Day 25 - Charlie (1st person I approached)
January 25, 2014 - A couple of friends that I haven’t seen for a while, invited me to get together today. We all had news, personal updates and excitement to share and time seemed to fly by! I love those situations when you see someone that you’ve not seen in months and the conversation flows like it was yesterday! Afterwards, I told one of my friends that I was going to walk down Main Street (Vancouver), and head towards Chinatown to look for today’s story. We walked and talked and before I knew it, we had made it almost to the Gastown neighbourhood. I realized that I was missing opportunities to connect with strangers. My friend, inadvertently was cramping my style! I laughed at the irony of thanking him for buying lunch, and then telling him I had to be alone! My friends are very supportive, and understanding.
I saw Charlie making his way west, down Hastings Street towards Pigeon Park. The Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver is considered the ‘skid row’ of the city. There’s an energy there unlike any other part of town. Yes, a lot of it is fuelled by drugs and alcohol. But on Sunday afternoons, it’s a buzz of activity with people from all walks of life.
When I approached Charlie and started to tell him what I’m working on, he looked at me and pointed straight ahead. I took that to mean ‘I’m walking this way,’ and sure enough, I was right. Charlie agreed to chat.
“As long as you can walk with me,” he said. He was using a stroller/chair mobility walker.
“I’m heading down to the corner to buy cigarettes,” he said.
“Why did you ask me?” he wanted to know. I told him I approached him because he was walking by himself. I also said I thought he had an incredible face, and that I was sure there was an amazing story there. He smiled, and started to share with me about his childhood.
“I was born in Kenora, Ontario,” he said. Kenora, originally named ‘Rat Portage’ is located in northwestern Ontario, about 200km east of Winnipeg.
“I’m the second oldest of eleven children. I got eight brothers, and two sisters. There was never a time that we all lived together and got along, but we all have the same parents,” he said with no uncertainty.
“I’m half first nations, and half black. So I really stood out and that made things harder too,” he told me. Both of his parents were alcoholics.
"My father was abusive. Not physically towards us kids, but he was with my mother. He would get drunk and beat her. For such a young age to see that, I was maybe this tall,” he said, putting his hand out at waist level.
"Kids aren’t supposed to see that kind of thing. It fucked me up.”
From about the age of eight years old, his mother told Charlie that he looked like his father. He reminded her of him, and she told Charlie she hated him because of that.
“I would go up to her to tell her I love her, and she would physically push me away. I was just a little kid,” he said, again using his hand to gesture the height of an eight year old.
“It hurt. It became an abuse to me.”
His father died when he was twelve years old, and his mother moved the family to Alberta. Charlie had only completed Grade seven in elementary school.
“I never lived on a reserve or went to a residential school. I went to a regular everyday school, until we got to Alberta,” he said.
“My mother threw me out of the house when I was thirteen years old. She hated me and I never knew what I had done wrong,” Charlie told me. I said that I knew of the pain that I’m sure he endured, he looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. There were no words needed. We walked like that for about fifteen feet. Silently.
“I left home and jumped on a railcar,” he said. I was amazed at the idea of a thirteen year old kid travelling across the country, alone. It was 1970. I remarked that he would be ‘Boxcar Charlie,’ he laughed and said
“Yes! Exactly!” I wanted to know if he was afraid, doing that alone.
“Never. When I left home, I was filled with so much anger and confusion. It was easier to be alone on the railcars, than be back there dealing with that crap. it was freeing.” Charlie couldn’t quite recall how long he did the railcars for.
“I travelled that way for years and years,” he said. “It was my transportation.”
We were heading to the corner Charlie had pointed toward, telling me he was going to buy cigarettes. We walked past a small grocery store. I thought maybe he had forgotten where we were heading.
“No, I’m heading over there,” he said, pointing across the street to Pigeon Park. (I only just learned it’s actually called ‘Pioneer Place.’)
He stopped at the corner and as we waited to cross the street, he looked at me, and said gently,
“Why are you asking me these questions again?” I told him I was exploring connections and relationships. I said I believed just because two people are strangers, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a good conversation, establish a connection and have it be meaningful at the same time.
“Yeah,” he said.
“That's good.” We crossed the road towards the square.
On Sunday’s there is a block long, bustling, tented market, filled with people selling all kinds of stuff. Some people might call it trash, others can find real treasures there. Either way, it is always busy, come rain or shine. (*Fact check - see link below.)
When we got the other side of the street, I realized that Charlie was looking to buy ‘discounted’ cigarettes from someone, anyone on the street. As soon as we got to the other side, a woman approached us, asking ‘Cigarettes?’
Charlie said “Yes. $3.50.” The woman told him they were $4.00. Charlie had pulled some change out of his pocket, and turned to walk away from her, saying,
“Nope. $3.50. That’s all I got, and all I’m paying.”
We walked ten feet to our left, and suddenly we were surrounded by people offering cigarettes. One man had a backpack that people were peering into. I felt like an outsider, and suddenly felt out of place. That feeling didn’t last long. Charlie went into the huddle and not only bartered, but was looking for a specific brand. He turned around and pointed in the direction we had come from. He had his cigarettes. $3.50 for the pack.
We crossed back to other side of the street from where we came. Charlie motioned towards a bus-stop bench. I wondered if he was planning to get on the next bus that rolled along.
“No. We’re still talking. I just thought we could have a seat." He parked his mobility walker and sat down on it. He suggested I take seat at the bus stop next to him. I preferred to stand.
I watched as he opened his cigarette package. Without any thought, he dropped the first piece of the plastic wrapping on the ground. I held out my hand and he instinctively gave me the remaining wrapper and inside paper. We flagged down a guy walking by, to borrow his lighter for Charlie’s cigarette. He lit it, and then broke half the filter off.
Charlie told me that he wasn’t proud of some of the things he had done to survive.
“I robbed people,” he said drawing in closer, lowering his voice to share his dark secret with me.
“And I pimped for a little while too. That was all so many years ago. I stuck to robbing people,” he told me. Much to my surprise, he starting robbing people at the age of eight years old. I think he was steering, not actually holding people up, He never used a weapon. He told me he pimped for a short time, when he was fourteen years old. When I asked him why he thought anyone would want a fourteen year old to be their pimp, he chuckled lightly, and said
“I really don’t have a clue. I honestly don’t. I didn’t even have a beard back then." We never defined what he meant by 'pimp' either. Charlie would get off the trains and stay for a while in whatever town he happened to jump off at.
“I was robbing people, so I had to always be moving along. I had made enemies with people,” he said.
He got caught twice.
“I was arrested in Alberta and was locked up for twenty-eight months,” he said. That meant it was a federal conviction, which is more significant, and generally means a tougher group of long-term inmates. Once he got out of prison, Charlie made his way down to Seattle.
“I spent time robbing people around there. Travelling a circuit,” he said.
“I got caught in Washington (State), and did five years there,” he said. The American penal system, at that length of sentence, is far more rigid and strict in guidelines, with less prisoner rights and freedoms, to my understanding. Charlie agreed.
I asked when the last time he had robbed someone was. Without hesitation or even thinking about his answer, he replied
“Years ago.” I asked what his motivation to stop was.
“Five years in an American prison,” he said without any doubt in his voice.
“I started to look toward God, I wanted to figure why I was doing the things I was doing,” he told me.
“I can read you know. I looked at the Bible, but I couldn’t address the anger and frustration I felt toward my childhood, with any way to accept God. It was confusing. Why would he allow me to be treated that way?” he said, a tone of anger and resentment in voice. He turned to his right and spat on the ground.
“I’m working on that.”
Charlie was ‘banned’ from the United States after his release and came to Vancouver in the 1990’s.
“I was homeless for eight years. Sleeping rough, staying in hostels. Then I got a place down the street here, he said pointing towards the waterfront.
“It was so noisy, and dirty. There were drunks all around, people sleeping in the hallways. I found syringes in the hallway every day. It was a living nightmare,” he said.
“I used to complain about it. This was my home. I didn’t want to live like that. I wanted it to be quiet and clean and not have to step over people in the stairway. And you know what happened?“ he asked me.
“I made it to number one on their list of people to kick out, because I complained too much.”
“I’ve never used drugs. I swore I’d never be an alcoholic because of what I saw my father do. He drank himself to death. But here I am, an alcoholic.” There was no self pity in voice. He now has a room in another SRO (Single Room Occupancy) Hotel.
“I’m on the lower floor. It’s quiet, and it’s clean and there aren’t any nutters having loud parties and I don’t see syringes in the hallways. It’s a really nice place to be. I can be home and watch television. I like to read books too,” he tells me.
I notice that Charlie has what is clearly a rough, unskilled tattoo on his lower arm. At first I thought it said ‘Liar!’ I don’t even remember how we got to talking about it.
"No, I know it looks like liar, but it says ‘War.’ When I was a kid, a friend and I were messing around with a needle and a bottle of ink. You know, where you put ink on your skin and then your friend keeps stabbing you with the pin to make the tattoo? Well the ‘W’ isn’t connected fully so it looks like an ‘L’ and an ‘I’ but it’s a ‘W,’ “ he says. I wonder to myself if that potential ‘Liar!’ tattoo caused him any grief in prison. I never asked.
“It spells WAR! W-A-R. They’re my father's initials.”
The next thing I know, Charlie is standing up and a bus has pulled up to the stop we’re standing at. He had already let two busses go by without getting on. I have a moment of panic as I ask Charlie if he’s getting on this bus.
“Yeah,” he says reaching into another pocket and pulling out more change. I had wanted to get a few really good close-up’s of his storied face, instead I snap three panicked shots. I move to the open bus door, so that the driver waits for Charlie.
“Let me have a look at those,” Charlie says, about the pictures I’ve just taken. I notice the bus driver just watching us. I show the pictures to Charlie.
“Oh, those aren’t bad. Nice talking to you. Thanks,” he says. He’s manoeuvring his mobility walker onto the bus, so we don’t shake hands. I thank him, and turn to start walking towards home.
I get about two blocks away, and the bus with Charlie drives by. He’s seated at the front, right behind the driver. He see’s me and fully extends his arm up to the roof of the bus, and gives me a lovely ‘goodbye wave’ as you would when saying goodbye to friend embarking on a long journey. I smile and wave back. The same thing happens a block further up the road, when the bus is waiting for a traffic light. Charlie extends his arm out fully, and gives a farewell wave, with gusto. #notastranger
*Fact Check - Pigeon Park Market, Vice Magazine - http://bit.ly/1zLGHyp