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Over the course of three months The Dependent earned the trust of a small group of drug dealers operating in the Downtown Eastside. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the alleys and on the corners, we conducted interviews with those involved and observed the Hastings drug trade from the unique perspective of the street.
Fourth in a four part series on drug dealing in the Downtown Eastside.
IT’S BEEN THREE months now, and the alley entrance seems a safe and familiar place.
How’s the article coming?
So easy to forget the weeks of sweaty palms and alley darkness that preceded my acceptance. Now, standing in the midst of the crews operating “out back”, I’m comfortable. I’ve learned the system. I know the numbers, measurements, and slang. I’ve heard the justifications for the violence.
And these are the things that I describe to friends and family curious about the story. They listen intently, nodding as I speak but waiting to ask the inevitable question:
Who are these people?
I’ve spent enough time at their side to have a sense. We’ve shared meals, jokes, and inconveniences. I’ve been witness to their daily life, their changes in mood, their reactions to successes and failures.
The temptation is for broad and sweeping conclusions:
They’re idiots, for example.
But if the reasons behind a person’s entrance into addiction are varied and complicated, so too are the reasons for a person’s entrance into the drug trade. For every beast I encounter committing heinous acts of violence or exploitation, I hear a human tale, too.
How much of it to believe?
THREADS IS SEVENTEEN years old, part of the next generation of hopeful and ignorant kids who will either wind up in jail, fight their way to a mid-level position or drop out for a tenuous shot at a legitimate life. Addicted to Percocets and constantly under intense pressure, Threads is unpredictable. Violent. Scary.
This guy’s a fucking narc, he declared one day upon my arrival. Royal and the others ignored him but he wasn’t prepared to let the allegation slide.
If they take me down I’m coming for you, he said, pointing a finger to my chest.
A week later and he’s my best friend, vouching for the photographer and me so we can get pictures of a worker holding drugs.
While the more senior dealers come and go, Threads is a permanent fixture. He works twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and on a quiet morning at the alley entrance I venture to ask him and his partner if they like what they do.
You think I like standing here in this piss-smelling alley dealing with these fucking people all day? he scoffs.
Then why are you here?
He tells me that he dropped out of school.
I’d get stuck on a math problem and I’d get so angry that I’d just walk out, Threads says, spitting.
Seventeen years old, no high school education, an inevitable criminal record — Threads’ options seem limited indeed.
We’re fuck-ups, his partner says, chuckling. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t.
TEFLON, BY CONTRAST, is neatly groomed and well-dressed. I encounter him only once as he crosses the street, coffee and iPhone in hand, to help a young addict with a head full of grey hair who has collapsed to the sidewalk nearby. The addict struggles to his feet, tugging at his chest and steadying himself against one of the parking poles, but his legs tremble and he’s forced to sit back down.
He fell down over there, too, Teflon tells me as he dials 911.
For twenty minutes we make small talk with the man, trying to keep him calm and conscious. No ambulance arrives. A nearby merchant brings a cup of water and the man makes his way to wobbly feet.
As he wanders away I’m confronted by the need to reconcile the violence and exploitation I’ve witnessed with the dealers as individuals. How does this young man, his coffee, clothes, and iPhone paid for by the misery of people like the man he just helped, show compassion one moment and opportunistic indifference the next?
I hand him a card.
You seem like a sensible guy, I say, explaining my purpose.
He turns it over and I ask him the best question I can think of:
Why are you here?
He considers it for a moment.
It’s not like I moved to Canada thinking I was going to be a drug dealer, he tells me. I know this is wrong.
He says that he immigrated from Iran three years ago.
I have four years’ university education towards becoming an engineer. I tried to apply to school and they said my credits were worth nothing — I would have to start from scratch. So I started a business instead, but it went bankrupt and I owed a bunch of money to my family. My auntie lent me 22k. The bank, you can just walk away from, but you can’t do that with your aunt. So I worked a few jobs — plumber, warehouse, coffee shops — none of it could pay my bills. I realized that if I kept working like that I was going to be paying my debts for the rest of my life.
Do you ever feel guilty?
Yeah, I did for the first, like, six or seven months. Then I stopped.
These people are making choices, right? It’s their choice to be here and do this — I’m not forcing them.
When I first started I tried to help these two people. They were fresh down here — a guy and a girl — and I said, ‘You don’t want to be down here. This isn’t the lifestyle for you,’ and I put them up in an apartment in Burnaby.
But four months later they were down here again.
THE LATINOS ARE slowest to warm to me. The Icy Dealer and his crew out front finally open up when I tell them that I’m interested in their perspective.
It’s good that you’re doing this, he tells me.
We’re not bad people, a shorter dealer says. We’ve just run out of options.
I ask them why they got involved and the short one says that he moved here and tried to get into school but couldn’t because he wasn’t a citizen. He tried to find work, he says. He felt roadblocks going up all around him, and then his mother got sick.
And back home, it’s not like here — you just go to the hospital. If you don’t have money back home, you die.
All of them say they’re sending money back to their families, but they ask me not to say which country.
Were you involved in the drug trade back home? I ask.
No man. I didn’t know anything about this until I got here, the short one says.
What did you do back home?
I had gone to university for one year. I wanted to be a lawyer. I consider myself an educated person. I think I could do anything I wanted, but no one will give me a chance. If I could get a job for $15 or $18 an hour I’d take it; I’d take it for sure. I’ve tried so many things. Counting them off on his fingers, he lists: dish washing, gardening, removing asbestos, one year working on an apprenticeship as an auto mechanic. But I need to pay the bills. If someone said to me, okay, we’ll send you to school and we’ll support you while you do it, I would do it. But no one is going to do that for me. I need to support my family back home, survive, pay my rent.
Do you make better money than if you were working a regular job?
Are you getting rich?
No man. If we were getting rich I’d be at home sitting in my house drinking a beer at the beach enjoying my life. Do you think I want to be out here worried about the police? Dealing with these people? Standing in the rain? No one out here is getting rich. We’re at the bottom of it all, man. We’re the lowest in the chain. Below us it’s just the workers. Maybe the guys at the top — the politicians, the guys in buildings wearing the ties — maybe they’re getting rich, but not us, man.
I STAND NEAR the alley entrance with Playboy and his partner, Shox.
How long have you been dealing? I ask.
Not very long, he says. He claims he’s going back to school.
It’s just a summertime thing, he adds.
I’m tempted to mention that it’s already November.
Do you ever feel bad? I ask him, instead.
Of course, man, he says. I’m human. I feel human things. I feel terrible. But these people, these people who have been doing this for 10 years already, they’ve made their choice. If they want to do it they can. But when I see someone new, like this guy… and he motions to a young man dressed in crisp clothes I had assumed was a dealer.
Go home, bro, Playboy tells him. Go home. This is not the life for you.
Only now do I notice the man’s wide eyes and shifting feet. He cowers at Playboy’s address, then walks across the street, driving off in a brand new Acura.
A few weeks later, we’ll sit in a diner as Playboy shovels runny eggs into his mouth with scraps of toast. We’ll talk about soccer and girls and food, and he’ll tell me that he wants to live a simple life. He doesn’t want to be rich, he just wants a nice wife and three kids. Two boys and a girl.
Canada is a great country, Playboy will tell me. A multi-ethnic country. A tolerant country. I hate the religious extremists at home. I can’t go back to my country.
Because they’ll see my tattoos and they’ll say I’m a non-Muslim and they’ll slit my throat.
It’s the last time I’ll see Playboy. It’s one of the last times I’ll lock my bike up and wander over to the alley entrance, wondering at what madness I’ll encounter today. Shortly thereafter, I’ll begin the task of sorting through my unwieldy tangle of notes and building the story, all the while contemplating the contents of this paragraph right here. Dreams of insights so sharp they’ll split the thing wide open. Bold, declarative statements, that wrap the story whole. But there will be nothing sufficiently satisfying, and I’ll opt instead to hope that the information I’ve presented will be enough for the readers to draw their own conclusions.
For now, though, it’s just Playboy, Shox and me; and the alley; and the man in the Acura. He’s returned, having circled the block, and this time, instead of sending him away, Playboy directs him to a nearby worker.
I ask him why he decided to sell the man something and he shrugs.
If I didn’t, someone else would.