What life is like overlooking an alleyway near a Batman set in Vancouver, Canada

Today I got an email from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent. The houseboat she lived on sank in Vancouver around Christmas/New Year and she was made homeless. Now she has an update:


After a few small adventures, including nearly being expelled from a church shelter, I have now found a small apartment in ‘Railtown’, right beside the Port of Vancouver, where I hear seagulls and huge cranes.

After finding the place, I went for a walk around the area at night and I was surprised to learn that I had been transported to Gotham because, as I walked up a bridge over the railway line and looked down, the first thing I saw was a big sign reading:

GOTHAM CITY SHIPYARD

Below the towering cranes, people were standing about casting long shadows. 

Clouds of fog obscured some of the port buildings and then three cars side-by-side, one of then a Mustang, revved-up their engines and then took off, drove at high speed and then circled back to precisely where they had started. They waited there, with their lights on. Then a much larger black car followed the same route, but totally silently.  

They were filming a Batman series or movie.

I have not quite moved in to my new apartment yet: it requires a bit of cleaning and – horrors – FURNITURE !

That was one of the things I loved about living on my boat: whenever I passed by a furniture shop I had no covetous thoughts whatsoever…

However, there were a few OK pieces of furniture left behind at my new apartment and my new neighbour – a kind, curmudgeonly sort of guy – has loaned me a couple of fine wooden armchairs. He said that I would be doing him a favour by keeping the chairs for now and that he generally likes to keep to himself. 

I told him: “That’s perfect. That’s just how I am too!”

Although it’s just a few blocks down from notorious Hastings Street, the apartment is remarkably quiet. It is set back from the street, at the intersection of two alleyways.

There is no end of people using substances out there, usually crouched beside dumpsters or slumped in a doorway.

One sunny morning I saw an increasing number of young men sprawled out, with their knapsacks and foil and pipes, lolling peacefully enjoying their meth, as if at a bucolic picnic. Suddenly a large courier van turned into the alley and stopped. The men were oblivious and made no attempt to get up and I imagined the frustrated driver, probably wondering what to do next.

The apartment below has recently been renovated and all its contents dumped in front of the building – old shower curtains, rotting regular curtains, a queen size mattress and even a toilet, perched precariously near the front door.

One time I saw a man standing up on the queen size mattress, bouncing up and down enthusiastically like a small child. 

I don’t have all day to look out the window but, when I checked twenty minutes later, he was still bouncing. Then a black SUV pulled up and he ran to the passenger side. Then they both left. Drugs ?

One day the mattress just disappeared.

Later, two jolly-looking derelict men, wearing good but battered hats, both using canes, came tottering past.

One cried out with surprise: “Look, John! Your bed is gone! “

A few days later, some ragged-looking people moved the toilet off the front stoop and covered it with a soiled curtain. Some of the other rubbish had been organised somewhat. A pillow was placed neatly on a pallet and so on. 

I thought: “Good. At least we don’t have to look at the toilet.” 

Another day, a friend who was in the apartment taking-in the ever-changing cast of characters reported: “There’s a man in a kilt now”.  

I imagined some scrawny punk guy covered in tattoos but, when I looked, it was a beefy older man in full blue and white tartan regalia right down to his socks, marching along as if on his way to an event. 

Then the toilet had its blanket removed and two chubby drunks – a man and a woman – were hauling it away.

But it turned out they had just left it in the alleyway, behind the building.

The rubbish pile keeps shifting with orange needle caps, random socks and discarded clothing appearing and disappearing.

A tall wonky cedar tree and a Queen Elizabeth rose and a depleted strand of bamboo somehow rise up from the garbage pile. I read that the rose enjoys mulch, but it didn’t say anything about whether it likes shower curtains or socks.

Songbirds perch on the bamboo and flit in and out of the cedar tree.

In the daytime, crows stand at intervals atop the blue fence, waiting for an older Chinese lady who empties out a huge bag of peanuts for them every day. They noisily grab a peanut and fly back up on the fence or into the space inside it, which has big signs above it saying: FILM CREW AND SPECIAL EVENTS and NO DUMPING. 

Once in a while, the vacant space fills up with film crew cars, but I don’t think there have been any special events of late.

There is a constant din of dockside cranes loading and unloading container ships, mixed with the cries of seagulls, but there is little car traffic near the place and no crowds of people, as there are just a few blocks away at Main and Hastings.

I walked through there last week and it is as chaotic and raucous as ever, like a demented fairground, people selling anything and everything. There are a lot of dogs too and poo on the ground, clouds of dust and more and more people jammed together smoking methamphetamine or shooting up. 

In the middle of all this, they are also sitting on the pavement furiously crayoning in colouring books, which is supposed to be therapeutic, but to me it looks sad.

People are dressed either in rags or the latest streetwear fashion, in stuff I haven’t even seen in magazines – or in their pyjamas or in rags. There are an increasing number of fashionably dressed First Nations people, wearing clothing printed with their traditional or modern Coast Salish designs. I lusted after an innovative white jacket from Bella Coola that I saw a good looking young man wearing. He was walking very quickly though, so I couldn’t ask who made it.

A few nights ago I saw somebody on the corner who specialized in selling aluminum walking canes, which lay on the sidewalk, radiating out in a circle…They are a hot item, with so many people needing them around here. I wondered where they were stolen from. Or maybe they came from a care home.

A diabetic friend from the marina ended up in a care home in New Westminster and his daughter went to great trouble to get him a nice wheelchair, so he could explore his surroundings. He explored them so well that he discovered the room where they stored all the wheelchairs of people who had died.

So, the next time she went there, he was roaring around in a motorized chair and busy with a racket he had set up in the gazebo, buying cigarettes from street people in exchange for apple juice bottles he collected from the other inhabitants of the place.

There is a huge courthouse and jail that takes up an entire block of Main Street. I’ve noticed nice vehicles parked right in front – an expensive all matt black Japanese motorcycle one day, a bright red 1969 Thunderbird car the next. I can’t figure out who they belong to. Successful criminals? Or lawyers? Or maybe just people with nice cars who think outside the courthouse is the only safe place to park.

Meanwhile, back at my apartment, glancing out the window again, I was startled to see a large young Chinese man with a box-shaped camera on a tripod, pointing right at the back of the building. I wondered what he could be taking a photo of. All that was there was a grey stucco wall, two windows covered with rusty grates and some vague, not very interesting graffiti. 

He must have been an art student I figured, or maybe a hobby photographer from one of the trendy warehouse/condos closer to the waterfront. When I left the building, I saw that the toilet was still sitting out back. 

So THAT was what he was photographing! 

One more thing… 

Just as my friend and I were exciting the building yesterday, a couple of middle class guys were taking a shortcut through the alley. One of them pointed at the building (and at us) and said loudly: “I can’t believe people actually LIVE in that building!”

It is really quite nice inside though. 

Especially the view of the alley.

Anna says: “Here is a photo of what used to be a  snowball or maybe it was a snowman. Snow it goes.”

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Filed under Canada, Drugs, Poverty, Vancouver

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