Famished Ghosts (Part One)

by katiclops

The last eighty pages of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts have taken me three weeks to finish.

I stumbled through the first few chapters.  Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician from Vancouver’s DownTown East Side (DTES) wrote the book in what I interpret to be four main overtures.  The first section of the book is devoted  to bringing the readers up to speed on the narratives and geography.  The second provides an overview of what is addiction (biologically, psychologically, in society), which gradually morphs into “how people got to that place” (physically, personally and societally) and then resoundingly (thankfully) the book closes with a section looking at redemption and healing.

This book is by no means easy to read.

I lived in Vancouver for a good portion of 2008.  I had just completed my undergraduate program in Halifax, and thought that the perfect bookend to my program was to roadtrip cross-country with a friend, to start my new life on “the other ocean.” I had spent the five years since leaving home bouncing around, unsettled and adventuring, and rather than go travelling after my program, I wanted nothing more than to set down some roots and spend some time exploring one (English speaking!) place for once.  So away we went.

Unfortunately, graduating at the culminating (bottom apex? what’s the reverse of an apex) of the recession does not set one up well for starting a new career. Especially not one in the city with the second highest living costs internationally.  Vancouver, somewhat sheltered by the Coastal mountains and the approaching 2010 Olympics continued barrelling along, developing in spite of the gloomy global economic outlooks. I spent the first few months after I arrived diligently applying for work between 10-4 every day at an air conditioned library downtown, sending out my CV into the void of cyberspace, and the rest of the days biking around town and out to the beaches and reading copious amounts of books. Within a few short weeks my money began to dry up, and as I realized the analyst and government positions I had been applying for wouldn’t be calling me back anytime soon, I dropped my expectations slightly, and took on three jobs (two coffee shops and mountain equipment co-op) and a volunteer position at Free Geek.  I also switched apartments, and went from living in the “up and coming” mount pleasant area, to a one and a half storey, house in the grittier and significantly cheaper east hastings/commercial area-with eight additional room mates.

(Wicked photography skills in this post thanks to Tara Williamson!).

This area has changed significantly since I lived there; the house was repossessed and flipped after about two years.  The entire neighbourhood has changed significantly-the new house no longer has bars on the windows, and I’m sure they don’t have stoop sitters or quite the same amount of prostitution in the alleys. Although Hungry Ghosts is set in the DTES a few blocks away from where we were living, there are many aspects of the community that I was still able to closely identify with, for example, the strong sense of community, and the odd sense of security.  Biking or walking home late at night people generally allowed you to mind your own business, so long as you let them mind yours.  I regularly would bike through the epicenter of the DTES, and should the lights catch me in front of the Carnegie Centre (at Main St.), I would suddenly be enveloped in the cacophonous laughter, colours and sickly sweet smoke of the intersection.  People hawking wares on the sidewalks, people lining the streets so thick it looked like the markets I went to in Mali.  Shouting, mingling, bartering; the traffic slowed down to the pace of Bamako, where traffic lights suddenly becomes a suggestion, and common sense becomes your safest bet to sound passage through to the other humdrum dreary side.

I always loved biking down Hastings.  I found it exhilarating.  Travelled west to east: the sleek modern condos giving way to tall, cold, office buildings, morphing into more and more historical and battered down architecture and more and more people: Hastings and Main, and then quieter and poorer and sadder and emptier, gave way to an industrial zone (around Clark) and finally home: where we belonged.

(View from our porch, looking west, towards the DTES, c/o Tara Williamson she has some great paintings from then too).

Regardless of whether or not the reader of Hungry Ghosts has visited the DTES, Dr. Maté does an excellent job of describing the neighbourhood.  Post 2010 Olympics, I can vouch for the huge changes the neighbourhood has seen since then, that Dr. Maté foreshadows in his book–some of the once packed downtown streets are now nearly empty; new, young businesses have increased tourism and private security to the neighbourhoods, more housing is now offered, people have also been pushed east as rents creep up.  But to this outsider, his 2007 snapshot of the city seems accurate. Dr. Maté writes with a clarity and clinical precision that is almost romantic. He goes on to describe where he works (the Portland Hotel Society), a housing facility that now manages several projects in the DTES.

The cement hallways and the elevator at the Portland Hotel are washed clean frequently, sometimes several times a day.  Punctured by needle marks, some residents have chronic draining wounds.  Blood also seeps from blows and cuts inflicted by their fellow addicts or from pits patients have scratched in their skin during fits of cocaine-induced paranoia.  One man picks at himself incessantly to get rid of imaginary insects.

This is how the book begins, with nearly the first 100 pages devoted to shocking the reader into a loose portrait of understanding of the DTES. He is able to evoke us into a place of compassion, where a community emerges out of systemic failure. Dr. Maté brings out our empathy without demanding it; the outpouring of compassion these first chapters extract is almost involuntary and exhausting. Through a series of short case studies he puts faces to the issues of the DTES. This I expected. People who have read this book before me have described it as labourous, reading a chapter at a time, putting it down often because of their tears. Chapter four, entitled “You wouldn’t believe my life story” is accurately more devastating than any fiction I have ever read. His writing style and the humanity of the stories are addictive, catalyzing an empathy out of the reader that is almost grotesque: how can our social system fail so many people so completely? It is difficult to believe.

This post is continued here.