Catching up with the Ice Cream Man

If you’ve been following Eastside Stories, you might be familiar with my friend the Ice Cream Man. I first wrote about him before Christmas, after we shared a two a.m. heart-to-heart outside the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings.

A heroin and cocaine addict for most of his adult life, he had lost just about everything that was important to him. His wife, his daughters, his ambition and his self esteem were all smoked away in the back alleys of the Downtown Eastside. Now, barely 40 years old, he was convinced he would die alone in his one-room, bug-infested apartment on skid row.

His honesty — and his accountability — struck a chord with me.

I call him the Ice Cream Man because of how proud he was that night just to have ice cream in his freezer. For you or me, a tub of ice cream is inconsequential. For an addict who spends every last dollar on crack and heroin, it’s an enormous building block. At least that’s the way I saw it.

I tried to keep tabs on the Ice Cream Man after our little street-corner therapy session. I sensed he was at a crossroads, even if he didn’t yet know it, and I wanted to make sure he had at least one ally on these streets.

In the weeks that followed I stopped to say hello whenever I saw him out front of the Carnegie Centre. I convinced him to share his story with a couple of youth groups that I toured through the skids. And on the eve of his 40th birthday I made sure to pull the car over and wish him a happy one.

Sadly, he seemed to be getting worse, not better.

Then one day I realized that he was gone. I’m not quite sure when it happened, or how long it had been since I’d seen him.

Generally, there are three reasons people disappear from the Downtown Eastside. They either die, go to jail, or get clean.

I asked around, but didn’t get very far. Down here people rarely go by first names, and I didn’t suspect that anyone else knew him by the street-name “Ice Cream Man.” It lacks a little bit of that Eastside toughness.

I popped by the single-room occupancy hotel where he rented a bug-infested room with a bed, an end table and a TV. The staff were not very helpful.

I knew he wasn’t in jail, and I probably would have heard through the grapevine if he had died. I had heard rumours of ill health, and I knew he’d been in and out of hospital a few times.

I popped by the hospital and managed to sweet-talk the charge nurse into checking the patient list for me. She tapped his name into the computer, then pointed down the hallway and told me to follow the blue line to the elevator. When the elevator doors opened on the 10th floor I could tell the nurse at the end of that blue line was a little taken aback. They’re not exactly used to seeing the police in the palliative care section.

“What’s your name,” she asked.

“It’s Steve. I’m with the police.”

“Is he expecting you?”

“Ah, no..not really. But he’s not in any trouble.”

I could tell she was a little apprehensive. She disappeared in a room across the hall, apparently to ask my friend if he wanted a police visitor.

The Ice Cream Man stuck his head around the corner. The look of angst on his face — an instinctive reaction after years of trying to avoid the cops — faded when I smiled and extended my right hand. He responded in kind, and gave my hand an extra hard squeeze as a show of strength while guiding me into his room.

It had been about three months since we’d last talked, but my friend looked like a new man. His once-sallow cheeks had filled with colour and were covered in a thick, dark beard. His healthy paunch spilled over the waistline of his Levis and the sleeves of his cotton shirt were pulled tight around his biceps — possibly a product of the Muscle and Fitness magazine sitting on the hospital bed.

The nurse, her mind apparantly at ease knowing that this was indeed a friendly police visit, made her exit and left us alone.

I had a lot of questions — more than he had time to answer.

I sat at the end of his bed while he explained how he checked himself into hospital after doctors told him he was about to lose his foot. A skin infection that had for years gone untreated had gotten so bad that he had two choices — stay on the street and get it amputated, or check himself into hospital and get clean.

He rolled up his sleeve and unwrapped the gauze that tied the IV line to this inside of his right arm. The constant drip is what was fighting the massive infection in his leg.

He talked about the first few weeks he was at hospital, and how he would sneak out on his day passes and head down to Hastings Street to get his fix.  He talked about the withdrawal process,  how he would throw tantrums inside the hospital ward, and how methadone treatment has started to ween him off heroin.

When I asked him how long it had been since he last used, he reached over the bed, pulled a calendar off the wall and began flipping through the pages until he found the box marked with an X. It’s here where he’s kept a tally of his sobriety, as well as a count of his relapses.

There have been a few of those, too, he admitted. The most recent relapse was a couple of weeks ago, when he got his welfare cheque, signed out on a day pass and went down to Hastings to get high. Old habits die hard, I guess.

But funny thing, he said, the heroin didn’t do anything for him anymore. And he didn’t like the person he became on crack. So that night he checked himself back in to the hosptial and decided to stay clean once and for all.

As if searching for proof to validate his claim, he dug his right hand deep into the pocket of his blue jeans and pulled out a wad of cash, all left over welfare money.

“I can’t remember the last time I had this much money,” he said, showing it to me.

“I used to spend it all on drugs.”

I asked him about his family, and whether he’d had any contact with his five daughters, but he shook his head and quickly changed the subject. That’s not a step he’s ready to take, he said, at least until he proves he can stay clean once out of hosptial.

And that test was fast approaching. In a few days he would check out of here, and check into his new home in a drug treatment facility located, of all places, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. That’ll be the true test, and he knows it. He’ll be the proverbial kid in the candy story, with every street drug under the sun available wherever he wants, whenever he wants.

I told him I liked him, I warned that I wouldn’t hesitate to throw him in jail if I caught him using again — not for kicks, but for his own good. He laughed, then reminisced about all the previous times I had traipsed him off in handcuffs for selling bunk on the street corner.

“You know, we got off to a bit of a rocky start” he said, “but I like this little rapport we have.”

He didn’t have to say it, but I knew I was likely the only one who had visited him in the hospital.

I wanted to continue our talk, but I could see the nurse was waiting in the hallway and growing slightly impatient. Besides, duty called.

I wanted to give him some words of encouragement, but I’m sure anything I had to say would have seemed like a platitude.  Phrases like “stay stong,” or “take it a day at a time,” just seemed trite and underwhelming given the circumstances.

Instead, I told him that I was proud of him,  then handed him my business card and told him to call me if he needed anything.

He tucked it in his back pocket, smiled, and extended his arm for another handshake.

“Thanks officer, but I think I can take care of myself now.”

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25 Responses to Catching up with the Ice Cream Man

  1. Carly says:

    Steve, I’ve been following your blog for about 6 months now, and let me tell you, you are amazing . I live in Edmonton and I’m wondering if there is Any kind of volunteer work in DTES. I would really love the experience and opportunity. I’m only 21 but I’m serious about this Id be willing to move there for this experience to build my career. Thanks Steve I know your busy and I understand if you dont get back to me.

    • Steve says:

      Hi Carly. Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you’re a fan. There are probably a hundred different options for someone who wants to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside, depending on what suits your fancy. Tell me what are you’re most interested in, and perhaps I can point you in the right direction.

  2. Jethero says:

    A most excellent story to follow. Like quite a few cases of breaking out, it takes just one person to believe in another for things to happen. I hope more good news will come from the Ice Cream Man and good on you, Steve, for following up on him all the time. I went out on a ride-along yesterday with your compatriots and I can see how fulfilling it can be to engage, aid, and follow through.

  3. Bruce says:

    Steve: great story. I have been there a few times. In most cases they disappointed me, going back. In a couple of cases, where I really went the distance to try to get them out, they broke my heart.

    Probably resulting in me being the scourge of drug traffickers, wherever I found them. I found myself despising these vultures. Had it not been my respect for the law and their “rights”, punishment would have been severe and summary.

  4. 9-1-1 Operator says:

    An uplifting post to balance out the one from yesterday.
    I cheer, you cheer, we all cheer for…The Ice-Cream Man!

  5. Steve (not the cop) says:

    Indeed, it is a nice story.
    I’m glad that Steve gave him his card, as well, at the end. That sends the important message that this wasn’t a selfish visit to boost the ego, but that the concern and the friendship is real.

    As Jethero points out, one person believing in another can make a big difference. Because the key is for the troubled person to believe in him/her self… and another person showing faith in them and showing that they are worthy of not only our belief, but also of our time, thoughts, energies, etc., can certainly be a significant step toward them attaining that all-important self-belief that is necessary for progress to occur.

  6. Natalie says:

    Great story Steve. It’s nice to be reminded that off all the heartbreak in the streets of the DTES, there is still hope. You looking out for him, showing that someone does actually care what happens to him, no doubt will give him strength. I hope the Ice Cream Man wins this battle.

  7. gillybean604 says:

    I’m glad you were able to find the Ice Cream Man and build that rapport with him. You’re an inspiration in reaching out to the homeless.

  8. Ron says:

    Great post Steve.

  9. Student Paramed says:

    First blog I’ve read today.
    Cue massive smile.
    Go Ice Cream Man!!!

  10. Sue says:

    Steve, I know you can see my grin! I had a lousy day today and thought I’d check in to see what’s new. Very glad I did. I remember your stories about ice cream man. And I have thought of him too. You went to all that trouble to find him. Because that’s the kind of man you are. yes, it will be a challenge for him at the treatment centre. But he’ll make it and I bet you’ll visit him there also. Thank you :D

  11. Karla says:

    Thanks for sharing this follow-up, Steve. I hope that The Ice-Cream Man knows he has a huge cheering section just for him in cyber-space. I hope you will be able to keep us posted on how he makes out. Who knows how things will go … but for today – I’m cheering from his corner.

  12. Peter says:

    Happy to see another thoughtful post, Steve! I visited the site a few days ago and it took me to a different VPD site that didn’t have your posts – glad that you’re writing is still available. This latest post makes that especially clear for me.

    Your post mentions that ‘rapport’ plays a key role. This is important and it connects to your post on Bernie Whistling Smith: http://www.beatcopdiary.vpd.ca/2011/11/13/old-time-beat-cop-meets-new/

    You’re building a body of writing that has some compelling ideas in it. Thanks again and congratulations.

  13. elee says:

    Rooting for the Ice Cream Man!! I hope he can feel our love and support.

  14. Tanya says:

    I would like to say that I am really thankful to you for sharing all your stories of the DTES. As I told you in a previous comment I have a sister down there and is usually hanging around the park doing her thing. I just recently received word that she is not looking to good again. She seems for her that her addiction is like a roller coaster; she’ll hit rock bottom then bring herself back up. She did sober up, for almost 2 years,to be with her baby. Unfortunately she was placed to close to dtes and ended up slipping up lost her baby and now has been there since, that was almost 3 years ago now. I keep praying and hoping that she will snap out of it soon. I’ll never give up wishing and hoping with all my heart. I love her and need my sister in my life.

    • Raingurl says:

      Sorry to hear about your sister. Unfortunately you don’t snap out of addiction. It’s with you for the rest of your life. It’s love and family that (may) help you through. She needs to know she is loved. Send her a grocery gift card or meet her and buy her some groceries. Sit in the park with her or visit CRAB Park for a picnic. I wish you and yours the best.

  15. Helen W says:

    I hope the Ice Cream Man gets a chance to read this story and the comments, so he knows just how many strangers are rooting for him, heart and soul.

  16. Janice says:

    Hi Steve, I have been reading your stories almost since you began writing and talking about them. Yuo have proved over and over agin that you are not just a beat cop, but a beat cop who really does care. I am so happy that you found the Ice cream man!1 I have also wondered about him. Good to hear he is doing better and has the want to live. if you save one person you have done your job. Awesome story.And for you Ice Cream man, you have a lot of people rooting for you!!! Power to you and god bless …on to a question I have for you Steve, I hope you will be able to shed a bit of light on it for me. There was a young lady who lived in the DTES, her name is “lisa” she was on youtube with her friend named “Ken”, I have wondered about her for a very long time and was wondering if you could find out if she is still alive? There was something about her that just made me want to give her a hug and help her. Maybe because she was so honest. She was from California and was living in Van. for few years.She worked as a prostitue and was a morphine/heroin addict but had bouts of clear thinking. I hope you can shed some light on this for me. I just want to know if she is alive.

  17. camal says:

    Thanks for the post Steve and too the other blogger for sharing their story and comments.

  18. Irv H. says:

    Hi, Steve. Just stumbled across your blog and I’m a big fan. I just retired from 34 years working in public safety (corrections). I’ve always felt we don’t do enough to show the public there are real people in those uniforms. God knows there is enough of the other kind of publicity. On another note I just watched the “Whistling Smith” video and felt a little homesick,LOL. I used to live in Vancouver and worked just off Hastings around 1975. Keep up the great posts, I plan on following them from now on. Cheers!

  19. Raingurl says:

    A man died two nights ago from an OD. He was an addict but he went to rehab and he cleaned himself up. He started hanging around the DTES again just recently and now he’s dead. My friend saw him at 6 PM the night he died. I hope it wasn’t your ice cream man. Sadly, he was probably someone elses.

  20. Jay says:

    That was a great story Steve, thanks. I hope the ice-cream man makes it. I’ll be mentioning him my prayers tonight.

  21. Sue says:

    I attended a coference today on Sex Workers Rights and one of the speakers mentioned the Missing Women Inquiry. Just wondered if you are involved in that or not?

    • Steve says:

      Hi Sue. I have not been part of the missing women inquiry, although I have been following it closely. In fact, the vast majority of what was discussed occurred several years before I became a police officer.

  22. Sarah says:

    So proud of him an YOU, you didn’t have to go look for him but you did.. Very nice an I bet he was over the moon to see you , best birthday present he could of given himself ..

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