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January 22, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

Interesting day today it was.

If you've lived in Vancouver long enough one of the things that stands out about some of the things that are said about the Downtown Eastside is how it's such a strong community. People know each other. They look out for each other.

I've always read that stuff in the paper, especially in reference to the "Missing Women", and have always thought if THAT'S community, where's the hovercraft to the deserted island? Can't this thing go any faster?

Today I went down there to try and talk to a Chinese outreach worker at the Downtown Eastside Women's Association. I wanted to write something on an issue that I'd heard about last Fall through the YWCA. I was so convinced of this story that I wrote a query that was accepted. It was a gorgeous day. My phone calls weren't being returned so I decided to just walk there and drop into the Downtown Eastside Women's Association.

As soon as I enter the room, I can tell all eyes are noticing me. It's immediate. They know. I'm not them. I'm not from down here.

It's a bit like entering a Grade 7 classroom in the middle of a huge project. Or the headquarters of a political party the month before an election. Conversation. Movement. Women at every table. The room abuzz. Women moving in and out of the doorways, approaching the receptionist, sleeping, talking, sewing, eating. The small whiteboard hanging off the pillar lists activities by the hour: 10:00 Sewing. 12:00 Lunch. I can't remember the others.

Other women look like they work there. They're wearing rubber gloves and they come from doorways off the large main room. I didn't know if it was because they were handling food or what? I wanted to walk around to the tables and stare. I wanted to just take it all in and if I could have I would have looked at each one of their faces, individually, to see if any hint of their stories were at all visible in their eyes.

There's a reception desk and a volunteer sits there. Condoms are spilling out of some glass bowls on the desk the same way some office workers keep candies on their desks. The receptionist doesn't know the Asian outreach worker. People are coming in constantly asking the receptionist for stuff. Can I have those bags? What's that? There's a Chinese woman who just points. She wants something but she doesn't speak; she knows that she wouldn't be understood so she just keeps pointing.

There's a stuffed animal-type character on the front desk. Another woman wants it. She's wearing a white ski jacket with the hood up. "It's so ugly," she says to me. "Ya it's so ugly it's cute. What the hell is it?" "It's called an Achoo," she says, reading the tag on it. "Do you think my nieces would like this?" she asks me. "It's kinda wierd," I say "Maybe that's it's charm." She can't stop touching it and handling it. It's made by Kleenex. I finally get that the big protruding red thing coming off its face is supposed to be a nose; a nose with a cold. I guess that when you have nothing just getting something; anything, for free, can feel special.

I can't figure out the women sewing at machines on the table closest to us. I can't figure out if they're mending their own jeans or fixing ones that have been donated. There's a a woman sleeping on a bench behind me her body covered in one of those old flannel sheets. A man walks in with two garbage bags full of clothes. He's bringing a donation. A tall aboriginal woman comes in the door. A blue scarf covers her head and a black scarf covers the bottom half of her face as if she's about to rob a bank. The lady I'm talking to lets out a big welcome in her direction. "I was worried about you" she yells. "I hadn't see you for a while. Where were you?"

"Oh. He gave me a chalet. I was up at my chalet," she says laughing which means something to her but nothing to me. Who's she talking about I wonder. She's staring me down as if to insinuate I'm being rude for listening even though I was there first. I tell her I'm not listening. "Are you a social worker?" she asks. "She's a reporter," says the woman I'm talking to. "No! No! I'm not," I say while I'm thinking I'm just an imposter. "Honest. I'm not a reporter. I'm a writer." She seems reassured by this. She believes me. She continues. Almost as if she wants me to know, wants me to hear her story. I'm trying to figure out what she's talking about. Is she talking about her pimp? Is she talking about some John?

"I can't let the cops see me," she says in a way that seems overly excited. Is she a little manic I think to myself? "They keep stopping me," she says. Suddenly she spots a woman across the room who raises both her arms in the air waving them wildly as soon as she spots her. "She's been looking after my kid. He's 16. But he's big. I can't kidnap him. He shouldn't even be down here," she says right before she races over to her friend, a very large Native woman, wearing a grey t-shirt that's ripped off one shoulder.

I find out that the Asian outreach worker isn't in today. I get sent over to the Carnegie Centre. Kim, the receptionist at the Carnegie Centre has worked there for 25years. Nope, she doesn't think there's any really old Asian women who are homeless down here. "Come back Thursday," she says. "They all come to Bingo every Thursday. At noon. But they're not homeless. They take advantage of every thing going on. Bingo. Ballroom dancing. Outings. No, they're not homeless. In fact, people kinda resent them. They think they take stuff away from them" she says about the other women, white women, aboriginal women.

Kim tells me I need to talk to Bob. "He's just up the block. At this point, I'm beginning to get the whole community reference. I feel like I'm in a small town. Everybody's just a call and a short walk away. She gives me Bob's number. I call Bob. He tells me to come down and see him. I walk the couple of blocks over to Dunlevy. I walked right by the place and had to backtrack. I didn't see the numbers 211 on the door barely visible under flaking green paint. I push open the door and say hello to Bob a middle aged, balding, white guy.

As soon as I enter the space I had a weird flashback as if I'd been in this room when it served a different purpose. One summer night. When I was in my early 20s. I was with a friend. We'd met this guy, a mime who performed at Granville Island. Yes. He did speak. We'd gone out drinking with him and had to drop him off at his place, a room, off the street in the downtown eastside. I remembered the floor. Brown, scuffed wooden floor. This floor seemed as if it was that same floor. Could it be?

Anyway, Bob is sitting in a room full of boxes and see through blue plastic garbage bags. I can't figure out what's in the bags. Needles? Syringes? I can't tell. He's at a really old table in the middle of the room. Seated across from him is a native guy filling out a form. Bob starts talking to me. No. He's not aware of any old Asian women on the streets. "Where didcha hear this?" he asks. When I tell him he says, "they're just not tapped in. They might look homeless but they're not."

"Didcha notice the feeling of that place?" he asks me referring to the place where I first got wind of the story. "As soon as you get nurses in charge of anything there's 35 rules before you can even do anything" he says. "You notice the place you just come from?" he asks referring to the Women's Association. "It's run by social workers. There's 3 rules. It's just different. Biggest problem down here? It's not drugs. It's not homelessness. It's mental health. Get a lawn chair. Just sit out here and watch people. Mental health. And next to no help. If somebody's acting crazy we might call the Strathcona Mental Health Team and they'll say, 'Is he dangerous? Is he a danger to himself or anyone else? Well? Then call the cops. It's not in our jurisdiction.'"

There's a line-up forming in Oppenheimer Park; a line-up of men waiting for whatever is being handed out from a white tent. Lunch.

I decide to head over to the Strathcona Community Centre. There's a seniors centre there. I walk in and meet Liza. She's the Seniors Coordinator. She doesn't think there are any really old Asian women living on the street. "They live in housing projects. Maclean's. Some hotels. But she doesn't know of any homeless. Not that she's absolutely certain. But, then, they wouldn't want to be known. They might come in and use the showers but they wouldn't talk. She mentions a woman she met when she was doing outreach. Sometimes, you can tell the ones who were affected by the Revolution she says referring to the Cultural Revolution. They just don't get involved. They don't participate. I can't explain she says. You just know when you talk to them, if they're of a certain age and they were in China then. It affected them."

Maybe I could do a story instead on this project she suggests. See those woman in there she says pointing to a room with 15 or more women around a table. They're part of a new art project. It's run by the city of Vancouver's cultural team. It's a three year pilot project. The research is being done by UBC Nursing. They're wanting to see whether being involved in art has a positive impact on health. "Seems like a no brainer," I say. There's five projects. Here at Strathcona they're making puppets. That's the project. They will use the puppets they make to tell the stories of some famous Chinese fables.

I look inside the room. I see a tiny woman wrapped in a soft yellow sweater. Her hair is grey and dry and shaped like a thatched roof. She's laughing, her teeth some crooked, some missing. Her friend is nudging her and they're having a laugh. They're sharing a joke while they work on their puppet heads. Two Caucasian woman are standing, giving some sort of instructions. They're molding clay into features of their puppets faces. She tells me that in June five community centre projects will come together and put on a performance. Maybe that's a story? asks Liza hoping to help me out.

I thank her. My real story isn't sounding like a story. Damn!

When I walk away I decide to pop into the Buddhist temple across the street. I take my shoes off and ask the Buddhist nun what some of the symbols mean. What do those gold horses wrapped in cellophane mean? Prosperity and abundance she says in halting English.

I walk down Keefer street and head over to E. Pender. By this time it's past lunchtime and I stop into Kent's place for lunch. It's a tiny restaurant with a revolving door of mainly chinese clientele, the woks steaming in full view. Off to my side and a little to my back, I notice a young, female employee. She's sitting in this chaos, head in hands, just sitting there for the longest time not moving at all. The mirror on the wall helps me to keep track of her. I keep looking at her by looking at the mirror. I wonder why she's so sad. I can feel her sadness across the room. I wonder if she's been brought here to work. I feel bad. I wish I could say something to her. I want to give her something to make her know somebody has noticed. Somebody does care. I'm reminded how much I hate not being able to speak a language; like being in Mexico, in Chiapas, and being seated on a bus and not being able to do anything but substitute words with a smile. I get a coconut bun to make myself feel better.

When I get home, I have a call from a company that I first applied to work at last Fall. I met the President in Hedley, BC in the summer. I go to my bathroom. Right before I turn out the light, I repeat the words on the fortune cookie taped to the wall: Follow your Instincts. They are valid.

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