April 14, 2015 - Robert (1st person I approached)
If ‘guilty by association’ can be true from mere perception, could the opposite perception of ‘not guilty by disassociation’ also be true? Does that even make sense? We see someone in a particular part of town, and we jump to the conclusion that they somehow belong there. So then, if we see someone in a particular part of town and we perceive them to be out of place, do we jump to the conclusion that they don’t belong there?
It was a nice sunny day and I walked downtown to meet a friend for a visit. We haven’t seen each other for months. It’s one of those great friendships that I’m seemingly blessed to have few of. Sitting down and chatting is like no time has gone without connecting at all. The rhythm just flows. After my friend went back to work, I decided to head to the Downtown Eastside (DTES), and find today’s story. There’s a two block stretch of East Hastings Street that is always busiest on the sidewalk. There’s a lot of souls selling all kinds of random items; cigarettes, jumper cables, random tins of food, clothing, mirrors, old CD’s. It’s how many of the people in the DTES scrape together enough money for their daily needs.
I had gone about five blocks when I saw Robert standing outside a skateboard shop. He caught my eye and nodded at me, saying hello as I walked past. It was a genuine, warm greeting. Like you’d expect to hear in a small town or village, if you’re the visitor. I walked over and told Robert what I was doing and asked if he’d chat with me.
At that moment, a gentleman came over and offered us each a lollipop and a religious pamphlet. I declined the offer, and Robert told the gent he already had the pamphlet. The man handed him another one, regardless.
“Where would you like to go and chat?” Robert asked me.
“If we stand here, we’re going to get interrupted for the entire time!” I asked if he’d like to join me for something to eat.
“Sure, that would be nice,” he said.
We made our way back through the busy, two block stretch of sidewalk, heading for Save-On Meats diner. Robert said hello to a number of folks we made our way along the crowded sidewalk.
“I usually walk down the alley. Just to avoid this,” Robert tells me.
“Too late now. But I sure am glad you asked me to talk to you.”
We went into the restaurant, sat down and ordered our food. Robert has eaten food from the diner before, through their token program, but he's never sat in the diner and had lunch.
“I was born in The Hague, in the Netherlands,” Robert said. I had one of those flashback moments and wondered if I’d already met him, even though I knew I hadn’t. I know that I’ve chatted with people for this project from the Netherlands, and specifically The Hague. It just seemed so random. Searching back over all the stories I’ve collected as I write this, Robert is the third person who was ether born in, or lived in The Hague.
“I have six brothers and three sisters. I’m the oldest son, but second oldest child,” he told me. Robert became so good at baby-sitting, he told me he used to make money doing it for other people as well. When he was six years old, his family moved from the Netherlands to North Vancouver.
“August 20, 1955. We spent six days on a boat and six days on the train. I was excited but a bit nervous too. I liked the wilderness, but we lived in a small fishing village in the Netherlands, so I was used to nature. I was afraid that some wild animal would get me when we got to North Vancouver,” he said, laughing at his childhood concern. I was amazed that he knew the very date of their departure, and asked why he remembered that. With furrowed brow he answered
“Because I have a good memory.”
Robert didn’t speak any English when he arrived in Canada.
“I learned what I could, as fast as I could in grade one. It wasn’t that hard to settle in here, and I made friends at school,” he told me. Mathematics and Science were his favourite subjects in school.
“It just all made sense to me. Though nowadays not much of it makes any sense. Modern technology is confusing,” he said.
“I left school two weeks before graduating. I had missed a lot of shop time. I was in hospital quite a bit when I was fifteen and sixteen. And I didn’t have what I needed to graduate. But I went back later and got my GED (General Educational Development) diploma,” he said. Robert was diagnosed with depression.
“I was a diabetic. I was depressed and a while later, I was also diagnosed as schizophrenic. It was tough living with all of that. I spent time in and out of hospital. It started when I was around fifteen. I got electroshock treatment. That was tough. My mother would come and pick me up afterwards and I didn’t know who she was,” Robert said.
“After I left school, I did a bunch of different things. I worked in carpentry for a while. And spent some time as a dispatcher. Then I was an apprentice machinist. I did that for five years, the apprenticeship. I would work for eleven months and then spend a month learning theory. It was like that throughout the apprenticeship. I was the head of my class in theory, every year,” he said, proudly.
“That was my favourite job, being a machinist. I liked the precision needed. You really need to know what you’re doing.”
“My father died on June 07th, 1990. Ever since then, my family have rejected me. I’ve never been able to figure out why exactly. My mother used to meet me for lunch, but none of my brothers or sisters would come with her,” he said. His mother passed away in 2007.
“It was hard. Having to grieve alone.”
Robert first started hanging around the DTES in 1998.
“I sort of knew I’d end up living down here. I started smoking that crack cocaine. Did that for close on ten years,” he said.
“My friends were always telling me that wasn’t good for me, and telling me I should stop smoking it. I would see people all around me ripping off other people. I didn’t want to get like that. I didn’t want to live my life always looking over my shoulder. I gave it a lot of thought and started to wean myself off it. I didn’t go into treatment. I did it gradually over time. It wasn’t easy. I’ve smoked crack a couple of times over the years since giving it up. But I don’t want to get back into that. So I don’t do it anymore,” he said.
“Someone asked my mother if I did drugs. I was standing right next to her. She told them ‘Yes. Once.’ I laughed and she asked me what I was laughing at. I said she was asleep all the other times!”
Over the years, Robert has lived in SRO’s (single room occupancy hotels).
“I lived at the Lookout for a while when I first came down here. Then the Balmoral for about eight months. Then I moved into the Sunrise Hotel. That was next door to where you and I started to talk. By the Skate shop. They closed it down to renovate it, so we all had to move out. I was there for fourteen-and-a-half years. It wasn’t so bad. But now I’m in a brand new place, just built. I’ve still got my own room. I think even when they finish renovating the Sunrise, I’ll stay living where I am now,” he told me.
“I was married, yeah. For eight years. We had a daughter. She’s forty-four now and a doctor. A general practitioner, I think. She’s working in the States (USA). I don’t know how she can handle that. If you can’t pay for healthcare down there, sometimes you don’t get it. That must be brutal for her to deal with,” he told me. It was clear just how much pride and admiration he holds for his daughter, by the way he spoke of her.
“I met my wife in North Vancouver. She worked at a restaurant. Then she met another guy. I came home one day and everything was gone,” he said quietly. I didn’t say anything and watched Robert take a gulp of his coffee. He then took his napkin, and carefully folded it before wiping his mouth. We men and our beards.
“I asked her to come back. I wanted to forgive her. I asked if she would come back with our daughter. She did, but it had changed. Things just didn’t work out after that,” said Robert.
“I haven't seen my daughter in over twenty years. That was hard, and took a long time. But now, it would just open old wounds,” he said, wiping with the folded napkin at his mouth again.
There’s a small, almost empty, community garden in the same block where I met Robert, on East Hastings Street.
“I was working there, mainly as a gatekeeper, but doing a bit of cleaning up. The guys in the skate shop, that’s the store I was standing in front of when we met? Those guys offered me a job. It’s more of an honorary thing. I work for three hours, a couple of times a week,” he said.
"I'm like the doorman."
I asked if he had been working when I approached him.
“Yeah, I was, but that’s okay, I can come and go as I please. Those guys are really good to me. They care about me and they respect me. Sometimes they’ll lend me my wages and then I pay them back when I get my pension. And they pay me for working there too,” he said, smiling.
“It keeps me busy and gives me something to do.”
“Everyone one down here gets labelled. Most people think we’re all drug addicts. The one thing everyone has in common down here is loneliness. Everyone is lonely. But we’re also family. You can’t choose your birth family. I may not know everyone’s name, but I know most people to see them, and say hello,” Robert said.
He doesn’t do any drugs, he smokes cigarettes and enjoys an occasional Rusty Nail cocktail.
“I don’t even like beer anymore. You know what I do like? I like eggs! These eggs I just had were delicious,” he said, with a big grin.
“I like them poached or sunny side up. And fresh.”
Robert’s made two trips back to The Hague to visit relatives.
“In 1972, and 1976. Canada is the best country in the world though,” he said with gusto. Robert is sixty-six years old.
“My birthday is the same day as Abraham Lincoln’s. I like that. He’s a good man to share a birthday with. Honest Abe they called him. I try to live an honest life too.” His birthday is on February 12th. I asked Robert if he did anything to mark the occasion of his 66th birthday. He thought about it for a moment or two.
“YES! The guys at the skate shop threw a surprise party for me. Right there in the shop! It was great. And then the next week they took me out on a boat,” he said. I couldn’t help but smile from his genuine, enthusiastic glee.
“I’ve got my mental health under control. I take medication, I have to. Life is good. Actually life is exciting. I live in a beautiful building that is my home. There’s lots to do in the city. I try not to think about the things I want to do in the future. I just want to enjoy what I’m doing right now.” #notastranger #beinghungrysucks
*Ironically, I just learned that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago today.
Today’s story is sponsored by the Save On Meat diner, and their charitable organization, A Better Life Foundatio