141 Turkeys – Celebrating Thanksgiving in the DTES
– Humor by Hendrik Beune
A traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the DTES means going to the United Gospel Mission: … 3 hrs. in the line-up, a 15 minute sermon and 5 minutes to fill your stomach… I am thinking, as I head out in that direction. I am not really keen on standing in line for a long time, but I try to convince myself that this is not only a tradition in our neck of the woods, but also that conversations in the line-up may be very interesting and that this will be a fun social event, perfect for celebrating Thanksgiving in the DTES. This year the weather is great, we are having a beautiful sunny day for Thanksgiving, so I decide to give the it a go.
I get there at 12:30. “I could have got off the bus one stop earlier” goes through my mind as I walk down the alley to get to the end of the line, which, I am joking, might start close to Burnaby or Surrey. There are lots of familiar faces in line and then again, three quarters of them I have never seen, or at least never noticed before. Once in line, I find out that people have come from all over, but first I stop to chat with a friend whom I haven’t seen for awhile. “How are you doing” asks Patricia, who lives in the Hotel where I worked the front desk until 6 weeks ago. Patricia is an ex-Californian hippy from the sixtees, now almost sixty years old herself, but she still radiates the same young and vivacious attitude that she must have had when she lived in California during the “flower power” movement. She strikes me like she could have just arrived from there yesterday. I am from the same era, our birthdays are only months apart and for me the late sixties and early seventies were also formative years; …I stop to have a cigarette with her.
“Can I roll a smoke” she asks. “I bet you can” I answer, “but let me save you the trouble, you can have this one.” I hand her the smoke that I just finished rolling from my package of ‘Drum’ tobacco. Smoking a Drum cigarette brings back memories of traveling in Europe for many a person. I smoke it because that’s what I grew up with; Drum originally came from my hometown ‘Utrecht’ in the Netherlands. Also, it is more flavourfull than other tobacco and it is ‘naturally cured’, not containing the nitro’s and glycerides that are put into ‘TM’s’ to make them burn better. This tobacco burns simply because it is cut into very thin strands, which is why the Dutch refer to rolling tobacco as ‘Shag’. I think that Patricia knows that, so I don’t mention it to her, but it is a story I often tell… I explain to Patricia that I was offered full-time work by the management company, but that I had to accept work at a different location in a building they had just acquired and that this is why she did not see me work the desk on weekends any more. I explain that this was my first first full-time job offer since coming to the DTES (8 years ago) and it wasn’t for lack of trying… I just ‘had to’ accept it. I told her that I really missed all the people and personalities that I had got to know during my six months at the ‘Hazelwood’ and I asked what was new. After a few more minutes of conversation I announce that I better get going to take my spot in line. We wish each other a “Happy Thanksgiving” and I line up in kew at the end of the alley near three people I have never met before.
The guy in front of me wears a bright orange jacket emblazed on the back with the words “Neighbours First” in colourful embroidery. Both English words and chinese characters are used next to each other and the text is further adorned with embroidered buildings. “That is quite a unique jacket”, I ponder “I wonder where he got that”. I reflect that ‘Neighbours’ is spelled the proper English way, with a ‘u’ in it, so it is definitely not ‘made in America’. The person wearing the jacket told me that he had spent six months living in squats in Amsterdam and he also spoke of spending time in Ireland, primarily in pubs. He showed himself to be the ‘happy go lucky’ type, telling me one exiting story after another. Thus, I got to meet a cheerful adventurous personality, without me adding hardly adding a word to the conversation. I never did get to ask the burning question “Where did you get that jacket?”, but I am sure that would have lead to another interesting story or two. Come to think of it, even though I listened to his stories for about half an hour, I never even got this guy’s name… I have no doubt however, that should we run into each other again, even in passing on the street somewhere… that we will gesture a greeting at each other, simply because that is what is done down here. Whomever you meet on the street realizes that we’re all in the same boat or ‘living in the same fishbowl’ as the saying goes…
The conversation that I was having with the person in the colourful jacket ahead of me was interrupted by “Nick”, whom I’ve known for a long, long time. Nick volunteers in the Carnegie kitchen, where I often get my lunch. At a dollar seventy-five for a wholesome meal with properly balanced proportions of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables, to meet the daily requirements for good health, it’s value can’t be beat anywhere in town. This it is surely one of the most appreciated assets of the DTES and treasured by the entire community. Nick speaks in an exited voice about daily occurrences and has a habit of interrupting his stories just about every time a girl passes. Even if a girl does not pass by he will interupt his own story with a short anecdote about some “babe” that he knows and met again recently. Nick is not disrespectful towards women, he just has a passion for ‘babes’ and he likes to talk about it. Nick is one of those likeable personalities that will tie on a story with you every time that he meets up with you, even if he is just bicycling by. In this case as he was heading down to take his place at the end of the line. This did not stop him from walking along with us for what must have been at least five minutes, tied up in a lively conversation with everyone who wanted to hear or participate. No, he wasn’t trying to bud in, he was just spending time Nick’s way, treasuring moments spent with no hurry and no worry…
I hear some-one say that on average a person sees 10,000 faces in a lifetime. Perhaps for the average person that we meet in the line-up here, that would be an under-estimate. Most of the people that I don’t know here could be called nomads… The person behind me told me he spent the last six days hitchhiking from Calgary. It was getting too cold there. He did not have a lot of luck getting good rides and he mentions three places where he spent a whole day beside the road without being offered a single ride. That is a lot of faces to see passing you by! Some-one else interjected that six days on the road should normally get you as far as Winnipeg… The conversation quickly drifts to survival stories and becomes a conversation about which bottle depots might be open on Thanksgiving day. Our friend from Calgary has spent the morning collecting bottles and cans in Kitselano and subsequently walked all the way from there to here, which took him well over an hour, in order to get his free turkey meal. Good thing there is free food, his half-full garbage bag of cans probably would not carry the cost of even a very simple meal at one of the local diners… It is good to have a place where you can walk to and be fed, no matter if you have money in your pocket or not. If you make the effort to walk and recycle along the way, you should be able to at least find a place to sleep and get your stomach filled.
The conversation by now has petered out to a point where I am no longer much interested and I spend awhile reading the book “In the realm of hungry ghosts”. This is a book, written by an M.D., who for 8 years worked in the DTES with so-called ‘hard to house’ people. The book is filled with interesting and compassionate stories about experiences that the ‘good doctor’ had working with a variety of personalities living in the DTES. The book deals primarily with the humanity of people, their addictions and how they cope with it. The book is an eye-opener for many who read it. …As the topic of conversation livens up around me, I sometimes join in, if I find it of interest and for the rest I am engulfed in my book. To my surprise only an hour and a half has passed when we get to the front door of UGM and I get the impression that the doors to a temple to meet the Savior are being opened for me. The delicious smell of oven roasted turkey and the sound of ‘minstrels’ playing beacons me in. Wow, I am surprised, there isn’t even a sermon… We are directed to be seated in the pews in an pre-organized systematic way and pass the fifteen minutes or so that we are waiting, listening to the pleasant voice of a female vocalist, who was accompanied by sometimes up to five(!) guitars. The music never stops, but the performers rotate, as do we…
“Finally” we get called into the dining hall where the tables are already laid out for us. Everything looks great, although I have a bit of a hard time accepting the offer of orange-juice from a policeman, who granted, broadcasts a large smile, but who apparently also forgot to leave his holsters at home for this Thanksgiving celebration. Apart from the juice container in his hands, he sports a revolver from his waist and a taser-gun from a holster bound to his thigh. This is quite disconcerting for someone who abhors violence, especially when this is right in front of you. The meal is good although of fairly small proportion, but it has all the trimmings and even pumpkin pie with ice-cream for desert. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to gulf it down and I hear people talking about going back into the line-up for seconds… and why not?
On Thanksgiving, in the Downtown East Side, you can have turkey for breakfast, lunch and dinner! “Don’t worry, they won’t run out”, I hear being said, “they have plenty: One hundred and forty birds in the kitchen”. Then why did I title this article “One hundred and forty One Turkeys”? Aha, that’s for the one person who left, complaining that the line-up was too long… Actually I did not see anyone person leave the line-up, so the one extra turkey is strictly hypothetical as far as people who made it to the line-up is concerned. However, it may be useful to describe the character of the person who has thusfar looked down on line-ups of people only with disdain: A turkey more or less don’t matter, we’ll accept you, there is room for everyone in here!
We are all Buddhists, the people who can enjoy a food-line, I figure: The pleasure comes from experiencing the journey, not so much from yearning for the destination, after all, consuming the meal is comparatively short-lived. While waiting in line, I enjoyed the many conversations as well as reading the telling stories of my ‘locally crafted’ book. In retrospect I have to chuckle about my spontaneous response to an offer of “The New Testament” while we waited in line. I could not resist to comment that I had read it before and that it wasn’t so new to me; the book was at least thousand years old, wasn’t it, or more like two? I did not receive a reply or even a smile to that, Oh well… I appreciated the new socks that I received at the gate… I was allowed to pick between black, white or gray. I picked gray: it would best match my hair and sanity!
At last, back into the alley and off to work to relieve the person who was working the day-shift before me. I came in especially early, because I knew one of my fcolleagues had children at home. I wanted him to be able to leave early and spend some special time with his family, as a special dinner was being prepared. Besides, it also gave me the time to commence writing this story…
As a final reflection I wonder who had a better time… the person who spent a lot of money and flew from far to get ‘home’, the person who took the ferry and spent time tied up in traffic to be near family who lived a distance away, or us, who spent time in a food-line getting to know complete strangers, people we learn to call brothers and sisters, even though they are not blood relatives at all. To many outsiders the people who live in the DTES may look like a family of misfits, that is, if they don’t fail to notice the family-, or community- aspect at all. I am thankful this attitude is gradually changing This is due in large part to the activities of many of the non for profit community organizations like Pivot, CCAP and various women’s groups and also through community reporting as is done here in Megaphone. Now other people as well start to notice the positive aspects of this very challenged community. In many ways the DTES can be the model of a supportive community, for in here is something than is of value for all. Ours is a community with very litle prejudice or discrimination, we accept all. For us this is ‘home’ and we are thankful to all the people from near and far, who treat us like brothers and sisters and who, in spite of many shortcomings, can also give us the light of day with perhaps some true feelings of empathy, love, dignity and respect. For this we give thanks to you all!