Day 11 - Tara

Day 11 - Tara (2nd person I approached)
January 11, 2015 - I was downtown this evening, recording a podcast with the guys from ‘True Bromance.’ (*Fact Check - see link below). Afterwards, I walked around downtown looking for today’s story. When I first saw Tara it took me a minute to compute what I was seeing. I first noticed the sign she had on her back, which was illuminated. I thought she was a walking billboard of some sort. What threw me off was seeing that she was picking up litter off the street. 


I watched her while I waited for a traffic light to change. I made it half way across the street and had to turn around and go speak with her. I hesitated because I wasn’t sure she would chat with me. She seemed so into what she was doing. I explained my project to Tara, and asked her if she’d be interested in chatting. She said she'd chat with me. I suggested we move away from the edge of the road where Tara had been picking up discarded cigarette butts, one by one. Even as we made our way across the wide sidewalk, Tara continued to pick up bits of litter. 


She was born in Cambridge, Ontario.

“I have two brothers. I’m the oldest, but I’ve never met the youngest brother,” she said.

“Apart from the typical fights that a brother and sister have, we got along ok. It’s funny though, as we’ve gotten older, we seem to have grown out of that and we actually get along as two people now. It’s not just because we’re related,” she said. 


Tara left school in Grade ten.

“I liked art and sciences. I’ve always liked drawing,” she told me. I asked why she left school.

“My mother kicked me out of the house when I was fourteen. She was overly protective. I had to always explain where I was going. Other kids my age would meet up with their friends, and hang out and have fun. Maybe at a shopping strip, or in a mall. I wasn’t allowed to just hang out. My best friend lived down the street from our house. It was summer and I was spending all day with my friend, then I would have to come home to sleep, and then go back to my friends. This went on for a about a week. I figured I should just stay at my friends house. I called my mother and asked if she would put together a bag of stuff for me, for a few nights,” Tara said.

“When I went home the next day to pickup my things, she had packed up my entire bedroom. We got into an argument and she told me to leave. So I did. I went and stayed with my friend and her family.”


She has a small shopping carrier on wheels that she has modified. Instead of a bag to carry things in, it has a small wire basket lined with a plastic bag, where Tara puts the garbage she picks up off the street. She uses a hand-activated pole that has claws at the end for picking up the litter. It has a light on it as well, to illuminate the litter. Tara used her pickup stick and pointed at a fast food bag that was on the sidewalk about ten feet from where we were chatting.

“I just have to go get that bag, it’s annoying me,” she said. After picking up the bag and putting it in her trolley, Tara asked,

“Would it be okay if we walked and talked at the same time. I want to continue cleaning.” And so for the rest of our chat, I followed Tara as she collected litter. 


At the age of sixteen, Tara left Cambridge, and moved to Ottawa.

“I started experimenting with drugs. I liked trying new things. At first it was just ecstasy (MDMA) that I was doing. The more I did, the higher my tolerance for it became. I got to the point where I’d have to take more and more just to get high. My body became used to it I guess,” she said.

“I was fascinated by what I saw in certain neighbourhoods in Ottawa. People were sitting on the sidewalks hanging out in groups. All of their belonging were scattered all over. No one seemed to have any worries. I wanted to try what made them feel, so like, carefree,” she said. Tara started using crack cocaine. 


“I dated drug dealers. I sold drugs. I prostituted to make money when I needed it. I had a boyfriend and I didn’t want to be unfaithful to him, but you do what you have to do,” she said.

“Every once in a while, I’d go back to my mother's in Cambridge and get cleaned up. But I always went back to Ottawa, and it started all over again. Every time.” Tara’s boyfriend spent some time in jail, and Tara once again went home to her mother’s.

“When he got out, we stayed in my mother’s basement for a while.” 


Her mother told her, almost ten years later, that she never intended for Tara to leave when she packed up her belongings. She thought Tara would plead to not leave home, but “the plan backfired,” as Tara said.

“My mother felt bad. Especially with the way my life, and the next few years ended up,” said Tara.


“I didn’t want to go back to Ottawa, because I knew what would happen if I did. My boyfriend and I talked about it, and decided to come to Vancouver,” she told me. They have lived here for just over a year.

“It was my boyfriend’s idea to start picking up garbage. He’s much smarter than I am, and knows a lot of things. It’s easy for him to talk to people because he can always come up with things to talk about. I listen to him, ad make mental notes of the things he talks about,” she said.

“I tried panhandling for a while and it was okay, but I just can’t sit still for hours on end. I like to keep busy and active. If I have something to focus on, it’s better.” 


Tara has an Exacto knife clipped to her hoodie. She also has a toothbrush. Tools to help her clean things. She wears gloves on her hands. Around her neck, she has an adapted potato chip canister that is attached by string. The lid has a slot in it, and there is a label on the front that says ‘TIPS’ on it. She uses the edge of her boot on a piece of paper that is stuck to the sidewalk with rain. It come loose and she picks it up and puts it in her cart.

“I’m not using crack anymore. I’ve tried crystal meth, the high is kind of the same. But I don’t want to give up one addiction to move into another. That seems kind of useless,” she tells me.

“So I keep busy. It helps me to feel better about making a contribution. People give me tips, and they thank me for picking up the litter. They feel better because the street is a little cleaner, and they’ve helped me. I feel better because they appreciate it, and I make a little money. It’s a win-win situation,” says Tara.


We’ve moved down the street, and Tara spots some litter at the base of a tree. She uses her pickup stick to get it, and notices there is dog poop on the ground as well. She goes to her cart, and removes a pink plastic container. Inside that she has a plastic bag, which she opens and looks inside. She pulls out a pair of black disposable gloves. She looks around and spots a used baggie a few feet away. She grabs the baggy, picks up the dog poop, and puts it in the baggy. She carefully removes her disposable gloves and places them in the baggy. She seals the closure on the baggy. I tell her that I think it’s brave and admirable to be so willing to clean up whatever she finds.

“Well, after some of the crack houses I’ve been in, I think it makes this easier. I honestly don’t think I could have done any of this before I started using. I’ve even picked up a dead pigeon,” she said. Tara walks over to a city garbage can and puts the sealed baggy inside.


I ask about her living arrangements.

"We’re not homeless,” she tells me. “We live in an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel. They let us both stay in the one room. They also know that we spend a lot of our days out cleaning the streets and doing what we can to make a contribution,” she says. I ask Tara what time she started cleaning the streets today.

“I got out here at around nine this morning,” she says. It is 8:30pm.

“It’s Sunday so I’ll probably do this until midnight. On Friday and Saturday, the bars are open until four, so we work later on those nights.”


The sign on Tara’s back is about two feet long and says ‘Hello Vancouver. My name is Tara and I want to EARN $pare ¢hange by making our City a lot CLEANER & SAFER!!’ #notastranger

*Fact Check - True Bromance podcast (some swearing included)