Day 206 - Gerald (1st person I approached)
July 25, 2014 - It’s been a long day today. I had an appointment in the Gastown area this afternoon. It's the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver. It was the location of the original late 19th century townsite. Gastown sits between the Vancouver downtown core, and the Downtown Eastside (DTES) - the poorest neighbourhood in Canada.
I caught myself wondering about Gerald’s story as I walked past him on my way to my appointment, as he sat on the stone entrance step of a vacant retail store. Almost two hours later, Gerald was still sitting there. I contemplated not stopping to ask if he’d chat, but I couldn’t find any reason to not ask him. Nor did I want to find one. I crouched down to eye level with Gerald and explained what I’m doing and asked if he would chat with me. There was no hesitation for Gerald.
“Sure, that’s fine,” he said. I’m working everyday to remind myself to be open to different situations and accept the circumstances of others. Not everything is as it appears. But I still found myself telling Gerald as a precursor, that I didn’t have any money to offer him. He hadn’t asked for any. He didn’t have a used coffee cup with coins in it, nor was there a hat on the sidewalk or any sign asking for help. Gerald was simply sitting quietly on the sidewalk, minding his own business. I’ll endeavour to try and lose that preconceived idea, or what I see as a societal blindspot or hangover, moving forward.
Gerald was born in New Westminster, British Columbia (BC). Another of the original cities of the Vancouver area. New West as it’s often called was at onetime, the capital of the province.
“I grew up in Kamloops,” he said. Kamloops is about three and half hours northeast of Vancouver.
“I don’t exactly remember when we moved. I remember as a young boy, my mother taking me to see Santa Claus at Christmas time. I was sitting on his lap and telling him about my big list of things that I wanted. I even asked for a house," he said, smiling a wide, almost toothless grin.
“I know that was before we moved, so I was old enough to remember that. We moved after then.” Gerald has two older sisters and one younger sister.
“We got along ok, sure. Being as I was the only boy, I did stuff with my father, just him and I. We’d go fishing. This was in Kamloops. He’d take me fishing a lot. Thing is though, we didn’t get along at all. He never talked to me. I alway tried to make things different, but nope. He just didn’t like me I guess. Never talked to me much at all,” said Gerald.
“I went to school, played hockey and was active in sports. When I was a kid, I used to collect coins, and stamps. I liked collecting old, hard to find stamps. And silver dollars. My mother had a large collection of coins that I stole from her. She knew I had them, but she never asked for them back. I didn’t sell them or anything, I just wanted them for myself. I quit school in Grade ten. I worked odd jobs, did what I could,” he said.
“When I was nineteen, I took some LSD and got really sick. I had been drinking and dropping acid for a couple of years, but this time I got really, really sick. I was put into a psychiatric hospital and they kept me there for some time. I had between twenty-five and thirty electro-shock treatments.” Sometime after getting out of hospital, Gerald went back to his parent's place.
“I didn’t think anyone would be home. I went in, and went to my mother’s bedroom. I found that box with all those coins again. I could have taken them, but I didn’t. I closed the lid and put the box back. I took some food though,” he said.
When he was twenty-two, Gerald moved to Vancouver.
“I was sick of everything and everyone and just needed to get way from Kamloops. I took some courses when I first moved here. One course in Algebra and a few in Computer Sciences. I liked numbers and figuring things out. I got a job working for a labour agency. They would hire out labourers to different places that needed day workers, or short term staff. It was a lot of grunt work, the kind of work they wouldn’t do themselves. Moving boxes around, heavy physical work. But I’m a good hard worker. I’m not afraid of a day's hard work,” said Gerald.
He had started drinking and using drugs.
“I was smoking pot and getting drunk. One time a friend offered me some of the rock (crack cocaine). Everyone around here says how good it is, but I didn’t like it. Just not for me,” he said.
“I worked when I could. I got a job working at a bottle depot. Did that for a few years, but then I got laid off. I haven’t worked in a number of years now. Well, not much. I helped that lady who owns the flower shop over there,” he says pointing to a store across the street, which is now empty.
"I don’t know when that closed, must have been recent. She was moving some heavy looking boxes and she didn’t ask me to help. I just went over and offered. I’m okay lifting and doing hard work. She gave me five bucks for helping. That was nice of her,” he says.
“Sometimes if you hang around in the alleys, people will ask you to help them with jobs, putting stuff in vans or trucks.”
Gerald spends a lot of his time riding his bright yellow bike around
"the upper parts of Vancouver.” He's referring to the west-side of the city, a more affluent area of Vancouver. He rides around collecting empty bottles and cans.
“Some people are very nice to me They keep their bottle or cans and give them to me when they see me. The ones that aren’t nice to me, sure they can be rude but I don’t care what they think,” he says, dismissively.
Gerald has been hanging around in the DTES for between the last ten to fifteen years.
“Yeah something like that, I don’t know for sure. I’m usually on this corner or I have another one I hang out at. I just watch what’s going on, when I’m not riding my bike, or collecting bottles.” I ask him where his other corner is. He points directly across the street from where we are sitting.
“Over there.” He’s been sleeping out, on the streets for the past three or four months.
“I had a place, in a rooming hotel (SRO, Single Room Occupancy), but there’s all kinds of noisey people, drunks, drugs and fights. I don’t like it there. I’d rather be out on the street than living with all that noise and madness,” he says, shaking his head.
“I sleep in car parks, sometimes in the park. I know a good alley down the road. I have a friend who sometimes let’s me sleep in the hallway of his building. My case worker is supposed to be helping me find a new place, away from down here. But I prefer to be on the street than that last place I was in,” says Gerald. He tells me he is no longer using drugs.
“I had a beer the other day. You know it gets hot, nothing like a cold beer to refresh you on a hot day. But I’m not getting drunk all the time.”
Gerald appears to only have a few teeth. He recently took a pair of scissors to his beard and cut most of it off. His hands are blackened with work and dirt from digging for beer cans in garbage dumpsters. His clothes are dirty.
“I’m working with my social worker on my mental health. I don’t have any real issues. I hurt myself a bit on a job once and a couple accidents on my bike, but I’m not disabled. I just need a place. that’s all. That’s what I mean when I talk about my mental health. I just need a home.”
His father died some years ago. He can’t remember the last time he spoke with any of his sisters.
“I need to call my mother though. She’s eighty-nine. She worries. I don’t tell her what's really going on. I call to let her know I’m okay, to say I’m doing fine. I don’t want her to worry.” He looks at me and smiles. We both agree it’s a good idea to call our mothers every once in a while. As I take Gerald’s picture, he sits perfectly still and maintains the same pose and half smile for each of the four shots I take. He looks right at me. I shake his hand and thank him for his time and the chat.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I really like your tattoos. They’re nice. And thank’s for speaking with me, I enjoyed our chat.” A real gentleman. #notastranger