Seen & Overheard: A Year on the Bus in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Nonfiction by Leanna McLennan

12 September
A man in a torn grey jacket staggers onto the bus.
+++“It’s the postmodern god. It’s the postmodern god,” he says to the bus driver.

23 September
Elderly women in cotton hats chat at the front of the bus. Across the aisle, a man in army fatigues strikes a frying pan with his open palm.
+++At the back of the bus, across from me, a group of teenagers in black leather jackets huddle together laughing. A man reeking of booze sits beside me and scans the bus, like he’s looking for someone. He points at my shoulder: a ladybug.
+++A man standing by the rear door uses a measuring tape to measure the width of the exit, wipes his brow with a red bandana, and measures the doorway again. And again. And again.
+++I place the ladybug by the open window.

26 September
After several stops, I notice that the man sitting beside me is watching a video of himself taking a shower.

9 October
On the morning bus, people sit in a row texting: a woman in a railroad cap and paintsplattered
jeans; a woman in a business suit; and a woman with leopard print ballet flats and a matching handbag.
+++A man stands in the aisle alternately texting and stroking his moustache. He bobs his head to the heavy metal music that blares from his headphones.

15 October
In the seat in front of me, a man who smells like pee drunkenly sways in his seat.
+++Across the aisle, a teenager on the phone says, “I don’t know, I was, like…it’s really awkward talking on bus…” Then she switches to Russian.
+++Behind me, a man in a yellow rain jacket counts out loud.

20 October
When I change buses at Main and Hastings, an elderly man pushes his shopping cart dangerously close to my heels.
+++“Excuse me,” he says politely.
+++An emaciated woman squats on the sidewalk, devouring a bowl of oatmeal.
+++A teenager rushes past the line up for the bus asking for Percocet, “Anyone have some percs? Anyone have some percs?”

29 October
“I hate to say this about women…but they’re better welders. They have smaller, more sensitive hands, so they can fit into smaller places. And if you’re a woman, you can get welding training for free,” says a man wearing coveralls, with a patch over his heart that says Theo.
+++Theo describes welding, in tremendous detail, to a woman and gives her the phone number for the union.
+++“If I knew then what I know now, I would have dropped out of school in Grade 10. I love my job. They treat me real good. And when I get there in the morning, there’s no one in my face. It’s amazing.”

31 October
A zombie, with a fake slash on her cheek pierced by safety pins, boards the bus and is greeted by a zombie bus driver.

7 November
A man asks the driver to let him ride for free, and the driver nods.
+++“Hey, bro.” The man sits next to a man in a black hoodie, who is also riding for free. “I just got out of jail, man, and now I got charged with three counts of assault. I’m probably goin’ back on Monday.”
+++The man in the hoodie unties the plastic bag on his lap, removes a clear glass pipe, and holds it in the air. The men gaze at it, talking about how wonderful it is.

7 November
A man peels off the bandage on his hand to examine his wound, laughs, and replaces the bandage.
+++Across from him, a boy, with a guitar case cradled between his legs, listens to music through yellow headphones, and conducts. His hands wildly dance in the air in front of him.
+++The man with the wound lifts up the bandage again, and laughs.

7 November
“So much for not drinkin’, eh?” the drunk woman beside me shouts as a man staggers to the back door. He clutches the bar and sways.

15 November
A woman wearing a pink coat and a pink sequined railway cap shoves her way to the front of the bus and says, “Celebrity coming through. Google me. I direct traffic. A lot of these people would be dead if it weren’t for me. Some people think I’m crazy. They don’t care about their lives. They’re selfish. They should all be locked up. I save lives.”

16 November
Friday night special: a scrawny woman boards the bus clutching a soiled plushie: a pink, sequined octopus.
+++An elderly drunk man in a suit falls onto two teenage girls, who look at each other but say nothing as the man gets up and tries to steady himself.
+++Another drunk man slides his hands through the looped handles on the bus and shouts, “I said tie me up later, tie me up later.” He laughs, pulls a beer from his pocket, and gulps it.
+++“I’m only a sixteen-year-old old lady, leave me alone,” a woman who appears to be in her sixties shouts.
+++At the next stop, a man in a CFL shirt, who smells strongly of pot, boards the bus behind a woman wearing thick mascara and with five dots messily painted under each eye.
+++Three young women wearing jeans and plaid shirts flirt with each other in the aisle.
+++A man in a tartan cap and paint-covered clothes falls asleep.
+++At the next stop, a woman boards the bus with two young children, who squirm joyfully in their seats.

30 November
A man in his twenties bumps into me, and grins.
+++“Check this out.” He slides a Jimi Hendrix album from a thin paper bag. “It’s all about Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Aerosmith. Shhh, don’t tell anyone about Aerosmith. That’s my secret. And the Ramones are good too. And the Smiths. Guess who’s playing at the Queen Elizabeth? The Pixies. Hey, what’s your name?”
+++I tell him.
+++“I’m Chris.”
+++When I get off the bus at Main and Hastings, he follows me.
+++“I’m getting off here, too. I’m not following you. I’m really getting out here. I’m catching the Main bus. Want to come to my place for a beer?”
+++I decline.
+++Chris nods and rushes towards the connecting bus.
+++As I cross the street, an elderly man approaches me.
+++“I like your feather.” He points to the orange feather sticking out of my bag.
+++“Thanks, orange is my favorite colour.”
+++“Mine is yellow. I’ve had two yellow cars in my life. I’ve done well. No drugs or alcohol. I’m seventy-three. I look pretty good, don’t I?”
+++“Yeah, you do.”
+++“Have a good night.”
+++“You too,” I say and walk towards the connecting bus.

6 December
An elderly woman clips her fingernails, letting the nails fall into her cupped hand, while the young man beside her wipes mustard from his lip, and unwraps his second McDonalds hamburger.

8 December
A drunk woman, wearing a grey sweatshirt, rushes in front of me, swinging her arms, “I was here first. I’m getting on first. I’ve been standing here for a fuckin’ half hour. I’m getting on first. I was here first. I’m cold. I’m fuckin’ cold.”

11 December
+++A stoned man staggers onto bus and asks the driver, “Are you going to Main and Hastings? That’s where I’m going.”
+++The man attempts to help a woman put her fare in the slot.
+++“Just sit down,” the bus driver says.
+++“Hey sorry, man. Are you going to Main and Hastings? I just have to get some weed and go back to Metrotown. I could get it from my neighbour. He usually gives it to me for free. But he doesn’t like me coming by at ridiculous hours. Thanks for understanding, man.”
+++The bus driver says nothing.
+++“Is the Sky Train still running?” the man asks.
+++“I don’t know. I should know but I don’t,” the bus driver says.
+++“What time is it?”
+++“Ten to midnight.”
+++“Thanks, man.”
+++More passengers board the bus.
+++“Hey, do you smoke crack?” the stoned man asks a young man with a brush cut.
+++The young man hurries to the back of the bus.
+++The stoned man sways in the aisle.
+++“Hold onto something,” the driver says.
+++“Thank you. Thank you for caring. You’re a good guy. I’m really proud of you,” the stoned man says.

13 December
A man safety pins cut up grey wool socks together, to make a toque. As he walks toward the exit, two sock feet dangle from the back of his self-made hat.

15 December
“Let her sit down,” a woman wearing a magenta ball cap says to the man next to her.
+++“Why should she get to sit? I’m already sitting here,” a man says.
+++“She had a stroke.”
+++“Well how am I supposed to know that?”
+++“Just look at her.”
+++The man stands up.
+++“How are you?” the woman in the cap asks her friend as she takes the seat.
+++“I’m good. Why would I be put on death row in the seventies and be allowed to get out? It’s part of a divine plan. I want to get into the schools and teach kids how to deal with their toxic feelings. I stuff my feelings down. That causes cancer. I was so full of anger. I almost went into homicide mode. Now I read the Bible, and I feel God with me. I can’t walk alone. It’s not healthy.”
+++“Cool,” the woman in the cap says.

16 December
“Is he allergic to cats?” I ask a woman with a stroller, indicating my cat carrier.
+++“No. We have a cat. He loves cats. Look at the cat. We had to find another home for our other cat because he wasn’t very child friendly. I put an ad on Craigslist and a couple took him right away. They don’t have any kids. He’ll be happy there.
+++My niece just got diagnosed with a brain tumour. It’s cancer and they can’t operate. She seemed fine but then one day her left side went wonky, and she couldn’t use it, and her parents took her to the hospital. It was already three centimeters by the time they found it.
+++She’s getting chemo and radiation. I suggested marijuana oil. The doctors said that’s something they use. They don’t offer it but they’ll give it if the parents ask for it.
+++They say that there’s nothing they can do if the cancer comes back. It’s on her brain stem and that kind of cancer is really aggressive.” She nods toward her son in the stroller. “She’s his favorite person. I hope nothing happens to her.”

18 December
“Is that a cat?” a woman in her late sixties, wearing a sweatshirt with owls on it asks. “I had a cat before. His name was Fluffy. He was so fluffy. I lent him to a sick friend. She asked if she could have him for a while. Because she was alone. I went over one day to see him, and he wasn’t there. I asked where he was, and she said that he went out and ran away. That was a mistake. You can’t trust anyone.”

23 December
No one on the bus knows that I am returning home with an empty pet carrier because I put my beautiful, suffering cat to sleep this afternoon, or that the vet kissed his nose. I look out the window, holding back tears, knowing that my cat won’t be home when I arrive.

26 December
“When’s the bus going?” a teenager with a tattoo on his neck asks.
+++“Yeah, we gonna sit here forever?” his friend shouts. “Hey, let’s go!”
+++“If you don’t quiet down, you’ll have to get off the bus. I grew up in this neighbourhood. I know what goes on in the streets. I’m not afraid. I let you ride the bus for free, and now you’re disturbing the other passengers. Show some respect.”
+++“Okay, sorry, man,” the boy with the tattoo says.
+++The other boy turns up the volume on his phone, and blares heavy metal music through the bus. “Come on, man, this guy knows what goes on in the streets. We better get out of here.”
+++The boys disembark, laughing.

26 December
Leaflet on the bus seat asks, “Where will you spend eternity?”

2 January
“Ne ho ma. Ho ho,” the man at the front of the bus says. “I’m not being racist. I’m being nice, speaking Mandarin. It means thank you. Or Italian, arrivederci. Or French, bonjour, tabarnack. I like languages, I really do. Or just plain English, hello. I do think speaking English should be a prerequisite to coming to Canada. That I do believe.
+++“I’m going to be a preacher, take the fleece from the flock. Except God doesn’t talk to me. I guess it’s only paranoids who get to talk to him. Maybe I’m going straight
to hell.
+++“And I do believe in the women’s movement…especially from behind.” He laughs.
+++“I guess my sense of humour is too much for some people. I used to work at Yuk Yuks. So it can’t be that bad. Thank you, thank you very much for listening.”

3 January
“What did you find?” a woman asks a man carrying several garbage bags.
+++“Beer cans. And a carpet. I checked it, there’s no hair on it or nothin’.” The man shows her a carefully rolled Persian carpet. “Pretty good, eh?”

3 January
At the Main and Hastings bus stop, a man asks, “You got any morphine?”
+++“I got—” a woman says.
+++The bus comes, and I don’t catch the rest of her answer.
+++On the bus, a woman tells her friend, “My boyfriend is living in Coquitlam right now. Well, he’s not actually living there…he’s staying at his parents’ house and his friend’s place. His old girlfriend kicked him out and he’s looking for a nicer place. I told him you’re not gonna find a place on Commercial Drive unless you wanna pay two thousand bucks a month. He’s nice, though. When he sits on the couch, he has to be touching me the whole time.”

7 January
A man hands an ibuprofen tablet to the woman sitting across from him.
+++She cups it in her hand.
+++“You gonna take it?” He cracks open his can of ice tea.
+++“Can I have a sip?”
+++“You got one,” he says, gesturing towards her can of ice tea.
+++“Yeah, but I don’t want to open it yet.”

8 January
A woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and holding a fuchsia clutch purse, with several grocery bags surrounding her feet, sniffles and blinks, trying not to cry.

15 January
A man sits next to me and scrutinizes my purple leggings. “Some people wear blue and brown together. I would never do that.”

23 January
“Ride ‘em, Bronco,” a drunk man shouts to another drunk man, who is pushing yet another drunk man’s wheelchair off the bus in the Downtown Eastside.

26 January
At the Main and Hastings bus stop, a woman wearing pajama bottoms stands in front of an open suitcase, clutching a capped syringe.
+++A woman wearing a matching pink sweatshirt and sweatpants, jumps up and says, “I don’t want to get hurt, I don’t want to get hurt.” She bends down and rifles through the contents of the suitcase.
+++“Someone stole her phone,” a man in a baseball cap says.
+++“Oxy. Morphine,” the man behind me says.
+++The bus comes, and I get on and travel uphill, towards the vintage clothing stores, microbreweries, and upscale cafes.

27 January
“You still in that same place you’ve been for years. You like it there?” a man wearing a black hoodie and plaid pants shouts to the front of the bus.
+++“Not really,” answers a bearded man, wearing a plaid coat.
+++“I might be moving back there. I’m getting kicked out of my place.” The man lowers his hoodie. “I haven’t got arrested for two years. Two years.”

30 January
A drunk man makes a series of gestures that make it appear like he’s fishing on the bus, which now reeks of pee.

21 February
A man flips over a card with a hole punched in the centre: the six of hearts. He flips it again. And again. And again. He tucks the card into his chest pocket, buttons it closed, and saunters off the bus, chewing a toothpick.

23 February
“I’m twenty-six and I’m, like, just starting to be the oldest one when I go out with my friends, and I’m, like, wow, you’re so young,” says a woman with a blonde pony tail.
+++“Yeah you’re, like, starting to get bitter and jaded and stuff,” her friend says.

22 May
“I seen you around before but I didn’t say nothin’ because I was embarrassed. My wife and son died in a car accident. If they only knew how far down I went. I don’t want to go there again. In the three months since I’ve been going to meetings, all of these small rewards have turned into a big victory. It’s a culmination of doin’ all the right things and bein’ in the right place at the right time. And it’s my age; I’m forty-five, and I want to live. So you going next Sunday?”
+++“Yes, I go to ceremony every week,” the elder says.

29 July
“After six years of sittin’ behind the drums, they finally let me sing,” a man on his cell phone shouts. He squeezes past me, clutching the only item he’s carrying: a zip lock bag that contains a urine sample.

2 August
At the Main and Hastings bus stop, a man pours half of his rubbing alcohol into a woman’s juice bottle.
+++A woman in a black hoodie vomits a stream of white mist onto the sidewalk.
+++A man holding a baby quickly steps aside and mutters, “They’re puking and spitting, and blowing their smoke over here.”

9 September
A teenage boy wearing a wrinkled jeans and a baggy T-shirt takes off his backpack and digs through it until he finds his deodorant. He clings to the pole with one hand and reaches his free hand under his T-shirt to apply the deodorant.

19 September
“In jail, I used to run—up the hill, down the hill, up the hill, down the hill—and I broke my ankle. But it’s better, and I’m gonna go snowboarding. Afterwards, it’s super chill, all hot tubs and shit. There’s women from all over the world. They’re literally beautiful and their fathers are rich as shit. There’s this one who’s smokin’ hot. She’s into meditation, and she eats birdseed and shit. She’s the kind of girl that if you took her for a hamburger, she probably wouldn’t talk to you for a while.”

22 September
“I don’t wanna see mountains, I wanna see skyscrapers. I hate small towns. They’re disgusting!” says a woman with long grey hair. “I want to know New York City as well as I know this place. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.”


Leanna McLennan’s writing has been has been published in leading Canadian literary journals, including the Antigonish Review, Broken Pencil, Can’t Lit: Fearless Fiction From Broken Pencil, CV2, Fiddlehead, Matrix, Taddle Creek, and Third Floor Lounge: An Anthology of Poetry from the Banff Centre for the Arts. She is an alumnus of the Toronto Second City Touring Company and has worked as a television writer. For many years she has taught writing, primarily at OCAD University and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Seen & Overheard: A Year on the Bus in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside offers a selection of her experiences on public transit in the neighborhood. Half of Vancouver’s homeless population live in the area, where many people struggle with drug addiction and mental illness. As well, there is a history of social activism, extensive services for residents, and a strong sense of community in the neighborhood.