Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Postwork Ramble

It is midnight, and I am off work.

My coworker offers to walk me to my bus stop, and I offer to walk her to her own. We each refuse, politely, and then offer again, until we finally admit that we just aren’t that scared standing alone on the street corners. We’ve each been working downtown for over a year - we are over the novelty of the addicts, and the men who occasionally solicit us, and the people in various states of consciousness. It’s old news, and we are no longer scared.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

(I don’t know if those words were spoken out loud, but I certainly thought them. This will prove to be ironic, though I’m not yet in on the joke. I will be, shortly, and then come to realize I am living as a character in a dark, predictable play.)

I walk past the Number Five Orange, which is a strip club, famous and seedy. I walk past the community courts, which are full of dark nooks and crannies for people to hide. There are cameras mounted out front, though this always makes me feel much less safe; I’m sure no one’s watching, but their presence tells me that someone probably should be. I cross in front of the police station that leads the way to Main and Hastings, the ‘open air drug market,’ the centre of the Downtown Eastside, and the epicenter of where I should not wander, alone, at night (according to knowing friends in my freshman/first year).

This is the location of my bus stop.

I used to feel comforted by the reasonable lighting and abundance of people; the corner is always, tellingly well populated, no matter what time of day or night. But then a schizotypic caretaker of my old building warned me that bystanders here would not help me, should something go horribly wrong, and I have now seen enough to know that this is, largely, true. People can be seeped in so much violence, so much yelling, so much personal weight to lug that it is much easier to look the other way.

I know this and still my bus stop does not cause me concern.

Tonight, there is something different. The strip in front of my bus stop is unusually crowded, and I can’t make out a single familiar face. A large group of ten or so skinny figures stand there, at the centre, facing inwards, and it reminds me of the hive of rabid monsters Will Smith encounters in I Am Legend, feasting on a carcass in the dark. (I feel I should mention that the movie is not good.)

I’m not sure how to navigate the way to my regular spot, near the road, by the pole listing the bus numbers. My throat is full and tight, and I realize, suddenly, that I’m scared.

I pause for a moment, too long. I’m spotted and instantly swarmed. This is how I die in the zombie apocalypse.

In this life, people are pushing in, and it occurs to me that they are trying to talk, whispering, but with looks that are desperately friendly. Someone is saying something which I finally understand to be ‘down,’ or heroin. No, I stammer, finding my voice under twenty-three layers of anxiety. Other people are offering me rock, and then asking, in frustrated tones, what I do want to buy.

“I’m just here to catch the bus.” I stammer, once my brain becomes capable of complete sentences.

“This isn’t exactly a bus stop.” The first guy snarls, but I can see my way to the post where I usually stand and walk there, quickly, keeping my head down. Two women haven’t understood, and proceed to approach me and try to sell me crack. I say no, thank you, and spot my savior.

Valentine smiles at me and rolls her eyes.

“How you doing?” she says, completely at ease, the anti-Me. At this point I’m standing two feet off the curb, which she notices with a laugh. “What, you're scared? Come stand by me, kid. I’ll be your body guard.” She is incredibly warm and cool simultaneously, which I know to be impossible, from a thermodynamic perspective. That statement, in itself, is enough evidence: I will never be as cool as Valentine.

A third woman moves in close. Valentine laughs, without menace, and tells her where I work. The woman looks embarrassed and edges away. I can feel the adrenaline leaving me.

Valentine is beautiful, intelligent, with spunk and social skills. She breaks the heart of every staff member, myself included, and so many nights I ache, wanting to take her home. It’s mostly her age - she is twenty, and small. She is so young. She is a baby.

She regards me, I think, in a similar way - the baby of the staff members. She is younger, by three years at least, but tonight I don’t care. The role reversal is welcome, and I wait for the bus, Valentine at my side - calm and collected, keeping me safe.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Prework Ramble

What if someone mistakes you for a Prostitute?

This possibility occurred to me in a hushed, self conscious tone, shortly after I’d been hired. Oh my god. Some one might think that I, Ivy Donegal, respectable citizen, am a Whore…the inhumanity! I was aware of my brain’s bigoted histrionics and tried to hush them, though the question remained, nagging, persistent.

I was reminded of a time when a similar question had troubled me, deeply: what if someone mistook me for a Homosexual? This was the problem, you see, of consorting with gays. I had posed it to a friend describing an outing to a gay bar. My tone was self-righteous and vicariously indignant: “But what if you were hit on by a Lesbian?”

She responded, slowly, as if I were a particularly stupid redneck, which indeed I was: “I would say that, sorry, I’m not interested.”

This conversation was, for me, a memorable one, marking the moment when I realized that homophobia was, outside of my God-fearing, incestuous town, nothing to be bragged about. I hushed up, which is an important first step towards discovery, learning, and left wing zealotry.

The inevitable happened about two weeks into my employment, working almost exclusively with sex trade workers in the poorest part of a very rich town. I was running to the nearby market to purchase bread, two hours before our drop-in opened, and a young man on the sidewalk, watching my exit, emitted a coughed but unmistakable: “Whore.”

My first reaction was of the man’s poor timing…yes, this building housed sex trade workers, but not for another two hours, stupid. Get your bigotry straight. Asshole.

I suppose my lack of personal offense was because I had already discovered what few others do: that sex trade workers don’t look or act remarkably different from any other women (except possibly when they’re soliciting customers, and even then not by much). The only identifiable feature in the women using our drop-in was that they looked poor. All ages, all races, though a great number of aboriginal women formed our ranks, and several dying of various diseases, but mostly cancer or AIDS. Thinner than the regular populace, mostly due to malnutrition. Short skirts and high boots were indeed popular, but the high heels eyed suspiciously; most women need footwear that they can stand on all night and run in, quickly, should their date turn ugly.

The first time I was actively solicited, I was wearing sneakers and old, ripped jeans. The zipper on my jacket was broken, but I loved it, because it was large and I was small and it made me feel tough as I walked down the deserted streets of Chinatown towards my bus stop. I looked rough.

The driver of the speeding car was visibly excited to have spotted me, and I felt a pang of guilt. I didn’t respond, because I didn’t want to come very close to the doors of his vehicle, so I simply looked busy and walked away.

He drove off a few seconds later, emitting another round of the familiar adage: “Whore.”