January 1st, 2016 Posted 10:00 pm
I had the chance in November to spend some time in Vancouver, the most populous city in Canada’s British Colombia. It’s well known for its beauty, from the snow-capped mountains merely a stones throw from the CBD to the greenery of Stanley Park; from the city’s modern architecture to the 22km long Seawall trail, snaking its way around the peaceful harbour. But you can go to Lonely Planet if you want to hear more about that. I came here to talk about Hastings Street.
It was Friday night – my second night in town and the first on my own time, after spending the previous 24 hours on the company’s clock. I checked into my hostel room and immediately began searching for something to keep me occupied throughout the evening hours. After a failed attempt at a theatre box office to score a ticket to the sold out Jerry Seinfeld gig, I ended up having dinner at a nearby German restaurant before heading out to explore the city streets.
I was in an area called Gastown. I’d heard it was traditionally a lower-class neighbourhood which has more recently succumbed to gentrification with trendy bars & cafes opening up all over the place. Despite the influx of hipsters and young professionals the streets still had a certain impoverished feel to them, especially around one particular thoroughfare known as Hastings.
Not too long after leaving the restaurant I noticed a large crowd of pretty sketchy-lookin’ characters gathered along the sidewalk – I’m talking along the lines of two or three hundred people all bunched together, spanning a couple of blocks. Initially I thought they might have been there for an organised protest, perhaps against rising university tuition fees similar to what I’d seen in Montreal in weeks gone by. I investigated by walking straight through the centre of the crowd, only to find a flea market controlled entirely by what seemed to be the local homeless community! From what I could gather there wasn’t any kind of city-endorsed organisation to it. There were at least 50 stalls, their territories marked either by blankets on the cement or by shopping carts, the inventory being closely guarded by the vendors. It was run entirely by an abundance of folk who presumably fell below the poverty line and were without permanent shelter for the night.
There was a surprising variety of goods for sale, beginning with typical market offerings such as clothes, shoes, DVD’s and even VHS tapes. I noticed a girl with bags full to the brim of chewing gum which she was selling for a few dollars a piece. One guy had a used microwave for sale (it was the only item he had available and was asking $50 for it); another possessed a collection of used knives and forks of all different sizes & shapes sprawled across his shop blanket.
Yet another guy was desperate to find a buyer for an upright gas heater that was quite possibly pinched from the patio of a nearby restaurant. He had it on display for all to see, laying it horizontally along the gutter, offering his sales pitch to anybody who would listen as passing cars narrowly missed it by a mere foot or two. I was offered cigarettes and weed numerous times; I’m certain that if I was looking for anything harder I would have been able to find it.
Then there were the poor souls who possessed no stock at all, resorting instead to begging to make a living. Some carried cardboard signs detailing their plight, even offering services such as the acceptance of verbal abuse in exchange for a few coins. Other simply sat in the background and asked passersby if they could spare some change.
This rampant & exposed homelessness was entirely unexpected – I mean, there’s quite a lot of it in Toronto & Montreal but Vancouver took it to another level. I was super intrigued by what I was witnessing, although I admit to feeling a little unnerved as a solo tourist exploring the locale after dark. I decided to get outa there, boarding a bus bound for the eastern suburbs to check out a bar that had been recommended to me.
* * * * *
I wasn’t clear of the seediness just yet, though. A highly intoxicated lady opposite me took immediate offence to my boarding of the bus and yelled angrily in my direction, “I HAVE FRIENDS WHO ARE SHAMANS, THEY’RE OUT TO GET YOU,” before directing the bus driver to “SHUT THE FUCKING DOOR AND DRIVE!”
The driver politely asked her to calm down and stop swearing or else she’d be asked to leave. She mumbled something under her breath but accepted his advice and calmed down.
A gentleman with a pink shirt boarded the bus at the next stop and she started up again: “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT, FAGGOT?”
“Did you just call me a faggot?”
“FUCK OFF, PINK SHIRT FAGGOT. THE SHAMANS WILL COME TO GET YOU”
“Who the fuck do you think you are? How dare you call me a fucking faggot you dirty old hag”
The driver knew things were about to erupt so he stopped the bus and told the lady to leave. She refused to disembark but the guy on the receiving end of the abuse stormed out in a huff, collecting his bike from the rack at the front while yelling obscenities back towards her. The driver called security over the radio requesting assistance to remove the lady as she continued to mumble about shamans and faggots. Eventually she took it upon herself to leave, but not before lecturing the driver: “YOU WANT ME TO LEAVE THE BUS? ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS ASK ME POLITELY TO LEAVE AND I’LL LEAVE! I DON’T WANT TO BE ON THIS FUCKIN’ BUS ANYWAY”
The guy with the pink shirt saw her stumble away down the street, reattached his bike to the rack and boarded once again. Thankfully the remainder of the drive was peaceful.
* * * * *
I ended up a fair way along East Hastings at a dive bar called Jackalope’s, where I enjoyed a pint of local brew and some cornbread. Curiosity led me to return to town via foot rather than bus, just so I could experience more of this absurd street.
With my wallet secured inside my inner jacket pocked, I passed many more shady characters, sketchy bars and people sleeping / earning a living out on the street. Eventually I found myself back in the city and felt like another beer. I noticed a bar on the opposite side of the road with a big sign saying “VANCOUVER’S FAVOURITE COUNTRY MUSIC PUB.” I’m partial to a bit of country music so I thought I’d give it a try.
A duo was energetically belting out a Willie Nelson tune as I walked in. My shoes squelched in the beer-soaked carpet as I noticed the median age of those drinking at this bar was likely to be around 48. I immediately compared the ambience to that of a small-town RSL I’d expect to find in regional Australia.
I ordered a pint from the friendly barmaid (who could tell from my bemusement that I wasn’t from ’round these parts), paying an astoundingly affordable $3. It didn’t take long for some locals to engage in conversation – a lady at an adjacent table shouted across to me, “What’s a strapping young lad like yourself doing here all alone?” She was seated with three other people and I guessed them to be in their early 50’s aside from one lady who was significantly older.
Midway through exchanging pleasantries, a younger lass in her mid 30’s who was clearly off-her-tits stoned came out of nowhere and asked if she could take a seat next to me. “Of course, go ahead,” I offered.
“That’s a cute accent! Where are you from?”
“Oh I’m Australian but I live in Montreal. I’m just in town for a couple of days so I’m checking out the local nightlife.”
“You’re Australian! That’s amazing, I love Australian guys. Wow you’re hot. Hey, when I finish rolling this cigarette I’m gonna head over to Granville Island, you should come with me!”
I politely refused: “Thanks for the offer but I think I’ll just have a quick beer here and head back to …”
“Hey,” she cut me off, “do you want to fuck in the bathrooms?”
“Do you want to fuck in the bathrooms? Let’s go, it’ll be fun! I really want to fuck you.”
Before I could even muster a response she hit me with this one: “Here, smell my fingers, they’ve just been in my pussy!” And with that, she raised two fingers from her right hand directly in front of my nose.
“What do you think?!” I jerked my head back and gave a laugh that implied what in the lord’s name is wrong with this girl?! “Isn’t my pussy sweet? So let’s go fuck in the bathrooms! I’m cheap and I’m clean, I promise!”
I broke the bad news to her, “Sorry buddy, I appreciate your offer but I’m ok for now. Good luck though, I hope you find someone who will.”
“YOU’RE SO BORING!” she retorted in disgust. “I thought Australian guys were cool until now. Right, well have it your way, BORING AUSTRALIAN.” And with that she got up and left the bar, presumably to smoke her freshly-rolled cigarette and make her way to Granville Island.
* * * * *
Almost as soon as bathroom girl nicked off, the woman at the adjacent table invited me over to join her & her friends. Her name was Josie and she introduced me to Mabel, Jessica and Tim. The three ladies made Tim leave because they wanted to talk to me and me only. Poor Tim. He’d been trying pretty hard and looked disheartened.
Josie clearly had plans to get me plastered and ordered a beer for me. Over the course of around half an hour I learnt that Josie has been married 23 years but her husband is apparently totally ok if she flirts with other guys. She claimed to have already spoken to her husband about me and he “gave his approval” (what the hell?!)
Mabel was 81 years old and a little hard of hearing. She was also super wasted and I could barely understand a thing she said, but she did make it very clear that her favourite two things in life are foul language and hard fucking.
Jessica lives alone, spends her time smoking weed & making sock puppets and really drove the fact that she could do with some company in her bed…
Things were starting to get a little out of control. Josie ordered shots for me despite my refusal, Mabel was drunkenly mumbling something about all the men she slept with back in her younger days, Jessica wanted me to dance to Take Me Home, Country Roads and poor Tim certainly wasn’t happy that his three girls were giving me all their attention while he drank by himself. I excused myself to use the bathroom (which I decided was way too cramped to fuck in, by the way), and for the first time in my life, devised a plan to escape the bar without raising too much suspicion. I pretended to be on the phone and walked from the bathroom towards the exit. Josie saw me as the bartender was serving the shots, “Where are you going?” she yelled. I just pointed to my phone and then to the door.
I pissbolted out of that bar and never looked back.
* * * * *
Over the next few days I explored the more touristic parts of the city and I’m pleased to confirm that Vancouver overall is indeed beautiful, friendly and green. But there was something so intriguing about Hastings St that I returned once more, making it my final destination before heading to the airport on Sunday afternoon. This time I went during the day and was lucky enough to be there for what appeared to be an officially-run version of the market I stumbled across a few evenings beforehand. There’s a interesting Vice article called Inside Vancouver’s Downtown East Side Junk Market with some more details on how the market came to be.
Unlike the evening market which appeared to be predominantly made up of disadvantaged people, there was a much larger variety of folk browsing the wares during the day. There were a number of helpers & volunteers dotted around the street and I got the impression it was much easier for vendors to make ends meet during the day market.
Just before I left I noticed a gentleman pushing a stroller along the sidewalk asking everyone who passed by if they’d interested in purchasing it. I overheard a fellow stallholder offer him $20, to which he replied, “No way man, I looked up the price of this thing, it’s worth at least $600!”
* * * * *
Needless to say my first impression of Vancouver street life was unexpectedly eye-opening. As insane as it was, I absolutely loved it, this is just the kind of crazy experience I hope for whenever I travel to a new city. In a way it reminded me of my trip to Detroit a few years ago, although East Hastings St did feel a hell of a lot safer than Gratiot Avenue.
I hope to return again some day to meet some more weird & wonderful Vancouver characters.
And I can’t help but think that somewhere roaming the streets of Granville Island is a girl whose impression of Australian men was ruined forever because one of them refused to fuck her in the bathrooms at the Grand Union Hotel!
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