Ahhh the May long weekend. Next to Thanksgiving, this may be my favourite time of year. Sunny days, cool breeze, the hint of summer around the corner and an extra day to unwind. It’s an annual tradition for my in-laws to take our kids away for the long weekend meaning I get three amazing days to do what feeds my soul. Time to exercise, time to visit with family and friends, time to shop, time to eat out, time to get outdoors, time to read, time to write – and my favourite thing of all – time to escape to the Downtown Eastside. While many would hope to escape from the Downtown Eastside, I love knowing the hidden secret of the streets: Vancouver’s streets are full of real people, raw emotion and soulful conversation. Problems are real, relationships matter and everyone is accepted as they are. It’s one of my favourite places to fuel my soul.
I drove downtown not knowing if Cindy would be home. The streets were busier than normal, and like all areas of Vancouver, people have started to migrate east. A few years back, Main and Hastings marked the eastern edge of Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood, but now it marks the centre point with hundreds sleeping on the streets for blocks to the east and west. I walk the sidewalk stepping over discarded needles and press the call button to Cindy’s SRO housing. I get buzzed in. The stale air is noticeable as I climb the narrow stairwell for a few flights. Half way to Cindy’s floor I get screened by security and am given a swipe card granting me access to the building. I then climb two more flights and hope she will be home. Each person who passes looks at me with curiosity. I wonder about their stories. They wonder about mine.
I knock on room #408 hoping someone will answer. Music from a neighbouring unit echoes through the halls. Residents line up to scan themselves into shared bathrooms. Cindy opens the door a bit perturbed by the knock – but lights up when she realizes it’s me. We have been close friends since 2013 when she reached out and shared her story and let me help reconnect her with her daughter Paige who she had given up for adoption. Today is Paige’s 33rd birthday.
As always, Cindy’s SRO room is neat and organized despite having all of her possessions in 200 square feet of housing. Cindy ends a phone call with her boyfriend and gathers her own supply of toilet paper so she can head down the hall and line up for the shared run down facilities. I wait in the stairwell and smile at others who look at me strangely wondering what I might be doing. Soon we are on our way, walking a fast pace and catching up like long lost friends. It’s been five months and Cindy is proud to tell me about her health, about her boyfriend Ron who has entered rehab, and about their life together. She looks good – healthy, happy and full of gratitude. Such a contrast from when we first met and she was in the throes of addiction. She asks questions about my kids, my work, and our recent family vacation.
Cindy and I head to our favourite spot: Save On Meats. It’s where we shared our first meal in 2013 and where we always go to catch up. She orders her favourite vanilla milkshake with eggs, toast and a waffle. She is starving and can’t wait to enjoy a big meal. She has been trying to get out more but life is expensive. A recent trip to a movie theatre and a day at Playland have her watching her last few dollars as she makes her way through the month. Soon Ron and Cindy will try to find a home together, but it’s difficult for Cindy to find SRO housing for a couple – especially with their history of mental health and addiction. Both are clean now and optimistic about their future. Cindy, now 50, let’s me know her heart has slowed, and the doctor has told her she has the heart of an 80 year old. I smile and tell her it’s from loving so much. And I mean it. There isn’t a nicer person in the DTES. Cindy greets people by name, offers hugs, listens intently and feels immensely. She has a beautiful soul. She has endured more pain than anyone I know and yet she sees beauty. I always remind her that meeting her has been one of the best experiences of my life. As we sit across the booth from one another, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” begins to play. Cindy sings along and I can’t help but think how fitting the lyrics are.
If you wake up and don’t want to smile
If it takes just a little while
Open your eyes and look at the day
You’ll see things in a different way
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
It’ll be here better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone…
To celebrate Paige’s birthday, we make a phone call to Paige in Ontario and send messages on Facebook. We then scroll through Facebook photos, reminiscing about their reunion together in 2014. We decide to go shopping for frames to decorate Cindy’s wall with family photos. We find a ‘Family’ collage frame at Army & Navy. I ask Cindy if I should leave it with her but she instantly encourages me to take it home and return once I have had a chance to fill it with photos of her with her daughter. I need this project as much as she does. We look at each other and we both know that to be true.
After our lunch and shopping trip we walk back towards her SRO Hotel. She comments on how amazing today has been for her, introduces me to some friends on the street and then gives me a big hug when we reach my car. She becomes quiet and thinks before she speaks. She used to ask for money when we would part ways. Free from addiction, she no longer does. Today, she reaches for my hand, smiles, and says with certainty “I love you.” And with equal affirmation, I reply “I love you too.”
Drivers pass by locking their doors. Tour companies sell tickets to pass through and gawk at the homeless. In a neighbourhood completely misunderstood, I am reminded of the strength of the human spirit and good that exists within all. A dose of the Downtown Eastside is exactly what I needed.