On not judging a book by its cover

On not judging a book by its cover

So this thing I wrote got published! Here it is:


Denise Brennan owns and runs Creative Coworkers, the coworking studio where Misfit Press plies its trade. We invited her to be the first guest contributor to our blog and to share her stories about the studio’s neighbourhood – Vancouver’s complex Downtown Eastside. In this post, she tells us how her experience of living here affects how she thinks about things like community, security, and humanity.

Last night, there was a break-in attempt at my studio. It was a sloppy, failed attempt, and our extremely good security did all of the things it’s supposed to do. Nonetheless, it made me feel a bit vulnerable, and jaded a little my mostly loving feelings towards this neighbourhood in which I spend so much of my time. It’s a much different place late at night than it is during the day. Even so, I almost always feel completely safe. Losing any of this feeling is really affecting for me.

There’s an abandoned lot a couple of doors down that occasionally gets a little shanty town going, and when it does, the nighttime feeling of the alley changes. The people back there aren’t as friendly, and vandalism and theft are more likely. After last night, I don’t feel as welcoming to those folks that hide in the shadows and build caves in dark corners.

Tonight I called the police again to ask them to check it out. The responding officer asked me if I was familiar with the area and told me that the people have to go somewhere, which is true. I explained to him that I’m very familiar with the area, that I have no prejudice, that I know a bunch of the alley folks by name, and that I don’t feel the least bit threatened by the majority of people back there. But this squatting thing is different, and unsafe, for me and for them. I felt a bit bad about asking them to break it up, but I also feel that it’s important to trust your instincts in this landscape.

On my way out tonight, I ran into a binner that I met a couple of weeks ago. I had come out in the middle of the afternoon to find a few binners pulling garbage bags apart beside the door.

I appreciate binning as an organic way of recycling, reusing and upcycling. I think it’s an important piece of our sustainability puzzle in urban settings – so much gets thrown away that still has a useful life. I don’t, however, love having garbage spread out on my stoop during business hours.

When I came out to see this “work in progress,” this one guy was immediately apologetic, told me his name was Daniel, and said “I’ll clean up really good, don’t worry.” I told him that I appreciated that, and I trusted him to do that, but to please respect that other people need to feel safe and get out of work without tripping over people and garbage.

Our conversation after that, I don’t particularly remember, but he waved me back out a little later and offered me my pick of a bunch of greeting cards in packages. He said “I don’t want any money or anything, I just want you to have one.” I chose one and said thank you.

Tonight, Daniel was back there again. He recognized me immediately and again apologized for his current work in progress. He said “I know this is your space and you’re kind enough to share it with people, and I appreciate that, and I’ll be sure to clean up.” I told him that I trusted him to clean up, like he did before. I told him I don’t own the alley, that we share it, and he made a joke about kicking me out then, and we laughed.

Then he got quiet and said really gently, “you know I’m glad to see you again because I wanted to tell you that for some reason our conversation made a real difference to me the other day. I’ve been trying to interact with people more since then, and I even volunteered at a DTES neighbourhood house. I was wanting to get my life back together after being a year on the street, and talking to you made a real difference for me. I kicked the drugs before and I think I can do it again. I just wanted you to know that.”

He told me about a job he wants to get, and showed me pictures of his daughter, telling me she’s in language immersion school and he’s so proud of her.

I told him about the people in the empty lot and told him that when people don’t interact with me, it makes me nervous. He said that makes sense, “because you don’t know why or what they’re hiding,” and that he’d be sticking around a while longer and would keep a look out.

It’s not only something I really believe in, to treat everyone like the human being that they are – it also makes excellent common sense when sharing a space is an immutable reality. I also strongly believe that feeling like a member of a social community comes with a completely different set of behaviours than feeling like an outsider.

And here’s the thing: it’s not hard. Not at all. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything extra special or fantastic or applause-worthy. And sometimes, “alley people” are even more open to having a moment of humanity than other “mainstream society people” you meet every day.

Now I know that some of you would say that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to trust a self-professed homeless drug addict, even if he has the best intentions, and I’m not saying I’d loan him a car or hand him my wallet. But I do feel a bit safer knowing he’s back there. I feel like telling people you trust them to be respectful to you encourages them to live up to that trust, and gives them a good reason to encourage others to do so as well. To identify you as an ally and not an enemy – or at the very least, to see you as another human, and not just an “other”, too.

All I can say is you get really tuned in to trusting your gut on people around here, and I don’t think I’ve been wrong yet, though I know there could come a day when I am. (Perhaps I already have been, and just don’t know it.) There’s a lot of good people who made and are making bad choices around here, but doesn’t that just include us all.

Daniel is not one of the ones building a cave in dark corners. He’s just a guy, with a bad habit, trying to get by. And it’s so important for me to remember to not base my expectations of people’s behaviour on their circumstances, but instead to pay attention to their actualbehaviour, and let them show me who they are. I’m grateful to have run into him tonight, for his reminding me of that, and especially for his reminding me to resist developing generalized prejudices, and the temptation to react disproportionately to my own feelings of vulnerability.

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