Thankful for the Bus

Victoria is commuter hell.

Hell on a different scale than L.A., or Vancouver, or Toronto. But hell nonetheless.

Bike lanes, mountain views and ocean living, do nothing to tackle the fundamental problem, a car culture where tens of thousands of drivers, a handful of main roads, and many chokepoints make for much frustration.

Most cities experience similar issues. Unlike Victoria, they adapt. In southern Ontario, ‘GO’ trains and buses are part of the fabric of life in the Greater Toronto Area. Quality transportation in the midst of traffic chaos.

Not so Victoria. Train tracks rust – totally unused. And buses are “Loser Cruisers,” filled with the the poor, mentally ill, drunks, creeps, criminals. And students. Few would actually say those words out loud, but that is the popular perception. None of my colleagues take the bus to work, though for many of them it would be an inexpensive and plausible alternative to expensive gas and long delays. The same could be said for most workplaces in Victoria. But for every man or woman in a business suit who steps off a bus in the morning, ten luxury cars speed by, battling for rare parking in the congested downtown core.

I’m part of the car culture. Usually. 40K in, 40K home, 4 days a week, doing my part to clog the lone highway connecting Victoria to the rest of Vancouver Island.

But sometimes I take the bus, one of the few commuter ones that actually service the area. Fewer stops and a little more comfortable than the rest of the fleet. For a price. Ten bucks a ride instead of three.

I run to the bus stop, with a yellow reflective vest on my torso and a bright headlamp leading the way. My arrival is a glowing and infrequent interruption in the daily routine of the handful of commuters who are always there. They see one another every weekday. Nod. Exchange pleasantries. Develop friendships.

I’m the strange guy who shows up occasionally, always sweating. I drop my knapsack, stretch and sometimes duck behind the bus shelter and change my shirt. An oddity disrupting, or perhaps enlivening, their daily routine.

There’s always a seat for me, although it’s not always pleasant. Last week I boarded, found a spot, and, on the seat next to me were the dirty shoes of the guy sitting across from me, sprawled out like he was on the couch in his home. I wanted to smack him. I settled for glaring instead.

A couple of days before that, a lean, rough-looking guy in his twenties smacked my arm hard as he exited the bus. I was pissed. He got my death stare. But he never saw it. He never once looked back to see the extent of my anger, let alone to offer an apology. He just charged off the bus. I wanted to hit him too.

Near assaults aside, I like riding the bus. I read and write. Think or don’t think. Rest and recharge. Remind myself how lucky I am to be travelling to a job that is occasionally rewarding, often challenging, and rarely physically exhausting.

Because the bus is full of construction workers whose job must drain them daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. Their commutes are longer than mine – an hour, each way, morning and night. Toiling in the heat, saturated in the rain, freezing in the cold. The yellow vests they wear are for safety on dangerous job sites. They always look weary, both before and after the long days they spend building roads and homes in Victoria. A city they probably can’t afford to live in. A city many working families increasingly can not afford to live in. Or near.

Last week, as I waited to board a bus home, an intoxicated male fell on the sidewalk. Several people watched. Me and another male went to him. He was okay. Hot on a blistering day. Drunk but not obliterated. He declined an ambulance. And a friend came to be with him.

I boarded my bus, thankful that the drunk didn’t follow.

Thankful to be heading home.

Thankful for the bus.

 

 

 

Needles and Blackberries

I like to run before work, especially in the summer when it’s light before 5:00 a.m., never too hot and rarely too cool.

Sometimes I start at the office, head east, battle a steep incline and reach Summit Park. There’s rarely anyone there. Most Victorians don’t even know it exists. Which is too bad, and great. Acres of meadows, beautiful views and guaranteed peace nestled in the midst of a picturesque old neighbourhood. A neighbourhood surrounded by busy arterial roads. Which is probably why Summit Park is little known and never busy.

There’s always something to see. Sometimes it’s a red sunrise, bright and iridescent. Occasionally I see deer, rabbits or other runners. Their presence adds to the magic of an early morning run.

Not everything adds to the magic. Like the junkie, sitting in a battered sedan. He slouched backwards in the driver’s seat, one foot out the door, slurping a Big Gulp while I sprinted past doing intervals. When he drove away – finally – I threw out the garbage he left strewn behind.

Lately I’ve ended my runs at Summit Park by foraging for food. Blackberries, ripened by searing heat and easily accessible despite the thorns that protect them. The first time I saw the blackberries I put a handful into the pocket of my shorts, and hoped they didn’t squish into jam on the way back. They didn’t, although the stains may never disappear. So now I bring a small container, fill it in minutes, and savour the berries, one by one, throughout the day. Something feels natural and right about that.

The run home is a breeze. Mostly downhill. Right past Topaz Park. A bigger park, closer to the office. Closer to downtown. The other day, two syringes, still packaged, lay in the street. Unused. Dropped by an addict. Waiting to be picked up by another addict.

When I moved to Victoria, I was shocked by the prevalence, and openness of hard-core drug use. Addicts clustered around the needle exchange on Cormorant Street. Dozens of them. Openly injecting all night long. Or waiting for their next fix. It was eerie. Like nothing I’d ever seen in suburban Ontario. Not even close. And it was sad too. Broken people, most of them beyond help.

That was ten years ago. Before the fentanyl crisis. I wonder how many of them are dead now.

Addicts are part of the landscape here. Acceptable. Expected. The ‘Sharps’ containers in public places tell the tale – at the airport, in coffee shops, in the vans staffed by medical professionals and volunteers who roam our streets. Helping the afflicted. But enabling them too.

Here are just some of the headlines when I Googled, “needle pricks Victoria”

Child Pricked by Discarded Needle at McDonald’s Restaurant

Dog Walker … Pricked by Discarded Needle Left in Paper Bag

Woman Pricked by Needle Placed in Downtown Victoria Planter

Google didn’t have to scour the archives for those results. All three are from 2018.

Several weeks ago, I spent time in a park in the downtown core. It’s actually a cemetery beside Christ Church Cathedral. The church is magnificent, both in size and beauty.

I found three needles amidst the gardens and shrubs that border the cemetery. Three more potential headlines, in one portion of one park, in a city full of them.

In his most recent ‘Reacher’ book, author Lee Child wrote that, “People are complicated.” The phrase has stuck with me for months, for its simplicity and accuracy.

Not just people. Life is complicated. Cities are complicated.

Morning runs are complicated. Morning runs which bring me so much pleasure and yet remind me that our world is full of pain.

Needles and Blackberries.

Needle

 

Blackberries 2