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She was there the day I took the bus up Granville Street from the SeaBus Terminal. It was twilight, the time when everything looks silvery, as if the world is suspended in mercury.
The anxiety and bustle of the bright-light hours were subdued, but you could feel the energy of a Friday night building just below the surface. I watched the storefronts pass by in a parade of shining silver and gold, the jail-fronted jewellery shops and the glinting windows of high-end clothing boutiques.
At Robson Street there was a gradual transition to nightclubs, all-night shawarma joints and tattoo parlours with signs announcing We Pierce Anything. Just before a porn shop advertising 25-cent peep shows, the bus stopped and I saw her.
The girl was young, barely a teen. She was sitting on the concrete sidewalk, her back propped against the door of an out-of-business movie theatre, and she was sharing a stained and damp-looking light-green blanket with another girl. As I watched, she shivered and tucked the blanket under her chin. The frayed edges blended with blondish, lank hair that half-covered a pale, moon-shaped face. Her sharp knees were pulled close to her chest and jutted through the thin material.
Our eyes met briefly, but I quickly turned away. I didn’t like her to see me watching.
Because I remember that cement. The cold creeps through your jeans and chills your bum until the bones are numb and you can’t feel anything. But that’s okay. Not feeling anything. Then you can sit for longer.
I remember that I didn’t have a blanket, so I held off the cold by loudly singing Janis Joplin songs, hoping for a handout. “Oh Lord, wontcha buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”
No one left any change then, either. They walked by, the same as now, and furrowed their brows. “Damn kids,” they muttered. “Why sit on the ground and nearly freeze to death rather than find a warm place to sleep? Why do they look at me, defiant and angry, when I haven’t done anything to them? Why don’t they go home?”
One particularly bad night, a social worker scooped me up and took me to a transient foster home until they could figure out who I was.
Another street girl who lived there full-time always locked her bedroom door, day and night. Once when she was out I watched another girl jimmy the lock to use her nail polish. When the street girl found out, she came at both of us like a feral cat, eyes blazing.
“C’mon,” I laughed, “it’s only nail polish.”
It turned out she had been sexually abused regularly by her father and brothers. Her eyes held a desperation I couldn’t understand.
You see, I was lucky. I had only run away from a small-town home full of illness and the impending death of my father, propelled by an indefinable anguish and an excess of teen hormones.
When I arrived in Vancouver, I would hitchhike back and forth across the city until one of the men who picked me up gave me a place to stay for a night or two. Most of them were nice, and they usually fed me and gave me booze if I agreed to sleep with them.
I didn’t mind at first; it was comforting to be close to someone sometimes. Besides, I felt that I was the one in control, not them. I was lucky because they didn’t give me any drugs worse than pot or booze, and none of them turned out to be violent or pimps.
At times I’d get tired of being a good girl, and I’d lash out by telling them my real age – a month shy of 15 – just to see the panic in their eyes and the words “statutory rape” flash across their faces.
I’m still not sure how I got out. Maybe it was that social worker, who refused to take my “no” for an answer; or my sister, who tracked me down at the foster home; or my parents, who despite their own desperate worries welcomed back an angry daughter. And maybe I was just lucky.
But then that was the early 1970s, before the Highway of Tears, Robert Pickton’s pig farm and the Missing Women inquiry. I don’t think street kids and runaways catch as many breaks now. They don’t meet men who seem to care that they’re still children. They don’t avoid crack or meth or heroin. And, like the girl with the locked bedroom, most of them really have no place to go.
My luck held over the years, bolstered by others who believed in me: generous people at a spiritual centre in Kamloops who smoothed my prickly teenage exterior with a summer of fresh air and farm work; patient instructors at Vancouver Community College’s adult education program who nurtured my talents so I could get my high school diploma; and a steadfastly loyal partner who helped me attain a university degree and cares, always, about who I am right now, not who I was then.
When the bus pulled away from the curb, my reflection in the dark window gazed back at me.
I looked for the girl with the blanket and, as her image grew smaller, a thread came loose in my chest. I felt myself unravel slowly, and soon my bum was numb and I was back on the street, sitting on cold cement.
Something brushed my cheek, and as I pushed back my blondish hair I wondered if that girl would make it. I vowed to give her some change next time. It’s all right, you know, maybe then she’ll be lucky.
Christy Costello lives in Vancouver.
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