Day 241 - Alex (2nd person I approached)
August 29, 2014 - I’ll be honest. I’ve met Alex before. Once. It was a couple of months ago, I had been out chatting with a stranger, and was heading home to write and Alex stopped me on the street. He had two pairs of sunglasses and wanted to know which pair I thought suited him better. I took out my phone and took a picture of him with each pair on and we compared the photos. We decided he was ‘so damned good looking’ that he could rock either pair. We enjoyed a little banter and I walked away thinking he would have a great story to tell. But I already had the story for that day.
As I walked past him today, he told me he liked my bag. I smiled and said thank you and he called me over.
“What sound does a snail make when riding on the back of a turtle?” I said I didn’t know.
Alex put his hands out in the air like he was flying and went “wwwwhhhheeeeeeee,” and laughed heartily. He definitely put a smile on my face. I reminded him of our first chat. He remembered it, telling me that
“It was a brilliant idea to use your phone, I would never have thought of that!” I decided to ask if he’d chat with me. After telling me that he has had a number of articles written about him already, he said he’d be fine chatting. His problem with the previous articles, was that he never got to see the finished result. Apparently he also appeared on the show ‘The Beat’ which features a fly-on-the-wall experience of police officers patrolling the streets of downtown Vancouver. Alex said he saw them filming one afternoon. He asked if he could operate the camera for five minutes, telling them
“I’ve never seen a camera like this before." They let him film a segment. I promised to show Alex the finished result of this story (with comments) the next time I see him around. Game on!
Alex was born in Eindhoven, in the southern Netherlands.
“I’m the youngest of three boys. My eldest brother is ten years older than I am, and my elder brother is two years older. We didn’t have any sibling rivalry. My elder brother was the studious one and I was the rebel, the black sheep of the family” he said with a coy smile.
“We lived in Holland until I was six years old. Then we moved to Canada, the land of opportunity." They got on a boat to Quebec, took a train to Toronto and a car to Fruitland, a community at the western end of Hamilton, Ontario.
“It was the fruit-belt of Canada. There’s more varieties of fruit grown there than in the Okanagan,” said Alex.
“My parents both got a job working for E.D. Smith, the (food company and) cannery. I hadn’t started school in Eindhoven. There wasn't any room at my local school, so I didn't start Grade one until Fruitland,” he said. A year later, the family moved to Hamilton, Ontario.
“My father started house-painting so that’s why we moved to Hamilton. And we had a nice house there as well.” Alex went to school until the middle of Grade eleven. As we sat and talked a few people walked by and Alex was waving and saying hello as they passed. A woman with a small bunch of flowers walked by.
“Those are beautiful flowers,” he said to her. She turned around and smiled at me. Alex looked at me, laughed and said
“I’m a ventriloquist now, and can throw my voice.” His joyous spirit is contagious. We both laughed.
“I worked for a little while until joining the Royal Canadian Engineers. I learned a lot while in the military. I also supported the team that went in ahead of everyone to make sure there were no land mines. Fortunately, we weren’t stationed in an area that had been active during the war. I was in Werl, Germany for a year and a half, and I managed to get in with the supplies detail, working in the serviceman’s bar. Man, I learned everything there was to learn about alcohol then! I served in the Engineers for three years,” he said.
Upon his return to Canada, Alex left the military.
“I got a job working in shipping and receiving for the Kiwi shoe polish company,” he said.
“It was a good job. I liked working with people, laughing and telling jokes.” A man came over to where Alex and I were seated, and shook Alex’s hand. They chatted a bit, inquiring after each other's well-being. After a couple of minutes, the man continued on his way.
Alex went to Humber College in Toronto and learned how to work with and repair cameras. In time, he made his way out to the west coast of Canada, settling in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC).
“I was working for Kodak doing repairs for a while. I learned how to work with Polaroid cameras and then when business slowed down, due to digital technology, I worked privately. I was able to fix almost any point-and-shoot camera that was say, under the five hundred dollar range. They had limited parts and were easy to work with,” he said. Alex worked in camera repairs for twenty five years.
“I was sort of fired and sort of quit. I was tired of it,” he said.
“At that time I was living in an old house off of Main Street. I had two rooms and a front yard and back yard. I wasn’t a hoarder, no. I was known for being shall we say, prepared for any emergency, with lots of equipment. The landlord decided that they wanted to renovate the house. I was in the way. They evicted me. I had lived in that same house for twenty six years,” said Alex.
He got a room in an apartment hotel in Chinatown, where he lived for the next seven years.
“I was in a depression and things weren’t going so well. I became homeless. I spent three years living on the streets. I managed, by the grace of some good people, to find a loading bay, or an underground parking lot where I could sleep. I would build a wall with my belongings and a shopping buggy or two and that was it,” he said.
After three years of living on the the streets, Alex wanted a roof over his head.
“I got a place. It’s in an institution,” he said, wincing.
“An institution for people that don't fit in. I had to sign a twelve page document saying I’d agree to this and I wouldn’t do that. It’s what I had to do to get indoors. I hate where I’m living. It’s loud because of the people who are using intravenous drugs. It’s loud because of the location. I do have my own washroom though, and that’s a first in thirty five years, I do like that. They provide one meal a day. But when the meal is chicken stew and you can’t find the chicken, it gets boring pretty quickly,” he said.
“But I have a roof over my head.”
I asked Alex if he had any substance abuse issues.
“No, they’re not an issue for me. I like them all!” he said with a great guffaw.
“I’ll say I like marijuana and alcohol. I drink vodka, and the brand of my homeland. Bols. I like that I don’t have to buy a mickey, I can buy a smaller bottle. Then I just poor a little in a (pop) bottle. I don’t drink to get drunk. I drink just enough to keep everything at bay,” he said. Another person walks by and smiles and says hello to Alex.
We were sitting at a bus stop. I asked Alex about his beard.
“I grew this beard so that I could be myself," he said.
"When I had short hair and was clean shaven, I was getting stopped by the Vancouver Police Department on average twice a week. They'd say to me 'You fit the description of so and so, this or that.' Now, I don't fit the general description so easily. I grew my hair and beard to be me, not someone else," he said.
As for how he spends his days,
"I like to spend my time walking around and talking to people. I like to tell jokes, and have people laugh. I’ll often sit at a bus stop, and watch the world go by. Having lived on Main Street for all those years, I know a lot of people. Sometimes I’ll go down to the downtown east-side (of Vancouver) and just talk to people who are hanging around the streets. The ones that no one else will talk to,” he said.
I took a picture of Alex. He offered me a few photographic suggestions about composition. I took a couple more pictures and thanked Alex for his time and his story. I told him I hoped to see him around again, soon. As I was walking away, Alex said
“Hey Colin. What do you call a snail riding around in a limousine? ...Escargot!” #notastranger