Volume 26, Number 149, February/March 2023 Safe Harbor by Fiarra Ember Nixon
Grooming dogs in Oppenheimer Park during the daylight hours kept my mind off the reality of street life. Indigenous artists sat on benches, carving great eagles, wolves and bears out of wood. They made drums for ceremonies, sacred pow wows I guessed. They kept to themselves. The park staff organized a long fold out table for any random person to come have a coffee and do some art. Others would watch and visit while I scissored or shaved a pet on the park board patio, a reprieve from all our realities. That was how I filled the days when I had to be in Vancouver to meet with lawyers. Often walking up to the pound to groom there too. It was risky to be out at night, but my mind was filled with worries, I was hungry for a healthy meal, I read a notice on the bulletin board about a free Christmas dinner. I belonged nowhere, was not really a street person, just temporarily misplaced. So, I would help them serve and then could eat guilt free.
The smell of turkey dinner wafted from the big church van when it parked on the curb in Pigeon Park. The sound of the van doors cracking open then slamming up against the metal roof happened together with more aromas escaping. The gravy's flavor reached down into my nostrils, cranberries, fresh bread, most of all the turkey. Following my nose, I jumped up into the back to help unload cardboard boxes and plastic tubs of food stacked to the ceiling, destined to feed the homeless on the Downtown East Side (D.T.E.S.).
The closed-in area back of the van reminded me of being attacked from behind and forced against a wall. Somehow turning to find my broom pressing between us across my chest and body. The stench of his breath as he shoved his torso up against mine, fondling my crotch. His breath stunk of death. Suddenly he was standing at the door, short, dirty. His voice, eerie and high like a child's, joyfully telling me he was going to rape me, as if it was a fact. The chaotic memory gave way to the here, and now. My heart bounding in the flesh of my throat. Busying shadows, then people flickered back into view.
“Take the tables,” a voice faded in and out.
“Shake it off” I mumbled, looking past the boxes and volunteers to the people in the queue waiting for sustenance. Homelessness, temporary or not, fear, caused me to look the part of a meth head except my hair was long, still thick yet bleached, dyed blonde to help hide my identity. My age late-fifties, I did look the part of a street person, like someone who had been out there long enough. Skin dry and malnourished. Nerves so abused; the body often quivered from the strain of survival. Other women were denied their voices in court because of their addictions, overusing, alcoholism, isms of any sort, whatever you wanted to call it. I would not allow that; I would have my day in court. I was different, I did not have to drink, I did not do hard drugs, had a prescription for marijuana. I told myself not to drink unless it was late enough to go to sleep right away. And then only beer. A real alcoholic couldn’t do that.
Some people knew me as a volunteer dog Groomer. Some thought I was a rounder, a few whispered narc. Most of them were friendly enough. It was no different from neighbors with regular homes stopping to chat, except they could not support themselves. Topics usually ranged from where to get food, finding public bathrooms, or ideas for shelter. Some were disabled, in wheelchairs, blind. Some with stories that explained everything, down on their luck souls, the drug addicted or mentally ill. Neighbors with no houses to invite from but the cardboard used to stake their spots.
I collected myself without explaining the anxiety attack, why I jumped in uninvited, or why I laughed so inappropriately. Everybody there had their own challenges; my oddities were the norm. Instead, I helped prepare for serving food outside.
We quickly ran out of paper plates, having already served more people than expected, we were still surrounded by starving people, and no clean plates.
“Use the ones from the garbage.” The hungry man shouted to the throng from across my serving table. The mist from his breath drifted over to my own exhaled fog. I smelled whisky and tobacco. Worn brown jacket too large for his small frame, sinewy wrists pushing through his tattered sleeve, he poked the air with a stained, salvaged plate, urging me to dish the Christmas dinner onto it. I looked at the disgusting plate in his hands, the plate I had watched him dig out of the garbage, then to my right at the man charging past us.
“Can’t we ask at a restaurant for plates?” I asked him quickly.
“Just feed them!” His pointing finger wagged at me as he sped past into the ravenous crowd.
Later, by the time my ladle was dropping decent food onto used plates I was not shaking, not craving anything, not lonely anymore. And so, the throng dove in until all the turkey and trimmings and pies were gone. Still, there were people digging in the garbage for any morsel. For all the food in that truck there was nothing left, it was all gone.
Gratitude washed over me. My homelessness had an end date, for me street life would cease at the trial. Once I got there and explained myself, I would finally be safe.
After the truck left, heading back to Powell Place Women's Shelter, I took a long winding route back, checking behind myself for anyone following me.
The smell of sweet meat and soy caught my attention.
Listening to my growling stomach I headed towards Carnegie Center. The scent turned me towards Main Street.
Shy a dime, I held my money out to the woman behind the tall glass counter. She was slight and quick, grabbing the money.
“Take it, Merry Christmas,” she snapped. Sliding the basket of meat over to me. The mix of disdain and disgust in her voice was telling.
“No.” My nervous laughter erupting as I reached for the food.
“I am not begging I will be back tomorrow with a dime, I just do not have it on me right now. Thank you, Merry Christmas.” Laughing again. Straining to ooze friendliness I push the door open with my hip, its bell rings, I raise my snack as if toasting to the chef and am back out on the wintry cold street.
Somehow that moment reminded me of home. Where an auntie was grumpy, but kind, and me clowning, getting under foot. Except my real aunts were taller and heavier than that woman was. Not so snappy. It felt poetic to accept all the awkwardness for the taste of nourishment. The clean little box held the Peking duck, warm and steaming in the night air. It was charred dark, it tasted like candy.
The pat pat sound of my runners echoed softly off the row of ivory towers. Long concrete walls looming over me brought to mind great uncles rising from their seats at the fine Yuletide setting, filing slowly past us kids at the fold out card table, “excuse us” they would whisper, touching our shoulders in passing. Fond memories, that beautifully silent night.
Safe harbors never found, only made. The year prior I had changed my identity and run away; I had no other way out from being under threat.
“You can’t stay, I have the kids here, it is just too dangerous! What are you going to do?” My friend (who was also my boss and roommate) was as horrified by the recording as I was shocked.
“I know. That is why I let you hear the tape. I couldn’t explain that who would believe me? My lawyer said he would get back to me, he heard it all too. Because it is a third-party threat there is really nothing anybody can do unless something happens to me. I can’t take any chances with these guys, I am taking off. Can we wait until I am gone for a week, then would you put my furniture out on the curb for me? They will know I have gone, if I take it out now, they will know I am running. There are too many of them, I don’t know who to watch out for. I need a head start.” The only chance I could see to get free of looking over my shoulder now was to get to the trial, speak, and hope that clears my way.
“What do you mean only two safe houses in Vancouver can house me?” The phone line crackled. Poor reception in the Chilliwack campgrounds off season, hiding in my van until I could figure out where to go next. There was no money for hotels, I could not rent a place and stay put, they would find me. The threat was of gun violence and what I read on the internet about gang life scared me plenty.
“Domestic violence is rampant in Canada. There are always victims running, safe houses across the country are full right now. Most of the women are running from familial abuse. We have safety protocols to follow to keep you and the people hiding you protected,” came the answer from the safe houses.
“We can house you for a few months, but those are your only two choices right now. You would have to assume another name and get rid of your cell phone. You must take varied routes on foot to the shelter. You need to stay in your alternate character. D.T.E.S. is the one place where we can get you in tonight, and again when you come in and out for trial purposes. You need a place with double steel doors, staff who know the risks.” The rest of the conversation melted into one horrible realization that this was it. My life for the next year or so until I could speak at trial.
I left the Safe Houses for the mothers as often as I could. Better off out of BC anyway; my PTSD was ravaging me there.
Wandering in Saskatchewan I visited my birthplace (Estevan). There counselors from Envision met with me, supportive, they helped me calm down and think clearly and were my guides for finding food and places to hide in the van. Parking between big rigs at the Husky, I could wash up and get a snack, gas. Mortlach Saskatchewan graciously allowed me to camp out in their little Village for a time, as did Elbow, Manitoba where I managed a quick hug from mom and wink to a friend. When I pulled into B.C. I might switch up my plates, often trying to trade the van, but could not find anything I could afford. My fingers gripped the wheel until my knuckles went white, imagining gunshots hitting my left temple. My own history of domestic abuse mixed with these new stressors caused my hands to shake so violently at times I would have to stop driving.
Stopped beside the Chilliwack River in B.C. My vehicle my home now, I crawled into the back, under green tarps, and fell asleep.
A tapping sound woke me out of a nasty dream from my past.
In the dream, boots were on my back. Curled up small in a corner I could feel the steel of a boot finding an edge, lifting me on impact. My knee hit my door. I thought it hit the floor, my legs were running.
When I opened my eyes, I could see an officer standing by the hood of my van smiling, I heard talking. Not awake yet, everything underwater sounding at first.
There are trees behind him, a breeze moves through them. Sunlight bathes the officer in a glow. I feel as if I am looking out of a cave. He stood back to let me out the sliding door. The eddies soft curls licking the shoreline behind the officer, anglers deep in the river swells casting flies.
“Are you ok?” he asked, his clear young face smiling carefully.
“Yes, yes I think I am. Thank you.”
He knew who I was, though I was not sure whose side he was on. I was terrified of him but did not want him to know. The threats that sent me running vaguely involved the police. I do not remember more of that day.
PTSD shredding foundations, it became harder to remember that my situation was temporary. There are many people running out there today, more than I ever knew. Impossible to protect us all. Life becomes shouting in the wind, our words shoved back down our throats. The powerlessness itself felt like something heavy pulling at my guts, worrying my insides, but where to sleep each night was the real issue.
When the sun set, I could use my mentor’s pet grooming salon in Chilliwack to bathe and keep clean. She had given me a key and her blessings, leaving food and treats. Moving about unseen, I slipped in the front doors at night then ducked down past the picture window behind the cash register counter, through the pony doors painted white and into the back room. There I could use her dog tub to wash myself, watch tv, have a few beers, and make a nest of towels to curl up and sleep on the clean linoleum floor. Out of sight, but in familiar surroundings, I would sleep better than at the shelter. Little thought went to the beer, it was just a few beers.
Shelter managers warned me to stay in character, safety was a big topic of conversation at admitting. In my van or at the salon where I could keep to myself, I felt more in control.
I was losing touch with who I was. Time has a way of wearing one down.
The shelter was full of traumatized women, many who were addicted to drugs. Many knew my offender. Still, if I was using another name, it was the safest place for me when I had to be in Vancouver for trial business.
It was there when a streetwalker's harrowing story changed me. Her mother a loved mother, the daughter a good daughter as was her son yet all three addicted, all three on the streets and all three prostitutes. The light of the sun gave me a deep long look inside her eyes. Her voice was soft and gentle, draining my heart of its ice. I had laughed at her, watching her at first. Drugged delirious staggering around the shelter with a plate of pancakes, syrup escaping all over the floor. Long hair painting her clothing with the sticky mixture from her plate, soaking into strands and then slipping off like a paintbrush being dabbed and swiped. I laughed under my breath. Judged her, judged all the women until I heard them speak, got a closer look.
Less afraid, more ashamed of myself, looking into the core of her irises and hearing how her mother's life began, my judgments entitled imaginings I had been so wrong. She never stood a chance, was addicted to meth as a baby. As was the son, yet they all stuck close out there. As I listened, I told myself to write about her, to remember the family. To be grateful that my struggles could not compare.
At night in the old Powell Place women would scream of cutting off dicks, slicing throats and stabbing tits, challenging through walls. My room was shared with a gambling addict who worked full time, but her addiction broke her. Spent her hours stacking hoarded cigarette boxes and gambling on her laptop. The room reeked of used tobacco and sweat, and she had strung Christmas lights up that blinked constantly to help her with her fear of the dark.
Tired of trying to sleep in that room I slipped out; down the barrack like hallway, turning right at the washrooms past the kitchen on my left with its large picture window, the cafeteria, and right again to the lobby, greeting the manager in passing. Gorgeous woman fit and present, back from the gym she was in grey sweats and white hi tops, long dark hair loose.
“Doe you’ve got mail!” She unlocked the locker without looking up, reached in and tossed the card at me.
“Thanks! Can you let me out?” Through the steel doors click and click unlocks both, down the stairs smashed with bird poop first to see who is having a smoke, hear a story share some hope. No one was there. Inside that cage that human kennel on the street survivors had a protected moment outside to have a cigarette or visit, it kept bikes locked up safely, a huge metal cage on the concrete street. Safe in a way but not from bullets, sitting ducks there really, everybody knew it.
I opened the card to Ember Doe that my childhood friend had sent. Only she, my lawyer and Rape Relief knew how to find me. She somehow picked the perfect card; cut off from family and friends, I would read it over repeatedly, it was important to stay connected somehow.
My van had to be moved every morning or it would be towed. Powell place could be noisy and angry so I would crawl under the tarps in the back of my van, curling up to make myself as small as possible, closing my eyes. I welcomed oblivion, falling asleep to street sounds, deals being made, fights, conversations, and footsteps.
Racism terrors rage you name it, every vapid emotion bottled up in that building on Powell Street, with two double steel security doors, allowing not even police in. Inside could be a hornet's nest of brooding fury.
Mornings I would sit by the kitchen, fading in and out of sleep, I always had dark dreams, this time no different. All I remember of it is the sound of dripping first. My own eyelashes peeling open to see a knee, my own, poking out of a bathtub filled with dark red blood. Creak, the sound drew my focus upward. My husband in the doorway, his brother looming behind him, watching me.
Drip of the faucet.
“What did you do to my brother?” The tall one asked.
I woke up sitting up, my back against a wall. There were staff members standing around quietly as a resident raged, allowing the woman to storm and writhe angrily, freely. Staff in numbers peacefully influencing her to be calm. Very well-trained, the employees impressed me with their ability to defuse volatile situations, without more violence. The women had been through enough.
Anxiety disordered; personality skewed like an oak twisting through an iron fence. Life has ways of growing crooked trees. It is pushing through fences, reaching for the sun that molds and burls the tree until it finally escapes interference, and the sky becomes the limit.
Indigenous women walked up the hallway, back at Powell Place, hair in long shiny clean braids. Lunches made, backpacks slung on shoulders, off to work. They looked healthy and wise. Grooming dogs kept me from going over the edge. The soundest women had things to do or made things to do. I tried hard to copy them.
Propped by hall walls, the other women slid into line one by one. Blankets draped over pajamaed shoulders they bottle neck bleary eyed into the kitchen. Mumbling started, somebody took the first dregs of coffee, the butter had a hair in it.
I left to give the Takeout lady that ten cents I did not have the night before, thank her again for the lovely Christmas meal.