guessed. It’s the other half of the family. A middle-aged woman with her baseball cap on backwards comes out of the door arse-first, with another large dog on a piece of string. She is carrying a large electric scooter under her arm. The scooter has a bright green light at the back, under the wheels. The light flashes directly into my eyes like a laser beam.
The new arrival’s black pants have lace diamond cut-outs down the side, alternating with silver stars. Under her unzipped black parka, a faded blue t-shirt features a pair of black dice and the words ‘I’m The One’ spelled out in rhinestones. She sits on the wall next to Hercules, and her dog immediately becomes entangled with its three brothers and sisters. The blue and grey wheelchair has extracted itself from the scrum and rolls off eastwards.
“They’re doing great,” says Hercules to no-one in particular as he takes off the cap and spins it on the tip of his left forefinger. “They’re all in perfect health.”
The dog on the piece of string coughs a few times, then barfs across the sidewalk. It’s not lumpy, but it does appear sticky and possibly corrosive. I now have three things to wait for: 1) whether a body bag or a stretcher is going to come down the steps (I doubt it’s the latter, because no stretcher went in), 2) whether Suzie is going to come down the steps or stroll on up the street to meet us (I bet neither, it being cheque day and all) and 3) who’s gonna step in the barf first (my bet is the very first person who comes along, since it’s a pretty solid pool, and it’s right in the middle of the sidewalk).
Suddenly the glass doors swing open, and the paramedics emerge into the cold of the morning. They are not carrying a stretcher (I’m not surprised), but neither are they carrying a body bag. This show is confounding my expectations. The paramedics are followed closely by our friend Jenny, still twitching her Hastings hustle. There is, however, still no sign of Suzie.
As the paramedics climb into the waiting ambulance, I keep a close eye on the pool of barf in the middle of the sidewalk. Somehow nobody steps in it, but this is soon to change. A large pickup truck pulls up alongside the row of parked cars as the ambulance pulls away. At almost the same time, a man emerges from the SRO carrying a very large flat-screen TV on a stand, and a red-haired woman in a bright red electric wheelchair emerges from the health clinic next door (stage left). As they all converge on the pickup truck, the Man with the TV steps in the barf. At the same time, two of the dogs escape from their owners sitting on the wall, and become entangled in the red wheelchair.
“Suzie will be here a moment,” says the Man with the TV without noticing the barf on his shoe. It’s not immediately clear who he’s speaking to, although it must be MaryJane and I because we’re the only ones watching and waiting. There is no one else in the audience. I’ll ask him if he knows Suzie’s room number when things calm down a little.
A siren from down the street approaches, and a large fire truck arrives on the scene. It’s too large to complete a u-turn, so it double-parks against the traffic, nose-to-nose with the pickup. I’m The One has managed to untangle two of the dogs from the wheelchair. Unfortunately she has also stepped in the barf, and has also dropped one of the leashes into the mess. It appears I am the only one to have noticed this last detail.
Three firemen emerge from the cab of the fire truck and open a side panel. There’s a certain sense of déjà vu as they pull out a gas bottle, some hard cases and a few duffel bags, then glide like rescuing angels through the chaos on the sidewalk without appearing to notice the miscellany of men, women, wheelchair and dogs strewn before them. It is possible that they’ve done this routine before. Although none of them even glance down at the sidewalk, they somehow avoid the pool of barf, which is spreading slowly across the paving slabs. The thought briefly crosses my mind that they may be levitating an inch or two off the ground, but they disappear inside the building before I can be sure.
Hercules has fired up a small Bluetooth speaker on the sidewalk in front of him, and is flicking through songs on his phone. It appears to be either a Classic Rock playlist, or a Rolling Stones greatest hits album (actually, I’m not even sure what the difference is). Either way, it seems to be working for the females in his life: I’m The One snuggles up to him on one side, and Jitterbug Jenny takes a seat on the wall on the other side. The dogs gather together at his feet. Jenny is smoking two cigarettes at the same time, one in each hand, and her gyrations seem to have steadied somewhat.
Now that the dogs are all miraculously together in one place at the same time, their bodies appear to have merged into one, with multiple heads looking out in different directions. I notice that one of the dogs is wearing a pink harness with the name ‘Cerberus’ embroidered in black thread.
I’m The One, Hercules and Jitterbug Jenny start singing along to the Stones. It’s a little sloppy through the verse, but I’m sure they’re going to make their connection. And sure enough, they all come together when they reach the chorus: you can’t always get what you want / but if you try sometimes / you just might find / you get what you need.
Jenny gets up abruptly, coughs a few times, hawks a glob of phlegm onto the sidewalk alongside Cerberus’s offering, smaller but possibly just as corrosive, then departs westward along Pender. No goodbyes.
I’m getting a little cold by now, but MaryJane and I have agreed to give Suzie ten minutes more. I’ve yet to decide whether we’re participants in what’s unfolding here, or if we’re in an entirely separate category, just part of the audience. At least there’s not much chance of getting bored.
I’m ready to ask the Man with the Large TV if he’s got a bit more intel for us, but he’s busy loading up the pickup truck. A rough wooden box has been constructed in the bed of the truck, and I’m wondering whether the red-haired woman will be loaded into the box together with her wheelchair, or if she’ll travel in front while the wheelchair sits alone in back. It’s amazing how wrong you can be.
The Man with the Large TV steps again in the barf but narrowly misses the phlegm, then wedges the TV behind the seat of the wheelchair. The red-haired woman takes the leash with two of the large dogs on it from I’m The One and exits the scene eastward along Pender.
The two remaining dogs are loaded into the box at the back of the pickup, which pulls a wide u-turn and heads off east towards downtown.
Hercules puts his black baseball cap on his head backwards, takes I’m The One by the hand, plants a big wet kiss on her lips, and pulls her straight out into the street without checking for traffic. They head towards McDonald’s in the International Village Mall, oblivious as two cars heading eastbound and one truck heading westbound come to a sudden halt to allow their passage.
Still no sign of Suzie.
The glass doors are again flung open and the three firemen reappear. As with their paramedic colleagues before them, they are neither carrying a stretcher, nor are they carrying a body bag. In fact, the only way of telling them apart from the paramedics who came before them is that they are wearing slightly different uniforms, and climb back into a very large red truck rather than a medium-sized red truck. The thought occurs to me to check whether they have an Angels sticker on the side of their very large truck, but I let it go. I already saw them levitating, that’s probably enough.
“I don’t know if she’s coming,” announces the Man with the TV, snapping me back to reality. Even as he’s speaking, I can see vehicles screech to a halt as the red electric wheelchair crosses the street about a block and a half away. From where I’m standing it looks for a moment as if the wheelchair is driving in miniature across the top of the man’s head. I’m getting tired.
I’m pondering whether to address our new friend as ‘The Man formerly known as the Man with the TV’, whether it would be better just to say ‘The Man without the TV’, or whether he needs some new name entirely, when MaryJane comes to my rescue.
“Ok, I’m done with this circus,” she announces, uncharacteristically blunt. I’m relieved. Truth be told, this wouldn’t be my choice of lifestyle. I’m glad we can walk away. I’m glad this show has an Act II.
Walking eastwards on Pender back towards our office, I say out loud: “Why do you think they’re all here?”
MaryJane doesn’t quite catch what I say, and asks: “Why are they here, or why are any of us here?”
She probably knows it’s the bigger question I’m steering her towards, but right now it’s the smaller one I’m thinking about. Or at least that’s what I’ll pretend.
“Why are they here,” I answer. “I mean, would anyone actually choose this?”
“I’m coming to think that, yes, for some of them, it is a choice,” says MaryJane thoughtfully. Which, after this morning’s performance, does not appear improbable. We have both, after all, made the same choice. We’ve both chosen to be here almost every day, nine-to-five. And so far, the main finding of our research project seems to be that most of our clients choose opiates, methamphetamine and welfare cheques over preparing resumes and attending job interviews.
I decide to run with MaryJane’s thesis. “Ok, if you’re right, then I think there are two basic options,” I say. “One is the people who believe they’ve got what they want, even though it’s not a lot, and the other is the people who are simply heading for oblivion – the ones who can’t seem to get enough of what they need, but are chasing it anyway.
“Yeah, like the whole of the Downtown Eastside is dotted with happy little Buddhas, who have found their nirvana in the middle of the chaos,” laughs MaryJane. I knew she’d be attracted to the first option. She has a basic happiness, which is something about her that really appeals to me. Plus she’s a meditation instructor, which means she’s pretty much got to be a Buddhist.
Me, I’m not so sure. Is it really possible our friends back at the SRO this morning were just finding their own way to get what they want? That their feeble, disjointed efforts to achieve what looked like petty and absurd goals could in any way compensate for them not having any of the things the rest of us believe they need?
“Maybe it’s the other option that got most of them here,” I say. “The oblivion option.”
The idea that you might want oblivion is perhaps not an idea that many people would understand. On the other hand, the possibility of self-destruction becoming something that you need is also not one many people would immediately be drawn to.
Yet walking up Pender towards our office on a winter’s afternoon, my mind is drawn back to a chilly night in March walking alone from the university hospital, stumbling down Trail 4 towards a deserted Acadia Beach on a quarter-hour pass from the psych ward, drawn back to my plan to fill my pockets with rocks and to keep on walking out into the Pacific Ocean Blue, wondering if this would even be possible before the search parties arrived. A half-finished fantazy being reunited with my hero Dennis Wilson, who named his solo album after his beloved ocean not long before he drowned in it.
Turning left onto Princess Street, almost back at the office now, my mind is drawn back to wandering through empty streets on a dark December night on a day release from a different branch of the Hotel Amnesia, checking out the construction sites to figure out which white crane would be the most suitable for hanging a body. Not just any body, my body.
Walking with MaryJane across Oppenheimer Park, the sad rags of the tent city blowing in the wind, my mind is drawn back to shuffling up Kingsway on an hour’s pass from that grim hotel, choosing which tree had the best branch to hang from. To hang myself from.
Turning onto Powell Street past the needle exchange, my mind is drawn back closer to home, drawn to the four-socket electric extension cable formed into a noose on a shelf in the storage room of my apartment, right next to the computer monitor cable which is also formed into a noose (perhaps a backup?), and which is also still on the shelf in the storage room of my apartment.
Then finally climbing the stairs up to our first-floor office space, my mind drifts back into my living room, to the sofa where I crouched head-down under a blanket day after day, my entire body pulsing with anguish. Waiting that last morning for my friend Jesús to come over to drive me back to the Hotel Amnesia, knowing that I had only a few hours, then only an hour, then only a few minutes to climb into my truck and drive with my nooses to the Silverhope Valley to find a suitable tree. Are we really ever grateful for being saved from suicide? Not at the time, that’s for sure. Not as we’re swallowed up again into a psychiatric facility that we will leave in a worse state than we arrive, not as we realize we’re going to have to go through the whole hideous routine again. That there’s nothing that can be done to stop it from repeating, over and over again.
Sometimes this job is manageable. As if I were watching a play by an avant-garde playwright with a tragicomic outlook on human existence, a play with perhaps no explicit meaning but at the same time rich with the deeper ironies and absurdities we encounter as we tread this mortal coil.
At other times, working as a peer support is unmanageable. As when everything I see around me takes me right back to where I’ve come from. Back to death’s door. Back to where I was, again, before I began this latest reconstruction project, again.
Back to where, more than anything, I don’t want or need to return.