While my daily life may not be a constant off-roading, sweet adventure on motorcycles, it definitely is a kind of “adventure.” It’s been a year and a half since I was hired as the Branch Head of the Carnegie Library, located in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. I’m not interested in bemoaning the tragedy of this neighbourhood as a means to imply that I’m hardcore for working there. I find it strange when people talk about working in the area as a kind of badge of honour, but it certainly does shape you and shift your perspective.
I sometimes worry that certain incidents that happen and sights that are seen, which typically would jar me might start to fade and become the norm. My parents came for a visit and wanted to see my workplace recently. I felt a twinge of discomfort when they expressed their observations about the street scene, or more like reluctance to talk about it. There’s a lot of problems, issues, injustices and a mixed bag of solutions, and as an outsider I don’t feel confident in proposing any particular answers. There are some strong activist voices from the community that are the best consultants for such topics.
All I know is that if you get to know people and look around for familiar faces you start to see friends everywhere, and you stop viewing the place as purely ugly and decrepit. The Downtown Eastside feels way friendlier than many places in the city like Robson street with its high end stores and shoppers immersed in their cell phones. This is not an original statement, but it is true. Perhaps it’s because many people here have nothing left to lose that they no longer have to wear a mask or hide behind a facade of being “normal.” They are free in that sense because they are vulnerable and they know they are broken. We’re all broken, but most of the time we perform the opposite out of some ridiculous fear of being rejected.
So, I would like to remember the incredible people that I meet each day. I love this job because of the people and the great energy of the Carnegie Centre. I think I would be bored working at any other library in comparison to the wonderful wildness of this branch. I feel pretty lucky to have this job – it makes me feel alive being a witness to the epic highs and lows of humanity, and it forces me to pray and cry and laugh and be curious about people.
This first story is pretty sad and beautiful… his name was Lyle.
His face was mangled, stitched and bashed in after a recent run-in with alcohol and malicious people. A First Nations Elder, but broken through a childhood of residential schooling and a coping method that only brought more pain. I met him when he came to the library and was looking for an address. He wanted to send his friend a card while he was recovering at an Aboriginal healing centre out of town.
Lyle felt sad because he was still “drinkin’ and druggin'” while his buddy had chosen to get help. And yet, he had had a strange experience. In a hushed voice he told me that while he was in hospital he had left his body, and he had physically died from his head injuries. But then he encountered God who explicitly told him that it was not Lyle’s time.
With tears blurring his vision, he confided in me that, “In the end, it will always be between you and God, and nobody else.” My heart melted. What a privilege to hear this. Lyle once wrote poetry and stories, and laughed at the way certain intellectuals would speak to him like he had no concept of meaning and the origins of words. But he knew that inside he was good, and I pray that he finds his purpose and clarity of voice again. His eyes were full of beauty, sadness, and hope.