The Caretaker

Trevail rings the buzzer at the grated back entrance to the Deluxe Junk Company. “Have you heard the news?” he asks Rod Hubic. “Those dealers came back. That’s why I haven’t been here.”

“I could tell you weren’t here,” says Hubic, “because the alley’s trashed.”

Trevail agrees, surveying the ripped-open garbage bags littering the ground. For two years he has tended this alley near Victory Square. At 43, he is slight but strong, and describes himself as “NFA,” preferring that term to “homeless.” Buffered by the tips, bottles, joints, and food he receives from people who work on this block, Trevail recently took himself off welfare. Things were going well until some drug dealers stopped by.

The first time, a man told him to stay out of this alley. Hubic remembers that day: “He wore a white-and-red tracksuit. They all wear tracksuits, all matchy-matchy.”

Trevail picks up the story. A week later, the same guy returned with four others, and asked Trevail if he’d forgotten what he’d been told. “I said, ‘I didn’t forget a thing. This is my job. It’s not your alley. It belongs to the people who live and work here.’ And he came right at me with a collapsible baton, and tap-tap-tap. On the back, head, wherever I wasn’t covering, he was hitting.” Since then, he’s stayed away. Yesterday he spent his last five bucks.

Why would a drug dealer beat him up? Hubic has a simple answer. “Turf. All Ken’s doing is keeping it clean, but in their minds he’s pissing on their area.”

If the battle is about territory, this block is important. Along the north side is an eclectic collection of clothing boutiques reshaping Gastown into a design destination. The merchants here have no appetite for the brazen selling and using that scourges the Downtown Eastside on the other side of Cambie Street.

Marc Emery, who enjoys Trevail’s harmonica from the office of his Cannabis Culture headquarters, refers to the broken-window theory of crime prevention: a clean alley shows that people care and discourages bad behaviour. “When you’re not there,” he tells Trevail, “there are people back there kind of pretending to do your job but who in fact are tacitly involved in the same old problems. We can’t afford to have crack addicts move into our neighbourhood.”

Trevail takes a moment to express his thoughts. “For the first time in my life I have a community of people that understand what I’m trying to do,” he says, blinking. “That means a lot to me.”

Over bacon and eggs at a nearby diner, he muses about this critical point in his life. In 2003, he carried a decade-long crack habit and jail time for armed robbery. He came to Vancouver intending to overdose. Instead, he made friends, quit the drugs, and discovered his musical talent.

He’s glad to be done with welfare. “Between them and I, it wasn’t working out,” he says. He didn’t like having to attend a life-skills program and do mock interviews. He told someone that he wanted to work in the entertainment industry. “He said, ‘You live in the Downtown Eastside. Nobody down there is capable of anything other than labour jobs.’ I was bewildered. I said,

‘You’re a counsellor who makes résumés, you’re not a stats researcher!’ ”

His past jobs have included safety watch on a Halifax Harbour oil rig, logistics clerk in an Ottawa tech firm, and data-entry subcontractor for the Department of National Defence. He wouldn’t go back to any of them. Over and over he wonders why those dealers want him out and how he can fight back. What he’d really like to do is to take gasoline, diesel fuel, wires, boxes, nails, glass, and a car battery and make a bomb powerful enough to blow a four-foot stump out of the ground. “But morally,” he says, “that’s wrong.”

A few days later, I spot Trevail playing his harmonica on Main Street. He’s wearing his usual outfit—paisley suit vest over white tank, dark blue Levi’s, and trademark felt hat—but now he’s holstered with pepper spray. “Let me buy you coffee!” he says. “I decided, instead of whining and moaning, I got to do what I do. ’Cause I’m not alive unless I do. I’m just existing, waiting, hoping this monster will go away. And in a lot of cases, we discover our monsters are dust bunnies.” At a nearby coffee shop he pulls out a crisp twenty. “I’m back,” he says with a quick roll of his eyes.

He doesn’t want to sit down with his Earl Grey; he’s keen to show me his work. Today, the pavement is swept. In neighbouring alleys, the bin locks are broken and trash has been emptied out. Not here, where Trevail holds the keys. “All the people that would normally come and utilize the bins,” he explains, “now know that this is Ken’s little angle, this is what Ken does. ‘If I go looking I’m not going to find anything because Ken’s pretty thorough.’ ”

We stop at the corner store to see Dada, the proprietor, who likes Trevail to separate the shreds of his documents into bins. They discuss the next level in alley maintenance. Wouldn’t it be great if there were more public washrooms? “He’s particular,” says Trevail as we leave, “and why not? He’s the businessman, and I’m the service person in the back.”

In the alley, a long-haired young woman is having a cigarette behind the store where she works. “This is Anna,” Trevail says. “She’s one of my favourites.”

“Really, Kenneth?” she asks, pleased.

“Nobody used to talk to me. You were the first one to break that motif.”

Thanks to him, she feels safe coming out here to read or smoke. She also shares his interest in garbage; once she found a large wooden frame by the bin that she used in a piece of art with a collage mounted behind it. “It’s hard to explain…”

“Discarded treasures,” he offers.

“That I make into art.”

“Did you have your show yet?” he asks.

“No, and you’re more than welcome to come.” She gives him the details. He nods. “I’ll take off work that day.”