March 13th, 2006
I make a percentage of my income, one that is always marginal at best, by writing. This is one of the pieces I have had published, in this case by subTERRAIN, a Canadian literary magazine. They hold the print rights, I have this.
The work draws on my experiences living, and working an urban (though not urbane) life in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.
Betty is waiting. Leaning against the wall for support, there is an involuntary tug at her greasy blanket, as she pulls it a little closer around her shoulders.
“Cheap.” Her eyes never move from the sidewalk.
There is a matter-of-fact resignation to this business. There’s no point in getting excited—if I don’t buy, someone else might.
“Anything you want, cheap,” she repeats.
My own eyes are downcast, trying to see what is there for sale.
“How cheap?” I say, motioning.
“Make it five.”
“Yeah,” as I reach into my pocket, “Okay.”
Just like that, the deal is done. Five bucks. Betty can get two pints of cheap beer, or half a rock of crack. Or some smokes.
I amble home five dollars poorer, with my new lamp (needs a cord and probably a bulb) in hand, leaving behind the mismatched set of candlesticks, queen-size cinnamon pantyhose (still in the L’eggs egg), a bright pink bra, and a miscellany of goods that remain on the sidewalk.
Vancouver’s Downtown East Side has far more going on than the drugs and prostitution that have earned the region notoriety across North America. When I stayed at the Wolcott Hotel in New York, I met Albert. While debating the qualities of various grape varietals and vintages, Albert said he had heard of the Downtown East Side. Between pulls on a dark green wine bottle, he told me he saw “something on television about the drugs there, heroin especially,” as the tiniest drop of scarlet trickled into his nicotine-stained whiskers.
The Downtown East Side lives up to its foul reputation every day of the week. But there are other places in this place, other lives and experiences.
Betty is a regular here. Two or three nights a week, she spreads her wares out on the sidewalk, hoping to sell enough to make the day worthwhile before the cops come along and roust everyone. The city obviously feels the street market attracts the wrong class of people; undesirables, that sort.
A few feet away from the bras and pantyhose, Dale is trying desperately to sell his collection of old sneakers.
“Good shoes,” he says, and waves me over to have a look.
“Not my size.”
“How about these ones, Nikes, eh?”
“Yeah, still too small, I need twelves or thirteens.”
“Not many of them around,” Dale tells me. “Hard to find.”
“Well, let me know if you see any.”
I’ve known Dale for a couple years. He is a binner. He leaves home every day of the week around four in the morning, working until eight or nine. We meet occasionally in the Radio Station Café, in the geographic centre of the Downtown East Side. Over coffee we share war stories. Dale tries to sell me a new wardrobe, tries to dress me as nattily as him. I resist. I just don’t have that sense of style.
In Darwinian terms, these people are survivors, and this is not some pseudo-sexual fantasy show on television. Betty and Dale are people living in a different, difficult, world.
I remember Dave, and his rides in my cab to the liquor store. Dave was the one who introduced me to trap lines. Not esoteric frontier trap lines, with a trapper in a snow-bound cabin, but urban trap lines. These urban trap lines target a different quarry: bottles and cans, the discarded and recyclable. Dave and I lived in the same building, and every weekday, Dave left at some ungodly hour of the morning to check his trap line and bring home a few dollars worth of cans and bottles.
“How much do you make, in a month?” I asked Dave one day.
“A couple hundred dollars, maybe more, and I drink every penny of it.”
I thought Dave might be exaggerating just a bit. But Dave knew, and I didn’t, that he was dying. Cancer was eating him alive and drinking was his only comfort. In the end, I bought him a couple bottles myself.
Vancouver’s binners search the entire city for their booty. Like the corsairs of old, they are not quite illegal but not quite legal either. It seems that your garbage, like your castle, is yours to do with as you will. That means that the contents of the garbage bin belong to whoever pays for the bin. It also means that binners, often regarded with the same affection as mating cats outside your window, are legally trespassing while rooting through the contents of the bin.
This legal paradox seems a long way from street-level reality. When you’ve decided to grapple with other people’s garbage rather than grovel for the five hundred dollars a month that welfare pays, the fine points of ownership don’t compare with a flat of empties.
Coming in from the trap-lines, binners with their shopping buggies race down Pender St. They are rattling, clanking dinosaurs, scattering puppies and small children as they flock toward the United We Can recycling depot. The cans get turned into aluminum scrap. Some of the bottles get recycled as, yes, bottles. The labels come off, they get sterilized, re-labeled, refilled, and re-sold. And so on. Other bottles aren’t so lucky. They’re sorted by colour, crushed, and re-used as raw glass. An entire orchestra of Dr. Seuss’s bizarre instruments couldn’t recreate the cacophony inside the depot. People rushing back and forth, counting, bagging, dropping, breaking, heaving, groaning under their loads and all set off by the sound of cash.
One and a half millions of dollars a year are paid out—in loonies, toonies, and small bills—the cash equivalent of thirty million pop cans. Ken Lyotier, who heads United We Can tells me the average cash take is seven dollars a day. Ken still heaves bags of empties on occasion, when he’s not representing United We Can to various audiences. Recently, at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Ken and filmmaker Benoit Raoulx presented Raoulx’s film Traplines—a day-in-the-life view of several binners. To the largely white, middle-class audience, the film provided a unique, non-patronizing story of human experience. The people of Traplines live in a world parallel to, but far removed from most of the audience, whose lives only intersect with the binners’ at the garbage can, or perhaps the liquor store.
The binners and the can collectors have adapted. They have learned to find a dollar in an economy ever more rewarding to the crème de la crème, and seemingly incapable of any coherent, socially inclusive treatment of citizens. Betty and Dale and thousands of others labour every day, finding their own space in the brave new economy.
* ’six-up’ is an old expression that refers to ‘cops on the beat,’ in this argot, ‘keeping six’ is looking out for the police, ’six-up’ means they are here.