She was between iPhone calls so she made conversation.
“Are you from ‘the ‘hood’?” she asked.
She meant it ironically. We were at the Strathcona community centre, which is just two blocks from the real hood of the Downtown Eastside but worlds away. On Mondays there is a toddlers drop-in and I brought the kids over since it was raining. The hood would not describe the other kids’ upbringing, but Strathcona is more recently gentrified than other parts of town so the residents tend to be a little edgier. Most of what I’ve seen there are bobos and yupsters. Patchouli-scented, Lululemon attired, hybrid drivers. They pull their Chariot bike trailers behind Surly Long-haul Truckers. They have tattoos to make them look tough but when the Union Gospel Mission wants to build a soup kitchen on the south side of Hastings they become Nimbys worried about housing values.
“I live just north of Hastings,” I replied. I do live in the hood in the term’s normal meaning. I don’t look the part, of course. I fit in better in Strathcona than I do where I live. I’m married, educated, have a MacBook and an antique coffee grinder. The most potent drug I’ve ever had is a cask strength Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Nevertheless, she asked where I live and I interpreted her question in the way that seemed most sensible.
I’ve been having difficulty answering the question of where I live. It doesn’t seem right to say I live in the Downtown Eastside even though I live almost at its centre. I often feel that if I do answer the question in the most honest way that people will think I’m trying to show off or something. If I need to give the proximity of my locale, I often just say I live near Chinatown, which is somewhere that everyone knows and has several types of living arrangements. People can place me in whatever type of neighbourhood they want.
On the other hand, in this particular situation, I answered specifically without saying the Downtown Eastside. I distinguished myself from the other parents in the group wondering how she might interpret my honest answer to her ironic question. Just then, her iPhone rang again and I was left having to interpret her nonresponse.
I went back to looking after the kids and an hour later headed back home in the rain for lunch. We walked by a line of soaked men waiting for the soup kitchen to open and then we crossed Hastings.
I’d been thinking about that two sentence conversation occasionally ever since. How does someone like me appear when placed in my actual context? A decade or more ago, people with backgrounds like mine started buying up the old rundown houses in Strathcona and renovating them. Today it is not unusual to sell one for $1 million. I suspect I could look like a savvy investor. I am not a savvy investor, but I don’t know more than that. We’re here because we’re here. A confluence of events brought us to this exact location and I’m happy they did. But even I don’t know how to interpret me.
This morning, I got the kids ready to take the bus to Commercial Drive—the neighbourhood we lived when we first got married. As we walked onto the sidewalk I noticed two women pushing strollers in the opposite direction across the street. One looked familiar and when I saw the kid in the stroller, I recognized her as the woman with the iPhone. She waved and I waved back. I don’t know where she was going, but the ‘hood was on the way.