An Alternative Walking Tour of the Downtown East Side

There’s been some kerfuffle recently about a Vancouver company offering tourist walking tours of the DTES. That’s the origin of the title of this piece, although I didn’t learn about that particular controversy until after I had this experience, and after I first wrote it down. The experience and opinion stands on its own, or should, although it’s also relevant to current events.

The other day, in the Downtown East Side, I walked a man home. He was too weak and dizzy to do it on his own.

I was on my way to run an errand, and I saw him crouched on the sidewalk, leaning on one arm for balance. A clean white plastic bag lay next to his feet as he waited. He could have been resting, but the set of his body suggested endurance rather than repose, so, just in case, I stopped to ask.

He had vertigo, he thought, from a bike accident that threw him face first into a cement wall, about six months ago. No, there was no one I could call. He was all right. This would pass. This hadn’t come on so strongly ever before. He was all right.

A young native guy, wiry and tattooed and bouncing with taut energy, stopped to ask if everything was okay. Yes, it was. He didn’t need help. Thank you, though. The young guy nodded and strode away, rolling slightly on the balls of his feet. Almost immediately he was back. Could we spare a beer?

No, I don’t think I can do that. I need all of these for myself.”

A pause, a bobbing, disappointed nod, and the young guy was on his way again.

I waited with him, talking about random things, letting the conversation wander. He remembered talking to me before, and he seemed familiar to me as well. It must have been two years since we’d spoken, another brief encounter, another conversation.

A white-hoodied student, the sides of his head shaved and the top a riot of tightly coiled black curls, stopped to ask how he was now, speaking to him by name. Still the same. Thanks. They’d spoken earlier. The student seemed a little at a loss, wanting to help, not knowing how, wanting to move on and knowing that he shouldn’t.

No one to call. No ambulances. No emergency. Just a helplessness that frustrated someone used to independence. There was a pause. We waited. Nothing happened, nothing changed. The student shifted.

Would you like me to walk you home?” I said. It seemed the obvious solution.

Yes. If you’d like to do that. Yes.”

The student helped him up. It took some effort, on both sides. I took his arm. I turned to ask the student if he’d like his other arm.

I’ll be going now,” the student said. “You’re ok now, then.”

It wasn’t really a question. The student seemed relieved, left, looked back once. Somewhere to be, then: a class, maybe, or a life away from helplessness and poverty and age.

And we walked. Eight blocks took almost an hour and a half. I carried his six pack so he wouldn’t have to. Sometimes I steadied him. Frequently, I was half-way to carrying him too. It’s hard physical work, supporting the weight another person. My forearms ached for days afterward. So did my legs.

He stopped frequently, leaning heavily on my arm until he could reach a wall or a railing or a post and prop his hands against it, leaning head down and bent while he breathed. He wasn’t tall to begin with, so every time he stopped, I went down with him. That way, I could see his face. That way, I wasn’t standing over him like a disapproving parent, an awkwardness I think I felt more than he did. It’s odd to tower, when you’re not used to the height. It’s a position of power and intimidation, the antithesis of human connection, and it fit uncomfortably on my soul.

Practically, too, I’m allergic to dust, an inescapable irritant, and my ears are generally at least a little stuffed up. Conversation is awkward when one’s contribution is mostly made up of Pardon? Crouched myself, I could hear him better.

He did most of the talking, and I most of the listening. He said sorry for talking so much, but I didn’t mind. His stories were interesting and I said so. When people open windows onto their own experience and offer you a view of life outside yourself, it’s an experience not to be lightly thrown away.

We chatted most of the way, when he had breath to talk. He told me he came from Oshawa, that his dad had worked in a GM bumper factory and played horseshoes at a national level. He told me he’d been a teacher, but got fired for doing things like letting the children sing songs together all morning, right through recess, because that’s what they wanted to do.

He told me he’d played lacrosse for Baltimore for 18 years after he left teaching.

He told me the most beautiful girl he knew got him through university, because he didn’t believe he was smart enough and each exam she’d tell him he was, and help him through.

He told me he didn’t like walking past a muscled, angry man who periodically shouted obscenities as he jerked and thrust his way up the street, on drugs he didn’t need or off ones he did. This man was unpredictable, he said. If he got mad, he’d hit people, and you never knew what would set him off.

He told me the couple scuffling at each other over the top of a stroller on the opposite sidewalk did this every day. He told me that the lady who drove past on her motorized scooter and called “Hello, dear!” to him as she passed did this every time, but that he didn’t actually know her.

He told me that the night before, he’d watched a group of young men try and fail to steal a car in the street for quite some time out of his bedroom window. The number of young men and the hours they took varied from telling to telling. He forgot things. He’d start a story and then stop and say, “I probably already told you about that.”

Sometimes he hadn’t. Sometimes he had.

He told me that only a few nights ago someone, or someones, overturned a car down at the park by his building and set it on fire. It didn’t explode, though it did burn right down. The firemen did a good job of cleaning that up. The news folks didn’t do a good job of reporting it.

He told me that park had a horseshoe pitch, and that he played sometimes. Although he wasn’t much good, thanks to his dad he did know how to play. He was the only one in the neighbourhood who did know.

He showed me the way his hands shook, and stopped to rest every twenty meters or so, leaning up against each convenient wall or post to try to catch his breath. He didn’t think he was having a heart attack he said, he just couldn’t catch his breath and it was beating so hard.

He told me he didn’t want sympathy. He told me that he hadn’t told his friends what was going on because he didn’t want them to worry. I told him they’d probably want to know anyway. He apologized every time he had to stop. He apologized every time he had to take my arm again to keep going. I told him there was nothing to apologize for. He kept doing it.

A couple of times, as we walked, people asked me if he was all right. A couple of times, people asked him. Once, as we crossed the street on the home stretch, someone yelled across to ask if he was my sugar daddy. He said, “Ignore that guy. He always yells stuff.”

He asked me how doctors treated vertigo anyway. I told him I didn’t know, but that I thought it depended on what caused it. He asked me if we could talk again sometime. I said sure. I wrote down my number and said, “I’m not really a phone person, but leave a message if I don’t answer.”

He may or may not call. He doesn’t own a phone, and he loses things easily. He’d already forgotten where he’d put the scrap of paper I wrote on by the time we’d gone from outside the building into the lobby. I told him it was in his pocket.

A minute later he asked again. I told him it was in his pocket.

Maybe he’ll find it there. Maybe he’ll look at it and remember who I am. Maybe not. Even the best of us are absentminded sometimes, and I never actually told him my name.

He told me he couldn’t have made it without me. He took his beers back and I told him to go in and rest. We smiled at each other. He waved as he walked unsteadily down the hall of this building inhabited mainly by people who don’t talk to their neighbours, who don’t want to be known, who have run up against the law before and sometimes still do. I waved back. Then I left.

I’m not telling this story for praise. I don’t want it. I didn’t do anything special. I’m not telling this story for sympathy either. He didn’t want that. He’s not an object of sympathy. He’s a human being, with everything that entails, and I’m a human being as well. He needed help. I had time, and a free arm. I’ve used someone else’s arm before, when I needed it. I may need to again. This time I was the one who could say, “Lean on me.” So I did.

That’s the point, really.

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