20 August 2008

Sometimes, your perspective gets blown wide open by the unlikeliest of sources.

Last night, Tonia, Chris and I went downtown to have dinner with my aunt Carol. My mother’s closest sister, has always been like a second mother to me and my siblings. She doesn’t get to town very often, and we don’t visit her town very much anymore – so it’s always a treat to see her. We had a nice dinner at the restaurant in her hotel, and she & I made plans to have lunch today, as she’s in town all week. But it was the bus ride home from downtown when things got interesting.

We left the hotel about ten, and it was absolutely pouring outside; one of those no-really-Vancouver-DOES-have-nice-summers-honest kinds of rainstorms, cold and endless. We hopped the 240 to North Van, and prepared for an uneventful ride home.But, silly me, I forgot the cardinal rule of nighttime public transit - things always get interesting once the sun goes down. At Georgia & Granville, one of the main stops for the 240, a morbidly-obese young woman, maybe 21 years old, got on the bus and proceeded to sit down in one of the front, handicapped/elderly seats. She was the kind of obese you either feel sorry for or sneer at, depending on your sense of compassion, I guess. I watched curiously –with a sociological detachment- as people would attempt to sit down beside her, and then get up within a few seconds, because they simply could not get comfortable sitting next to her, as she took up most of both seats. The bus continued to fill up. I closed my eyes and pretended to ignore everything, a custom of daily transit riders like me. At Georgia & Bute, my ears pricked up a bit at what sounded like a typical drunk/loud loogan engaging the bus driver in one of those ‘Jeez, ya know, I have a valid transfer but it got soaked in the rain so I don’t think it’ll work in the machine’ conversations. The bus driver, who as usual didn’t seem to give a shit (bus drivers apparently don’t get paid enough to give a shit what goes on on the bus while they’re driving), murmured an approval and the loogan got on. He wasn’t onboard more the five seconds when he started the sales pitch to everyone within earshot: “I got cartons of Marlboro Lights – thirty bucks apiece! Who wants one?” I squinted a brief look at him, in case this was someone I needed to be wary of. I’m always wary of drunks, you never know when they’re gonna get mean or stupid. He was loud, and extremely animated, so that was a minor red flag in my mind. I’ve never had a problem with psycho drunks before, mainly because I tend to avoid them at all costs, but in this day and age of random Greyhound decapitations, you can never be too safe. Looking kinda like a cross between latter-day Dee Dee Ramone (without the tattoos) and a younger version of my Dad (well, maybe - if my Dad smoked crack on a regular basis for thirty years), our blazin’-eyed travel companion had definitely been partying tonight, that much was for sure. He kinda bus-legs-sauntered over to the front seat where the obese girl was sitting, and said, without any audible tone of irony or disrespect, “Mind if I sit down next to you, Momma?” and then proceeded to plop down next to her. I didn’t hear her reply, but I can imagine she was thinking what I’d be thinking: Fuck. Why me? Dee-Dee-Dad then proceeded to produce a bottle of Amarula cream liqueur from his backpack and asked if someone would crack open the bottle for him.I’m not sure why he wanted somebody else to open it for him, but a nearby young pothead-type reached over and unscrewed the cap for him.Dee-Dee-Dad then offered him a drink, but pothead-guy declined.I had my eyes half-closed, and was only half-paying-attention to the conversation, but there was a mostly-one-sided conversation about getting off the bus and onomatopoeically sssssccccccccchhhhhhhmoking a big fat rock.Tonia beside me, still a little tipsy from drinks at dinner, was giggling like crazy – our new travel companion was quite the entertainer.And every time she’d sneak a glance across the aisle at her brother –who was also giggling- she’d laugh even harder.Me, I was just trying to be ignored.As the bus wound toward Stanley Park and its causeway, our friend was trying to engage anyone who would listen, and especially the large girl beside him (who was furiously texting away, celphone held up close to he her hoodied face, presumably for help in case this crazy crackhead tried to kidnap her, even though she outweighed him by, like, three times), in manic conversation about the cheap cigarettes and booze he had for sale.Nobody would talk to him, or if they did, it was in curt, one-word answers.Nobody was buying anything from him, that’s for sure.
As we crossed Lions Gate Bridge, I got a better look at him, and he seemed relatively harmless, even though he was pretty keyed up, and babbling like a brook.I am usually in no mood to deal with drunks, junkies, or street folk.But then, to be fair, I’m usually in no mood to deal with the rest of the world at large anyway, regardless of its state of inebriation or domesticity.I am usually one of those people who close my eyes to the rest of the world when I am on the bus. I don’t want to hear your conversation; I don’t want to have to listen to your too-loud mp3 player; I don’t care about your way-too-personal-and-inappropriate cel phone call.I normally just put on my headphones and drone away to my own too-loud (but with headphones that only I can hear) music and ignore, ignore, ignore.I’m glad I didn’t have them last night.
When we got to Capilano Road, the large girl was getting up and preparing to disembark.Our friend was still trying to talk to her, or maybe pick on up on her (I’m not sure which) but she just glared at him, and muttered something along the lines of fuck you, whatever, or go away.So of course, with her getting off the bus, our pal needed somebody to talk to.The young guy sitting directly behind him, who would have been directly in his line of conversational sight, moved back a seat and sat next to Chris.This of course, left him with an audience of about seven or eight people at the front of the bus who desperately wanted nothing to do with him. So of course he starts gesticulating and going on a little louder, because it’s his birthday today, his big fiftieth birthday, and he ‘found’ a crate of cigarettes today, and he’s sold a bunch of them, and he’s loaded (in both senses of the term), and dammit, he’s pretty pleased about the whole thing!
And seeing this, something changed inside of me. I began to think on how shitty it would be to be fifty, and still smoking crack every day, and losing a lot of things that meant something to you in your life because you were hooked on sucking that glass dick. This guy had the pop-n-lock mannerisms of a crackhead, and he moved and spoke like a street rat, and he looked like he’d seen some rough shit - but on a whole, he didn’t seem that different from anybody else. He could’ve just been any Johnny-Six-Pack on his way home from a long day of working construction and downing a few beers after to take the edge off. As I was studying him, I thought of my other aunt, Debbie, who I am also quite close to, and her until-recently job as a nurse at InSite, Vancouver’s safe-injection site for the Downtown Eastside’s heroin addicts. Debbie, with her Florence Nightingale kindness and generosity, always had wild tales of the junkies and street people she’d befriended while working at InSite. Something inside me just told me maybe I should reach out instead of silently hoping to be ignored by this animated fellow. He had these intensely bright eyes, and I could tell this guy wasn’t looking for a hassle, he just wanted somebody to talk to. So, as he blurted out (again) that it was his fiftieth birthday, I wished him a ‘Hey man, happy birthday’, since nobody else had. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done, everybody has a right to be wished a happy birthday, especially on their fiftieth. Surprised, he turned around and thanked me, and then proceeded to take Tonia & me on the coolest, craziest conversational ride we’d had in a long time.
His name was Steve, it was his fiftieth birthday, and he looooved to ride his bike. The high that came from riding his bike was almost as good as sex, was even almost as good as crack. Man, there was nothing like riding your bike, wind whipping through your hair, muscles working. He stood up to illustrate how bike riding had kept him in such incredible shape for fifty. True, he was pretty well ripped, in that exercise and crack-cocaine kind of way. And if you asked me, he sure didn’t look fifty. Who knows? It could’ve been a crack-tale – shit, everything he said may have been a crack-tale, but hell, WHAT a crack-tale!
He’d been riding his bike down Lonsdale that morning when a truck he was following down the hill lost a box which nearly hit him. After narrowly dodging a wipeout, he stopped his bike to see what the hell was in the box, and jesus christ if it wasn’t a crate -eighty cartons!- of Marlboro Light cigarettes. He then made his way down to the docks at Lonsdale Quay with the box to sell smokes to some of the dock workers there. Some cops were there at the Quay, but Steve told them his story about the truck, and one of the cops even bought a carton or two from him, no shit, and told him ‘hey man, good for you’. He was selling them at thirty-five bucks a pop, and he was down to twenty-three cartons from his original eighty. He was livin’ on fat pockets tonight, and the clinking bottles of Amarula and Bailey’s in his backpack (‘only twenty bucks each if you wanna buy one’), and the fat rock in his pocket were the spoils of his eventful day.
He loved North Vancouver, but, he said with a caveat, going to jail on the North Shore sucked, as compared to going to jail in West Van. In West Van, when you get arrested, the cops give you White Spot hamburgers to eat. In North Van, you only get bologna sandwiches.
Steve related to us the tale of the first time he smoked cocaine, thirty years before, at the tender age of twenty, and that the peak of the high was so incredible, he had an involuntary orgasm. As he recounted this tale of that life-altering first high, I think he repeated the phrase came in my pants about three times, much to the shuddering chagrin of the middle-aged businessman sitting behind him, who, eyes closed, looked like he wanted to fold himself up into a two-inch box and hide himself under his bus seat, to get away from this disgusting street person. I found myself inwardly smirking at the absurdity of the situation, at the prim-and-proper businessman, who looked like he’d never used a phrase like came in my pants in his life, stuck in place sitting behind this foul-mouthed, ugh, street person. Steve told us that after that first time, he was hooked and kept chasing that initial high, time after time, but that no high was ever the same as the first one. That he’d spent thousands trying to get there again, but it was that first high that was the greatest. He said he’d been hanging out with a guy who was smoking the shit in front of him, and he wanted to try it, but the guy told him not to do it - if only he’d listened. He told tales of how he’d been to detox three times, and that it was hell, and that no detox could do battle with the human mind, the force of human will. Crack cocaine isn’t addictive in the heart or the head, he said, it was like sex. Crack cocaine was like sex, and it was impossible to remove it from your system unless you consciously decided you were going to get off of it. He said he had tried but he was weak. He liked the sex of smoking crack too much.
Speaking of which, it turned out Steve was heading to the North Shore to party with a guy he’d hustled a few times. “Sure, the guy’s gay but so what? He pays me well for sex, and he’s always generous and gives me a warm meal and a place to stay.” In return, Steve slept with him, and never, ever stole from him. “Two things I’ll always do for ya if ya let me stay at your place…” He fixed us with a level stare, as if he was pitching us a business venture instead of describing hustling’s rules of engagement, “Well, with the sex I guess it’s actually three things, but… One, I’ll never steal from ya, and Two, I’ll always pay my own way.” I didn’t understand how paying your own way translates into hustling your dick, or vicey-versey, but I nodded, fascinated by this guy’s candor. “See, I can GET a job, I have NO problem GETTING a job, I’m a journeyman carpenter, I’ve been doing it for years… it’s just HOLDING a job that’s the problem,” he laughed, “I’d just rather suck on the glass dick. That’s where I get fucked up.”
As the bus rolled ever closer to Lonsdale, he told us the story of his family, his ex-wife and two daughters, ten and thirteen. How his thirteen-year-old wanted nothing to do with him anymore, now that she was old enough to figure things out. How his wife, god bless her, never said a bad word about him to the daughters, even though she wanted him out of their lives. How his ten-year-old, Christine, said to him the last time he saw her, “Oh, Daddy, if only you were there.” He said that pretty much summed it up. If only he was there. But as the bus pulled around the corner from Jones onto 15th Street, and passed the newly-renovated house on the corner, it was time for our storyteller to bail. He got up from his seat, and asked aloud, “Where am I - in West Van or North Van?” All of the people at the front of the bus were saying “Yeah, West Van.”, I guess as if it was some sort of a joke, some sort of let’s-pull-one-over-on-the-fucked-up-guy. I looked at him and said, “You’re in North Van.” He looked at me and Tonia, eyes ablaze, and said, sincerely, “Hey you guys, thanks for talking to me. You guys are real cool, not judgemental, and you’re a beautiful couple.” I told him to take care of himself, and wished him good luck. He stepped off the bus to grab his bike off the bus’s bike rack. The owner of the other bike on the rack raced to the front of the bus to make sure Steve wasn’t taking off with her bike. He wasn’t – everybody could collectively calm down again.
So yeah, sometimes you get your mind opened, your perspective widened in the strangest places. I wished Steve good luck, and I meant it. I hope the guy can get his shit together enough to salvage his relationships with his daughters, I hope he can pry himself away from the sex of smoking crack, and figure everything out. It was a sad waste to see such an intensely life-loving person heading deeper into a dark, dark path. Even if I only knew him for a thirty-minute bus ride, crack-smoking Steve changed my life. I can’t tell you how; I only know that he did.

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