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My most unique and most quintessential Vancouver experiences are one and the same. One sunny afternoon, I was walking down East Hastings, toward a café where I was about to convene a few culinary friends and some hungry neighbourhood residents for a cooking group. I had been doing this twice a month for several years, and have met many delightful – and colourful – people in the neighbourhood. To me, the Downtown East Side is no longer the rough, daunting place that I had first been introduced to. Still, I try to keep aware of my surroundings, as I know people with addictions or mental illness can be unpredictable.
When I was about two blocks away from my destination, a man fell into step beside me, and said, completely unexpectedly, “Can I hold your hand?” He was fairly disheveled, but was not aggressive, and did not make me feel immediately on guard. Being an introvert, and having not been asked this too many times, I could not think of what to say. I wanted to be polite and friendly, and yet cautious. I guess I did not respond quickly enough, because he then said in a gravely voice, “What?!? You don’t think I’m human enough?”
“Do you not feel human?” I asked, as I reached out my hand. He took it gently, and we walked hand-in-hand until we got to the café where I was teaching my class. We chatted for another minute, and then I went inside, and he wandered on.
I have walked though many neighbourhoods in Vancouver in the 15 years that this city has been home, and have found myself in conversations with many strangers, but none as engaging and unboundaried as that man was. I regret that I did not have a chance to ask him his name, and that I had not been able to convince him to join our group that night.
I think about him sometimes, especially as I watch people cross the street or avert their eyes, hoping to avoid contact with someone who may ask too much of them. I hope he is still making friends as he wanders through the DTES and beyond. And I hope that he is finding people that make him feel human enough.