Free Dinner

“Did you know about the neighbourhood before you moved here?”

“Ha. Yeah. We actually met while she was living here. Why do you ask?”

“You kind of stick out.”

“How is that?”

“Well, you had the kid for one.”

“I have to say, you didn’t strike me as from the neighbourhood either. Your coat is quite nice. But I do encounter some nice clothes here. There is no shortage of free clothes.”

We were at the park shelter across the street from our house. Some volunteers were preparing for a small parade with musical instruments and a handmade dragon–two of my daughter’s favourite things. C, the man I was talking to, was to play the bass drum.

I had first seen him in one of the tents where a blues band was playing. I like to foster my daughter’s love for music by stopping to listen to buskers or concerts wherever we are and this was across the street from our house. C did not just stand out because of his clothes. The coat only helped him look more like a J.Crew model–way too healthy for the poverty and addictions that are all too common here.

He said that his father used to come down to the park in the ’60s and ’70s to play softball. “I’ve seen people play ball here recently,” I said.

“Really? You might get high sliding into second,” he replied.

Actually, you’re more likely to get hepatitis C; drugs are rarely wasted. It’s why I prefer to go to the parks in Strathcona with the kids rather than the one just across the street–less concern about stray needles. But he was half-joking and meant mainly to be funny.

It turned out that he only lived two neighbourhoods away, in what is called Mount Pleasant. Chinatown lies between his hood and ours. It seems so strange for someone that close to treat this part of town as that foreign. But the stigma is large. The fame of the intersection of Main and Hastings is matched only by Robson and Burrard as far as Vancouver is concerned. And here I am, having never even smoked a joint, raising my two kids with my saintly wife.

Our outsidedness is part of the reason we were at the park that evening. The tents were set up to promote healthy eating and the right to healthy food. My wife thought it might be a good way to get involved. We danced to the music in one tent and got tickets for the meal in the other. The menu was steak and vegetables and was prepared by a local high school’s culinary class. Because we had little children we were brought to the front of the line. We were ushered into the tent before the most vulnerable residents of our city. Our desire to eat in solidarity with the poor, addicted, and homeless was complicated by our seating arrangement. Somehow we ended up surrounded by senior citizens from Chinatown who didn’t speak English.

The food arrived at our place after most people had received theirs, which was fine except that most everyone else had started to leave. The old Chinese man across the table from me was flirting with our kids until his plate came down and then he pulled out a tupperware container, scooped in the steak, veggies, and cheesecake and left.

No one mingled. The presentation was excellent as was the food. My steak was mid-grade, but well prepared. My daughter enjoyed her potatoes and green beans and said thank you to the cooks. It was one of the few interactions they seemed to have with the clientele.

We wanted to meet people in our neighbourhood, to make the most of our time here, but could only identify with other outsiders.

While the crowd was leaving we saw the dragon go by, so we took the kids outside to watch the parade. My daughter danced to the music and waved at C as he beat his drum. He smiled and waved and it was time to go home to get the kids ready for bed.

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About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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