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On Main and Broadway, We Were Living and Dying

I spent an unforgettable summer in the Lee Building. An excerpt from subTerrain.

Michael V. Smith 23 Aug 2022subTerrain Magazine

Michael V. Smith lives on the unceded Syilx territory of the Okanagan people, where he teaches creative writing at UBC Okanagan campus.

[Editor’s note: This excerpt forms part of our spotlight on B.C.’s literary magazines. Today, we republish a piece that originally appeared in subTerrain, a Vancouver-based magazine that was founded in 1988. The piece, creative non-fiction by Michael V. Smith, was part of an issue about neighbours.

“I first pitched the theme of neighbours years ago, when I was moving — yet again — and we had recently learned our office was about to relocate as well. It was added to a list of potential themes, but the time never felt quite right for it — until COVID hit,” says subTerrain managing editor Jessica Key. “For the first months of COVID I never really left my neighbourhood, and I became increasingly fascinated with my neighbours — folks whose schedules I learned more intimately than those of my friends, yet I didn't really know them at all.

Michael's piece felt distinctly subTerrain — it was gritty, urban and full of social commentary. But, even more so, it really captured the kinds of familiar yet unfamiliar relationships we can form with our neighbours.”

Content note: This story contains graphic descriptions of a dead body. It may be triggering to some readers.]

Fourteen years ago when I was still a young artist in Vancouver, I lived in the Lee Building. A seven-storey brick apartment, the Lee is a little bit famous because it sits in Mount Pleasant at the corner of Main and Broadway. That’s a big intersection. Starting just a small block over, Kingsway cuts diagonally across East Van, so there’s a whole whack of traffic going on there.

The building perches over top of the sidewalk on Broadway, so if you’re waiting for the bus on the north side, you wait underneath the shelter of the Lee.

For quite a long time it was the tallest building in the area. Recently developers have built a bunch of highrises up and down that intersection. Main Street has been gentrifying, like Queen West in Toronto in the ‘90s. All the little shops selling second-hand items for under 20 bucks now sell jeans for $300.

At the turn of the millennium, it felt like everyone knew everyone on Main Street. At Soma, I could grab a coffee from Jordan (who later moved to New York City), or Joe (who later died by suicide). I could get my eggs from Mary at Slickity Jim’s Chat and Chew, before the cancer took her. Thank the gods that Chris is still running his secondhand bookshop. It’s probably the only indie store that didn’t have to turn high end to survive.

I moved into the Lee after I told my friend B. about a disastrous experience apartment-hunting. I’d gone to see a Vancouver Special on 17th Avenue. All the furniture was gone except a filthy stove and a giant TV in a dark wood console from the ‘70s. No word of lie, when the manager of the property gave me a tour, we found someone passed out in the bomb-shelled bedroom under a pile of clothes.

Or maybe they were hiding? Only their foot was exposed, which gave them away.

B. talked to his friend J., the daughter of the building manager, and they got me into a bachelor suite. J. was a sexy punk rock kind of actress and singer. I once saw her perform in Sam Shephard’s True West. She wowed everyone.

The Lee was a great building for a young fag with dreams — it was full of 20- or 30-something arty types in tight jeans. Poets and screenwriters, web designers, fashion designers (the same Mary, from Slickity’s, and another, who worked in recycled textiles). On the fourth floor lived a guy with big, lush lips and dark eyebrows who was designing furniture out of epoxy on the roof. He gave me a bomber jacket once that I used for my author photos. I still wear it sometimes.

On the fifth floor was a cute redhead named Ian, from Saskatchewan, who was the nicest guy. Twenty or 22, a baby, really.

When I moved from Toronto to the coast, I was so impressed by how friendly people were, because Toronto could be cold. In the ‘90s, Vancouver people were really sweet. When I first arrived, I lived on 12th Avenue for a month, and my friend Marie lived on 10th, just a couple blocks up. More than once I stepped out of my place and waited mid-block to cross 12th. Traffic would stop in both directions to let me by. In the middle of a four-lane street. Imagine that? Not in any other major city I’ve ever been in. (To be honest, the stopped traffic was more annoying than helpful, because it didn’t feel exactly safe. Coming from Toronto, I didn’t trust drivers.)

They don’t do that in Vancouver anymore. Too many new people have changed the culture of the place. It’s gotten big city. But there was a time not that long ago when Vancouver still felt like a village.

After I’d arrived, I told my new friends how everybody in Vancouver was nicer than people in Toronto. And when I met people who were nicer than Vancouver people, they were from Calgary. And if you met people nicer than the people from Calgary, they were people from Saskatchewan. Ian, for example.

The Prairies must be full of redheads, I thought, because I kept meeting them. If I chatted with some new redhead and they were sweet, I’d ask if they were from Saskatchewan. Often, they were.

Ian was straight, as far as I know, so he was the kind of guy you either wanted to fix up with your best girlfriend, or turn. But he was too sweet to even try. Some people are too lovely to even hit on, you know? You’d never stack up.

One day, far enough into living in the Lee that I’d moved out of my bachelor on the seventh and into a one-bedroom on the sixth (700 square feet, clawfoot tub, big windows, gas stove, hardwood floors, for $680 a month), I got a call at work, at the little UBC satellite bookstore at Robson Square. It was M., our building manager. M. was also an artist, a painter, with long grey hair in a ponytail (always) and thick black glasses. She’s why the building was stocked with young artists.

She gets me on the phone, and she says, “Michael,” and I say, “Yes,” and she says, “I have the police here. And they want to talk to you.”

I was like, “Okayyyyy.”

So, she puts me on the telephone with this officer, a man, and he says, “Hello, Mr. Smith? I want to talk about your neighbour who lives next door to you.” He named the number of the suite. He wanted to know the last time I’d seen the guy.

I answered, “Well, I saw him, maybe... uh, what was it, three days ago? And he was with somebody. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time before that.”

“Yes,” he said, like he was confirming his facts. “He was in the hospital.”

The cop told me that my neighbour had been released, and that the woman I saw was probably his case worker. I didn’t know he had a case worker.

When I first moved in, because I’m a very social person, I would say hi to everybody. That was one of the reliefs in moving out of Toronto. I felt like I could be friendly with strangers, because Vancouver, as I’ve said, was friendly in return. But I remember meeting that neighbour in the elevator the first few times and saying hi to him, and he wouldn’t even look at me.

Not knowing anything beyond appearances, I was like, What is your deal? What is wrong with you? Though I didn’t say that aloud, obvs.

He was probably a little older than me, about mid-40s. He had kind of shaggy brown hair. He was a bit dumpy, you know, kind of a dude. He looked like an average person, just a small-town straight guy.

You can’t blame me for thinking it was homophobia. I’d grown up in Cornwall, Ontario, which didn’t make a lot of room for sissies like me. I knew what it meant to be ignored in a very deliberate way.

Well, it turns out, stupid me, the neighbour was neuro-atypical. He wasn’t very social.

Sometimes at night, I’d hear him from my apartment. He’d be wailing. He’d have these freak outs. It was an old building from 1911, so it had plaster walls. They were dense. It was a well-built structure. You couldn’t hear a lot through the walls, so he must have been plenty loud.

Early on, I checked in with M. She’d said, “He’s fine, he has people who look out for him.” After that, I went out of my way to be warmer and patient. Eventually he became way more responsive, but always pretty short on words. He’d say hi and maybe comment on the day. It was nice. The odds of him talking to me increased if I had a girl in the elevator with me. He preferred talking to women.

His moaning jags didn’t disrupt me that much and I didn’t know what I could do to help. I had all kinds of my own problems. So whatever. He was my neighbour who sometimes made a lot of noise. I got used to it. I’d previously lived in a house with paper-thin walls, split into apartments, with Jim the drug dealer on the other side of me, and Jim had major freak outs.

Hunh, Jim... I’m just realizing now that I never found out this other neighbour’s name. The neighbour.

Anyhow, I told the cop I’d seen him three days ago and he hadn’t looked very good. He was sallow. Tired. His skin was yellow and grey. He’d lost a bunch of weight in his arms and face — but still had quite a bloated belly — and I’d been surprised by the look of him.

The officer said, “Oh yes, he had a liver condition, but they had let him go home. The reason why I’m asking when you last saw him is because he died.”

I was like, Oh, fuck.

The officer continued, “We’re trying to establish a timeline of his last days. Is there anything you might be able to tell me? Anything you remember?”

“Okay, well, I didn’t see him again after that woman dropped him off. But he was crying out at night in his apartment. The night he came home. I didn’t think anything of it. He just did that a few times a month. And, you know, what do you do?”

That was a rhetorical question, but it lingered for a moment. In the silence, I could imagine the cop listing for himself some things that I could have done. I felt terrible. Awful, humiliated. I hadn’t known that my neighbour was sick, but I guess I could have put it all together. You sort of mind your own business, right? It was one thing to try to be friendly in the hallway and another to knock and ask someone who is pretty nonverbal what’s going on. A few things ran through my head. I could have asked M. Phoned a helpline, but which one?

The exterior of an old brick apartment building at Main and Broadway in Vancouver. The exterior is brown and off-white brick. The sky is blue.
What do neighbours owe each other? A view of the Lee Building at Main and Broadway in Vancouver. Photo by Jackie Wong.

It’s weird thinking about this story while we’re in a pandemic, because I’ve been thinking a lot about altruism. Specifically, ants, which have been observed to put the health of the colony before their own needs. Why won’t people wear masks, if it’ll save lives? It’s likely the same answer as to why folks won’t use a correct pronoun. I keep coming back to this.

I’m also aware that I’m telling this story from a place where I’m much more together.

Emotionally. I’m older, more adult. I’m not as insecure or neurotic. Not sometimes suicidal. Not compulsive. With far fewer problems, I have a great deal more generosity. Like, I actually help people quite a bit, so I’m realizing now that it’s surprising how I didn’t extend any help to my neighbour. I didn’t know how, I felt so awkward. He was awkward. I never thought to try to get around that.

This all came flooding into me on the phone. It became so obvious what a shit I’d been. Because he did look rotten. And he was freaking out. I just assumed it was the same old, same old, so it wasn’t something new.

Now he was dead.

I imagine the cop knew all this, because he’d seen it many times. He was efficient, and patient.

I hung up the phone, at work, feeling... devastated. Humiliated maybe.

Eventually I finished my shift, still rattled on my bike ride home.

To get to Broadway from downtown Vancouver, you have to bike up a big hill, so I got a little winded and sweaty. It’d been in the high 20s all week.

At the Lee, I brought my bike in. I took the elevator and went up to the sixth floor.

The neighbour’s door, I noticed, was all taped shut around the seams. There was a sign tacked to the door, but I didn’t read it. Police tape in an X across the doorframe.

I bought my groceries daily, so I dropped my bike and did an about-face to head to the little K&K corner market to get some supplies. I took the stairs down. Stairs were part of my fitness. One New Year’s I began walking up the stairs to the sixth floor. Over time, when I got good at that, I’d run up. It made me more fit, which is why I started biking. I became a little bit sporty, instead of being just a big old sissy. I’d been raised to think I couldn’t be sporty. But I kinda was. It was exciting for me.

When I was leaving the building, these two guys in white one-piece Tyvek suits were entering with these great big four-foot-high steel bins, on wheels. They were rolling them in. I didn’t know what they were. And I thought, Oh, there must be somebody doing construction or something.

They were just coming in as I was heading out.

I went to the corner store and bought sliced ham. I was having fried eggs and ham for supper because I was going out again soon after. When I came back from K&K, those workmen were just exiting the elevator. Its door was right there open on the ground floor. I thought, OK, I just biked up the hill and got sweaty and I’m in a rush, I’m not going to take the stairs today. I’m just going to take the elevator.

So I jumped in, and the doors closed.

The minute the two sides met each other, I was in a hotbox of rot.

It smelled like they had a hundred begonias in that elevator, spoiling. It was this strange rich deep perfume. That was the smell of my neighbour.

I pulled my shirt up and breathed through the fabric, which didn’t really help.

Those drums were four-foot fans that they’d brought up to put in the hallway. I could hear them as soon as the elevator opened.

When I came to my suite, I noticed the seal on the neighbour’s door had been removed. They must have gone in there. They’d put one industrial fan in the apartment, because there were only three in the hallway. The odour in the elevator was just what came off of their clothing, from their brief time in the apartment.

The smell wasn’t in my unit, but the fans stayed in that hallway for three weeks. They ran 24 hours a day.

I’m sure you’re wondering. Human death is oddly sweet-smelling. Oddly floral, but not quite. It’s rich, and unsettling. Your nose tells your whole body to get the hell away from there. The minute you realize you’re surrounded by it, it’s also inside you. You are permeable. Death makes your body a sieve.

I went into my apartment, closed the door, and was like, Holy cow, that is effing intense. I called B., who knew everything in the building because he talked to M., or she talked to J. who talked to B.

I called B. and said, “Did you hear what happened? My neighbour died. Yadda yadda, that was intense.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I heard.”

“I wonder if it was the smell that tipped them off. Can you smell it upstairs?”

“No.”

“I didn’t smell anything in my unit until now, after these workers just left. Was it the person on the other side? Or the person across the hall?”

“Oh no no,” he answered. “It was Ian.”

That cute little redhead. Ian lived below my neighbour, on the fifth floor. B. told me how Ian had had a drip in his ceiling a couple days before, and he was like, “Oh fuck, what’s happening? The tub’s flooded or something.”

So he went and got a paper towel and wiped it up, but the next morning, it was worse, so he put a bucket underneath and called M. “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry but I’ve got a drip in my ceiling that won’t stop. It’s from the neighbour upstairs.”

M. had keys and went in and found him in his suite. Dead in the middle of the living room. Decomposing. What had been dripping through the floor was the neighbour.

The neighbour had been there for over two days. Bodies are 80 per cent liquid. You can do the math.

Eventually, they had to cut out the entire floor and ceiling between those two units, to replace it, because they would never get rid of that smell.

Poor Ian was traumatized, because he’d been wiping it up. They had to move him out during the construction. M. found him another suite in the building that was coming available, but he couldn’t bring himself to move in. He was crashing on a friends’ couch instead.

I know, I know, this is the worst story. I’m sure the pandemic will be full of others just like them, too, when we’re ready to hear them. Sometimes I refer to this story as “The Drip.” Because what do you do in the face of fresh horror, but laugh?

Something like that.  [Tyee]

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