Dressed in khaki shorts, trendy t-shirt and a baby blue bike helmet, I jump on my bike, with camera around my neck, and head to Vancouver’s skid row. I wandered onto Hasting Street the pervious night in search of a late-night Chinese noodle shop. What I found instead was drug deals taking place in front of me and residents smoking and injecting drugs openly. The only other place I have seen anything like it was in Zurich in one particular block. In Vancouver, the squalidity goes on for blocks and blocks . . . and it is crowded.
I imagine myself using the photos I will take today to tell the story of drug addiction in Canada. A couple blocks in, the smell of old urine and used beer hits me like an epiphany. The streets are dirty and filled with trash; apparent addicts in filthy bright-orange worker vests roam the streets. I imagine the city gives them “jobs” that don’t ever get quite done. I bike on.
I stop at a street corner where I can see up and down Hastings Street. At 11am it is nearly as thick as the night before. It feels like a bad remake of Night of the Living Dead; the citizens of this land shuffle down the street, some in torn and/or dirty clothes, vacant, almost dead expressions on their faces. A transgender prostitute – with a bit of life in her – shouts “hello handsome.” “Lookin’ good girl!” I yell back. She smiles. I bike on.
Another stop and I encounter a man named Michael digging through the city-owned trash can. He thinks I am an officer of the peace and, pointing down the street, tells me that someone stole a painting. I tell him I am not the fuzz, but I don’t think he believes me. A moment passes and Michael hands me a crumpled, hand written note titled “this is my inheritance.” The collection of words make up sentences that don’t quite make sense. . . to me. Still, I read it – out loud – out of respect. I see that it doesn’t matter whether it makes sense to me, it is important to him that others see his heirloom.
To be honest, I am more interested in the couple sitting behind him on the street, grey skin, sunken cheeks, preparing something for a glass pipe. I guess heroin, but ask Michael. He looks down to avoid the question. I step past him and say good morning to the twosome. Neither look up at me, but go about their business. I ask if I may take their picture – the woman says, again without looking at me, “I don’t want my picture taken today.” I feel suddenly warm and as if I am intruding. It feels like I am in someone else’s living room, but I see no furniture. I bike on.
Another man on the street declines to have his picture taken. The warmth I was feeling starts to expand from my belly into my chest – I identify the feeling: anxiety. I look around; I am not welcome here – physically or energetically. My mind tries to justify my presence: I know what it is to fight the monkey on my back, to jones and to feel as though nothing else matters. I see the battle scars on my own body and identify with the uninhabited faces I witness walking past me. I am them and they are me: we are the same.
But on the outside, I look like a tourist. I feel like a tourist in that moment and, although I hate to admit it, I am. I have come into someone else’s living room – their life – with the intention of capturing something exotic and taking it back to my own world. I bike a block and then take my camera out to at least capture a street scene. I get two snapped off when a rather tall man approaches me: “I don’t want my picture taken,” he says. My heart beats faster, now I am feeling fear. “I’m just taking them of the street,” I respond. “Yes, but when you take a picture of the street, you take a picture of the people, and no one around here wants their picture taken.” There is incredible clarity in his statement. I finally get it: this is not where I belong; I am not invited. “Sorry, no disrespect meant, I’ll put it away.” I roll a few feet on my bike and another man who witnesses the exchange tells me the residents of Hastings Street will “riot” if anyone takes a camera out. He concludes ”it’s too bad, such nice architecture.” I bike on.
A few blocks over and I am in the trendy part of Gastown. Taking a quick bathroom break in Starbucks, I then head over to the Inuit Gallery where I see First Nations artwork in the range of $1000 – $25,000 CAD. I fit more easily into this world than the one I was in 15 minutes ago. Reflecting upon the difference between me and the people on Hasting Street I realize that I am able to bike, walk or drive away to more comfortable surroundings. With this unexpected revelation comes immense gratitude for my life. Thank you Universe for the amazing life I have today, yesterday and tomorrow!