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My friend Alf lives in what I call the social housing zone: a long rectangle extending from Main to Heatley, from Alexander up to Hastings. This includes Oppenheimer Park, the Sunrise Market, the Courts at 222 Main, the police museum and the Firehall Theatre, not to mention a lot of drug dealers and some trendy new cafes and artists’ lofts down on Railway. I usually visit Alf once a week and we walk his dog. Maya’s a big Staffordshire terrier, young and muscular but so easily spooked she doesn’t scare many people.
We go out the back way into the alley between Alexander and Cordova, and walk the 7 or 8 blocks to Main & Hastings, where Alf buys single cigarettes for a quarter a pop—he’s been trying to quit for a while now and doesn’t have money for full packs, so the singles are a compromise. For a while on the other side of the alley a large piece of plywood sat balanced between a dumpster and a window ledge. We saw the architect one morning, a 40-ish blonde woman wrapped in a sleeping bag on a big box-spring beneath the plywood. Alf told her they’d clear her out fast enough and she said she’d take it down when she got up.
“I’m just feeling lazy today,” she said. “I’ll take it down when I get up. Got a smoke?”
Today the lean-to’s gone. Alf points out a spattering of bright orange fringing the spot where the box-spring sat, B-D 1cc U-100 Insulin Syringe 28g½ on every one. Less noticeable are the little plastic water-holders they give out with the rigs down at the Exchange; they’re blue-tinted and innocuous, and like the wrappers, everywhere in varying concentrations. They thin out, then thicken up as we cross Princess into the next alley.
“These guys contribute too.”
Alf nods toward a pair of scuffed sunken-faced hypes with teeth so blown-out I notice even at a distance. They’re twisting around outside an open door on the side of a Powell Street shop, jerking and bending and doing what Alf calls the East Hastings Shuffle. Neither looks when Maya lets out a sharp warning bark: she’s pulled up short, gazing dead ahead. Alf and I squint: next to a dumpster halfway down the alley sits a big red Chow-Chow, just staring back at Maya. Alf knows the dog.
“The owner lets him run loose, and he’s a mean motherfucker. Attacks anything.”
Maya’s made up her mind: tail down, she swings back the way we’ve come, pulling us past the crackheads onto Powell.
“Yo, Alf!” Across the street a guy in a wheelchair waves at us. The four-story concrete building behind him looks a lot like Alf’s place: grey, flat, well-secured.
“My cousin Gene,” Alf says as we cross Powell. “Another lost Tahltan.”
They may be two lost Tahltans but the only thing I can see they have in common is dark, almost blood-coloured skin. Alf’s 6’3”, meatless and bony, all elbows and knees; Gene’s like a medicine ball sitting there in his wheel chair, round and dense. Maya’s already got her front paws up on his lap—or what used to be his lap; when he shoves her off I see grey sweat pants pinned back on themselves, no legs in evidence. Gene’s got a small brown medicine bottle in his hand.
“That’s until Monday.” He uncaps the bottle, peers in, holds it up for general consideration. “How do I divide it?”
Alf’s been on the program since he kicked and he’s told me about the new methadone: one day a few weeks before, what used to be a 100 mils of methadone in a small glass of orange juice turned into the same dose mixed into a thimble-full of a thick evil-tasting syrup. He commiserates with Gene, then bums a smoke, promising to return it on the way back.
“Diabetes,” he explains as we continue down Powell. They never knew each other in Telegraph Creek; Alf was probably in residential school by the time Gene was born, but they ended up carving together in Victoria, back when the money was good. When Alf moved over to the city, Gene came with him.
“The doctors told him what’d happen. Then he got wired and stopped carving and when he ripped me off I had to kick him out.” Alf shakes his head. “But I still hate to see him fucked up like that.”
We’re at the park; it’s Saturday and sunny and people are scattered in small clusters across the burnt summer grass—a few more twisting crack-heads in the shade of a large oak tree, a young native woman with feathers in her long black hair watching over two toddlers, a silver-haired Chinese man on a walker, three or four skateboarders with their heads half-shaved smoking joints, a pair of artsy-looking Asian women in silky blouses and full sleeve-tattoos sitting in half-lotuses and laughing on their cell-phones, sipping periodically at the designer coffees that sit between them on the grass—the type buying up the condos down on Railway, I figure….
Alf runs Maya while I lie back in a patch of grass. He got two new hips a few years ago and I’ve been noticing a list in his stride, hard to notice but there. Coming on top of the arthritis, the operation put an end to his carving, but apart from that he says he’s been feeling fine.
“Most of the time anyway.” He reels Maya in, sits next to me and pulls out a joint. “And when I don’t—” he hits the Bic, sucks at the flame, coughs and sucks again “—that’s why the medication.”
Maya flops onto her back, feet up, squirming. I scratch her belly and count orange wrappers: a couple, which isn’t bad. Then I notice a few more and then a few more. Then they’re everywhere, multiplying as I look. Alf’s hogging the joint and I keep counting until Maya springs to her feet. He passes me the roach and then we’re back on Powell. Near the corner of Gore, a crowd seems to have gathered, many of them elderly Chinese women in odd-looking sun-hats. But it’s just the usual Saturday morning shoppers, Sunrise Market loyalists you might call them, and we have to step off the sidewalk to get around them.
“Yo, Alf.” This time it’s a young guy in a white hoodie, white sweat-pants and a red baseball hat on backwards; he’s exiting the Sunrise with a yellow bag sprouting green onions. He pulls up next to us at the lights and gives Alf a soft elbow in the ribs. “You’re not looking, are you?”
“Ha ha ha,” Alf says.
“Just saying, know what I mean?”
They give each other the knuckle-bump and the guy veers north up Gore; we cut south to Cordova and head west, past the Firehall Theatre, which actually does look like a fire hall. Randall, Alf tells me, used to be his dealer, a decent enough guy, considering, and launches into a story about trying to cop one time when Randall was up on a possession charge and was getting so paranoid he kept running Alf in circles and eventually a cop in a cruiser took note of the bean-pole Indian going this way and that and—I’m only half-listening; I’m noticing the statue outside the Police Museum, a thing I’ve seen countless times without actually seeing—a bronze cop patting the braided bronze hair of a young girl who looks up at him admiringly, lovingly. It’s not Rodin, but it says more than you’d think metal could say.
Alf’s dropped the war story; I’ve heard it before, or stuff just like it, and anyway, he knows that’s over—being a punk and being a junkie, being a carver and even being a survivor of the schools, that’s over too.
“Hey, slow down.” He’s slowed down, sure; he’s probably slower than me these days but his long Tahltan stride still easily outpaces my little-guy’s steps. We cross Main side by side, Maya in the middle. A block south on the corner we see 15 or 20 people in scuffed jeans and hockey jerseys milling about, most of them natives it looks like. Maya drags us toward the Corner and a long rail-thin woman in torn black tights detaches from the cluster.
“Yo, Alfie,” she calls out, waving.
Alf waves back.
“That’s Maisie,” he says.
Maya’s all over her, paws up on her chest. Maisie eases her down and sells Alf four singles for a loonie he pulls out of his back pocket. Then he pulls out another loonie and gets four more. On the way back he gives two to Gene.