By Cathleen With
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2006
152 pages, $19.95
Vancouver’s downtown eastside (DES) has attracted a lot of attention lately. With a trial broadcast daily about the horrendous murders of DES female residents and with poverty activists increasing pressure on city and provincial authorities to stem the tide of disappearing single-occupancy rooms there aren’t too many people who don’t know that DES stands for the gritty, edgy but oddly compelling community.
And while fingers point in opposing directions as to how best to deal with the city’s poorest neighbourhood, lives go on for the people that call the area home.
Skids is an initial collection of linked short stories for Catherine With about people who inhabit and depend on the DES for survival. These are not pretty stories but they are necessary ones. Unless we, the unafflicted, consider and contemplate stories like this we remain complacent and uninformed.
There is an adage in fiction that in a novel the characters are people who fit into society and in a short story they’re people who don’t. Skids abides to that rule, outlining a group of people that live in the hellish, but hopeful downtown eastside — people who ache too much. The characters don’t fit into any semblance of mainstream reality and that’s because their reality is a knife-edge shape. They are the kind of people who feel and know too much.
Like in the book’s first story, Detox, 16-year-old Jesse, a skid, a street kid turning tricks to support a habit, who’s landed in rehab after having her stomach pumped twice in two weeks at St. Paul’s.
“Today we are going to talk about the S-O-B-E-R of sobriety. As you can see, and I’m sure you are experiencing, the letters spell out: Son of a Bitch, Everything’s Real. I’m giving you this lecture today because even though it’s my job as a detox worker, I’ve also been sober for eighteen years. Are you listening, people? Jesse?”
“I listen to her, I listen, yes, I am listening.”
Or Anja who keeps trying to off herself because the reality of being abducted by her uncle for a two-year road trip that landed him in jail and her with a baby at 14 is just a bit much to cope with.
There is hope for these characters: in the daydreams they all savour of escape to a sunny beach or through the short memories of parental love. There is also hope in taking the brave step of learning to trust, perhaps not the world beyond the DES, but in the counsellors who work the area and honestly want to help pull someone back from the edge.
With’s writing is sardonic, tidy and unsettling. As it should be when dealing with situations most can’t contemplate never mind have to live through. A University of Victoria writing graduate, in her acknowledgements she thanks the many people who work in the downtown eastside and says this book is for the kids who are still lost. But even for those of us who’ve found a path, this book is a chance to contemplate the abyss and remember that contemplation is the first shaky step toward change.