The Salvation Army soup kitchen was buzzing with the latest gossip. The RCMP had responded to a chick fight here the previous night.
Esther saw the fight and launched her 5 foot, 2 inch lightweight frame across the room to help her friend.
“I don’t remember what happened,” she says. “I had been drinking all day. Hard stuff. I just woke up on the cold floor of the drunk tank, so me and the other woman took turns sleeping over the warm spot.”
Esther has crescent shaped eyes that sometimes gleam like water. They remind me of my aunty’s eyes, so I slide my tray in at her table and we talk.
This lively Inuvialuit woman hails from Aklavik, but she lives in Whitehorse now because there’s so much more to do.
“I’m a happy-go-lucky person. I like to have fun. But you gotta let guys know you won’t take their rude crap. I tell them I’m going to punch them out when they’re sober. And I do.”
Right now she’s ignoring some comments from this table. Here at the soup kitchen all walks of life meet under one roof – blue-collar workers who became disabled, white-collar workers who suffered personal tragedies and had a breakdown and some chronic alcoholics.
Apparently, the drunker the men get the more beautiful us women appear.
Yesterday people seemed to have hair-trigger tempers, but today is “welfare Wednesday” when social assistance cheques are issued.
Some men are already drunk. In that state I appear pretty, they say.
“Excuse me for staring,” says one. “I don’t often see a woman with all her teeth.”
“Watch out,” says another “Some of these guys are as smooth as Ex-Lax. But wait till it comes out in lumps!”
Esther was homeless for six months earlier this year. She spent a lot of time trying to sleep at relatives’ homes.
“I did a lot of couch surfing, but I felt like I was walking on eggshells,” she says. “You have to watch everything you say and do at someone else’s place.”
“Me and my friends gather in the morning and pool our money. If we’ve got $7.50 we get a bottle of Private Stock. If we can’t wait till the liquor store opens at 10, we get offsales from the T&M at 9.”
Private Stock is 750 ml of sherry with 20 per cent alcohol content. Cider is also a favourite. It comes in two-litre plastic bottles, like pop, and sells for $7.75. In a desperate cash crunch you can pick up one single bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade for $3.05, but it only gets you five per cent alcohol.
Armed with any of the above, Esther and her friends start walking.
“We walk and walk and find a place out of the wind. We can sit in one of our hideouts for about an hour until the cops notice us. Then we sit in Tim Hortons or McDonald’s.”
The camaraderie of the gang grew on her, so, though not homeless, she often joins the daily rounds.
Today, I’m allowed to tag along. So I finish my hot meal – It’s tasty, but doesn’t fill me up. There’s Timbits sitting by the coffee urn, but I mistakenly snub the sugar content. I’ll regret that in two hours.
First stop, the liquor store.
Then we reach a favourite drinking spot called The Ramp.
It looks like the United Nations here with most races represented. There’s a mixture of booze too, and everyone shares everything they have – liquor, smokes and stories.
They jokingly tell me they run it like a union.
Union members must “get their tailgate to The Ramp first thing in the morning” and pay their union dues – whatever change they’ve panhandled.
The Ramp is out of the wind and out of sight of the public, so the drinkers can relax. It’s safe too, because drinkers can see if their buddy passes out.
“I like this gang because we all tell stories to make each other laugh,” says Esther. “Everyone has stories to tell about the community where they grew up and funny things that happened. We have a good time and everybody looks out for each other.”
A guy makes a move on me, but I’m quickly defended and he backs down with apologies.
Forgiveness flows easy at this stage of drinking.
There’s a lewd joke about Uncle Jack, an elephant and a woman. If I were better rested, better fed and warmer I’d have the energy for moral judgment. But right now I’m just grateful for a laugh and I cackle loudly.
Esther tells me about her days as a chambermaid at Cantung Mine. Racism made her quit.
“Since way back, since way before I was born, First Nations and Inuvialuit always fought. I don’t know why. So one of the First Nation people from Watson Lake worked at the mine, too, and she was jealous or something. Always bugged me.”
While growing up in Aklavik, Esther played hockey, wrestled with her brothers and proudly beat up a 200-pound-girl when she was only 15.
She once served eight months for assault. That reputation is her protection.
But I’m already tired, cold and hungry again.
I want to go home.
Not because I don’t like this crowd, but because a little voice is warning me this ‘journalistic research’ could slip into a lifestyle. As I walk away I glance back. A glimmer of sun is reflected off her mirror sunglasses and Esther is laughing.
First in an occasional series on poverty.
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance journalist who lives in Whitehorse.