On ice cream, push ups and hope for the human condition

“Hey officer. I have ice-cream in my fridge.”

It was a pretty random comment to hear uttered at 2 a.m., in the epicentre of Vancouver’s most violent and drug-sick neighbourhood. I’m used to hearing things like “hey pig” or “I didn’t do it,” but not “I have ice cream.”

I stopped to figure out where he was going with this.

The man was leaning against a gate outside the Carnegie Centre. I recognized him right away. I’ve personally carted him off to jail at least a half dozen times, and shooed him off the street corner on more occasions than I can remember.

Remarkably, he’s never taken it personally, and still greets me with the respectful “hey officer,” every time I see him. He knows my name is Steve. Still, he always just calls me “officer.”

“Why do you have ice-cream?” I asked. “It’s the middle of November.”

He changed the subject.

“Hey. I’m just trying to make some money out here,” he said, feeling the need to  justify why he was standing at Main and Hastings in the middle of the night.  As if I didn’t already know.

“I owe a lot of people money, you know.”

I figured he probably had some dope in his pockets and was trying to sell it when I walked up and scared away his customers. Despite my suspicion, I had no grounds to search him.

He must have read my mind, because he offered up his defence before I could begin my interrogation.

“Don’t worry officer. I just got a little bunk on me.”

Bunk is street-slang for fake crack cocaine. It can be anything from soap to candle wax to antiperspirant — anything that can be quickly disguised as crack under the din of a street light. Though it’s still considered trafficking to sell bunk, this man knows having a pocket full of candle wax is not likely to land him in jail.

But it could land him dead.

Bunking is a dangerous game. Selling to the wrong person is an easy way to get stabbed. This man knows. Over the years his body has been turned into a pin cushion of needle and knife wounds. It’s just a cost of doing business, he says.

“I made my choice. I’m a heroin addict and I’ll die a heroin addict,” he said.

It broke my heart to hear.

Most of the people I meet on the street — especially those involved in the drug trade — don’t stick around too long when the police are nearby. Sometimes it feels like we’re scattering pigeons. Everyone flies away when the police show up, then swoops back in the second we leave.

Those who do stick around don’t like to be seen talking to cops. Nobody wants to look like a snitch.

But this fellow seemed in no hurry to leave. I had nowhere to go,  so I stuck around to kill some time. It became pretty apparant that he was looking for a friend. And in a neighbourhood where most people live and die alone, I was the closest thing he had.

“You know, I bet you wake up in the morning,” he said, “and the first thing you want is your breakfast. I wake up and the first thing I want is my heroin.

“I need my heroin. Without it I could die.  I spend my entire day trying to rip people off so I can get my heroin. You can’t imagine the things I’ve done.”

He paused, as if he wanted to tell me more, but didn’t know how. It was a little awkward.

“I’m not a gay man,” he continued, “but if I need money for heroin…I’ll do just about anything.”

People say police officers are not front-line social workers. I beg to differ.

I’m certainly not one to lecture or pontificate to addicts about the perils of their addiction. They don’t need to be talked down to. And though I sometimes struggle with my own vices, I’m not about to tell an addict I can relate to what they’re going through because of my own addiction to, say, caffeine or exercise or late-night blogging.

Besides, this guy wasn’t looking for answers. He needed someone to listen.

I listened as he told me how he got addicted to heroin the first time he tried it, and how he’s spent almost every day of the last 20 years scheming for his next fix. I listened as he told me how he managed to get clean for a few years, then screwed up and lost everything again.

I listened to him speak with love about his ex-wife and his five adult daughters, rattling off their names one by one. He doesn’t expect to see them again, so long as he’s hooked on dope, which he’s convinced will be forever.

I listened as he told me that his birthday was coming up. He didn’t need to explain that he’d be marking the occasion by himself.

Though he looked as healthy as I’ve seen him in four years, it was clear to me that this man was at his emotional bottom.

I guess when you’re nearing rock bottom you look for anything to give you hope. Which is where ice cream comes in to this story.

As we stood shivering on this street corner in the middle of skid row, my friend explained to me that today, for the first time since he could remember, he bought groceries. He said he used the money he made selling bunk to go buy, among other things, ice cream. For most of us that’s no big deal. For a man whose only goal in life is to stay high, it’s a turning point.

I’m not sure he recognized the significance.

Before I could point out how monumental this was, he began to tell me about his new exercise routine. He said he started doing push-ups a few months back, going from five to six to seven — all the way up to 91. He said he wants to get ripped again.

He said he doesn’t want his life to be wasted, and that he wants to share his story with young people to prevent them from making the same mistakes he did.

It was powerful stuff.

I sometimes find it hard to imagine that anyone can escape this horrible life on the Downtown Eastside.  I’ve only been around for a few years, but that’s long enough to know that few people who check into this Hotel California ever get the chance to check out. Even those who do escape to treatment centres and get themselves clean seem to inevitably find themselves back on the streets.

I felt like we were making progress and I desperately wanted to keep talking. I thought that maybe tonight would be the night my friend would ask for help.

But the pigeons were returning to the front of the Carnegie Centre, and I could see my friend starting to get uncomfortable with the glares. We’d been talking for 15 minutes, and I’m sure everyone was now convinced he was a rat.

As he turned and walked away, he looked over his shoulder and smiled.

“Thanks officer.”

As I watched him leave I could only hope he was going home to ice cream, not heroin.

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23 Responses to On ice cream, push ups and hope for the human condition

  1. Jenna says:

    Beautiful post.

  2. Karla says:

    Thanks for sharing that exchange with us. Those minutes you took with him were just what he needed…. the words you wrote recounting the exchange were just what we needed to once again put the human face to the addict.

    Thanks, Officer.

  3. DTES Vet says:

    Well done Officer…well done!!

  4. Emilie says:

    Found your blog today and read the whole thing at work this afternoon. Completely fascinating insight into these mysterious peoples lives. Great work!

  5. Steve (not the cop) says:

    Well done, indeed.
    Excellent post, Steve.
    You made a connection with your new friend. Or, rather, your new friend made a connection with you, as it was his initiative to ‘open up’.
    He seems to recognize that you are interested in his life; in his well-being. That’s very valuable.

    Keep at this guy. From a simple “How’re you doing?” to letting him know that your conversation with him had a significant impact on you… it’s all important.
    These people need to be reminded that there is always hope. And, as you pointed out, such reminders and other positive feedback isn’t likely to come from the other people he knows.

  6. Paul McCallan says:

    This post brought tears to my eyes. Reading your blog is the highlight of my morning. Thank you

  7. JB says:

    Once again Steve, thanks for all you do and for the compassion you show.
    Nice work Officer, nice work!

  8. Rick M. says:

    Great job with this post and relating your exchange with this fellow.
    I love your writing–so simple and straightforward, yet so poignant.
    I can’t help but wonder how this fellow would feel if he read what you wrote about him and your conversation. Perhaps he’d know someone cares. It’s clear you care based on several of the things you wrote. I suspect he doesn’t think anyone cares, but just knowing someone does could make a difference.
    I can’t help but wonder…

  9. A says:

    Even how little some people may seem this was, it was very inspirational. Stories like this make me want to be a police officer. I mean, chasing around bad guys has it’s benefits but I truely belive a police officer’s job is not always about chasing down bad guys… This is a wonderful blog, I follow it daily.

  10. darrin says:

    hey Steve

    i’m an avid reader of your blog & i love the way u wright about the things you encounter in the downtown east side . i can totally relate to this guy u were blogging about because 2&1/2 years ago that guy was me . i was a hard core addict for about 20 years my self so i understand what it means to have someone care about your well being . that was what it took to get me into recovery . i’m 2&1/2 years clean because of someone like you that cared . so keep it up one day he just might surprise you !!!! about a year ago vancouver magazine did a storey on me & what it took for me to get a year clean . if you want to read it i can email you the link

    darrin

    • saddison says:

      Good work Darrin. You should be proud of yourself. I’d love to see the Van Mag story. Please send the link.

  11. B C says:

    What a beautiful insight to your experience on the street. You have definitely brought a human side and compassion to what, on the surface, looks to be a deteriorating mess. Love your blog and read it all the time. Please update more often!

  12. KC says:

    This is one of my favorite blogs. Definitely a really touching story. Thanks for giving us another insight/perspective to the DTES rather than the image of ‘crazy people’ and ‘crackheads’ that we often associate with. Everyone needs someone that will listen to them sometimes. Thanks officer!

  13. Arthur says:

    Very touching! One can only hope that this man has another good friend like you.

  14. Janice says:

    I love reading your stories. Have been reading them since you started writing on Eastide Stories. You are one of a kind and a very compassionate man indeeed.You take the time to speak whith those who want to talk and you just never know, your words of encouragement and kindness just might be the time when they decide they have had enough of the lifestyle!!! As a front line street worker I know what it is like to be amongst those in need who are homeless, hungry, addicted and scared. It is a job like no other. The demand for good workers and good beat cops will never end. The homeless rate and drug use is on the rise.(not to mention the diseases that come with the life style)Not enough of everything needed to help those who need it. I don’t think the eastside will ever dissapear, it is what it is.To have the east side totally cleaned up would take nothing short of a miracle. Government turns a blind eye and they don’t want to hear about it.Out of sight is out of mind, kind of thing.They are too far removed from reality and could never imagine one of their family members in such a state of despair. You have to do what you can do for the moment, the hour and the day.Good work Steve!! You are what the world needs more of. Kind and caring people, who really do care about others.

  15. Nicole says:

    Phenomenal blog.

  16. Jeff Barnes says:

    Steve,
    I think this blog is a good thing in many ways. People get to experience the life in a closer proximity than they would otherwise dare. Good writing too. You are however, a spokesperson for the VPD. This makes me wonder what the limits of objectivity are here. Would you for example, mention that if this junkie could get low cost heroin through a drug plan, he would be living a much less horrific life.

  17. Barnabe G says:

    Interesting how sometimes the best, most thought-provoking journalism does not come from career journalists. Thanks for sharing these stories. Important to humanize the people living these lives. Good to know there are good, thoughtful cops out there.

  18. Linda says:

    I just want you to know that I suspect this blog post changed the focus on the DTES for a lot of people from “Us vs Them” to “they are we”. I’ve had some up close and personal experiences with the homeless and addicted while attending SFU Harbour Centre and on a student budget, it’s still affordable to share a muffin and a coffee with someone who will accept it. Often, I got way more in return for giving, than I ever saw coming. You should also know that because of reading this blog post, my partner is now applying to two police forces. He lost faith in policing and he lost faith in the people behind the uniforms and so he gave up his dreams of becoming a police officer. You changed that with this blog post. That’s powerful. Thank you for all of it.

  19. sue says:

    This is wonderful. You’re telling peoples’ stories and therefore demystifying them; making people and their stories real rather than stereotypes. As in “ah he’s just a bum.” No, he’s a person with a story. Ah I could go on. I was so pleased to see this. If you had an email subscription form I would subscribe. Carry on, Officer

  20. Erin says:

    What a beautiful blog, thanks so much for sharing. It’s wonderful to know that you are out there, that you are willing to take the time and that you care, that sometimes is enough to make a difference in someone’s life. Although so many lives are lost, there are those who manage to break away and overcome their addictions, I know of several shining examples. Hopefully ice-cream man will be one of those success stories.

  21. Raingurl says:

    We need more like you on the streets of “hell”

  22. ron says:

    many people are marginalized and exploited, they look for a way to escape and when when they realize where they are and exactly where thier choices will take them they realize they are no stronger than average they have to summon from down deep to become a healthy productive (to thier limitations of course) part of ahealthy society portugal is at least making some inroads of do no harm philosophy. why keep throwing billions of good daollars after billions of illspent dollars?if thier were more people getting the truth out there it certainly would make it easier for at least one person to make abetter choice!