When a Fire starts to burn

WEB-Firehall-flickr-Mark Burge copy

This past September, my foray with the Vancouver Fringe Festival had me stationed at the Firehall Arts Centre on E. Cordova on the — dun dun dun — Downtown Eastside. The theatre, while a delightful hidden gem, is really just the jumping-off point for today’s column. I know, I know, the chatter about the Downtown Eastside is almost deafening in this city, but all politics aside, I really just wanna talk about people.

I live on the Drive and the easiest way to transit from my home to the Firehall was an ever-colourful jaunt on the #20 — the bus would conveniently drop me off at Hastings and Dunlevy, about a block away from the theatre. These rides lasted anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes providing plenty of time for personal contemplation and observation.

The bus, any bus, always seems to be a haven for some real characters. “Characters,” that’s the first term that sprang to my mind, how diplomatic of me. You’re familiar with the characters I’m talkin’ ‘bout: homeless people, junkies, the mentally ill lurching about, screaming gibberish at the top of their lungs.

They’re the people who make public transit oh-so-cringe worthy; the people who make you want to shrink into yourself, who make you death-grip your purse and turn up the music already blasting from your headphones.

Hopping off the #20 at Hastings and Dunlevy didn’t provide much respite from the company of bus characters — anyone familiar with the area knows it’s a little rough. On my walks down Hastings, I began to realize that my gaze was constantly skyward. God forbid I lower my eyes and accidentally make eye contact with the gaunt man in the filthy jacket or the scantily clad girl with the potbelly. Because that would mean acknowledgement of their existence: filthy, drugged-up, cold, hungry human existence.

The Firehall has one of my favourite performance spaces in Vancouver: the studio is small, there isn’t an elevated stage, everything is black, it’s a cozy hole where audiences and performers can connect. It’s not pretty or glamourous or accommodating or convenient, but it produces some really great shit. It’s got some substance despite its minimalistic, “rough” appearance.

I hope this epic metaphor is falling into place for you guys. The run-down population of the Downtown Eastside is kinda like [drumroll please] the Firehall Arts Centre!

Lowering my eyes would mean acknowledging their filthy, drugged-up, cold, hungry human existence.

Forgive my flippant tone; I know this is a serious matter. My sarcasm and condescending punctuation are really just masking a guilty conscious. Because, while I’m writing this column, trying to find my authoritative voice, trying to call attention to the plight of the downtrodden who we hurry past on a day-to-day basis . . . I’m finding myself with very little to say.

Perhaps it’s because I hurried past the same man in the filthy jacket every day for two weeks. Perhaps because my eyes watered with wind as I stared at the sky. Because it’s all dirty and pathetic and scary and ugly.

I know it’s hard to look at. I know we protest and crusade for the rights of Downtown Eastsiders without ever really seeing them. I know we discuss the situation endlessly in safe spaces and brush by the subjects of discussion, eyes upturned. I know we do this because eye contact could mean exposure to shouting, solicitation, and general discomfort.

After my last show at the Firehall, I was waiting uneasily for the bus. A man behind me was puffing on a crack pipe (I think) when he saw an acquaintance; they embraced and laughed. Walking back to my place, I smiled at the toothless man sitting under a tree. He smiled back and held up two fingers in an offer of peace.