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As I noted in the last two blogs I live on the edge of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver, B.C. and have an office in Gastown. In previous posts I introduced my perspectives on the controversy related to the area and on the celebrity status attached to it. Through my travels in the area I have collected some stories that I like to use to illustrate my perspective about the neighbourhood.

Much press on the DTES is negative although efforts have been successful in presenting the area in a positive light.  I have heard and have several of my own personal stories that highlight the uniqueness of the area. I want to share a few with you today and will share others in future posts.

A case of mistaken identity?

A girl I know very well is a dancer and had been in an evening Butoh performance at the Firehall Theatre deep in the DTES. After the performance she was not able to acquire a turn in the one shower to wash off the white paint that covered her body (a traditional feature of Butoh dance). So following a quick and inadequate wash using the sink and feeling the frustration of being in a hurry to get home to get ready for a late shift at work she rushed off. Now she was not just frustrated, she was ticked off and burdened down with too many bags and not looking so good (think Einstein on a bad hair day with his face painted white). The large night crowd gathered at Hastings & Main parted like the red sea as she approached. As she stomped through the group she heard someone say “there goes a real crazy one!” The comment startled her and made her realize the impression that she had made and the irony given the regular reprimand she got from friends who did not like her walking in that area especially at night. She laughs when she tells the story now. For me the story illustrates how our perspectives about others impact our reactions to them and how we present to others.

Is that you Santa?

This is a story about an encounter that I had last December. In the middle of the day I was making my way to my office and was headed down East Hastings when I heard a lot of scuffling and shouting behind me.  I glanced back to see a disheveled fellow with a large black plastic bag over his shoulder gesticulating loudly towards a small group of young men. As I continued my walking the noise quieted down but then started up again. This pattern continued for the next block. Finally, the fellow with the bag was right behind me, just muttering under his breath now. When he came up beside me and before I knew what I was doing I said to him “Hey are you Santa Claus?” It was fascinating to see what transpired. This person who just seconds before seemed out of his mind abruptly transformed before my very eyes and in a very polite calm voice, very different than what I had just been listening to, said “Sorry to disturb you I can see you are a reasonable person, but those young boys were poking and picking at me trying to take my bottles away and I was just trying to scare them off”. “No problem” I replied. “Hey Merry Christmas” he said to me. He walked past me once again and started the nonsensical muttering and occasional throwing around of his arms. That was interesting!

Quiet kindness

There are a lot of people in the DTES who do not eat well or enough and who depend on soup kitchens and other forms of charity to get what comes close to a proper meal. I found it heartwarming watching this scene unfold before my eyes. I had stopped for a morning coffee and a quick bite to eat at a local eatery before heading for my office. The café is relatively new to the neighborhood. Some may see it as a part of the gentrification of the area but think what they may, based on what I saw this one morning this place fits into the community quite nicely. The place was fairly busy but there were spaces open for yet-to-arrive customers. My concentration on the reading I was doing was broken by the noise of a person entering the café. He had the signs of someone who made the street his home: his jacket was ragged, his shoes had holes and he lugged a backpack that was in tatters. My first thought was that he would be politely shown out of the café but this did not take place. Instead he was welcomed in by name! Let me call him Jake. I was impressed. But that was not all. He proceeded to a table where a man was having his breakfast, alone and asked if he could join him. Again I was impressed when the man said sure. I could not help but listen as they struck up a lively conversation about their respective histories. It was clear from the dialogue that Jake’s history and experiences were much more remarkable than those of the man he had joined.  No, that is not the whole story. The waiter came over and asked Jake if he wanted his usual breakfast to which he relied yes. The two men finished their breakfasts and their conversation and the first man told Jake that he would buy him his breakfast. Jake said that was not necessary as the café would take care of it like they usually did. Again I was impressed and the final shock was when the man whom Jake had joined said “no I had such a great time talking with you, it is my treat today”. So there you have it….kindness and sharing all round! I loved it!

I close by saying that I know there are many issues and problems in this infamous area of Vancouver but that there are also just as many heartwarming aspects of this community that are also worth focusing on. I will relate more stories in future posts.

Irene McDermott © 2011