It was a sunny afternoon in downtown Vancouver. Kids played on wide pedestrian walkways. Couples lounged on benches. Live music blared from the front lawn of the art gallery. Cyclists coasted along the divided bike lane. It was a regular Saturday until I saw a strange man leading two young boys around a corner.
“Hey, look at that,” I said and pointed with my elbow as I bit into my veggie wrap.
“What?” my sister, Mia, asked as she bit into hers.
Two boys, 12 or 13 years old, followed a man away from a crowd of spectators and around a corner of the building. One kid stood to the left of a newspaper drop-box while the skinny kid sat on it. Both dressed in medium-blue denim, t-shirts, jackets tied around their waists and carried identical white, plastic bags of stuff. The man was in his mid- to late-20’s, about five feet ten inches tall, wearing a black track suit with white stripes, an oversized jean jacket and bandana -- classic street uniform of been there, done that. He ricocheted back and forth along a ten foot line in front of the kids.
“Ah man, what a leech, that guy’s going to take advantage of those kids somehow,” I said.
“What? What do you mean? Really?” she asked.
Before I left policing to start a business, I had talked to hundreds of street level drug dealers and opportunistic “I can get those cds really cheap for you, give me $20 bucks and I’ll be right back,” type of guys.
I stopped eating. “This is not good. Those young kids, that guy, not good,” I said.
Mia shifted her weight from one foot to the other and back again. “Oh my god, should we call police?” she asked.
“Nah, there’s no crime. They could do a street check, but he’ll be long gone before police get here,” I explained.
The man handed a cigarette to the kid who was standing, he inhaled and passed it back. The man smiled and waved his arms around as if he was telling an animated joke. Neither kid smiled.
“What about that security guard?” she asked. “He could say to leave those kids alone.”
“He won’t get involved in that and besides, goofballs like that know security guards can’t enforce anything,” I said.
As a police officer, it was my job to identify dealers. But without the uniform, the gear and the back-up, I was stripped down to a citizen.
But even as a citizen, I’d confronted teenagers spouting homophobic slurs on a bus and got two obnoxious drunks out of my local park. I’ve convinced people to pick up their litter and chased down a guy after he exposed himself in Stanley Park. So why was I hesitant this time?
“Uh, this is not okay, I’m not okay with this” Mia said. “How come nobody else is seeing this?” I wasn’t a parent, but my sister was the mother of a 12 year old girl, my niece, Nina.
I needed time to figure out what was going on. Maybe the kids were looking to score pot for the first time? Maybe they had approached the man first? Who was I to say what these kids could or couldn’t do? Wasn’t that their parents’ job? They'd probably tell me to f*ck off. What's the point? These were not my kids.
If they were getting beat up, the decision to intervene is easy. But this was subtle. Would intervening make any difference?
“I can’t go home knowing we didn’t do something,” she said. She paced within the four foot outline of a sidewalk square.
“What, do you want me to go say something?” I asked. “I could say something.” I started to pace. My heart beat faster.
“Would you? I would want somebody to intervene if it was Nina,” she said. “Sometimes kids just need a moment, or somebody to present a way out, so they can make a different choice.”
I crossed Hornby Street and threw my veggie wrap in the garbage to free up my hands –in case this all went sideways. I had no idea what I was going to say.
“Hey, I need to talk to these two,” I said to the man.
He backed up about four or five feet and looked me up and down. Twice. “Who are you, their mom?” he asked. He had a medium skin tone and aquamarine eyes. I just blew his chance at easy money.
I stared back. “It doesn’t matter, I need to talk to them.” I said. The kids were silent.
He walked back towards me and stood a foot away. “Uh, why don’t you –“
“Just go, around the corner, I need to talk to them,” I said. I was now connected to those kids and invested in their well-being. Suddenly, those kids were my kids too.
“Uh, hey man, what the f–“
“GOOO-A-WAAAAAY,” I said with a side dish of if you’re going to f*ck with me, I am ready.
He backed off and raised his hands and forearms in the universal language of “okay, I don’t want a scene”. He wasn’t afraid of me, it was all becoming a hassle and the kids weren’t worth it.
Mia stood right beside me again. We both turned to look at the kids.
“Uh, hi, uh, I know you think you know that guy, but you don’t. That guy is someone that will screw with you. I’ve seen it a lot. So I, uh, just wanted to give you a moment, to maybe, uh, give you an out, so you could make a different decision, if you wanted to” I said. “Is there anything you guys need?”
“Ya, can I have money for the bus?” said the boy standing. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot. He’s probably high already.
“No, I don’t have bus fare. Anything else?” I asked the other kid, the smaller of the two.
“No, we’ve got money, thanks,” he whispered.
“How did you like the concert?” Mia asked.
“I really liked this one band,” the quiet kid said. He reached into his plastic bag and pulled out a CD like he was unveiling a prized sports trophy.
“They were good?” Mia asked.
“Yeah, they were cool,” he said.
“Awesome. Ok, well, we’re going to go. We just wanted to give you guys a second, because, uh, well, we care about you guys, and thought maybe this might’ve been a situation that you found yourself in but wanted an out. Ok, so, if you guys are good, we’re going to go. If you wanted to walk away with us, to get away from that guy, that’d be cool too,” I said.
The quiet kid smiled. “No, we’re okay.”
We walked away in our separate directions. Maybe we had an effect on those kids, maybe we didn’t. But our hearts confirmed it was the right thing to do.
© 2012 Michelle Sevigny. www.michellesevigny.com. Reprint permission granted with full copyright and link intact.
Photo by On A Meadow, lea