Cory Monteith Death: The Dark, Nasty Underbelly of Vancouver

AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck
A memorial for Cory Monteith in Vancouver

In a city that called the "Glee" star its own, only a few blocks separate Vancouverites who can’t kick their addictions from celebrity hangouts and major studio film and TV shoots.

VANCOUVER – A fatal mix of heroin and alcohol killed Glee star Cory Monteith in a Vancouver hotel room overlooking Coal Harbour on July 14. But nearby on East Cordova Street, in the city’s grimy downtown eastside neighborhood, those aren’t the only drugs of choice.

"Lysol, rubbing alcohol, shoe polish -- they’re cheaper than heroin and crack," says a front-line worker from the Carnegie Outreach Program, who, along with a colleague, navigates a modern-day Bedlam of junkies, pimps and crack-addicted prostitutes like triage nurses on a battlefield.

This is the nasty and violent underbelly of Hollywood North -- the facilities that lure major studios to Vancouver to shoot American movies and TV series -- on display. Here are Canadians who, like Monteith, battled substance abuse and demons in their youth. Yet, unlike the Glee star who found fame and fortune in Hollywood, these people fell through the cracks, ending up first in the shabby drinking holes of welfare hotels on Vancouver’s Skid Row. Then, after losing their homes and families, they wound up on the street, endlessly hustling on sidewalks or selling their bodies in local brothels, waking only to answer cravings for crack and heroin.

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You need only make deliberate eye contact with those you might otherwise ignore and zig-zag past to see just how readily heroin is available in Vancouver.

His eye patch and toothless smile is what you first notice about Dion, who steps out from a hidden doorway at the corner of East Hastings and Gore Avenue. He first offers some "rock," or highly addictive crack cocaine, before talk turns to heroin at $20 a point, or a needle.

What about the fentanyl-laced heroin that the police are warning about?

"That’s scary, you don’t want that junk," Dion insists, raising his voice and unsteady on his feet. "I've got good heroin, it's Vietnamese. It's light brown. It’s pharmaceutical. Everyone loves it. See, I use it," he adds, bringing up his knuckles and hands to reveal track marks.

These are the eye-opening traces of a city that called Monteith its own, and where only a few blocks separate addicts who can’t kick the habit from celebrity hangouts and major studio film and TV shoots. A week ago, on July 11, in nearby Chinatown, Monteith dined with his manager and friends at the East of Main café, part of an expanding gentrification of a once-gritty and run-down area.

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Two days later, the Canadian actor’s lifeless body was found on the 21st floor of the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. Little else is known of what preceded Monteith’s untimely death during his final days. "I don’t know who he is. I don’t watch TV," says a doorman outside The Roxy, where the tabloid press reported Monteith and three friends spent time at the popular Granville street nightclub last Friday night.

Inside, it’s the same, as waiters and bartenders seem to have received the same talking points as they respond blank-faced when asked whether the Glee star and his posse had been in the house.

Back out on Granville Street, it’s a crime scene of sorts, as a Vancouver police cruiser with flashing lights blocks the street outside the Orpheum Theater. A local production crew is shooting CW’s The Arrow, where Stephen Amell plays a costumed crime fighter. And one street over on Seymour, the Penthouse Nightclub is closed to allow Tim Burton to shoot Big Eyes, an artsy biopic for The Weinstein Co., through July 22.

Across the road, two teenage girls hunting for autographs wait patiently for Burton and leads Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz to emerge. One of them, Sally, beams as she holds up a signature by Scott Alexander, who penned the script for Big Eyes with Larry Karaszewski. But when asked about Monteith, their broad smiles disappear. "It's so sad. We were so proud of his talent and what he did for everyone," friend Samantha says, now seeming to speak for an entire city.

It’s much the same a short walk down Granville, past the city’s mink mile with its shopfronts for luxury goods, until you're back on Cordova Street. Except now we’re on the tony West side, just outside the Fairmount Pacific Rim, and in front of the makeshift shrine to Monteith that every day grows in size as heartbroken Gleeks leave flowers and candles and written messages.

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"R.I.P. Cory. Hollywood eats their young. Hollywood North (Vancouver) does the same. The Party. The Drugs. The Excess all Kill," reads one long pen-scrawled message in bold lettering. "Harsh, but true. Been there and made it out barely. Cory is a star that dimmed way too soon," the posting continues. There’s lots of photos of Monteith and Glee co-star and now-grieving girlfriend Lea Michele, some taken during local Vancouver Canucks hockey games the couple attended while in town.

One fan, who signed her letter Felicia M., included a photo taken on May 14, 2011, when she posed alongside Monteith. "Dear Cory. Thank you for helping me realize being different is OK," her message begins.

Many other postings are from those who survived, or are still battling, substance abuse. "Cory R.I.P. Deepest sympathy. Family. Glee friends. I feel your pain. I’m a 21-year-old survivor of ‘heroin.’ One day at a time," says another message signed, like so many others, by the word "fan."

The Gleek pilgrimage outside the Vancouver hotel where Monteith died last weekend is likely to climax Friday night, when a candle vigil is planned outside the Fairmount. A second vigil also is planned that evening at Clover Point Park in Victoria, B.C., where Monteith grew up.