once upon a time on the Downtown Eastside
by dm gillis
Loosely based on possible past events
It’s the Tuesday before Welfare Wednesday. The hungriest day of the month for the hungriest people in the city. My name is Darren Hornsby. I’m in my office at Mission United Church on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I’m a Legal Anti-poverty Advocate, and I’m using a ruler to catapult sharpened pencils into the acoustic tiles above my desk. The phone rings.
In my line of work, a ringing phone is almost never a good thing. It usually means someone’s ass is falling off. People know that that’s my intervention criteria. Don’t even think of calling unless your ass is falling off. I usually let the phone ring seven times before picking up. It helps to weed out the unmotivated. On the Tuesday before cheque issue, however, I always let it ring eight times.
It does. I pick up.
“Hey Darren, ol’ buddy,” the caller says. “Guess who this is.”
“Don’t know,” I say. “Your ass falling off?”
“Darren, pal. It’s Hal from the Food Bank. How you doing?”
“I’ve got a feeling things are about to change for me,” I say.
Hal’s a Food Bank employee. A broker really, responsible for foisting large amounts of the world’s most unwanted food onto the world’s most unwanted people. Hal and people like him are the dirty little secret of food banks everywhere.
People like Hal are the go-betweens for contributors using the food bank as a dumping facility. Donors delivering rotten or near rotten perishables by the truckload, and behaving like it’s manna. The Food Bank has rules, but these donors are usually large companies who provide monetary donations as well. They think not accepting two hundred and fifty pounds of poisonous, decaying chicken wieners they’re too cheap to take to the landfill is the same as not wanting the all important cheque come Christmastime. So, what’s the Food Bank to do? They get a guy like Hal.
Hal doesn’t get rich doing what he does. Like most of us living off of the avails of the non-profit sector, he probably brings home just about enough to avoid having to use the Food Bank himself. What makes guys like Hal so annoying is that they love their work. He gets off on making his mouldy cheese your mouldy cheese. No one else in the mission office will talk to him. Only I’m capable of saying no.
“Sounds like you’re burning out, Darren,” Hal says. “It’s time to go to Disneyland.”
“I already work in Disneyland,” I say looking out of my window. On Hastings there’s five uniform police holding down a struggling, emaciated woman as they go through her backpack. “What’s up? Spit it out.”
“Okay, but you take all of the fun out of this job, you know.”
“Don’t care,” I say picking up a sheet of paper, flapping it noisily in the air, providing audio evidence of the frenzied pressure I’m currently under.
“Whatever. Look, you ever been to Mexico?”
“That file’s been sealed by the authorities, Hal.”
“Huh? Okay look, what’s the tastiest fruit they have in Mexico? And here’s a hint: you use it to make a sauce for nachos. What is it, Darren? C’mon, what is it?”
“Cilantro,” I say. I’ve stopped catapulting pencils, and have begun mindlessly pumping staples into an eraser. Talking to Hal is like this sometimes. Past mission employees have gnawed off their own limbs.
“No, no, you crazy nut. It’s the avocado. Cilantro’s an herb, not a fruit.”
“Now listen carefully, Darren.” Hal is nearly whispering now, for emphasis. He’s not sure I get just how lucky I am that he’s called. “You want avocados; I got avocados. You with me so far, huh?”
“You don’t have to whisper, Hal. The United Church of Canada has this office swept for bugs on a weekly basis.”
“Okay, but pay attention. I have five thousand avocados at their peak of perfection waiting in a reefer truck outside. Safeway over ordered. Running the reefer is costing us something like $75 an hour. That’s money we ain’t got, and I know you ain’t got no avocados, so why don’t you do your part and take these puppies off my hands.”
“Do we get the nachos and sour cream as well?”
“Take the avocados, for Christ sake.”
“What are we supposed to do with avocados, Hal? People here need ready-made – canned and bagged. Send over some Chef Boyardee.”
“Take the damn avocados, Darren. Or do I have to come down there personally and feed all 5,000 of them to you through a hose?”
Hal’s a little more reactive than normal today. If I push a little harder, he might burst like a haggis piñata in the sun.
“We don’t want your 5,000 avocados, or any portion thereof. Our customers are homeless, Hal. Or they live in slum hotels where the only refrigeration comes during a few weeks in the winter. You know all this, yet you continue offering me your putrid rib roasts, green cold cuts and composted vegetables.”
“They’re nice and firm, Darren,” Hal says, changing his tone.
“I doubt it.”
“They’re just coming ripe and ever so lithe to the touch. “
“They’re dark with antioxidants. The pits nearly jump out of their own volition. They’re ready to be gently cubed in their own peel and spooned out onto a dish of baby romaine. Serve ‘em up with a little bit of slivered red onion, a sprinkle of toasted sesame, some freshly cracked pepper, maybe a trickle of fruity, extra virgin olive oil and a not too sweet, slightly acidic papaya salsa. Would that be so damned bad, Darren?”
“Sounds great, Hal,” I say. “But this is a frontline street mission functioning in the poorest, nastiest neighbourhood in town. It ain’t a tappas bar. On today’s fresh sheet is soup, the same soup we ladled out yesterday and the same soup we’ll be ladling out five years from now. It’s the kind of soup people line up round the block for because it’s hot and ready to go. It’s the kind of soup we serve to-go because we respect that our customers aren’t good at sitting still.
“In our own puny on-site food bank there’s only space for tea bags, instant coffee, peanut butter, crackers, canned baby food, pasta, rice, baked beans with pork, baked beans in tomato sauce, baked beans with those crappy little cocktail weenies you never know what the hell they are and wouldn’t feed your dog, infinite cans of light flaked tuna, canned sardines in tomato sauce, canned sardines in mustard sauce, canned sardines in marshmallow sauce with chocolate fucking chips, canned corn beef, Spam – real and generic, canned mackerel, canned salmon, even canned goat, for God’s sake. But there is no room for the gourmet inspired wanking of people who can afford kitchen appliances. This is not the bloody food channel. When you presume to flog this shit off on my customers for reasons that benefit you alone, you dismiss their plight as meaningless. You treat them like they’re your personal garbage disposal. And no matter how praiseworthy your agency, buddy, you’ve got no right.”
Now Hal’s gone quiet, but I can hear him breathing. He hangs up. This is routine, but it may not be a good thing. He’s probably thinking up a plan B.
After taking a suicide call later in the morning and sitting through a meeting with a low level civic official connected to the Mayor’s initiative to create a homelessness diaspora to the suburbs called Operation Share the Pain, I go for lunch. When I return, I pick up the scent of avocados on the air. I ignore it, believing it to be the result of the joint I just smoke with Harry Nathan, a plain clothes cop behind the Ovaltine Café.
Back in my office I rummage for munchies, but come up empty. There’s a knock at my door.
Gracie Dorn, the receptionist and Cree Goddess of office dysfunction, walks in uninvited. “This is for you,” she says holding out a bill of lading. “The driver says you have to sign it before he can deliver the avocados.”
Stoned, I take it and say, “Fine.” I sign it, and Gracie leaves with it, slamming the door behind her. I check my agenda for the rest of the afternoon. There are four overlapping first priority, hour and a half long appointments. There’s another knock at my door. Gracie again, this time with a cc of the form I’ve just signed.
“There’re now several flats containing approximately 5,000 avocados on the loading dock, Mr Hornsby,” Gracie says.
I’m having trouble understanding her, and starting to realise it may have been a mistake getting stoned at lunch. Cops always have the most wicked weed.
The phone rings. It’s Hal.
“You get ‘em, ol’ pal?” he says.
My jaw drops. Out of the corner of my eye, on my desk, I see the cc of the bill I’ve just signed. Then I yell into the receiver, “Bastard.”
“Don’t be a loser,” Hal says.
“I’m going to invade your AGM, Hal. I’m going to raise so many points of order that you and your board will be busy ‘til hell freezes over.”
“I’ve already had you banned from our next five AGMs, Darren.”
“You can’t do that, I’m an associate member. I get your crappy little rah-rah newsletter every month.”
“Not anymore, pal. I just hit enter.”
“Send your boy back and get those avocados.”
“No way, man. He’s gone back into detox.”
“I’m renting a truck, Hal. I know where you live, you shit head.”
“You stay away from me, you law school washout. It’s only Tuesday. That’s plenty of time to get a restraining order.”
“Fuck,” I yell and slam down the receiver over and over, seeing Hal’s face in the cradle. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”
The phone rings again. “What,” I yell. It’s Mary, a support group facilitator.
“The Mission United Battered Women’s Support Group is gathering out here, Darren,” she says. “They’re waiting for their meeting room to come free.”
“Well, we can hear you in there. You’re scaring some of the group members, Darren. And the ones that aren’t scared are looking for a rope.”
“Okay, you’re right,” I say. “I’m calming down.” I hang up and ring Gracie at reception. “Cancel all of my appointments for this afternoon.”
“Now, Darren? It’s a bit late, isn’t it? One of them is already here.”
“Just do it, Gracie. Tell them I’m dead. Say it was the Ebola Virus, that everyone on site is contagious.”
“Darren,” Gracie says. “I’m the receptionist, not your mother. You have to start taking more responsibility for yourself and your clientele.”
“I’m escaping through my window,” I say.
“If called on it, deny you ever heard me say that.”
I hang up the phone.
My office is on the first floor. I open the window and look down. Mission United was built in the sixties, back when it wasn’t considered unreasonable for an office worker to want to open a window. Mine opens enough for me to squeeze out. I’ve done it before. The only problem is that my escape hatch opens over the ramp leading down into the underground parking, making the fall about one and a half stories. It all works out much better when I’m more stoned than I currently am, but my immediate escape is imperative. There’s no other way to get to the loading dock to confirm the reality of the avocados without walking through reception.
Thirty seconds after I hit the ramp, I’m behind the building on the loading dock looking at several massive flats of Mexican avocados. Sergio, the church’s Guatemalan born janitor looks at the flats with me and whistles. We share the same ominous and ugly premonition.
“We mus hide these, Mr Hornsby,” Sergio says.
“Yeah, yeah, Serge. Get some tarps.”
Sergio vanishes, and I pick up one of the dark green, hand grenade sized objects. It’s about the weight of a hardball, and rotting. If these make it off the loading dock and into the neighbourhood, it’ll be 2010 all over again, only worse.
In July 2010, the mission received a similar delivery – 600 kilos of decomposing strawberries. The mission did what it could to get the word out and distribute them. Some of them were even eaten or made into preserves. But the rest, almost all of the 600 kilos, became projectiles in a neighbourhood-wide strawberry paint ball fight.
That delivery was Hal’s responsibility as well. I crush the plump, pulpy piece of fruit in my hand.
Somewhere in the universe, Jesus wept again. Fat lot of good that did any of us, though. Here was food going bad, and no way to safely distribute it. The second word got out, there’d be mayhem. These weren’t small, mushy strawberries. Each one was like a snowball with a rock inside. When these items started to fly, windows would break and people would get hurt.
I hang my head considering the unfairness of it all. And then I hear the sirens.
I look up the back alley onto Gore Street, and see an Emergency Services onslaught. It’s headed up by the police. The mission is being surrounded by cruisers, ambulances and fire trucks. There’s even a van of SWAT types that stops on the corner a half block away. And this is when the Reverend Moses Hawser and Wilma, his ever-present border collie, appear.
“Jesus Murphy,” Hawser says. “What the fuck now? And what in the name of bleeding Jesus is that,” he says, pointing at the avocados.
Having come to Canada from Ulster, Hawser has a healthy regard for the destructive, wounding potential of anything so easily picked up and thrown as an avocado.
“They’re…” I begin.
“…bloody avocados,” the reverend says, finishing my sentence. “What lowlife son of a Belfast whore put those there?”
“Guess,” I say.
“Food Bank Hal, eh? I’ll castrate the bastard.”
Then we hear an unexpected voice from the alley: “Okay, boyos.” It’s a female police sergeant. “You two get yer arses back inside.”
“What the hell for,” Hawser says. “What’s with you lot?”
“We’ve been called in by the City and the Centre for Disease Control,” the sergeant says. “They’ll have more to tell you when they arrive. For now, just get back inside.”
“Or what, Missus Policeman,” Hawser says. “Or you’ll arrest me for standing on the Lord’s own loading dock?”
“What you just call me, Padre?” the sergeant asks.
“’Padre’?” says Hawser. “Did you say ‘Padre’?”
Things are suddenly starting to get tense. Hawser’s the Executive Director of the Mission, and takes his job very seriously. He’s also maniacally Protestant. I’ve seen him like this before. It never works out well.
“Let me tell you something, Officer Barbie Doll. I’m no Padre. I’m no child molesting papist stooge. I’m a Minister in the United Church of Canada, the Grand Old UC of C. The church Jesus himself will attend upon His return.”
I take Hawser by the elbow and attempt to guide him away. He doesn’t budge. Under any other circumstances, this was the bullet-proof old bastard I’d want in my corner. But we needed a subtlety now that he lacked.
“They look serious, boss,” I say glancing at the sergeant and her cohort over my shoulder.
Going over to the avocados and picking one up, Hawser says, “Fine, girly. I’ll keep the peace and retreat back into the House of the Lord. And to prove there’s no hard feelings, here’s a wee token of my esteem. Memorize its face, because if something isn’t done to keep these from getting out onto the streets, there’s gonna be trouble tonight.”
He tosses the rotting avocado underhand. The cops behind the sergeant jump back, but the sergeant holds her ground. She smiles as the avocado comes to rest a half meter away from the toe of her boot, and pulls a pale green latex glove out of her hip pocket. She snaps it onto her right hand, kneels and picks up Hawser’s gift. There’s an astonished gasp from the officers behind her as she drops it into an evidence bag. The word, gasped and repeated, “Ebola, Ebola, fucking Ebola.”
Once inside, Hawser turns to me and says, “Darren me lad, you know when I hear words like Jihad, assassination, hostage taking, massacre, explosion, butcher the bastard, weapons cache, whites of their eyes, fire in the hole, electromagnetic pulse and Ebola, I think immediately of you”
“Well,” I say and etch out a nervous but invisible figure eight on the linoleum with the toe of my tattered black Chuck Taylor. “I guess I just, I don’t…. I mean I really don’t see….” I have nothing credible to say. I look up from the floor at Hawser’s sour mug.
“Oh dear, and what’s happened to our man of many words, Darren? The bombastic interrupter of important meetings, the pounder of desktops, the Mission’s own Men’s and Lady’s restroom graffiti artist – don’t deny it, boy, we’re short on time here.”
“It’s been a difficult day,” I say.
“Darren, my son,” and here Moses places his hand on my shoulder, and his tone becomes calm, almost angelic. “It’s a frontline street mission we work in here. We swim daily in the bottomless morass of human misery and calamity. We do it for the paycheque, sure. But we also do it because we’re called to it, no? And a calling isn’t set aside just because we’re having a difficult day, is it?”
“No?” I say.
“No, indeed,” Hawser says gently as he removes a sizeable piece of lint from the front of my shirt. “No Darren, and this is where I sometimes question the wisdom of the Grand Old UC of C bringing in dirty, filthy little pagan bastards like you to do God’s work. A calling is to be treasured and nurtured and held close to the heart, but never, never too far from the brain. And when we think we’ve lost our way, a calling is to be depended upon to guide us toward a better day. Do you see what I mean, Darren Hornsby?”
“Don’t injure yourself,” Hawser says holding up a rock solid index finger. “It was a rhetorical question, you see. I really don’t give a shite what you have to say on the matter. But I do want you to answer me this. Did you tell Gracie in reception to call and inform your remaining appointments for today that you were dead from the Ebola Virus, and that everyone on site was contagious, and that as a result all your appointments needed to be cancelled?”
“Well, there’s more to it than….”
The index finger again. “Just a yes or no answer, Darren.”
I sigh deeply. “Look, Moses….”
“Now, now, now. No more information need be divulged at this time. You see Darren, you’ve really started something. At some point in the very near future, the Centre for Disease Control is going to phone this mission, likely from a mobile command trailer out there on the street. They’ve practiced this scenario a thousand times over and are chomping at the bit to put what they’ve rehearsed to practical use. They have to justify their existence somehow, don’t they? And I’ll be damned if they don’t think that this might the place to do it. Here on the Downtown Eastside where no matter how honourably or dastardly they perform, they’ll look heroic against the perceived filth and decay. It’s like a blank canvas upon which they’ll be able to paint whatever lies suit them when it’s all over. And to think they have a crusty old iconoclast like you to thank for the opportunity.
“When they call, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a tiny red light isn’t flashing on my desk phone at this very moment, they’re going to ask to speak to whoever’s in charge. That of course would be Our Lord Jesus Christ. But being the stand-offish sort that He is, and therefore unavailable to take the call, I’ll have to take it in His stead. And I’ll have to tell them that it was our Senior Anti-poverty Advocate who bullied our modest, retiring, underpaid, overworked receptionist into spreading, on his behalf, the lie that has lead to the havoc we are now witnessing. Isn’t that about right, Darren?”
“Yes,” I say.
“HA,” he claps his hands. “And here you see why I still pray for your sorry, lost, safety-pin-punk-ass soul, Darren Hornsby. Because redemption’s for them what needs it, not those who have it already. Now that’s a thought for you to meditate upon while you get those fucking avocados off Our Lord Jesus Christ’s loading dock before the whole wretched neighbourhood arms itself for the commencement of the apocalypse.”
Hawser turns a flabby one-eighty and walks away, preceded by Wilma.
Now Sergio comes to mind. Has he placed the tarps over the avocados? My right hand falls to the place on my hip where my Mission walkie-talkie should be. Nothing there. It’s crackling away in its charging cradle on top of a filing cabinet in my office – next to a tarnished brass effigy of Ganesha. Ganesha, the Hindu remover of obstacles. That’s the elephant-headed son of a bitch we need right now. Jesus could sit this one out, no harm no foul.
I yell out Sergio’s name. His voice comes back from down the corridor and around a corner.
“Mr Hornsby? Over,” he says, then there’s the electronic crack of his walkie-talkie key being released. “Mr Hornsby, that you? Over.” Crack.
I walk the few steps down the hall and around the corner, and there he is sitting against the wall surrounded by tarps. He’s looking like the Guatemalan peasant farmer he once was, caught between the guerrillas and the government death squads. He’s talking desperately into his walkie-talkie. “Mr Hornsby, please. Over. Come in, come in. I don know wha to do. I lock the doors, all of them. But I don thank tha will hold them. I wan to phone ma wife, Mr Hornsby, over.”
I kneel down beside him. He’s sweating and shaking, staring into space. He’s reliving something that happened a long time ago. Then he sees me and bursts into tears. He throws the walkie-talkie against a wall where it disintegrates, and grabs me in a bear hug. He sobs. “They shoot everybody, Mr Hornsby. They torture and shoot.”
“No, Sergio,” I say. “Those are just the VPD out there. They aren’t the same police you had back home. Just a pale reflection.”
He continues to sob, rocking back and forth. Then I feel him deeply sigh. There’s fresh cumin in his sweat and on his breath.
“Sometimes, Mr Hornsby,” he says. “I don know wha to do with the memories. I see a police, an I thank I see soldiers.”
“It’s okay, buddy. No soldiers today.”
“Ce,” he says. And somehow manages a game face. “We mus cover the avocados. I believe we can get the tarps over the flats before the troops can ge off a shot.”
“There won’t be any shooting, Serge. You can forget about the tarps, and to hell with the stupid avocados. Go back to your office and call your wife.”
“Thank you, Mr Hornsby.”
I walk up the corridor, and look out the window onto Gore Street. I watch the police, ambulance crews and fire trucks. After an hour and a half, they start to leave. The word has come down. The Reverend Moses Hawser has worked his profane Irish magic with the powers that be. The siege is over before it starts. He and Wilma are probably up in the Eagle’s Nest now, him smoking the raunchy end of a Cuban cigar and Wilma gnawing on a knuckle bone.
For what has to be no more than a second, just long enough for it to be recognised and then sorely missed when it disappears, I feel a peaceful calm come over me. I look down and describe an invisible figure eight onto the linoleum, similar to the one I had earlier under Hawser’s intense stare. Smiling, I look out the window at the emptying street.
And that’s when I see it, a dark green blur arcing over Gore Street like a spring league homer headed directly for me. Someone across the street has drawn a bead, and I’m the target. It hits the wire reinforced window with mushy green violence, and splatters like a bug on a windshield. I duck needlessly, and then look up. Across Gore Street is Marmot Tyler and the rest of the Eastside Tylers, the street gang even burnt-out malcontents like me love to hate. Mamot smiles toothlessly and flips me the bird. Then he points to his shopping carts full of rotting avocados as if to say, “Now look what you’ve done, you dumb shite.”
I just wave back and walk away. As I slowly retreat, I hear a barrage of avocados hit the side of the church.
Tomorrow would be welfare cheque issue day, light duties comprised primarily of reaming out malicious Financial Aid Workers who’ve spitefully held back cheques as a way of compensating for their joyless lives. I sit down at my desk, and look over at Lord Ganesha on the file cabinet. His stare is infinite. Either that or he’s ignoring me.