Last Wednesday night while we were at Boyle Street Plaza working on the next phase of the project, we had the pleasure of sharing our workspace with a couple of lovely people involved in the Writing Quarters program of Quarters Arts Society.
It was a great opportunity to talk about the different ways the neighbourhood’s stories and history can be captured, and shared. And it was an opportunity for the writers in Writing Quarters to have a peek at the images we are working with for York:Moments, and see if they found some inspiration there.
One of the writers last Wednesday was Leif Gregersen. Leif Gregersen is a freelance author, poet, public speaker, and author of many genres, who has been named on the CBC Canada Writes website as one of the top 11 “Writers To Watch”.
We spent some time talking with Leif about the York, and he was generous enough to share some of his own personal experiences with living the kind of housing that the York Hotel had become in its last days. One thing that came through loud and clear in what Leif shared with us was the fact that – regardless of how tough living in places like that could be for the residents – at least it was a roof over their heads. At least it was safer than sleeping rough, or being on the street.
And it was home for people: there was community there, there were friendships … just as there was hardship and conflict and loss. Like any community.
Leif also did some writing that Wednesday night, and kindly agreed to share his work with us and the wider readership here. This is a work of fiction, based in part on Leif’s response to one of the photos we took in the York, but also on his own personal experiences in Vancouver several years ago.
Here’s the Image Leif chose:
And here’s the writing Leif did:
Is It Really Gone Now?
The York. Some called it the Little Apple, though it was better known for the ‘no knives’ sign over the door to the bar that no one ever heeded. How could you? If everyone there had a knife, there was kind of a détente. On this particular night Eddie was feeling good and so he checked into his old room even though it was warm enough to sleep outside. The York was dirty and infested with rats of all kinds-human and otherwise, but to Eddie it was sort of home.
Two packs of smokes and a Mickey of Blackstone, plus a room paid for a week, ‘won’t have to even go to the bar for two, maybe three days.’ He thought as he laid back on the thin blankets and looked out the window at another building across a yard. He lit up the cork-tipped, tailor-made strong and smooth Benson and Hedges cigarette and pulled in a deep lungful of satisfying smoke. The minutes and hours ticked by, but he knew a knock would come sooner or later. It always did.
Bang! Bang! Sooner rather than later. What now?
“Eddie, you in there?”
“No, Eddie is gone you mooch. Go buy your own smokes and booze!” Eddie said.
“I got my own!” Newman whined. “Got a 40 ouncer of Canadian Club too.” Eddie’s eyes widened at the thought of bonded whiskey and he got up and opened the door in mere moments (after he had stashed his mickey).
“Newman-how the hell did you get money this late in the month?” Eddie asked in a suspicious tone.
“Same as you-welfare back pay from that government lawsuit. Everyone got lucky yesterday! It’s party time, come and watch some movies. I just got my VCR out of pawn!”
“I didn’t get all that much. But if you’re sharing, it’s about time.” A VCR and TV and the smooth taste of single malt whiskey sounded good. Eddie made sure and left his wallet behind and made his way to the room down the hall on the corner that Newman had been living in for four years. He got in and the place was a mess, open tins of meat on the floor. The guy was even still cooking some kind of soup on his radiator, even though the thing probably hadn’t been on for two months.
“Hey brother. Want some OXY to go with the drink?”
“Oxycontin? That stuff is made from opium, it’ll kill you!” Eddie said.
“Hey-I’m a former speed junkie-nothing can kill me. Serious, I’ve never OD’d in all my years.” Just to prove it Newman tossed the Oxycontin pills he held in his hand into his mouth and washed it back with a good slug of CC.
The movie went on, some fantasy story about some American Fighter Pilot in Peacetime who also happens to get all the best girls and sleep with them first date and before it was a half hour into the thin plot Newman was nodding off.
“Hey dude, buddy!” Eddie yelled and shook him with very little response. “If you’re going to pass out I’m leaving.”
“Okay, okay.” He said and still drifted off.” Just then a cockroach went across the wall by the TV and Eddie grabbed a tape case to smash it. It went up behind a small ledge and Eddie smacked the tape hard into where it should be and the force made a hypodermic needle that was hiding roll off the ledge.
“Ewwww….” Eddie exclaimed, twisted up his face and recoiled in horror. “Man, I hate that shit! I’m out of here!” Newman was unresponsive so Eddie pried the bottle from his hands and made his way back to his room with it.
Eddie got back to his room and put on a station that was having a Hank Williams marathon and he had a long think about things. He sat and wondered what made him end up at such a dead-end place. It wasn’t right, people shouldn’t have to live like this. Five more years and I can get into a senior’s home. Man, think of the scams I could pull in one of those places on some desperate lonely old lady. Soon he had nearly downed what was left of the whiskey and was swimming in a spinning room and Hank Williams was making him depressed and tired. It seemed like he only closed his eyes for a minute, but in fact it was morning and he heard stomping and authoritative voices out his door. He opened his door a crack and asked one of his fellow hotel patrons what was up.
“You didn’t hear? Newman’s rent was up and they found him dead in there. “
“Shit!” Eddie said and closed his door quickly. He was still drunk from the night before so he went back to sleep until he was just hung over and then went downstairs to find a teenager. He did and offered him half a mickey and $20 to throw a rock through a window near the office of the hotel. He went back in, sat down at the bar and sure enough, the desk clerk let out a yell after a loud smash and him and the bouncers went chasing after the teen. Having lived on and off in the Little Apple for 20+ years it was no problem to reach around the counter and take Newman’s spare key, and he went up and let himself into the room. The stench was unbearable, what a place to die in, not only did it reek of death, he now noticed the aromas of rotting food and heaven knows what else in there. In moments he found Newman’s money stash and after a quick count he figured there was around $6,000.00 there. ‘That dirty bastard!’ Eddie thought. Just a week ago he was practically begging me to borrow money for smokes. This is about what you owe me for 20 years of putting up with you!
Eddie took the money and didn’t even go back to his room. He threw the key in the garbage and walked right to the Greyhound station. He bought a ticket to a no-name small town in South-Eastern Alberta, probably an hour outside of Medicine Hat and rented a room. He kept it clean and didn’t have any excesses. He was known to play cards with his landlady and never caused any trouble or stole anything. He also got his wish-he never had to stoop to living in a place like the York again, not really because his money lasted him, but mostly because he died two years later of liver failure and went quietly in his sleep, in clean sheets in a hospital.
You can find more of Leif’s writing at www.edmontonwriter.com, and his books are available online through amazon.com in paperback and ebook formats.
Our thanks to Leif for sharing a bit of his personal journey and this story with us!