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Down Bylaw

By Amil Niazi

Friday February 4, 2005

These are the people in your neighbourhood

Every Thursday and Sunday, Campbell Avenue’s can-can man visits my front door. With his groaning, off-balance cart and shredded grey blazer, he smiles sheepishly as he inquires after our bottles and cans. Waiting patiently while I scramble to put together a bag of recyclables and ditch the floating butts and debris, his humbling demeanor reminds me of neighbourhood milk men and postal workers. Our exchanges are always polite, occasionally warm and never threatening. But according to the province, his behaviour is hostile, illegal and punishable. BC recently introduced an anti-panhandling law that places fines on “aggressive” begging. Squeegee kids, sketchies, and all-round hobos face being slapped with tickets up to $115. Admittedly unsure as to how this law will be enforced, or why it even exists, police are left holding their balls wondering if it’s worthwhile to foolhardily chase arbitrary non-criminals. Naturally, little debate has been raised regarding the ramifications of localized poverty, the needs of marginalized people in distress, or to what extent actual Vancouverites are bothered by an occasional request for spare change.

When I lived in Gastown, on the periphery of humanity and sanity, the only regular faces I saw were those of the resident panhandlers. These were the people in my neighbourhood. When the smudgy droves of bloated tourists would finally satiate their appetites with the drones of the electric steam clock, the bodies left trampling around Water Street were theirs and mine. Infamous for his “Barbie is a Slut” ditty, Andy and I would chat outside the Purple Onion about the death of public radio and the destruction of community. His guitar bore stickers spanning every musical genre, political slogan and pervy catchphrase. Some nights I’d sit with him while he played the Mexican hat dance in his well worn sombrero. Walking home from the Bourbon, I’d engage in brief conversations with the Marley man, who had just acquired roller blades for his mobile serenades, while he showed me pictures of his daughter. We’d had to rebuild our friendship after he berated me for not paying him in advance for a song I didn’t want to hear in the first place. And as annoying and needy as I found the one-armed push up guy, I took pleasure in sharing hair-dye tips with him. The subtleties of tone matching always escaped him, but what the fuck did he care about being a true L’Oreal blonde? Moving to the West End, allegedly to seek solace from the gritty downtown east side, I found comfort in the sword-wielding Diablo that guarded the borders of the dog park and the cracky sidewalk sales along Bute. For every corner of Vancouver I’ve resided in, it’s those nameless characters most of us overlook that provide any personality and depth to the area. In a city where people always complain about being alienated from their surroundings, why would we criminalize public outreach? For many, those bizarre encounters on the street with snaky-eyed schizos are reassuring, endearing and invigorating. Being accosted on the sidewalk by a sturdy lady with heavy fists is still a chance to engage with your fellow man. There are days when a smile from the harmonica player on Granville and Pender is the only thing keeping me from jumping.

So I guess this law isn’t designed for people like me, it’s designed for the “other.” The suburbanite who is still in denial about their town’s drug abuse problems and certainly won’t tolerate any signs of it during a day trip to the big city. For the American tourist who has read about Vancouver’s hippie pot block, but can’t deal with the realities of that area’s rising poverty. For the commuting businessperson desperate to hold on to that last fifty cents because even with a steady mortgage and three pudgy kids, life hasn’t taken on the shine that Saturn ad promised. If it really is so important to cling to your possessions without the inconvenience of being pestered for a share of them, I also ask that telemarketers refrain from calling me after 6pm, firefighter and police charities stop aggressively peddling their smutty calendars for “charity” and the bastards at Christian Children’s Fund end their perennial guilt trip on my sensibilities. Then maybe I’d be willing to discuss revolutionary advances in social utopia.