“Tap, Tap, Tap.”
I jolted up, and nearly spilled a half cup of lukewarm Tim Horton’s double-double into my lap.
They train you at the police academy to always be alert when you’re on the street. They call it keeping your head on a swivel. If your head’s on a swivel, you’re always on the look-out for the guy on the corner doing a quick drug deal. You’ve always got an eye out for the guy trying door handles, or for the guy up the street who just did the one-eighty because he has a warrant. Most importantly, if your head’s on a swivel, you’re always looking out for dangerous situations, like someone who may want to sneak up from behind and hurt you.
Or, in this case, for a 95-pound waif tapping your patrol car window with the point of her umbrella.
“What happened?” she asked, pointing her umbrella toward the ribbon of yellow police tape strung up across the entrance to the south lane of the 1oo East Hastings.
I’d been parked there for the past hour and a half, making sure nobody got past the tape. It’s a rotten detail, but I was working alone this day, and this was a one-man job. While working alone has its benefits, it also means you get saddled with many of the less-desirable jobs — like idling for hours on end outside a crime scene.
“Somebody got assaulted in the lane,” I said. “Know anything?”
She shook her head side to side. We both knew that even if she did have information about what happened, she wasn’t likely to tell me and risk being labeled a rat.
“How was welfare day?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation rolling.
“Sucked,” she said. “I blew all my money. Now I got nothing left.”
There was an awkward pause. She began to walk away, then stopped and looked back over her shoulder.
“So, I’m getting out of here,” she said. “I’m going into treatment…getting picked up in an hour. After tonight, you won’t see me down here no more.”
I’ve met my share of hard-done-bys since being posted to the Beat Enforcement Team nearly five years ago. Out of all of them, this young lady ranked among the worst. She was an addict, a thug and a thief. I once caught her trying to steal a car, after she pinched the keys from the pocket of a drunk who was looking for a cheap date.
The only time I’ve ever heard her mutter the word treatment was when she tried to guilt me into letting her go on a warrant arrest by suggesting she’d lose her treatment bed if I put her in jail. I didn’t believe her then, and as much as I wanted to, I didn’t believe her now.
But as I spoke with her through the window of my police car, I recalled a conversation I had about this girl a year earlier with my former partner, Tyler.
“I can see her being one of the girls to get cleaned up and to get out of here,” he said, ever the optimist.
Tyler is a real glass-half-full kind of guy. He always seems to see the potential in people, even if it sometimes requires blind faith. I’m not so much a pessimist, but more of a pragmatist.
But maybe Tyler was right. Maybe this girl could get herself cleaned up, kick her addiction to heroin and crack, move herself out of this horrible neighbourhood and actually make a life for herself.
“Well, here’s hoping I never see you again,” I said, raising my Tim Horton’s cup in a half-hearted salute.
She started to walk away again, then looked back and gave an equally half-hearted wave.
“You’ll probably see me again,” she said. “Just not like this. I’ll be clean.”
With that she wandered back towards Hastings Street and disappeared around the corner.
That was more a year ago.
In the weeks and months that followed, I often wondered what had happened to the girl. I’d asked a few people on the street if they’d seen her, but most just shook their heads. They probably thought I was trying to track her down on another warrant.
I’d heard rumours that she’d made it to treatment and that she was busy proving me wrong. I hoped that was the case. Still, I kept expecting to one day find her tucked in an alcove with a crack pipe hanging off her lips.
Weeks turned to months and months became a year, and eventually I just stopped asking.
Truth is, after a few years working in this place, you get used to seeing people drift in and drift out. It’s a familiar pattern. Go to jail, get out and come back to the skids. Go to treatment, slip up and come back to the skids. Go into hiding, get found and, well, you get the idea. Like I’ve said before, this place is like the Hotel California — you can check in, but you can never leave.
So even though I hadn’t seen her for more than a year, I always just assumed I would see her again. I know it sounds defeatist and pessimistic, but that’s the sad reality down here.
Several weeks ago I caught wind from some other police officers that the girl was not only clean and living in the burbs, but that she wanted to come by the old police station at Main and Hastings to say hello to some of the cops who walked the beat when she was here. I was asked if I wanted to meet with her, and I jumped at the chance.
It’s rare in this neighbourhood for police to get the opportunity for a heart-to-heart with the people who live here. Too many people are worried about being seen as a snitch, and others are simply too distrustful of the police. Others who could use an ear to bend are too often lured away by the draw of the needle and the hoot of the crack pipe. As a result, police officers rarely get to hear the real stories about people ended up in this neighbourhood.
I felt a little nervous as I stood in the lobby of the police station waiting for her to arrive. I had traipsed her through the front doors of the old police station at Main and Hastings many times — both as a suspect in handcuffs and as a victim in tears. The last time I’d seen her, she was a 95-pound addict with needle pokes in her arms and crack-pipe burns on her lips.
In my mind, that’s who I was expecting to see again, and if I hadn’t been awaiting her arrival, I probably would have walked on by without recognizing her.
She was healthy, happy and — for once — wanted to be at the police station.
“I’m a new person,” she said, looking just as nervous as me.
We stood and talked for more than an hour about how she ended up in the Downtown Eastside, what finally got her out, and how she plans on staying clean. They weren’t simple questions.
She talked about being the child of an alcoholic mother, and how she first got drunk as a child. She explained how the booze turned to pot, and how by her early teens she was using party drugs like ecstasy and hanging around Hastings Street with her boyfriend. She explained how the party drugs led to crystal meth, how the meth led to heroin and cocaine, and how the heroin and cocaine led to nearly a decade of lying, cheating, thieving and scamming her way from fix to fix in the Downtown Eastside.
Now 28, she told me about how she used to rip people off so she could get money for drugs, and how she would rob men, first by posing as a prostitute, then by stealing their wallets when she had them alone.
She told me about her last few weeks on skid row — about hearing rumours about a hit on her and about being afraid to go outside.
Then she talked about rock bottom — the night she almost died at the hands of a man who tried to buy sex, then forced himself on her and nearly strangled her to death when she declined. The man was eventually caught and convicted of aggravated sexual assault.
We talked about the tortuous journey to get herself out of the Downtown Eastside, to get clean, and to stay clean. We talked about what it was like to testify against her attacker, and what she does whenever she craves drugs.
I asked her if she felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store, standing inside the police station in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, with drug dealers plying their trade just steps away from the front door. And while she insisted that she wasn’t tempted to use, there was no chance I was letting her take one unchaperoned step outside.
So, when she asked to go out for a smoke, I knew I had to join her. As I stood watching her in the alley behind the police station, I caught her glancing down the lane towards Hastings Street.
I asked her what she was looking at. Between puffs she told me how badly she wanted to wander over to Hastings and say hello to her old friends. They were just around the corner, she reasoned, and they were such good friends.
Friends? I figured she had to be joking. These were people who wouldn’t hesitate to sell her a piece of rock or a flap of heroin — people who could care less that she’d been clean and sober from more than a year.
I don’t know if she was fooling herself, or trying to fool me, but I knew that if I let her wander away there was a damn good chance she’d never come back. So I stayed with her as she finished one smoke, then lit another and power dragged it.
We made idle chat until her ride — another police officer — arrived to take her home to the suburbs.
Before she left, I asked her one final question. I wanted to know what she thought about the police officers who walk the beat in the Downtown Eastside. There is still such an us-against-them attitude for so many people who exist in this neighbourhood, and I could only imagine there was some lingering resentment towards the police who had made it so hard for her to be a criminal and a drug addict.
I was a little surprised when she told me there were no hard feelings, and that she now realized that all those times we busted her and took her to jail, that we were actually trying to help her. She thanked us for the work we do.
It was refreshing and encouraging to hear.
Success stories are rare in the Downtown Eastside, and after a while you tend to get a little cynical. Most people become cops because they want to make a difference in someone’s life. Here, in the Downtown Eastside, chances to do that sometimes seem few and far between. It can be really hard to stay motivated when nothing ever seems to change.
As I waved goodbye, I again told her that I hope I never see her again on the Downtown Eastside. She assured me I wouldn’t.
And unlike the first time she said it, this time I tended to believe her.
I told her she had proven me wrong, and I was glad she did.
I can only hope she continues to do so.