To be clear: this town isn’t as much of an armpit as it was 20 years ago, but the basic mentality hasn’t changed much. In its early days Nanaimo housed a number of bars that was wildly disproportionate to the population. This set the city up for the alcohol-fueled cycle of addiction and poverty that we see today. The negative energy flows through town like the coal seams threading through its foundations
When I left Vancouver for Nanaimo I chose the Old City Quarter because it had character, culture, and a sense of community. It was the only place that was remotely similar to the city where I’d grown up. I loved my little house the first time I walked through the door, but if I’d had access to time-lapse video of what would pass by my windows every day, I wouldn’t have bought it. The OCQ has many charms, but it happens to stand in between downtown — with its ills and concentration of social services — and some of the least desirable and most affordable housing left in the city. It’s the through traffic that kills the place. Oh, the adventures we’ve had…
The crackhead under the deck was the most frightening. That was probably because I didn’t see him until I’d gone to empty the compost bin, turned, and approached the stairway to see two stocking feet sticking out from under the landing. I guess he was the subject of the police chase through the yard that woke me the night before, the suspect in an attempted B&E. He’d probably hidden under the deck, kicked off his shoes, had a smoke, and fallen asleep. I tiptoed back over his resting place to get to the phone and call the RCMP who — surprise — knew him well. After they took him away I was inspecting his little nest and found a cel phone. Fearing he would return, I took it down to the police station. I guess they held on to it though because he was back sniffing around the fence looking for it the very next night.
I didn’t actually lay eyes on the body that wound up under the grape arbor in the neighbour’s back yard. He must have wandered down the driveway before collapsing, and came to rest close enough to my fence that an RCMP member suggested I keep Gabriel inside while they investigated. (No signs of foul play, likely overdose.)
For the most part I’ve been lucky with neighbours. The man on the one side, the one with the body, is pleasant and keeps to himself. A few different tenants have come through the house on the other side, but they’ve all been pretty quiet as well. Exception being the sandwich delivery guy who drives that truck without a muffler, but he hasn’t been around lately so I’m hoping his girlfriend (the actual tenant) kicked him out. She’s nice enough, and so are her girls, but the men she brings through are questionable.
There’s some graffiti, a trail up Fitzwilliam one night; black spray paint on telephone poles, fences, and walls traced the hooligans’ path up the street. I think they were trying to write “hi!” on my fence, but it looks more like “ni!”, which reminds me of the Knights of Ni, which kindof pleases me. So I left it there. Comic relief.
The Diabetes Clothesline was the real victim when a passerby — gaunt-featured, poverty-faced, drug addict — swooped down and carried off a bag of donations left out for collection. I ran outside, yelled, watched her stride off down the street, and duck into the 7-10 Club breakfast program. Though the items were being given away, I still felt like we had been robbed; they weren’t for her. Apparently ours wasn’t the only bag stolen from the area that day.
But the other night was the topper. Over the years a fencepost cap has been kicked off, one panel has been kicked in twice, a panel on the other side too… Then another panel Thursday night. But it wasn’t night. It was dinnertime. We heard a ‘bang’ and ran outside to find the fence slats flapping. And the loser just kept walking, hammer-pants and baggy rasta-striped tank top flapping in the wind. I stood, barefoot on the wet sidewalk, helplessly watching him head up the hill. He looked back periodically, maybe thinking I would follow, then crossed the street and ducked into a lane. No doubt on his way to one of the adjacent neighbourhoods where he probably lives with his parents, petty thieving drug addicts themselves. Later I chastised myself: I should have had my phone. I should have taken video. I should have photographed the damage before Sean and I pounded the fence posts back into place, eager to restore order and erase the evidence of the assault on our property. But I didn’t. L’esprit de l’escalier… those things you think of doing or saying when it’s too late.
The incident with the fence prompted me to sit down to write this, but thinking back over the years I’ve been here, I’m shocked by what I’d glossed over. No wonder I’m at the end of my rope. The thing is, another neighbourhood wouldn’t be any different: poverty and addiction are everywhere in this town. And where there’s money, in the North End, you’ll find immigrant drug cartels, grow ops and brothels, and the high school with the worst drug problem in the city. Sean had some great adventures with his neighbours when he lived up there.
It will take a few years but we’re planning our exit strategy. Once Gabriel is out of school we’ll look for some land, quieter, removed… and I’ll be glad to put this place in the rear view mirror. Until then, we’ll just keep the mallet handy and pound those fence panels back into place whenever we need to.