Snapshots of the Downtown Eastside

 By Chris Fraser

Trek Program Writing Contest 2002

One thing I have learned about the Downtown Eastside is that it does not want to be described. I have tried over and over to express it in those usual avenues of thought and feeling, to turn it into academia or poetry or conversation. I’ve tried to answer So tell me what it’s like working down there, to answer What a dump, I don’t know how you can stand it, to answer my friends, my parents, myself. But I can’t. The Downtown Eastside is too complex and too beautiful and too outrageous to wrap the usual kinds of words around. I have decided that the only part of me that can represent it sincerely –the only part that knows it honestly–is my eyes.

The first snapshot I would take of the Downtown Eastside would be from the first time I was there. It wouldn’t show much. A can in the gutter, a lost high heel. It would be something irrelevant, something distracting, something you’d look at when you didn’t want to look at something else. It would say, scrawled in bold ink along the bottom: EYE, AVERTED. It would be black and white, but mostly gray. It would be grainy and faded from age. It would be a little blurry, too embarrassed for color.

The next snapshot would be of the origami lady. Have you seen her? The outside of her shop is nothing for photographs; the dusty curtained window, the wide wood door, no sign at all. But push it open and another world unfolds around you; frogs, cranes, bunnies and doves, little girls folded out of Ovaltine wrappers, tiny turtles made from Eaton’s catalogues . . .  A universe of mobiles hang from every surface, each shape preciously joined with lengths of red thread and precariously balanced on horizontal chop sticks. They part slowly when you enter, like crowds, like water. And right at the back is the origami lady, beaming, her eyes and teeth sparkling like so much buried treasure.

The third snapshot would be of June. June who I waved to on so many afternoons, picking up her children from Strathcona Elementary. June of the lavender sweater, mangy dogs following her down the street, so many tails between so many legs. In this snapshot June would be elsewhere though, June would be out on a cool night in February, picking up her husband in the middle of Pender street. His trousers are around his ankles, and there is blood and urine on the asphalt. With all the tenderness and all the dexterity that I have ever seen, June uses one arm to cradle his shoulders and smooth his hair, while the other waves away that taxi cab, arcing around them, moving metal walls in their small private space.

My fourth snapshot would be of a watermelon in the gutter. God what a watermelon; sugary scarlet and iridescent, splayed open and vulnerable in the soft glow of another Chinatown morning. It would have been dropped, this watermelon, from a truck full of such fruit, destined for the leathery man who arranges his grapefruit in pyramids and waits. Pulpy, raw and large as a beach ball, the watermelon would offer its abundant sweetness up to the world roaring LOOK.

The fifth snapshot would be empty. At the bottom, or just below, it would say SILENCE. This is the silence that fogs the Downtown Eastside, the silence that we all greet and treat it with, the silence of stories that will never be told, that will fold up like origami garbage and disappear. This is the silence of young women who vanish into car doors and are never heard from. This is the silence between appropriate news stories. This is the silence of statistics ignored, health emergencies disregarded, heads turned, eyes averted. This silence fortifies and protects and maintains.

My last snapshot would be of McLean park just before dusk, the sun slipping horizon-wise over the wide stretch of grass, breathing softly through the branches, around the swing sets and on the heads of children. The photo would be taken from ground level, and the blur of motion would show a game of tag in full swing. Around them, parents would chat, exchanging advice and stories and smiles. In the distant backyards, multicolored laundry would and catch the sun and shine against the pink sky like one hundred of the very proudest of flags, flickering.