Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 @ 2:04 pm
I sit on the bus as it travels down Granville, the ebb and flow of people from the bus. Bursting back in forth in waves at major transfer points. Most of the suits leave the bus before it turns right onto Hastings, and the character of the passengers changes dramatically. It's raining lightly, and just dark, and the mentally ill, the down-and-outs, the poor, the drug addicted begin to fill the aisles. The air begins to smell like booze and stale smoke and body odor and rancid hair oils. The chatter increases, and I turn off my music, leaving my headphones on so that I stay aware of my surroundings without inviting conversation. I'm trapped deep within myself, and I am aware that I need to step out of myself before starting my volunteer shift for the night.
I watch the action on the sidewalks as the bus travels through the downtown eastside. I take deep calming breaths and think about others rather than myself. I begin to form a smile within myself, a sense of gratitude and generosity, a spirit of service. Shopping carts, drug dealers, prostitutes. Old man with comically large bags of collected bottles hanging from their shoulders, the saddest Santa in the world. Canes, walkers, wheelchairs. The bus stops for a moment, and I watch a man sitting in a bus shelter intently drawing on a sketch pad - a Coast Salish raven is blossoming from the centre of the pristine white sheet of paper.
I exit the bus kitty corner to the Mission. I am out of my head. I am aware, present, and ready to work. I pull open the door of the Mission, letting the man ahead of my in first with a gracious gesture of my arm and a small bow. I sign in, put on my ID, and head to the kitchen.
I make myself a plate of food and sit for a few minutes, having my supper and acclimatizing. I study the art on the walls, the rows of plastic chairs, the long dining tables, the smells coming from the kitchen. The kitchen manager comes out to sit with me, and we talk about his house renovation project and his children. And then he takes my empty plate away and escorts me to the kitchen.
I spend an hour squeezing out bulbs of roasted garlic. The staff moves around me in a well-practiced waltz. Puffs of steam from the dishwasher. The radio blasting generic soft rock. A mop of bleachy water sloshes around my rubber boots.
And then we're on. And it's a race to plate and serve 150 meals in 30 minutes.
I walk home later, and the garlic lingers on my jacket. Protected from the vampires of the night, from the lurking creatures of this, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I walk quickly and purposefully to catch the bus back up Main and away from the dark alleys.
I stop by the grocery store on my walk home from the bus stop. A weathered man sits on his jacket beside the rack of primulas at the store entrance, a beat-up ball cap at his feet. I'm browsing the flowers, and he glances up at me and says he'd buy me the flowers if he had any money. I smile at him and ask him how he's doing. We chat for a while before I go into the store.
I buy him something from the bakery and hand it to him as I'm leaving. He is grateful and says thank you. But I liked your smile the best.
And that is how you make a difference.