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The View from Vancouver

Chapter One ~ Product Testing

I'd been on the street long enough that when I heard the rumours--and I don't count the news as any different--about bums jumping out of Winnipeg windows I didn't pay a lot of attention. For one thing, I wasn't in Winnipeg, and even if I was, I didn't know any of those people. I didn't know anyone from Winnipeg, and I was hoping that would always be the case. And for that matter, there's plenty of reasons that would drive someone out a window and I've never been one to judge another's decision to let go or move on.

I had my own place in the world. I don't go to North Van, where the cops will drive you out just for enjoying a smoke by the water, and I stayed away from the far east side, near the highway where people more desperate than me prey on anyone loose enough in their affiliations that they stand out. I'm more of a middle town person. I've lived off Main, and for one summer in Jericho Park, away from the beach, the boats, and the cheerful teenagers in the hostel. I lived amongst the blackberries and the bushes, avoiding Brian the groundskeeper and picking cans when I felt like it towards the end of the month. More recently, I'd moved out along Commercial Drive. I felt I was above Hastings, and the hippie silliness of the Drive suited me. It was one of the places in the city where when Velcro meets corduroy it settles into an uneasy truce.

My spot, for everyone has one--even the people across the street from the organics in the condos--was in front of the falafel place. I could be found around Desarts nearly any day, or in the park just below the organics, or over by the bakery off Venables. I drifted through the long summer afternoons doing a bit of dumpstering, although they were picked through already by people keener or more desperate than me, and asking people, as kindly as the years had allowed me, for change. I'd heard nearly every possible variation on get a job or quit freeloading that anyone could imagine. Although sometimes I racked my brain to figure out another way of saying it, I frequently, regardless for having been to college and all, came up empty.

Maybe that's why, because I couldn't figure out another way of telling off people asking for change, that I was so surprised when I found one. I was behind the Safeway off Broadway, in their parking lot helping people return carts for a loonie a pop when I was approached by a guy in a cheap suit. I usually avoid the type, although I've hacked them for a coffee before, the price of listening to their spiel.

"Get lost buddy, I'm working." I didn't say it in a mean way, and I could have, but I gave him a tone that should have had him shoving off to someone else to tell about god. I've had more than enough gods. I've probably been in more temples and mosques and churches than nearly any religious pusher. The Baha'is have free food, and the Sikhs put on a good spread. Sometimes the Mosques, on Eid anyway, have food they share, and very occasionally the churches. Although the Christians put you through a howling at the sky to get to the table, their buffet style is old-timey, grandma food and worth getting frothy-mouthed over some Jesus.

The cheap suit didn't leave so I was just thinking I might have to get inspirational when he said, "I have a business proposal for you."

I took a better look. He was thin enough from being young but obviously had never gone hungry. His hands were butter soft and uncreased, the fingers slim like menthol smokes. The suit was off-the-rack, although I've never been the best at judging that, and his dress shoes were dusty from walking. He wasn't threat-like in a cop sense, and twitchy like a nutjob, but something about how he'd singled me out made me feel less than special. Sometimes Kitsilano boys trolled the east side for easy marks. You get hired for easy money, a quickie in a car, and then you'd be found with the shit kicked out of you along the Sea-to-Sky Highway.

"What type of business you in?"

"Product testing. You know Hillside?"

I nodded that I had heard. Hillside did medical and drugs, and Holly was going there regular for eye drops that kept the pressure from building up. It was hours of checkups and measurements, but that way her meds were affordable. Human experimentation on the poor for a few bucks so rich people didn't have to worry about glaucoma.

"I'm not into drug tests." I skirted around him to pick up a cart from a woman who was stuffing the last of her reusable bags into a SUV's automatic trunk. It had just started to close when I offered to take her cart back for her. "Take care of that for you, ma'am?"

She let go of the cart, it wheeled to me, and I spun it toward the corral. I only barely hearing her thanks as she levered herself into the truck and began to back out. I waved when she passed and then looked to find another. The day was getting late, and business slowed in the evening. Not everyone wanted an eager hand on their cart in a parking lot that only featured two working lights.

"I don't mean to interrupt your business." The suit was standing to one side between a grey station wagon and a blue beetle. "If I can just leave this card." He dangled it from two fingers and for a second it looked like he was smoking one of those long tan cigarettes from somewhere off.

I took the card just to get rid of him, jammed it into my back pocket and forgot about it. I watched just to see what he drove but he went into the SkyTrain station and was lost in the heading-downtown crowds.

I made another few bucks and then strolled over to Needle Park to see what was going on. It was a good time, for some punker kids had put together an impromptu concert they were calling a protest and before long the cops showed up. They couldn't do anything but stare as two of the girls went bare-chested in some kind of political statement. The night was smooth by the water and even after the punkers left and I was alone with the bicycle guys cruising for dropped joints I was peaceful as a seagull on a dump. There was plenty to go around and by the time the dew fell I'd found a hedge and was wrapped up in my sleeping bag.

If it hadn't of rained the next day, I would've had nothing to do with the suit, but it was steady dripping through the hedge at four in the morning and by the time the commuters were pushing and shoving to work I was pretty wet and miserable. I was thinking I could use a few bucks for a room off Hastings so I walked along Main Street until I found the office. It was in the back of a Chinese joint, and the sweet green pepper smell made me want the money even more. I'd heard some studies paid fifty bucks for watching a movie and writing your answers on a sheet, and I was more than ready to get out of the rain. The humour of it was I probably would have followed a christer home if I thought it would make me a few bucks.

The suit wasn't there, but I put my card on the counter and the woman squatting over the bench scowled at me and then pointed to a take-a-number machine. Oddly, her surliness put me at ease more than anything else. Scammers were generally friendly with everyone. Only legitimate businesses can afford to treat people like dirt. I was wrong about that, as it turned out. Maybe they knew that from some psychology study and so had hired her, or they might have picked the nastiest stump of a woman randomly.

I was almost desperate enough for Good Housekeeping when a man in a lab coat came to get me. I kept the sneer off my face, but I was thinking they were milking it pretty slim if they were thinking a white coat would convince me. He ran me through a few due diligence statements but I didn't bother to read them. I wasn't worried. If they killed me it wouldn't matter pretty soon, and if I was alive I could sue them regardless of what I'd signed.

I've thought since that I should have at least kept some of the paperwork but they didn't offer me a copy and I didn't ask. The fifty bucks was already warming my pocket and they said I'd be done in less than an hour. I was already spending my money along the strip when they led me to an office down the hallway from the waiting room.

Soon I was seated and they'd strapped in my arms and chest. I wasn't too freaked, although it was more Frankenstein than I'd been expecting.

"Just don't fuck with me too much," I joked as they put sensors on my temples and on either side of my heart. The techie grinned with too much teeth showing and then they left the room and turned on a buzz that reminded me of an X-ray machine.


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