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.”