Making it on the Streets: Subsistence Marketing

Sub.sis.tence: the action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level. Also: maintenance, keep, upkeep. the total of activities involved in the transfer of goods from the producer or seller to the consumer or buyer

The question to ask yourself now that you know the meaning of the words is: what would you be doing with a life here in the city of Vancouver if your entire income totaled $530.00 a month?

I’ll easily win a bet that most of our readers pay more rent than $530.00. After the designated rent of $375 is taken out of that, a great grand total remains of $155.00 which has to go for food, transport, clothing and shoes, cigarettes, toothpaste and brush, shampoo and soap, raincoat: by now you all know the drill.

It just does not work, does it? And even 10 years ago, it still didn’t work. And this part of the equation has nothing to do with the expense of maintaining a heroin addiction. Fu!

My editor told me the other day that a particular United Nations envoy came to Vancouver on a ten year follow up visit to our, hmmmm, world class town. Upon looking up and down and all around the other than classy streets he concluded that the distance between the very poor, homeless, addicted and derelict people and those who are rich, comfortable and very self satisfied is the largest he has seen in any first world city.

That’s quite a telling distinction for Vancouverites to be wearing, don’t you think? We surpass London, England, New York, NY, Los Angeles and San Francisco, CA, Singapore, Sidney, Australia and some other etceteras. Are we proud? Might we be just a little too proud of ourselves? Ask the street people who are showing their goods here at the market. Subsistence marketing is normal life for them!

So, who are these people anyway who are so many and so desperate that there is a not quite ready for prime-time subsistence market happening daily and into the long summer evenings in DTES on Hastings Street in the downtown core; as well as a swap meet inside the chain link of a vacant lot in the bloc between Columbia and Carrall.

There’s plenty of parking for you around Oppenheimer Park where you are sure to see the charities under their pop up tents serving breakfast to a long and very scruffy line up of children, women and men.

Come along, people, take a bird’s eye historical look at our market after a rough beginning upon relocating from Pigeon Park at Hastings and Carrall after the winter holidays end of 2016. Over 2017 it became better organized and patrolled for your safety. Over the spring and early summer seasons, in their pressed fine uniforms, the young police are now with us examining the goods for sale so that we can all be certain not be receiving any stolen property when we find the bargain electronic we’d been searching for! They brought a very official professional sign to prop up at the gate: a warning that anyone bringing any kind of purloined, thieved or shop lifted property to the market will be charged with an offence. There you are, that should do it!

I’m being just a little sarcastic! I doubt if it will make any difference whatever either to the official powers or to the marketeers who are ready at the gates at an early hour burdened with their goods.

Where does all the stuff come from? That question is not readily answered by anyone that I have been asking as I cruise the zone in my power chair taking a good look myself with a long-practiced eye for a bargain.

And then, of course. it all had to be folded up and packed away back to the vacant lot on Hastings because the housing crisis was being addressed by erecting a container housing project in the large lot at Jackson and Powell. There on the main thoroughfare are gangs of hooded and capped ordinary bearded and combed white guys and many fewer of their ladies making their appearance behind the rows of fold out tables. There are Asians, often Chinese or Philipinos; both the ladies and men come with their stuff: typically used shoes, clothing, food stuffs, sometimes antiquities and stone jewelry. There is a small contingent of First Nations Indians, men and ladies who bring us some of their craft, some scavenged used clothing and tools. There are a few regular street merchants who sport an eclectic mix of trinkets, trash, old shoes and older hoodies, jackets, scant and slithery polyester dresses for those particular ladies, tools, electronics, pottery, plaster statuary, toys and a whole bunch of what have you shoddy stuff.

It’s well worth a visit just to take a look around to check out how the other half is making it in our town.

The downtown sidewalks alongside the old hotels, the convenience stores with their own kind of bars and chains for the doors and windows when they close up; restaurants and a small number of galleries, a charming and well developed community garden along Hastings all are unwitting hosts for a very motley bunch of old young men, old young often garishly painted and hair colored women. Their sheets, blankets, old dirty sleeping bags and cardboard sheets are spread with their tawdry goods: very dirty tee shirts, hoodies, jackets, jeans and the ever present piles of electronic parts. Alongside are grocery carts heaped with bicycle wheels, chains and cranks, boxes, old blankets, umbrellas, fold out army cots and a whole mass of hardly identifiable stuff.

It spills out onto the pavement from the walls and windows of the buildings more than half way to the curbs. Alongside the trash containers bolted to the sidewalk, also piled and spilling over with garbage, are assorted masses of more stuff. Cigarette butts are confettied over the length and breadth of the sidewalk supported by a thriving trade mostly among the Indians for their smokes. The sweet smell of marijuana spleif hangs in the air. There are beer cans piled everywhere waiting for the Asian scavengers who collect and recycle them for small cash.

No one is smiling. No one seems happy. They are all in various kinds of dirty clothes, their bodies are misshapen by the ravages of assorted street drugs needled and popped as pills. A few of these people are true basket cases, emaciated and contorted, sometimes stoned silly doing twisted dancing across the streets. Their cohorts just watch warily and leave them to their pain. Occasionally, as I pass, I see someone buying a shirt for a couple quarters. Cigarettes are scrounged from friends for a quarter or a dime. The lighters are passed around. It eerily quiet, very low voices; even the rage which I see on the faces is subdued.

I see nothing to buy, nothing to sell, nothing for these people except the whirl of their own circles of acquaintances. And this is the easy season. It’s dry over night and the sun warms the streets by day. The winter view is squalid and noisy with the grit of suffering that must be that kind of life in cold, wet weather.

I look at these people and I talk to them, hey brother, hey papa, hey mum, how are you today? Please, take care of yourself. I may be only one who ever really looks at them; looks into their eyes and not past them.

Even though I, too, am cruising the streets watching their community so that I may write this peice.  I am still with them as an old grandmother kind of lady with clean clothes and a smile on my face. I am respected here and many of them greet me whenever they see me because I respect and give them something other than contempt or project my own personal guilt onto them. Each of them is, my friends, doing just as much as they are able to have their life work. I do not know what it will really take for us to include them in a more wholesome way into our world.

Something’s got to give at some point. I would not wish to see any of these people in a mass of rage storming the all too comfortable Bastille of our smug contentment.

One thought on “Making it on the Streets: Subsistence Marketing

  • July 16, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    Dear Amrrah – this is your best writing yet – this is your sweet spot – compassionately sharing your Raven’s eye observation of the life and people around you downtown- please more. I want to know about these people and their stories as only you can share! Tears in my eyes for them – summer time now not that winter cold.


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