The Community of East Hastings

As they walked down East Hastings, away from the Rewriter and the Loners Social Club, Stella took a good look at the community laid out before her. She had been so irritated by Noam earlier that she hadn’t really absorbed the experience and the community. She hadn’t studied homelessness or addiction culture in school, so she didn’t feel like she had a great understanding of what was happening, so she walked silently and watched, trying to absorb everything.

Off in her own world, she didn’t hear Noam say, “I’m going back tomorrow.”

She kept walking, absorbing the community in action. There seemed to be a lot of children. Unaccompanied children. They were everywhere, and of all ages. Some looked busy doing something while others looked bored and without direction. The largest grouping of kids seemed to be gathered in a khaki green tent and were sitting quietly on an old worn-down oriental rug, enthralled in a young man reading them a story. The bright green of the worn cover of the storybook stood out against the otherwise muted and dirty canvas that was East Hastings. As Stella got closer she could hear the young storyteller skillfully switch voices between the characters found within the story she now recognized as one of her favourites, The Giving Tree. She was surprised that he had a hardcover copy of the book, let alone a paper copy at all. The book had to be old, before they stopped making hardcover books. She realized herself that it had been years since she had seen a hardcover book. Not since she’d stopped hanging out with her high school friends. The book had to be pretty valuable.

Suddenly she remembered that Noam existed when he spoke beside her. “The community here is pretty extraordinary, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” she murmured absently and stepped away from him and closer still towards the children, and the glorious book she was so happy to see. Smiling brightly and crossing her legs, Stella took a seat with the children on the carpet. A few moments later, she felt Noam sit and join her but she was already too engulfed enough in the story to mind him.

When the story came to an end, Stella rushed up to the young storyteller and gushed, “I love books and I love Shel Silverstein and I love The Giving Tree. Can I ask you more about the book?” Stella felt hot and a bit bothered as the words stumbled our of her mouth. She wanted to touch the book. She’s always wanted to hold a hardcover Silverstein, and The Giving Tree at that? Heaven.

Noam was beside her again and she could hear him laughing and feel his eyes on her. She threw him a brief but sinister look and reached her sweaty palms toward the book. The teen storyteller seemed nonplussed by her feverish behaviour and without a word, placed the book in her hands. She began to caress it immediately. “You know we don’t have many of these left,” Stella began to lecture to those around her. “So many people have loved this very book. Think of all the eyes that have adored it and the hearts that it has touched. There is so much love in these pieces of paper.” She clutched the book to her chest and hugged it close. “I love you,” she whispered down to it.

She flipped to her favourite page, the page that in her paperback version was as worn as… her mind went to euphemism with teenage boys and sticky magazine pages. She read the sentence. Her favourite sentence. The one she’d known by heart since she was a little. The one she’d whisper to herself when she needed it. Reading it now drew a smile across her face, and with it, she got what she needed. With a kiss to the book, she handed it back to its smiling owner.

“She’s beautiful. I’m so glad she found a good home with you. It was an honour to touch and to read her. Thank you.” Stella extended her hand to shake the teenager’s hand. He received it gladly and smiled. “It was really wonderful to hear you read. Do you do this often?”

“What’s often?” he asked then continued to tell her that he read The Giving Tree here every day for as long as he could remember.

“Every day?” Stella questioned. “You read the same book every day, and kids still come and listen?”

“Well, I have one or two other books that I sometime share, but this,” the boy gripped the book to his chest, similar to how Stella had, “is my favourite story. The kids too. They don’t seem to mind that it’s the same story. It never stops being a story that they can believe in and grow from.” Lowering his voice, he whispered, “these kids, all day they hear stories, we all do, but the ones they tend to hear, due to the environment they grow up in and the situation of their caregivers, are generally not that uplifting or free from fear. So, each day they come and see me and I give them an opportunity to hear a different kind of story, one that doesn’t attempt to shrink them and hopefully inspires them to see that there is more to this world than what they see and hear.”

“That’s very cool. Thank you for doing this… what’s your name?”

“Luke.”

“Luke. Thanks for caring. You’re making such a difference.” Stella felt a wave of happiness rush over her. People were not so bad. This moment was life affirming and for the first time since she met Noam and arrived in Vancouver, she felt authentically happy to be there.

Her moment of zen was interrupted by Noam. “Luke, do you know a guy named the Rewriter? He lives in this community, has a red doored office, the Loners Social Club, and apparently he has the power to do some amazing things to people. Apparently he changes lives. He looks like the Dude from the Big Lebowski—beard, long hair, sunglassses. Know who I’m talking about?”

“Sure, I know him. Everyone does.”

She felt the need to jump in. Perhaps because she thought the guy and his alleged powers were ridiculous and she needed everyone to know so, so she loudly proclaimed, “Noam thinks he can brainwash people. He thinks he has a magic power that allows him to change people into different people and he wants proof.” She hoped he felt ashamed by her admission.

“He’s not brainwashing them,” Luke stated.

Stella was surprised by his response, and she showed it. “What?”

“He doesn’t brainwash them. He just tells them a new story, a different one that they already believe about their self.”

“What do you mean by that? Are you saying that he tells them a story, about their self, and simply by hearing it, they become it?” Noam interjected, obviously compelled.

“Yes. Basically.”

“So they just pick any story, and he reads it to them, and they become like the characters in the story?” Noam continued his questions. Stella felt her annoyance at how he had commandeered the conversation.

“Kinda. Sorta.” Luke responded to him.

“Kinda? Sorta?” Noam probed.

“Kinda, and sorta,” was all Luke was offering.

“Can you elaborate?” Noam hoped.

“No.” Luke seemed serious suddenly. He took a step away from them, looking around.

Noam didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, he didn’t seem to care and he continued to push at Luke, “What do you mean ‘no’? Why can’t you tell us more about this guy and his amazing stories?”

“Because. For a few reasons. But mostly because I have no reason to. You don’t need to know. You want to know. I don’t see any value in letting you know, so I’m not going to.” Luke stated this all very matter-of-factly.

His reply seemed to sit poorly with Noam. Stella determined the best way to know what he was feeling was to watch his face. She was sure he’d have a terrible poker face. For a moment he looked pissed, but you could see him manage himself and he responded in a more measured manner than his face had demonstrated. “Is there anything I can do to show you there is value in talking to us?”

“Not really,” Luke responded matter-of-factly. He looked past the two of them, and Stella’s eyes followed his past the children on the carpet, to the tents, tarps, containers, and other dwellings that back-dropped them. Stella could see smoke of different consistencies and colours coming from some of them. Outside the tent, she noticed an older man shooting up against the side of a container, and a younger woman dancing with a belt. There was also a large cluster of people to the right of the tent that were all leaning over and grasping at a bunch of somethings, all moving in unison, like a zombie ballet. Taking a step forward she got a better look at what they were doing and noticed it was a clean syringe stand.

Though the conversation felt over, Stella looked back at Luke and spoke “If you don’t mind, I’d love to stop by again and enjoy your storytelling. I haven’t heard the Giving Tree read aloud since… perhaps never. It would mean a lot to hear it again, from start to finish.”

Though he didn’t make eye contact with her, Stella could feel Luke relax a bit. “Sure. It might be good for the kids to have an adult around, appreciating stories. They don’t often have that.”

“Thank you, Luke, I appreciate that.” Stella turned to Noam and signaled that they needed to get out of dodge with her finger. Not waiting for a response, she left the tent and began heading in the direction they’d originally been heading. She felt Noam match pace beside her a few moments later.