Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dead Girls' Ghosts: Mount Pleasant in the 1980s

Well, I've had to hire a personal injuries lawyer to help me with my disability claim. You remember: the disability caused by child rapists so brutal they destroyed my back and left me with PTSD? Yeah, that disability. Obviously, then, my current battle with my insurance company triggers me; it makes me think about how I was injured and why. The location of my lawyer's office doesn't help much.

You see, my lawyer just happens to work in the Lee Building in Mount Pleasant where I lived as a young, prostituted teen in the mid 1980s. Everywhere I turn in Mount Pleasant, I am reminded of pimped girls, girls with track marks, girls with black eyes - dead girls. And I am reminded of the people who hated them, and the men who paid to rape them. 
Their ghosts fill the neighbourhood like a boiling storm cloud. My own ghost is among them: the ghost of a girl fighting for her life.

And now I'm fighting for my life all over againSo I hired a lawyer, a good one, who gets paid on a contingency basis: 33% of whatever I win, if I win, which I won't know for two years, during which time I will receive zero income

All this stress is doing my health no favours. My doctor is sure that my back has been so much worse for so long because of the stress. That knowledge unto itself is incredibly stressful. I'm not doing well, in body or in mind. I'm not doing well at all.
 There are days when I'm sure that the pain and stress and triggers - triggers like the Lee Building - will kill me.

The Lee Building has been at the heart of Mount Pleasant since 1912, making it one of the older landmarks in this very young city. By the time I moved to Mount Pleasant in 1984, the neighbourhood was so notorious, it was known by outsiders and residents alike as Mount Unpleasant.

Its notoriety was topped only by the Downtown Eastside and, perhaps, Strathcona. Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, and the Downtown Eastside curve around False Creek and, in the 1980s, formed a kind of a nexus of strife, drug addiction, mental health issues, and prostitution. 

Lincoln Clarke
This photo, from Lincoln Clarkes' book, Heroines, was taken in the late 90s in the the Downtown Eastside, but it is very much how I remember Mount Pleasant and its inhabitants in the 80s. It was rough, really really rough.

Take a moment to truly look at this girl. Look at her narrow hips. Look at her rounded cheeks. See her. See that she is a girl. See that she is a child.

So was I. This is my ghost at fourteen: a sad, scared child, photographed here by the the teacher to whom I turned for comfort. Instead of comforting me, he molested me, often. I wasn't his only victim. Look at the expression on my face. What do you see? I see desperation, fear, and deep sorrow. I see the face of a trapped child with nowhere to turn for help.

(Yes, I told the principal. No, she didn't do anything.)

You know, I thought I looked very grown up in that photo. I only thought so because ...

... usually, I looked like this.

In the 1980s, Strathcona, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Vancouver, was even rougher than Mount Pleasant.
In fact, I looked so young, that Smother was afraid if I "worked" the streets, the cops would be forced not to turn a blind eye to my plight, and would have to pick me up and put me in foster care. In other words, she was afraid I'd be rescued and she'd be caught. 

So, after a brief experiment in turning me out to "work" on the streets, after a "bad date" with a brutally violent man whom I think may have been a gun-wielding Robert Pickton, she claimed that she wanted to keep me safe and put me in a "kiddie stable" in Strathcona.

I was not the only child being sold there. Downstairs, there was a coffee table covered in glass. Under that glass were photos of the children that were for sale. Customers got to pick the photo of the child they wanted to rape. There was nothing safe about it.

In fact, it was life threatening. I had to go through a brutal initiation to "break me," though I was already broken. First, pimps laughed with each other about the best way to tie my hands over my head so I wouldn't be able to move my head away as they face rape me. Then they took turns slamming their erections into my mouth so brutally that they permanently injured my neck and shoulder. I've had migraines ever since. 

After that, paying customers raped me every night I was there. Sometimes I was shackled to the bed. Sometimes I was left there with no clothing. Heroine was everywhere.

Just staying alive was an act of supreme tenacity. I don't think anybody expected me to live past 20, if I even lived that long. They considered me used up and too old at 17. 

And now, here I am again, 47 years old, my broken body in agony, my PTSD flaring, yet again tenaciously clinging to life in the face of those who profit from my suffering and would be happy if I died. To me, the heartless greed of pimps is akin to the heartless greed of insurance companies. Both are getting rich from the physical and mental suffering of the most vulnerable: children, battered women, Indigenous women, disabled people. Me.

Going to the lawyer was triggering enough, as it made me think in close detail about what I'm going through right now, and the terrible impact it's having on my mental and physical health. But the fact that his office is in this particular building, in this particular neighbourhood makes it doubly triggering.

Ghosts of ghosts of ghosts. It seems fitting that so many of the photos we took that day are blurry, just like ghosts, barely seen, often ignored, never welcome.

Dress and coat: Hell Bunny; Shoes: Cobb Hill; Barrettes: Stylize; Brooches and earrings: vintage; Pinkie ring: heirloom
What do I do when I'm feeling scared, or sad? I dress up, of course. I saved this dress to wear on the day I signed my contract with my lawyer. It seemed suitably sombre and sophisticated for the occasion. 

To boost my own self-confidence, I wanted to look as pulled together as my crippled body would allow.

From my shoes ...

... to my brooch ...

... to my earrings and hair clips, I wanted everything to harmonize.

I went for a 1950s inspired outfit ...

... the kind of style a woman might have worn to get a quickie divorce in Nevada ...

... as Lili St. Cyr is doing here. Everything about her says, "Don't mess with me! I'm mature. I'm serious."

Like me?

But I also wanted to convey the fact that, no matter what the bad guys did to me, no matter what they do to me now, they will not rob me of the things that bring me some joy ... 

... like my diamonds ...

These are two brooches, one pinned inside the circle of the other.
... my love of beauty, and my faith, here represented by a dove. 

It was just a happy coincidence that, not only did my outfit match the marble of the Lee Building, but it also perfectly matched my lawyer's outfit. He's always extremely well dressed. His suits are perfectly tailored. His pocket scarf always matches his tie. He even wears cuff links, which I so wish more men would do today. 

When I decided I had to hire a lawyer, I was really afraid I'd have to work with someone of questionable character and morals, an ambulance chaser in it for the money, not the betterment of disabled people's lives. But, when I began my search, this familiar face popped up right away as the top rated, disability claims lawyer in the city. I knew of him from his decades of left-wing political work for the poor and the disabled. No ambulance chaser he!

He assures me that I have a very strong case and that I will win. 

But how do I hang on in the meantime? I'm not good at living on "probablies." I need certainties. When you've been forced to earn money with your body, when you left "home" young and were so poor, you clothed yourself from dumpsters, when you're too disabled to work... you need to know your income is secure. Mine is not. In fact, at the moment, I have no income whatsoever.

And the steps I need to take to gain that certainty take place ...

... in a place haunted by traumatic memories ...

... reminders of which live not only in the building and the neighbourhood, but in my own body, the scene of the crimes.

Once cockroach infested and frightening, the building is now gentrified, of course. But I remember it as that scary old building, with a scary, smokey, greasy-spoon on the main floor. Whenever I walked by it, looking through the smeary windows, I'd see ancient drunk men, nursing a cup of bad coffee and poking at greasy bacon and eggs. When they weren't there, they often went to the library across the street to take naps in the aisles where I chose that week's reading.

The library has now moved to a fancy new location, with condos above it - where once old houses stood. The greasy-spoon is now a hipster eatery, featuring portobello mushroom burgers and soy lattes.

But some things don't change. Of course, the Lee Building is still not disability accessible. God knows, that's not part of the gentrification dream. You've seen my lawyer, the one in the wheelchair whose clientele are all injured and/or disabled? This is the women's washroom on his floor. It has a nice, high step into it, and a completely useless, grab bar in one stall - for who? The wheelchair users who can't get into the room or into the stall in the first place? 

Some things stay the same. I still feel shut out ... 

Photo by Greg Girard, from his book, Under Vancouver: 1972-1982

... like I did back in the 1980s when I was a poor kid in the poor neighbourhood with the spectacular views.

It was a tough place to live, very run-down, and peopled by prostitutes, pimps, junkies, drunks, and homeless people. Rich kids locked their doors when they drove by, always passing through, never stopping. 

This kid lived there. 

It was toughest of all for Aboriginal women and girls. Check out the racist billboard near the Lee building in 1978. Many of the victimized girls and women who worked these streets were raped, beaten, and killed. A vastly disproportionate number of them were Aboriginal. 

Then as now, many men sexualized Aboriginal girls and women, thinking of them as mere sexual trash to be used, abused, and discarded at will. If "mere" junkies and prostitutes were going missing, nobody cared, not even the police. If they were also Aboriginal, people cared even less. Sexual predators knew this.

They still do. 

I knew it too. I drew this when I was fourteen. It was, I think, a somewhat incoherent attempt at an eye-witness account of what was going on outside my door - and behind it too.

A building in Strathcona
I lived in one of the many, rundown, turn of the century houses, which had long since been chopped up into several awkwardly shaped apartments. The heat often broke down in the winter. The basement flooded. My tiny bedroom, which I think had been a boot room, was not insulated and had virtually no heat at all. 

This is the same house as in the above photograph! Gentrification looks lovely but it prices out the poor and the vulnerable, who then have nowhere to go.
Of course, my old house, like all the others, has been gentrified now.

But I remember the area like this. 

Photo by Greg Girard, from his book, Under Vancouver: 1972-1982
And this. 

Photo by Greg Girard, from his book, Under Vancouver: 1972-1982
And this. I remember it as very poorly lit at nigh, the lights glowing in Vancouver's perpetual mist and fog, but not actually making it easier to see. So it was even more frightening at night than it was in the day.

A self-portrait at 14. This is how I felt when I was out alone in a neighbourhood, crawling with johns looking to buy young girls.
I'll tell the truth: as a young teenager, I was a little afraid of my neighbourhood's inhabitants - the hookers, the drunks, the junkies - but I was a lot afraid of the johns who perused the streets like vultures seeking vulnerable, nearly-dead prey.

The main streets and side streets were crawling with creepy men - businessmen, suburban men, white men, middle class men, middle-aged men, married men - all looking for the same thing: young - often criminally young - female flesh for sale.

I hated their eyes on me. I hated the way they looked at me - when I went to the corner store for milk, when I waited to catch the bus to school, when I was shopping in second hand stores on Main Street, when the obfuscating mists came at night.

It was during this time that I wrote this prose poem about a street corner a block from my home, at two o'clock in the morning:

Here, unlike in the country, all lines are angular, harsh. The buildings rise in the bright darkness, as if in a stubborn, winning competition with the mountains behind them. Grey upon grey is illuminated by the city lights. Neon green and orange glow in the low, oppressive clouds, and reflect in the mobile puddles, creating the light of day with none of the sun's warmth or comfort. The clouds filter down in a drizzling mist that refuses to cleanse the stale air. Cars shift by in a sterile pattern of flashing lights and muted motion, leaving behind no human compassion, only the stifling, choking warmth of exhaust and the bitter chill of spray spit up by the passing wheels. Cold and impersonal, the night surrounds the young woman on the corner, numbing her in its familiar blanket, as she waits for her next trick - fifty dollars in the city.

I wrote this for an assignment in English class. It still astounds me that I read stuff like this aloud in class and no-one ever asked me if I was okay - except for the teacher who molested me. He asked. He had an agenda.

Photo by Lincoln Clarkes' from his book, Heroines
I never blamed the "working girls" for my discomfort in Mount Pleasant.

Some did. On its surface, the Shame the Johns campaigns were meant to protect underage prostitutes by driving out the men who bought them. But that was just on the surface. It was clear to everyone who lived in the centre of this battle that these campaigners loathed working girls and blamed them for making the neighbourhood what it was.

I knew this close up: the Shame the Johns organizers lived next door to me. They were early gentrifiers, angry that we wouldn't leave our house so they could snap it up and increase its market value. They wanted to "clean up" the neighbourhood by getting rid of the poor, including the working girls whom they saw more as vermin than as victims.

Photo by Greg Girard, from his book, Under Vancouver: 1972-1982
They wanted to push them into a nearby warehouse district. It was dark, deserted, and extremely dangerous. Nobody would hear a girl's screams here. Good riddance to rubbish, I guess.

But we weren't rubbish. We were victims. What we were doing - whether under the duress of brute force, coercion, addiction, poverty, or homelessness - could and often did lead to brutal rapes, beatings, torture, and death. I am living proof of that fact, crippled for life by the gleeful, sadistic, sexual release of those who saw me not as a child but as an object.

In the midst of all this, there was one, small, bright spot in the basement of a local church: a warm, dry, drop-in centre called WISH, Women's Information and Safe House, which promised "coffee, cookies, condoms, conversation," and "no preaching." Prostitutes, female and trans, were welcome, and knew that no-one would try to convert them to Christianity (as many of the groups that help street people do).

The underage girls knew to lie about their age so the volunteers at WISH would not have to report them to the police or Social Services. Same goes for those who were doing illicit drugs. They never did them in the church. Instead, they would step outside "for some fresh air." Everyone knew what was going on. Nobody ever said so.

At the centre of it all was Ina, the big, warm-hearted, older woman who started the centre, and worked there almost every night. She treated girls and women like human beings when virtually no-one else did. She never talked down to anyone, or up. All the girls called her "Mom." In a world where mothers are as apt to pimp their children as they are to love them, having someone to call "Mom" is worth a lot. 

(Even here, though, evil crept in. Smother volunteered there, as did another woman who would come to me as a customer, asking me to wear a wedding dress and whip her. Their public faces were all compassion and feminism; their twisted, private faces are burned into my brain.)

One of the most important services WISH offered was the Bad Trick Sheet. Before the age of computers and the internet, this was a constantly updated pamphlet with information about dangerous customers. The information was gathered from the women and girls who knew, first hand, which men would beat you, tie you up, refuse to pay, try to kill you... etc. Women would come into WISH with blood on their faces, and head for a chalk board to add yet another bad trick's license plate number, and details of what he had done to them.

WISH was, in my opinion, just the kind of thing a church should provide for the world. It was, I think, doing God's will. But the church? They disagreed. They kicked WISH out because, as they put it, the girls were attracting the wrong kind of man to the area. In their minds, the men who wanted to buy women and children weren't the problem. The girls they bought were.

A particularly galling irony? Then and now, the church's pride and joy was their stained glass window of Christ blessing the little children. I am physically nauseated by their hypocrisy.

Photo by Lincoln Clarkes' from his book, Heroines
Who, in Heaven's name, do they think those blessed children were? Would their Christ have refused to bless prostituted children? I should think not!

Note that I showed a mere two years between the abused child and the runaway selling her body.
It was around this time that I doodled this little picture story, entitled The Prostitute, and wrote this poem:

Man are those men
too much!
Fist fall
come quick
          men say
come slow
"slut whore
gonna make
you pay"

They preachin' bout
"dontcha know?
Mary was a 

They drivin' by
on slick wet road
pull me
          n over 
hard come pricks

And their wives sayin'
"Dontcha know?
was a virgin"

Oh yeah mamn
but Mary's man
he be comin'
to me  in me  to me
and it bin that way
for all time.

So hey man
and your mamn
don't complain
and don't you preach
'cause don't you know
Mary was a virgin
'cause her God
bin comin' to me.

It is I
who protects her purity.

Women who went missing during the time that Pickton was active. We now know he murdered some of them. We can only speculate about the rest.
Remember, while the self-proclaimed righteous of Mount Pleasant were driving victimized girls and women into even more dangerous neighbourhoods, Robert Pickton was busy killing them and feeding them to his pigs. Nobody knows exactly how many women he killed, but he was charged with killing 26, and he bragged that he had killed 49.

What we do know is that the police could have stopped him long before they did. What we do know is that the police did not take women seriously when they repeatedly told them there was a serial killer on Vancouver's streets. In 1988, to draw attention to the problem, a group of us even held a vigil outside police head quarters. We were ignored, both by the police and by the media. 

The missing were "just" Native women, after all, just whores, just junkies. Everyone, the police repeatedly told worried friends and family, knew that "girls like that" often just wandered off or disappeared on a drug binge. There was, they said, no cause for alarm.

Even after one of Pickton's victims managed to escape and go to the police, with forensic evidence, they did so little that Pickton was able to go on killing for another five years! 

Rick Marotz
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this horror, Vancouver proudly hosted Expo 86. Its location in False Creek abutted Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, and the Downtown Eastside, which the city tried to "clean up" for the event by forcing the poor out of hotels, and pushing the vulnerable people onto backstreets to hide them from the world. 

Irony: Betty and Veronica are dressed like the working girls of the 80s dressed, and are being treated similarly.
Every damned night for six months, I had to go to bed later than I wanted to because I knew the nightly fireworks would prevent me from sleeping. They were that close. They were that loud. And they cost $50,000 every single night. At least, that's the cost I remember. It was an unimaginable sum. Every night, while I shivered in my cold bedroom, I would seethe with frustrated rage at the money being burnt in the air rather than spent on helping people who so desperately needed help. 

It was around this time that I first entered the Lee Building. Because it was so run down and seedy, the youth-run, leftie newspaper for which I wrote could afford an office there. I was scared to enter the Lee Building, but I was determined to become a writer, and I was determined to write about the truth. My first article? A piece about the rumour that American sailors were so brutal to prostitutes, that the working girls left the streets when the navy was in town, rather than risk beatings, rape, and murder. 

The article didn't make a splash, not even a ripple. But Expo 86 did.

I refused to attend Expo, even when I, poor charity case that I was, was offered free tickets. I've never regretted that decision. I was disgusted by Expo then... 

... and I'm disgusted by its legacy. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was witnessing the beginning of the end of the Vancouver I knew. Soon, Mount Pleasant's seedy history would be virtually entirely forgotten. 

The hookers are gone. The junkies are gone. The old drunks are gone. They've been replaced by young hipsters who can afford the exorbitant rent and real estate that is one of the most troubling legacies of Expo.

All the 
run-down houses and storefronts have been gentrified or torn down to make room for high rise condo developments. Some of those old storefronts have been replaced by ironic, retro barbers, diners, and coffee shops. The real irony, entirely lost on the young hipsters, is that these "authentic," retro, hot spots are mimicking the very people and places they displaced.

And I'm still shut out. The gentrified buildings are still not accessible. The new ones are but, over half the time, the spaces are being used in such a way as to make them inaccessible all over again. I can't afford the rent because my greedy insurance company is profiting from my pain. 

My body is the living memory of what Mount Pleasant once was. And no-one in power cares.

Some things don't change.

Women and girls, especially Aboriginal women and girls, are still going missing, and are still being murdered.

The annual, Valentine's Day Memorial March for the Murdered and Missing women. Photo source here
Their friends, family, and allies are still trying to get people to care. When the police finally arrested Pickton, they swore that such a thing would never happen again, but those of us who lived through it know that's a lie. It's happening now, still.

And I'm still fighting for my life - in Mount Pleasant - haunted by the ghosts of all those who didn't make it.

(I'm sharing this post with Not Dressed as Lamb.)