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