I’m not sure where to begin in describing how strange the last month has been at the Carnegie. The “incidents” flare up, we move on to the next situation, and basically keep on keeping on. But, I feel it might be worth recording so I can remember this time and see the silver linings. I’ll start with two weeks ago.
Apparently I saved a man’s life, which is relatively common in the neighbourhood. Essentially I was helping someone in my office, could hear someone snoring loudly and sought him out, since we have a “no sleeping” policy in the library. I spoke loudly, trying to wake him, but he was down so deep. I tracked down the Security guard, and he tried shaking him to wake up. At that point we realized we needed emergency assistance. The ambulance attendants were called, and they arrived so quickly! He was overdosing.
In classic Carnegie style, the library patrons were oblivious and kept reading their newspapers. I had to ask people to move to the other room, to give the emergency crew some space. One regular simply replied, he was used to it, and wouldn’t move. So, they proceeded, cutting open the guy’s shirt, sticking tubes down him, and supplying narcan. And then, after 10 minutes or so, he was resuscitated! I offered him a new t-shirt, but it didn’t fit and then they were off to the hospital. It was a slow-motion whirlwind.
Two days later, at the Hastings book giveaway I was witness to a ridiculous fight. A younger guy, in a complete zombie, crazy, twitchy state picks a fight with an older man, who was evidently easy to trigger. The older guy punches the younger, then trips, and is getting kicked in the stomach. It was insane! Fortunately the Security guards are on it. The older man rips away on his bicycle, and the younger is still lurking like a madman, eventually being forced to leave. He was so on edge, was seconds away from lashing out at another woman, and at me.
The next day, after a wonderful morning at Oppenheimer Park celebrating National Aboriginal Day, I’m leaving the Carnegie and am advised to wheel my bicycle around the pool of blood. There’s a woman clutching her face, covered in blood and shards of glass. I feel sick.
It’s a crazy scene, and I have to remember that these frightening moments are just a flash compared to all the beautiful moments. I’m not sure if it’s the weather but the neighbourhood is buzzing with people – people who are so easily triggered and “off.” This month we had a guy follow a staff person home on the bus, and another “off” person issue a death threat that resulted in Police standing guard with semi-automatics. Granted that these kind of utterances do happen, and rarely result in trauma, but obviously we have to take it seriously.
So, my silver linings… well, the stalking and the death threat resulted in immediate action for staff to never have to close the library alone. We’ve been granted 8 extra hours of staffing everyday. The fact that the library patron was snoring so loudly saved his life and avoided a tragic scene. The fact that my buddy John insisted that we have Security presence at the book giveaway only 2 weeks prior, which I followed up on. The fact that I was delayed in leaving the library last Saturday, sorting a staffing issue, which meant that I wasn’t witness to the violence that rendered the woman bloody.
Throughout these strange occurrences I have prayed deeply, I am not afraid, and feel that the risk is manageable. I think that the good that comes out of having a community centre and library at the heart of the Downtown eastside ultimately sabotages the bad. I reflect upon the recent passing of Carnegie volunteer, Kenny. He was such a lovely, cheerful, joyful, and jolly man! He took pride in clearing the cafeteria, wiping down the tables, interacting with the regulars. He was such a delightful man, loved good food and dancing.
Kenny was mourned because he was loved. He had real community and friendships. He was of value, and that’s what I love about the Carnegie. It offers people dignity and connection. If a “quality” life is measured by the substance of one’s relationships with other people, then Kenny was rich.
There are such contrasts in the DTES, and I can see this in my daily work. What I like to hold onto is hope. I actually believe that at any moment a person who is seemingly a zombie, entrenched in their addiction, can encounter some thing or some one, and upheave their life for the better.
I was reading the poetry of an individual who had written about the neighbourhood in collaboration with a photographer. It really bothered me because the poems were like eulogies, mourning the life of the person who was photographed, as if their destiny was eternally doomed. While the poet was well-intentioned, the truth is that the people featured are still alive! Anything can happen.
When I left work the other night after the overdose, the security guard turned to me and said, “you saved a life tonight.” I was stunned. In processing those words, I’m resisting pride because it was the ambulance attendants who responded and saved a life, and also this happens all the time! But I felt really good in that moment. I don’t know if the library patron sought out the library, or if he was remotely aware that he was heading into the darkness, but I’m glad we were there. I was told that the window of opportunity was short, and that he was fortunate.
It feels right to be here. It won’t last forever, and there will come a time when I leave the city, but right now it makes sense, while simultaneously not making any sense. Just before I left work tonight I saw one of my regulars – a really lovely Aboriginal woman, who is so friendly, but evidently seen a lot in her life. I asked her how she was, and she sheepishly explained that it had been a hard day. She found out her friend had committed suicide by jumping out the window, she accidentally missed the memorial of a friend who had recently overdosed, and discovered that her nephew had undergone two overdoses last Cheque day, receiving Narcan both times, then lying to her.
I gave her a big hug, and wished I could do more. She bucked up and said how happy she was to have some DVDs from the library to cheer her up… a Disney classic, and her favourite TV show. It just rips me up inside. Have mercy on these gentle, good people and their families.