I try to avoid talking about my job when I meet new people.
It’s not that I don’t want them to know what I do for a living. I just cringe at the barrage of questions I don’t want to answer.
Questions like, “So, what’s your opinion about the Supervised Injection Site?”
Or, “Pot’s legal now, isn’t it? Oh, it’s not. Well it should be, don’t you think?”
And the latest one: “Were you in the riot? Who do you think is to blame?”
Bottom line is there are people who are much smarter than me who haven’t figured out the answers to such political hot potatoes. So whenever I’m asked about work, I usually try to change the subject and avoid the inevitable game of 20 Questions.
The conversation I like to dodge the most is the one that pops up as soon as someone finds out I work on the Downtown Eastside. It’s a brutal place to work. I see the worst moments of humanity and have a front row seat to people at their lowest. And inevitably, people want to know how it affects me.
I’ve seen people stabbed over $5 of crack cocaine. I’ve seen people fish packages of expired ground beef out dumpsters because they haven’t eaten in days. I’ve wrestled a drunken war vet with PTSD who was convinced I’m the Taliban and that East Hastings Street is somewhere in Kabul.
I’ve helped a man whose mattress was so infested with bed bugs, that he had to be hospitalized because of the sheer number of bites on his back. I’ve seen people barefoot in rat-infested lanes, sitting in human feces but not caring because all they can think about is hitting the plunger on the needle they’ve just loaded up.
People assume these things must weight heavy on me, that I’m emotionally traumatized or a ticking time bomb. I almost feel guilty when I tell them I’m not.
Perhaps I’m just desensitized. It’s not that I don’t care. But when I go home at the end of the day I’m not haunted by the horrors I see. I don’t debrief with my partner and don’t feel like I need counseling.
It bothers me that these things don’t bother me more. Sometimes I feel guilty for not taking my work home with me.
I’ve thought about this a lot recently, and I think a big reason is that there’s just such a disconnect between the horrors I see at work and way things are in real life. It’s like I’m watching a TV channel that you just don’t get at home. When the day is done, it’s like the television is switched off.
The truth is, I don’t know how it feels to be an addict, and to spend every waking moment consumed with finding the next fix.
I’ve never been bitten by a bed bug.
I’ve never been stabbed over a drug debt.
And hopefully I will never have my reality clouded by untreated mental illness.
Just when I was becoming convinced that I may never be able to relate to anyone down here, I met someone who changed my mind.
It happened a few weeks ago. It was about 2 a.m. My partner and I were working in plain clothes. Now, working plain clothes in the skids can be frustrating, to put it mildly, as criminals who work these streets are very savvy. Usually, they see us long before we see them.
But every once in a while you catch one by surprise.
On this night, my partner and I were hunkered under an awning at Main and Pender Street. To my left, about 20 metres up the street, I caught a glimpse of a hand-to-hand transaction.
I recognized her. She’s one of the most hardcore and street-entrenched addicts I’ve come to know. I’ve developed a bit of a soft-spot for her, and her a lukewarm respect for me, despite me having to put her in jail well over a dozen times.
Him, I did not recognize.
He popped the top off a pill bottle, dug something out from inside, and handed it to her. She squeezed it tight in her hand while he re-sealed the bottle and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.
My partner saw the same thing, and we both moved at the same time.
Partners who work well together seem to develop an ability to read each other’s minds. Each knows exactly what the other is thinking and what the other is going to do, without having to discuss it.
I pulled back my hood and b-lined for the guy, securing the evidence in the pill bottle. My partner pulled out his badge and headed for the girl, snatching the drug out of her hand before she could toss it to the ground.
Pill pushers and crack dealers are dime-a-dozen around Main and Hastings. You can get anything from crack, heroin and pot to Tylenol 3s, Valium and Percocets. There are so many people selling dope and pills, and so few of us, that we couldn’t possibly put them all in jail. There simply wouldn’t be any cops on the streets. We’d all be writing reports.
Discretion is a skill that is quickly learned when you’re a cop on the Downtown Eastside, and I personally don’t have a lot of interest in putting a poor marginalized addict in jail. So, we kicked loose the female. We were more interested in the guy she was with.
She shuffled away, grumbling under her voice about how we made her look like a rat. No chance we were getting a thank you for the get-out-of-jail-free card.
When we began to debrief her dealer, we quickly learned he was not much of a dealer at all. Which is probably how he was so easily caught in the first place.
In fact, as we spoke under the awning, it dawned on me that he wasn’t much different than me, save for a few bad choices and an inability to lay-off the curve balls life throws his way.
He told me about how he’d been born into a pretty normal family, like me.
He talked about growing up in the 80s in a middle class family with good parents, and how he idolized the punk icons of the day, like the Ramones and Sid Viscious. He explained how their hard-living lifestyles and drug use were romanticized, and how he soon started to emulate his idols and experiment with heroin.
He told me about how he got hooked on heroin in his teens, then kicked the drug after doing some hard time in jail. He told me about the prison beatings, the jail house tattoos and about this recent relapse, which found him wandering the streets of the Downtown Eastside in the middle of the night, and now talking with me.
He went on to explain how he’d been clean for a decade, up until a month ago. He told me about the seven languages he speaks and his three degrees, and how he can’t find work because of his ongoing struggle to stay clean.
This man was smarter than I will ever be, yet it’s worthless to him.
As we continued to chat, he told me that despite all he has lost and all he still has to lose, he is drawn to the skid row lifestyle. To him, the idea of being a junkie remains strangely appealing.
He shared the guilt he feels about stealing from his family just to feed his addiction. There were far worse things he’d done, which he vowed to never share with anyone.
It struck me how this man was so much like me, yet so drastically different. We both grew up in the 80s, in good middle class homes with parents who taught us right from wrong.
But for a few choices, he could be in my shoes and I in his. It’s not like I never had the opportunity to experiment and live life on the edge.
I’m not one to lecture at the best of times, and this man surely didn’t need to be talked down to.
So as we parted ways I hailed him a cab and wished him good luck. I told him I hoped I would never see him again, then told myself I probably would. So far I haven’t, and my fingers remain crossed.
Day-in, day-out on the Downtown Eastside, we see the misery, pain and loneliness that drug addiction and mental illness brings. It’s easy to become cold and desensitized to it all.
Then every so often we stumble into someone who reminds us that not everyone is a lost cause. They remind us that all these people are sons and daughters who were once free from addiction.
They remind us that we could have been them, and they us, save for a few bad choices.
Above all, they remind us that in their seemingly bottomless pool of despair and self neglect, there remains a drop of human potential.