By Barbara Williams
The mood in Vancouver is always determined by the weather and in July it was as good as it gets. Even down at Main and Hastings, or Vein and Wastings as locals refer to it because of all the addicts usually shooting up in plain sight, there was a lull in the desperation. People lazed on the Carnegie Library steps taking in the summer rays. The only hustler we encountered was a premature hag, toothlessly nipping at us for money. She politely offered to get change when I told her I only had a twenty and then giggled with some abash when she realized what a ridiculous notion that was.
At the entrance of the First United Church, a harshly tattooed native guy is screaming, “I’ll kill you!” to someone real or imaginary down the block. Before we become collateral damage, security calms him. This is a "no barriers" shelter, for the down-and-outers who don’t qualify to get into other shelters. There’s some very messed up humanity here. Inside, people keep asking if the mail has come yet. Our son Liam is cool. He responds to the question about the mail with no judgment, “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” I realize it’s Wednesday, welfare Wednesday, checks get cashed and addicts get trashed in very short order.
We are visiting our friend Rodney Watson who’s living in the church. He joined the US army years ago in St. Louis and was immediately deployed to Iraq. Rodney thought he was going over as a cook but got assigned to search under vehicles for explosives in Mosul. He quickly lost belief in our right to be in Iraq and was appalled by the racism directed at the Iraqi people by some American soldiers. After a year, he finished his tour and went home to try and heal. Then he found out about stop loss. They could call him back!
He was sitting at his parents’ house watching a TV special with Tyra Banks broadcast from Vancouver. He didn’t know where Vancouver was, he just felt those mountains and that ocean calling him. He made his way north and entered the country as a visitor. Soon he ran out of money and got connected to an underground anti-war network that helped him get jobs where he was paid under the table. He fell in love with a young woman, got married, and was about to become a father when word came that the US army was looking for him. He was now in the country illegally and would not get sympathy from Canadian immigration, so he sought asylum in the church.
Five years later he’s still there in a little room on the second floor. His eyes squint against the light when he opens the door. His room is dark, illuminated only by the large TV screen that’s playing some movie in which Cameron Diaz has two-toned hair. We all give Rodney big guilty hugs. Guilty that we’ve been enjoying the sun; guilty that we can spend time with our friends and family; guilty that we only have 45 minutes before we leave to catch a plane back to the states.
Today his son is taking his first swimming lesson. He doesn’t want to look outside into the sunlit day because he doesn’t want to think about what he’s missing. It kills him that he won’t be there for his boy's first day of school. He can’t even step into the alley, as the last time he did, someone from Canadian immigration tried to nab him. He mutes the TV. Cameron Diaz is straddling a car windshield with her long legs, while Javier Bardem gapes at her from the drivers seat.
We talk about Rodney’s legal case. The pro-George Bush Canadian government of Stephen Harper won't grant him humanitarian asylum despite broad public and parliamentary support. The next election is a year and a half away. If nothing happens in his case, perhaps Rodney will turn himself into the US army and serve his time. Or perhaps he'll sit among the addicts and raise his son at long distance. His wife wouldn’t follow him to the states. She relies on her parents for childcare. She wouldn’t be able to work in the states anyway and he couldn’t provide from prison.
If that were to be the scenario, as a lawbreaker he would never be allowed back into Canada. He would have little or no relationship with his son.
We talk about what’s going on in Iraq now, where Mosul has been captured by the insurgents. He says he would rather die than go back to that hell.
Our eyes drift back to the TV as the credits roll.