Yesterday I tried to go Beyond HELLO in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I am proud that my two sons, Jaden and Cole share my desire to get to know people who society chooses to ignore. Together the three of us walked along Hastings Street waiting for the right person to find us. As we passed Pigeon Square, a tiny woman of Aboriginal descent smiled at us from deep within her layers of clothing far too big for her tiny body. As we passed she turned to others in Pigeon Square and shouted out “kids in the area” – a custom I’ve grown to recognize, where the homeless and addicted shift their language and monitor one another to ensure their actions are appropriate for a younger crowd.
We continued to walk a few more steps. I asked Jaden if he thought she was the right person to join us. I knew he did, as he had the courage to walk over and talk to her while we waited a few steps back. He introduced himself and asked if she would like to go for lunch. As a sign of respect, she immediately put out her cigarette to stop the smoke from blowing near Jaden. I didn’t hear the words but saw her smile and nod as he explained Beyond HELLO.
Together we walked and she introduced herself as Florence. She too has two children, ages 16 and 18 – one boy and one girl. She reminisced about the days that her husband and her would remark that a life with two kids was like winning the lottery.
As we entered Save on Meats, most the tables were full. The waiter offered us the front table that protrudes into the front alcove – with an L shaped bench and two sides window. We accepted and Jaden and Cole squeezed themselves down the bench to the far seats. Florence entered next and I sat at the end of the table nearest to the restaurant centre.
Florence connected with the boys, laughed at their stories and decided that she too would love some fries. The boys ordered milkshakes and fries while Florence ordered an ice tea, fries and gravy. I asked how she stays so thin with fries and gravy, as she peeled off layers to reveal a tiny figure framed by long dark hair. She smiled and told me she was born 5 pounds and has been tiny her whole life. She was born in Ontario and travelled to Vancouver decades ago. She gets to see her kids still but now that they are teens, they are busy too so the visits are less frequent.
As we waited for our food, our conversation was interrupted. Florence was signalling to a man to go away. I hadn’t noticed him. From outside on Hastings Street he had spotted Florence eating with us. He stood pressed against the window motioning for her to come with him. She waved him away. She apologized and explained she knew him. I suggested he could join us if that was easier.
He entered the restaurant and threw money down on the table. He told me to buy my kids some ice cream. I offered him a seat and said he could join us. He decided to do so so Florence shifted down the long table and he sat at the end of the bench, next to Florence and beside my chair.
He did not have the same class that Florence demonstrated. His voice was loud, obnoxious at times and inappropriate for the restaurant. He ordered a coffee and fries, while commenting that he was probably richer than me. I told him I hoped he was. He began to tell me he also has two boys, though he has lost touch with them. His behaviour seemed to subside and the inappropriate comments, which seemed to be his way of protecting himself, became farther apart.
Yet something happened during our conversation. Without words, Florence and I assumed new roles. With a disheartened look of disgust for his behaviour, her motherly instincts took over. She played eye spy through the window with the boys, laughed with them and watched a car being towed across the street. I know she kept them busy so they would not hear his words. At times, Florence would glance back and try to get my attention. She would add a comment and try and resume our conversation, yet each time he would put her down, call her an Indian or speak louder than her so her voice would silence. Her eyes lost hope and yet she continued to laugh with the boys and protect them from his conversation.
I noticed that he wore a poppy – something you don’t see often amongst the homeless community. Hoping for a positive twist, I commented that I had noticed his poppy on his jacket. His eyes filled with tears and rage. He held my arm way tighter than he should have and asked if I understood, He is an ex Navy Seal. He fought in Vietnam. I told him I don’t understand, but I do appreciate. I can only imagine. My words seemed empty to him and he continued, lost in his own mind with the destruction he had to be part of and thousands of lives lost. He had to kill. It was his job. With anger he told me he fought so my kids do not have to. And yet for some reason, he blamed my boys for this. They did not hear his words. Florence continued to protect them by keeping them busy. I know she could hear him.
He began to tell me about his two boys, now in their 50’s, living in different cities. He softened and explained the beauty of the river, meandering through one of the towns. For once, my instinct told me not to offer to find his family as I often do on the Downtown Eastside. In his next breath, he asked me if I could try and find them. The request caught me off guard as he had no way of knowing that I often try to do this. His voice softened, and I searched Facebook, finding pictures of one of his sons. Moved to tears and anger, he took my phone. I wondered if I would get it back as his grip suggested I would not. I offered to send a message, which we did through Facebook.
He left for a smoke, perhaps overcome with emotion, seeing his child for the first time in decades, perhaps overcome that someone was being nice to him despite his gruffness.
I paid the bill and thanked Florence. She smiled and thanked me, knowing we shared the same emotion, disappointed that our conversation had been disrupted. I took a picture of her with the boys. As we stood to leave, he returned. He wanted his picture too, so his boys could see him. His intention seemed ok so I sat with him to have a photo taken. In a minute that seemed to last way too long, things turned. In his aggressive nature, he used his words and actions to control the situation. We were not safe. For my sons sake, I will not share the details. I yelled as loud as I could at him telling him to stop his behaviour. The restaurant froze, I’m sure even the kitchen staff heard, as I had to yell a second time to end the situation. We left as fast as we could.
I made a mistake and turned left, only realizing a block later that my car was to the right. We turned back, seeing that he was not on the sidewalk. Florence, his friend, ran towards us. Although their friendship has history much greater than ours, I knew right then, our friendship was stronger. She told me to cross the street as he was still in there. She apologized and asked if we were ok. SHe spread her tiny arms as a shield to the street telling us to cross so we wouldn’t see him. As we left she shouted I love you. I know she meant it. In that second, we felt the victimization that women must feel living in the Downtown Eastside, and I felt a mix of relief and guilt, knowing we could escape while so many cannot. And yet I also felt the warmth of the neighbourhood, that I so often feel, as Florence did what she could to care for us.
As I glanced through the restaurant window from across the street, I could see him (I have chosen not to use his name). He face buried in his hands. He didn’t expect my reaction. Maybe it’s been a long time since someone confronted him. Maybe it’s been a long time since someone treated him with kindness. I don’t know. A victim of war, he has lost everything. His family, his business and clearly, his ability to love.
This Remembrance Day, I remember not only those whose lives have been lost, but also those who struggle upon return. Driving home, my sons and I found comfort with one another, and for a short time I questioned if I would ever go back. I will continue to go Beyond HELLO, as I refuse to let one dark cloud block the light that I know exists in Vancouver’s darkest neighbourhood. For Florence, I will not let my own voice be silenced.