1767 Home is where the street is
Home is where the street is: Commercial Drive photos and poems
by Rodney De Croo
I’ve lived in East Vancouver for thirty-five years. East Van is where I rented my first basement suite apartment after living on the streets as a young man struggling with addiction. It was in the basements of churches and community centres in East Van where I found friends who helped me get free of active addiction. It was in the cafes, bookstores, record shops and bars of East Van where I met other aspiring young poets, musicians, dancers, novelists, playwrights who became my friends and co-conspirators in pursuit of the idea that we could create meaningful art.
It was in East Van where friends helped me recover from a suicide attempt in the form of an overdose. It was in East Van where I learned about Marx and socialism in a coffee shop called La Quena and stormed the barricades at UBC with my comrades at APEC getting pepper sprayed and punched in the face for my efforts. It was in East Van where I occupied Premier Mike Harcourt’s office with fellow college students for twelve days to support striking instructors at Langara College and took mushrooms before the cops arrived to arrest us. And it’s in East Van where I’ve formed bands, left bands, wrote poems, performed concerts and plays, recorded albums, got into fistfights, recovered from Complex PTSD, worked shitty jobs, got married and divorced, busked on the streets, sold drugs, got arrested, overdosed, attended wakes and funerals for friends who left us too soon. East Van has been my home for a long time and yet, most of my work continued to be about my childhood in the industrial area of western Pennsylvania.
Not long after my second collection of poetry Next Door to the Butcher Shop (Nightwood Editions, 2017) was published — which coincided with the release of my album Old Tenement Man (Tonic Records, 2017) — the disconnect between the art I was making and where I lived began to trouble me. Sure, both the book and the album contained some content about my experiences in East Van, but mostly they dealt with the place I stilled insisted on calling home despite the indisputable fact that my home isn’t in western Pennsylvania. My home is in East Van. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. It has shaped who I am now as a man in my mid-fifties.
What was I going to do about it? It felt like I was trapped in a time warp, but it wasn’t an easy fix. I don’t choose what I write about. It chooses me and I just try to get it down as best I can whether it’s a song, a poem or a play. At first, I did what I do best. I made excuses. I said that I’d never felt like this was home. That I’ve always lived with a sense of anxious displacement here as a transient living among transients, but I valued that discomfort because it kept me sharp as an artist. It was mostly bullshit. The truth was I didn’t know why.
I’ve always been interested in street photography. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the medium, but as a fan, not as an artist. The internet had exposed me to great street photographers like Helen Levitt, Gary Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Robert Frank, Jill Freedman and Vancouver’s own Fred Herzog. Their work excited me. I could feel the life coming through the images and gradually I admitted to myself I wanted to hit the street and take photos too. Sure, it was crazy. Who was I to think that I could take on the difficult task of learning a new art form in my fifties? It seems I can’t help myself. As a multidisciplinary artist I love being a student. I love learning new ways to tell stories. And the truth is that my poems and song lyrics have always been highly imagistic. Maybe it wasn’t as much of a leap as I thought.
In the spring of 2019, I started taking photos of people at transit stops with my phone while I waited for buses. Gradually, I worked up the courage to walk along Commercial Drive taking photographs. Once I developed a sense of composition I bought a camera specially designed for street photography. I started making trips downtown, the West End and to New West. When I toured I took time to walk the streets and take photos in other cities. But my interest as a street photographer has been centred in East
Vancouver, especially the Commercial Drive area where I’ve lived in the Dunedin building at Charles and Commercial Drive for the last two decades.
One day as I was standing at the intersection of 1st Avenue and Commercial Drive taking photos and chatting with friends who happened to pass by, it dawned on me that I was doing it. I was making art that represented the area where I live. Since that realization I’ve found myself regularly writing poems focused on my daily life in East Van. Now, I know I’ll never create work exclusively about this area and I wouldn’t want that. Like a lot of people here, I was born and raised somewhere else. My guess is I’ll always create work from the two poles of my life- western Pennsylvania and East Vancouver. — Rodney De Croo
When I bought my new camera
I knew I’d be disappointed.
I’d fail again and again
to get the shots I wanted;
that failure would be the rule
and the beautiful exceptions
few. I knew some days
I’d be insensible to the music
the street makes and it
would turn away from me
saying with an indifferent voice
Go home, you’re not worth
my time. I’d walk back
to my apartment
staring at my shoes
which would appear
like the rest of me
and glaring proof
of my material, spiritual
and artistic poverty.
I knew some days I’d take a shot
and the person would say Hey,
fuck you, don’t take my photo!
And as they stood in front of me
to argue with clenched fists
and spit flying into my face
I’d forget that I owed them
an apology — for I am a thief
of their dance with time.
On the drive home
as we waited at a red light
Blake asked me how I felt
about my purchase. I like it
I replied and pointed the camera
at the windshield with my eye
to the viewfinder,
as the sun appeared
between the clouds
and the buildings
and the people
and the traffic
A Political Poem
My friends tell me my poetry
should be more politically conscious-
that an artist has a duty
to strive through their art
to change the world. My mind
immediately goes to Shelley’s
famous line about poets
and legislators, but I’m not
going to beat myself up
with that stick. Besides Shelley
was a rich bastard who slummed
it with the bohemians after he got
kicked out of Oxford for writing
a pamphlet about atheism. If I’d
been alive then the closest
I would’ve got to Oxford
would’ve been a broom
and a dustpan sweeping
up Shelley’s famous pamphlet.
Okay, so now you’re saying I got a chip
on my shoulder. Well, you’re wrong.
It’s more like a fucking brick —
and one of these days
I’m going throw it through
the front window of a bank.
Afterwards, I’ll buy everyone
drinks at the local tavern
while I read them
my new poem
about the redistribution
Tying the Centuries Together Like A Funeral Wreath
I want a song like a busted hand or a smashed clock.
I want a poem like a bruised eye swollen shut
after a fight. I want to fuck like river rats in the sludge
of the Ohio river on the hard edges of Pittsburgh
where desire is desperate, bred of lightning and fear
and drowning is always possible. I want a moon
that’s an empty ball of craters and the gaunt face
of a scream echoing through nightmares the day
does its best to deny. I want a melody with all the wonder
of a collapsing star and the taste of Mary Katherine Murphy’s
lips behind the power plant where rusted barges
huddled in the river’s night like ancient warships
full of mythic heroes instead of mounds of coal.
I want to sit in a theatre where the bones of my dead
rattle in the throats of actors like a just discovered prayer,
tying the centuries together like a funeral wreath
or a braid of my grandmother Matilda Ferguson’s
girlish hair reaching from Glasgow to Ellis Island
to Buttermilk Falls, Pennsylvania to Vancouver,
British Columbia. I want a eulogy that says it
stopped with me, this line of broken labourers,
shattered soldiers, depressed housewives,
schizophrenics, suicides, alcoholics, criminals,
religious fanatics, the casualties of war and capital,
this long march of not so quiet desperation
laid to rest in the Pacific. Where my ashes
will be dumped like the charcoal smear
of a dirty fingerprint and then nothing
but water and sky
A Thin Thread of Light
I lived on the streets until I hated it.
I stole clothing, food, alcohol
and cigarettes to survive. Then I went
from boarding house to boarding house
until I hated them. After that I lived
in basement suites and apartments.
I was evicted often or crept away
at night clutching a garbage bag
of unwashed clothing and books.
I worked minimum wage jobs and drank.
I blacked out and woke up in drunk tanks
to black coffee,
a black eye,
a broken nose,
for failing to show.
I woke up hungover on a Greyhound bus
as it pulled into the Calgary
station at 6 AM and hitchhiked
back to Vancouver with five dollars
and two flaps of coke in my pockets;
nearly freezing to death on the Crow’s Nest
after arguing with a truck driver
who left me on the side of the highway
in a snowstorm.
I fought outside bars with other drunks or college boys
slumming it, the rage flying out of me
as fist met bone, the close struggle
as we wrestled to the cement,
to walk away with bloodied knuckles
and bruises on my face, adrenaline
shaking my limbs and flooding my mind.
These were things I understood and wanted.
Depression, a huge stone pressing down
upon me, the failed suicide attempts,
found and strapped to a gurney,
ambulances wailing to emergency rooms,
my stomach pumped as angry nurses
stared into my waking eyes
dragged back from a blackness I’d wanted.
Psych wards, sedated and locked into white rooms
to keep me safe. And through it all,
poetry, like the thinnest thread of light.
Sylvia Plath’s red tulips bullying me
back to health in the hospital, Charles Bukowski
drinking and fighting alongside me
in the bars and back alleys,
Al Purdy explaining this strange country
while piling sixty-pound bags of plaster mix
or erecting scaffolding on construction sites,
or gutting burnt buildings on demolition jobs,
my lungs choked with ashes
despite protective clothing and mask
until I nearly died from an asthma attack.
John Keats whispering nightingale songs
as I coughed with pneumonia,
shaking beneath blankets and curtains
stripped from the windows for warmth
because I drank the money
to buy oil for the furnace.
Writing my own lines on scraps of paper,
buying my first typewriter at the Value Village,
clacking away night after night,
page after page of awful poems
no one rightfully wanted to read.
Hauling them around in a briefcase
plucked from a dumpster,
my worthless poems,
my wonderful, worthless poems.
A thin thread of light that led
me here to you.
I thought they were snowflakes
as I walked to the dental office
to have my tooth pulled. When one landed
on the back of my hand I licked it clean,
a habit I’ve had since childhood.
But instead of a tasteless melting
against my tongue, it was bitter
and left a tiny, dark smear on my skin.
I licked more flakes and each time
the same ashy taste and smear.
I thought maybe the pulsing ache
caused by my abscessed tooth
was distorting my senses
because pain alters how we know
the world. For why would ashes be falling
from the skies over east Vancouver?
I could see no distant fires
licking at the clouds
or pillars of smoke or hear the wail
of sirens. But now the ashes
fell thick and fast, covering
parked cars and concrete
with a five o’clock shadow.
I saw images behind a glass.
The torn faces smeared with ashes
looming out of the blackened air
to stumble down debris strewn streets.
I woke and the pain of the infected tooth
shattered my face as flies buzzed
the bloody drool clotting my pillow;
like flies circling the smashed faces
of a thousand Philistines
Samson slew with the jawbone
of an ass.
A Winter’s Moon
I’m on the ninety-nine bus when the man
beside me takes off his mask. He drops it
on the floor, covers it with his work boot
and squishes it like he’s killing a bug
or extinguishing a cigarette. I look through
the tangle of arms and shoulders
to watch grey buildings and traffic
slipping past. Even in the late afternoon
December shadows that fill the bus
I feel the stare of eyes over the fabric patches
covering our faces. I understand
their anger that is fear and feel it too.
We’re afraid of the poisoned air we breathe
in this jostling passage. A man’s face
becomes a dangerous thing
ghostly in the dimming transit:
like a winter’s moon,
like a frightened child,
like someone we have lost.
You start with a spark that leaps
from your hands to ignite
dry grass to become a crown
of searing tongues. When I
was eight I burnt down a field
in Fort St. John of dry grass
and an abandoned house. I stood
(small, anonymous fire-starter)
among the townspeople to witness
— its breath scorching our faces —
the brilliant beast thrashing
the sky as it fought the men
who came to put it down.
I’d conjured Dragon with match,
mere paper and dry grass. After that
there were no ordinary things.
You hated pity and you hated goodbyes.
Some weekends you crawled on hands
and knees in your apartment because
of back pain. But Monday morning
you climbed in your truck
and drove to the construction site. A small,
muscular man with thick, white hair
and blue eyes that could go cold
as glacial water or bright as summer skies.
You told me many times how you
nearly drank yourself to death
in a house filled with illegal guns
you sold to criminals until you
were arrested. You said it
was the best thing that happened
to you; the cops kicking in the door
to find you passed out at the kitchen table
with a cigarette burning a black mark
into the tabletop and a loaded gun
in your left hand. A year later you
walked into a courtroom without a lawyer
and a crowd of sober drunks in the gallery
to plead guilty. You had a dream
the night before that the judge
became an enormous eagle
and flew you through miles of sky
to a beautiful small town where people
sat in church basements smoking
and drinking coffee, as they told
that were always true.
He was lying on the couch smoking
when I got back from the liquor store.
He said he got in through the window
and I should be more careful. But I
had nothing of value unless someone
wanted a black and white tv
I used pliers to change channels
with or a coffee can filled with butts
of stale tobacco I rolled into homemade
smokes, or a plastic table stolen from a backyard
down the block. He sat up when I
gave him a beer and thanked me.
I leaned against the opposite wall.
The last time I’d seen him I’d helped
trash his place during a wake for a friend.
He chased me down Hastings Street
waving a butcher’s knife screaming
You’re dead motherfucker! But he
moved to Toronto and it had been three years.
Now his body was all sharp bones
and huge eyes watching from a face
so severe he looked like an Old Testament
prophet wandering sun-stricken deserts
with visions of fire and blood.
AIDS he said. Shared needle
We drank through the afternoon
and into the evening. We didn’t
say much, we’d never been close,
the gaps in our conversation
growing longer as shadows
filled the living room. I had no idea
why he’d come to me. When I heard
him crying in the darkness
I coughed nervously. He stopped
and apologized, his voice
as empty as my home, my life.
Every time she went into a liquor store
she came out with two or three mickeys
under her jacket. We’d go to my basement
suite to drink them. We’d sit at a table
by the furnace in semi-darkness
with one lit candle. She said she didn’t
like to see well-lit faces when she
drank. I didn’t take it personally.
I needed to get drunk and she brought
the booze. We didn’t talk much. I’d watch
the candle light flicker against her face
and the way she shut her eyes
when the bottle touched her lips.
It made me think of people
taking communion or making wishes
on a meteor as it flamed out through
the atmosphere. I guess we were both
looking for some kind of salvation
and falling at the same time. I wondered
if there would be much of us left
when we hit bottom.
Rodney DeCroo is a singer-songwriter, poet, theatre artist, filmmaker and street photographer. He has released eight full-length albums with Northern Electric Records and Tonic Records. He has published two collections of poetry with Nightwood Editions — Allegheny, BC (2012) and Next Door to the Butcher Shop (2017) — and his third collection, Fishing for Leviathan, will be published by Anvil Press in May of 2023. In 2019 he was the International Poet in Residence at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s National Writers Centre. He has written two critically acclaimed solo plays that have toured Canada and the US. In 2022 VIFF presented the world premier of his web series Dr Fishpants’ Poems about Magical Creatures that he co-wrote with Gary Jones. A two-act play featuring his songs and poetry titled In the Belly of the Carp co-written with Samantha Pawliuk and David Bloom will debut in 2024.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster