We have a friend in the neighbourhood who pops by with predictable frequency. Through the summer, we’ve been were grateful for these visits. With her unstable shelter situation and her variable mental health, every visit brings with it the assurance that she is alive and well and embracing another day. She always comes by with treats. Recently we each received a card wishing us a happy thanksgiving, Halloween and belated birthday. The cards were signed from “her royal highness”
two weeks ago she approached me excitedly at church to tell me she has a new place! It’s in the notorious Regent hotel, whose owners are currently being sued for their negligence. The Sahota’s are known for taking advantage of the poor’s vulnerable housing position to charge rent for ill-maintained rooms. Another building of theirs, the Balmoral, was closed this summer and all the tenants relocated because it was deemed unfit to live in.
So my friend agrees that it’s not the best living situation, BUT, she has her own bathtub. Normally you’d have to pay extra for a room with a bathroom and even more for a room with a tub – paying around $800 for these basic accommodations.
I pick up a simple plant from Chinatown on my way to visit her and wait outside the front doors for Lena, my roommate who is along for the visit. I watch the cops arrest someone across the street. I wonder if this is one of the dealers the police have been cracking down on lately as they try to grapple with the opioid crisis.
When Lena arrives, we take a deep breath and exchange a look that says “here-we-go!” Neither of us has been in the notorious hotel before. We pull open the door and although there are signs everywhere about limited visiting hours, and guests needing to provide ID, the front desk workers don’t even bat an eye as we breeze through the lobby. I whisper to Lena it’s because we look like nurses and social workers. One win for privilege.
We beeline past the elevator – knowing from our neighbours that it is constantly malfunctioning and usually out of service, leaving many residents with disabilities stranded, cooped up in their rooms. Not wanting to risk it, we opt for stairs. The marble staircase is impressive, it hearkens back to the original grandeur of this building a century ago when it was located in the heart of the theatre district. The wooden floor that once carried tourists and business people is now littered with trash and rigs that we step over as we search for our friend’s room.
We find it, with a banner on her door bidding us “welcome”
our friend beams as she welcomes us in and shows us around. She points to the card table and suggests adding the plant to the small collection of dishes there. Besides her bed and a wooden chair this is the only furniture. She doesn’t have a kettle or a fridge yet, but she offers us tea, coffee or milk anyways.
She has great vision and sees the potential in the room – she imagines a fridge and a loveseat in one corner, a curtain draping over her bed, giving the illusion of a separate room. She shows us where she’s labelled on the walls “this is where the rats come in”. Today, she is hoping someone will come and fill those holes. In the meantime, a few rat trips are strategically placed. We peek through the plastic curtain on the window to check out the view. We watch the rats playing on the other side of her window. Just past them is the new condo development, sequel 138. Her window offers a view into their bright courtyard complete with skywalks and a glass elevator. The fresh, clean luxury of the new building is jarring in comparison to this crumbling, neglected hotel.
The finest feature of the room is the adjacent bathroom, and it’s true this room is nearly the size of a typical SRO room in the neighbourhood. The toilet leaks, the sink doubles as a dish washer and clothes washer, the bathtub constantly looks dirty thanks to someone’s attempts to paint it over. But it’s a luxury compared to sharing the dorm style toilets down the hall.
She continues to point out the character of the room. You can tell where a sloppy paint job attempted to cover up graffiti left from some previous residents. “This one here was a nude woman”, our friend explains. ”See she’s sitting, and there’s fish crawling up her crotch. That one there is another nude. It’s not really my style. I’m thinking of getting a bunch of flower pictures to cover them up.”
her optimism baffles me and her creativity inspires me.
When we ask about her neighbours, she tells us that when she came home after visiting us on thanksgiving evening, she watched her neighbour get beat up down the hall. It all started with a small yippy dog. Her stories both fascinate and terrify me as I try to keep up, discerning what is true and what is embellished by her paranoia. Then I wonder why not just give her the benefit of the doubt? Then I can step into her world and see things as she does.
As she sees it, this room is brimming with potential. Especially because she has her own bathtub.