March 31, 2015 - Mathew

March 31, 2015 - Mathew (1st person I approached)
I went out early this morning and spent a leisurely hour or so just sitting in my favourite local coffee shop. No agenda, just reading news, drinking coffee, perusing my personal Facebook, daydreaming, and drinking more coffee. The sun was shining and I’m feeling decidedly better than I have for the past week. So often walking through, rather than around something, is the shortest route. It takes the time it takes. 

 

I headed out to find today’s story, and I thought I’d check a little park near my house that I’ve not been to recently. I saw Mathew standing next to a picnic table, looking at his phone, smoking a cigarette. I walked over and, explaining what I’m doing with my project, asked if he would chat with me. He readily agreed, and then went to deposit his cigarette butt in a nearby trashcan, telling me he doesn't litter. 

 

I recently made the decision to not have a ‘connected’ phone; no calls, no internet. When I’m not at home, I rely on picking up wifi hotspots, or I wait until I’m at home. It’s been about six weeks since I changed this, and so far, so good. Although I'm not sure what my mother thinks. Anyway, my point in sharing this is that I couldn’t show Mathew my page or website. So I showed him some photos of folk I’ve chatted with recently, to hopefully validate what I’m doing. He told me he recognized Jazzy, who I met just last week. His decision to chat and let me take his photo was based purely in trust. It’s a beautiful thing to have a stranger trust you.

 

“I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia,” he said, with the same sense of pride that everyone who comes from Halifax has in their voice.

“My father’s Dutch and my mother Irish.” Mathew has one sister, seven years older.

“We weren’t particularly close as kids. In part because she was older. She wanted a beagle, not a brother,” he said, smiling.

“We were both introverts, and had different ways of dealing with that. She masked it with exuberance and I just smiled at people,” he said. 

 

As children, the family moved around a fair bit.

“The economy was rough on the east coast, sort of the way it’s getting here now. My father was a baker and we moved between the Dartmouth and Halifax area quite a lot. There was always a new elementary school,” he told me.

“That made it difficult to keep up. Particularly in French. Each school seemed to be at a different place in the curriculum, so I never caught up. There was one teacher who took an interest. He spent time with a group of kids, and he wanted to help us out. I remember one day he was so tired of our mucking around and being foolish. He brought in some music and played ‘We don’t need no education’ (Another Brick in the Wall) from Pink Floyd. We thought that was hilarious!” Mathew said, laughing.

 

“My parents divorced when I was about ten years old. We stayed in Nova Scotia for a few years, until I was fourteen, I guess,” said Mathew.

“My mother, my sister and I climbed into a UHaul van and drove across the country to Vancouver. Seven days,” he said, shaking his head.

“I went to high-school here. They put me into an advanced program. I was a pretty bright kid.”

 

At sixteen years old, Mathew moved out of his mother’s home.

“I moved in with my girlfriend at the time, from school,” he said. I mentioned that was pretty young, and asked how his mother felt.

“After seven days in a truck with her and my sister, I told them, ‘I’m done with you people!’ and moved out.” He didn’t quite graduate school.

“I did Grade twelve but I had to complete a few courses. I just didn’t see the need, or the relevance. You know at that age, you think you’re grown up and that you know it all. My girlfriend and I had started drinking. I thought I could deal with it, but things were getting out of hand. Let’s just say I partied and met a lot of girls in my youth,” he told me.

 

“I always loved food. Perhaps my father being a baker had something to do with it. I worked in a lot of restaurant type jobs. Server, kitchen help, front of house, in the kitchen. I helped a few friends start up restaurants a couple of times as well,” he said.

“I’m diabetic, and I never really thought about my future. I didn’t think I had one, to be honest. I thought I’d just work, and party and I didn’t want to ever get married or have kids. I wouldn’t want to pass diabetes along. So I just partied,” he told me. Mathew wears an earring with the Diabetes Association snake symbol on it. He also has the symbol tattooed on his inner right forearm.

 

It was while sitting on the patio of a bar, in downtown Vancouver that something unexpected happened.

“I was seeing this woman and we out having couple of drinks. She was sitting on my lap, and we were talking and having a nice time. I realized that I did want all those things,” he said. Mathew had fallen in love. 

 

“We got married and had a kid, our daughter. I never expected any of that,” he said.

“I was doing my thing, working and still drinking. When my daughter was about three years old, my wife left. She didn’t like the drinking, and made-up some stories about our relationship. I was drinking, in part, to run away. She got a restraining order against me, moved out of town and I haven't seen my daughter since then,” he said quietly.

 

“I completely fell apart. I was in a deep depression and couldn’t do anything for myself. My mother took me in. For about a year, I did nothing. Slowly, very slowly I started to come out of it. My mother was an Emergency dispatcher. She worked with a woman who had her own cleaning business on the side. She needed some help with her business so my mother suggested I help her, and do some work for her friend. My mum was trying to get me out of the house." 

 

"I started working a bit, and then a bit more. I became friends with the woman, my mother's friend. There’s a bar that had become my local, and we went for a drink  after work one day,” said Mathew. It turned out that the woman with the cleaning business knew the owner of the bar.

“She had told me that she always wanted to run a restaurant. She spoke with the owner and then asked me if I could cook. She took over the restaurant and hired me to do the cooking,” he said, with an air of amazement. 

 

Mathew reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a lovely silver cigarette case.

"Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks. I’m not a smoker (anymore) and I appreciate when people are considerate enough to ask. He lit a cigarette. 

 

“Before I had been working in the bar, back when I was still just a customer, I spotted this women who seemingly just captivated me. I had been watching her a bit and then I went over to talk with her. I asked if I could have her phone number. She told me she had a boyfriend. I thanked her and then went back to my drunk friends. As she was leaving the bar, she comes over to me and tells me that if she didn’t have a boyfriend, she would have given me her number, and says goodnight. Thing is, I don’t remember any of that conversation, or that night. It was a friend who told me about this woman,” he says.

"I was too drunk."

 

Several years later, and Mathew’s now running the kitchen in that same bar.

“In comes this beautiful woman one night. She’s looking at me like she knows me. It was that same woman from that night years before, that I don’t even remember! She recognized me because of my hat,” he says, with an air of disbelief. They’ve been together ever since, for the better part of seven years.

“We’ve broken up a few times, during the first few years,” he tells me.

About five years ago, he realized he wanted this woman to be in his life, long term.

“I started going to a day program. It runs daily for six weeks and you can take certain workshops that suit you or that appeal to you. It’s a combined drug and alcohol rehab program, but no one has to say what they are there for,” he told me. Mathew worked through some personal issues and has been in a good place for the last two years.

 

His mother passed away last November.

“My sister and I have become a lot closer through that. We’ve tried to find the good in things. Now we’re closer, since Mum’s passing. We try and get together and have dinner every week. It’s good,” he says with a warm smile. 

 

“It was tough. We didn’t know what to do. My mother never left a will or anything. We only knew that she said wanted to be buried in Nova Scotia. So we did that for her,” he told me.

“An aunt in Nova Scotia took care of the arrangements for the service. Transporting a body is more complicated than we expected, that’s for sure. The funeral home had to accept the body when it arrived in Nova Scotia. But getting the body transported? Only Canada Post are permitted to transport deceased folk,” he said. I found that baffling.

“I’ve heard the expression ‘Late for your own funeral' many times before, but this was first time I actually saw it happen! My mother arrived after the service was over. Mum was late for her own funeral.” #notastranger

Today’s story is sponsored by Moii Cafe, 2259 Cambie Street, Vancouver

March 29, 2015 - Graham

March 29, 2015 - Graham (3rd person I approached)

I’ve had better weeks. I’m not writing this looking for sympathy, it’s just the truth. I wrote on Wednesday that I felt like I was slipping into a deep grey well. And while I’ve not gone down that well, I’m still sitting looking at the edge, albeit from a distance now.

But here’s the growth and the upside. I’ve been okay to just be, to observe and connect with how I’m feeling. Not avoiding it or denying it. Walking through, instead of around. That’s progress for me. Growth comes with it’s own pains and challenges, that’s one measure of how I know I’m progressing forward.

“That which we resist comes up for us the most.”

 

I walked past Graham, noticing he was surrounded with notebooks, a jotter pad, loose papers, and a phone. I wondered if he’d say he was too busy to chat, and was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to chat with me. He did ask how long I thought it would take, so I had an awareness of his time while chatting.

 

“I was born in Victoria, (on Vancouver island) and when I was still a baby, we moved to St. Catherines (Ontario),” Graham said.

“I have one brother, he’s three years older than I am. I’d say he’s my best friend. We’ve always gotten along and been close.”  

 

After finishing elementary school, when Graham was fourteen, his family moved back to Victoria.

“My brother stayed in St. Catherines and completed high-school. Then he went straight to university,” he told me.

“I was excited about the move. I knew I’d be going to a new school anyway, it didn’t matter where it was. And we were moving back to British Columbia (BC) so yeah, I was pretty excited,” Graham said.

 

“I went to a private school. That was like having two-hundred immediate friends. There were international students who boarded at the school, so there was lots of people to meet, and new friends.”

 

When Graham mentioned the name of the school, I told him that I knew the Principal. I had lived in Victoria for nine years, and it is a small town, especially if you work in the arts. The Principal and his wife had been patrons of the theatre I worked at.

“That’s my father,” Graham said. My mouth may have dropped open at this point. I was a little wonderstruck at the universe and it’s magical less-than-six-degrees of separation. I repeated his father’s name again, just to be sure.

“Yeah, that’s my Dad,” he replied, flashing a huge, friendly smile. We talked a bit about what it was like to go to a private school where your father is the Principal.

 

“It was high-school, so that’s got it’s own challenges,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“I grew up understanding that education was important. We’ve got a lot of teachers and academics on both sides of the family.” Graham boarded at the school during Grade twelve.

“I did it for the experience,” he said.

“I was a Prefect as well, so that was part of the program.” A ‘Prefect’ is a senior student, selected to lead by example and mentor others.

 

“I enjoyed languages. French and Spanish. Learning a language allows you to connect with so many others,” he said. French and Spanish are both leading world languages, along with Cantonese and Mandarin.

“I tried to learn Cantonese. It’s a language that’s somewhat based in tone, with a high range of sounds. It’s difficult to learn,” he said. Graham did not pursue Cantonese.

 

“I went to Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario) right after high-school,” he said.

“My brother had finished high-school in St Catherines and then he went to Queen’s. It was the first time I had gone to the same school as my brother. It was nice to have him there to be that person to lean on,” he said, gesturing someone falling backwards with his hand.

“And just someone who knew how things worked.”

 

Graham started studying French and Spanish.

“I did my major in Spanish Literature. When you’re studying literature, you’re learning about history, people, social structure, economy, the arts. Everything,” he said. I likened it to social studies.

“Yeah, it is like that,” Graham replied.

 

During his four years at Queens, Graham did an exchange semester.

“I went and studied in Guadalajara (Mexico), for a term. That was really exciting. I was nineteen and in it’s own way, it sort of felt like Victoria. I mean it’s much larger, but it felt safe, and comfortable,” he told me.

“I graduated with a degree in Spanish Literature,” he said. I asked if he’s used that knowledge since graduating. He gave me another flash of his big smile,

“Yes, I have.”

 

“I came back to BC, and got my Master’s degree in International Management, at Capilano (then College, now University). They had two programs, one focussed on business in the Asia Pacific region, and another that focussed on Latin America. I went with that one,” he said.

 

Graham got a position with a company in Dominica. At first he said he got a job, but didn’t say what it was. I jokingly made a remark about being sure it wasn’t waiting tables. Graham gave a very hearty laugh, that came from deep inside. It was one of those laughs you hear that is almost infectious, it’s so filled with pure joy.

 

“No, I wasn’t working in a restaurant. I was working for a real estate developer. I spent about nine months there. I had intended to stay longer, but… It was at the time of the country’s economic difficulties. I had to cash my paycheque on the black-market,” he said, incredulously.

“The banks wouldn’t give me US dollars, and if they paid me in the Dominican currency, it would depreciate by about twenty percent overnight.”

 

Returning to Vancouver, it was only a month later that he went on his next adventure.

“I got a short contract working for a resort developer back in Guadalajara. I was there for about six weeks and decided that it wasn’t really what I was looking for,” he told me.

“For the last ten years I was working in real estate marketing, here in Vancouver.”

 

When we had first started to chat, I asked Graham if he was studying, based on all the paperwork in front of him. He told me that he was working on a program he had put together. He’d received some mentorship, and guidance from an executive coach.

“The more I got into it, the more I was interested,” he said.

 

In a culmination of all of his experience, Graham has put together a development program. His program’s called ‘The Daily Method’ (his website can be found at ‘the daily method’ dot ca). It’s geared towards individuals reaching their full potential, in all areas of one’s life. A balance of health and wellness, both physical, and emotional. The primary goal is for participants to become activated on an elevated level and achieving their goals. In turn, that will help activate others to fulfil their potential.

 

"I’ve been fortunate to receive training from some world-class instructors. Tonight I’m presenting my program to my trusted advisors. I’m going to walk them through the completed program, and get feedback in real-time and see how it all works out,” he said.

 

“You can get all the training that’s available to you, but if it’s not about all areas of your life, sooner or later that success is going to fall apart. Whether it be six months or six years later, things will start to erode,” he said, with passion.

“You need to be healthy of mind and body, it’s all integrated. It’s important to address all areas. Take what is learned and put it into action.”

 

Naturally, we had gone over the time I said it would take. I took Graham’s photograph, thanked him for the chat, and we shook hands. It was no surprise that his handshake’s confident, well-connected, with good eye contact, and his warm, personable smile. I told him where his story would be posted and wished him well with his presentation this evening.

 

I headed to one of my favourite coffee shops to sit and write Graham’s story. I regularly spend time researching things that come up in the chats I have with people. It’s always very interesting and I love to learn new things. Sometimes it can be about a town, or a language, a song, an industry. I’ve learned a lot of stuff over the fifteen months that I’ve been talking to strangers. And not just about myself.

 

I’ve mentioned before about ‘asking one extra question.’ It’s a tool I’ve utilized to dig deeper into a topic of discussion. Sometimes it’s learning more about an individual’s motivation or reasoning behind a choice they’ve made. It might be how they feel about the outcome of a situation. I had asked Graham about being the Principal’s son at school, moving across the country, living in other countries. I hadn’t asked him about sports or health, even though it had come up, in relation to his Daily Method Program.

 

I was amazed to discover another layer that ran pretty deep in Graham’s story, that he hadn’t talked about. I was able to send him a message asking if I could write about the things I had discovered after our chat. I was happy to get a reply from him saying that it would be fine. Another unwritten Stranger Project rule broken - I’ve not as yet, written about things I’ve learned about people after talking to them. It’s definitely part of this story.

 

Graham is a huge adventurer, and seemingly very modest about it too. As a self-described sports philanthropist, Graham has overseen fundraising totalling over $600K, since 2008. He has ran triathlons (5km Swim, 223km Cycle, 22km Run). One of those triathlons was ‘The Escape from Alcatraz,’ where racers are taken by boat to Alcatraz Island (San Francisco Bay). The 2km swim, in waters known to have sharks, is the distance back to land before completing the other two stages of the triathlon.

 

He lead a team of first-time ultra runners in the Coastal Challenge. It’s a six day, 235KM run in the rainforest jungle, in Costa Rica.

 

He took part in The Big Five Marathon in South Africa. It’s run on an active game reserve, with the intention of spotting the most difficult to hunt animals in the reserve. (NO killing involved).

 

For me, the most staggering thing I discovered took place in Nepal. Graham undertook a six day, 250km self-sustaining foot race. Participants are given just six litres of water per day, nothing else. On day two, Graham got sick and tried to quit the race, but couldn’t get a phone signal to ask if that was ok, so he carried on. He lost 12 pounds and completed the personal challenge. When an interviewer asked what keeps him going in those moments, Graham replied

“One of the things that keeps me going is recognizing and remembering who I’m doing it for. So I felt very fortunate I didn’t get a hold of anyone.” He was racing for an organization called Mencap, which helps those with learning disabilities.

He went on to say

“One of the things I took away from this race was that we start to do a lot of the things that we’re doing to make ourselves bigger, and the reality is that we are really quite small. And when you go and push yourself to these limits, you realize how small you are. And it’s not that you’re learning about yourself, it’s that you’re learning what you didn’t know about yourself. That’s an experience I’m really grateful for.” I feel so inspired, and humbled.

 

I discovered that Graham knows a couple of my friends as well. You just never know what that person sitting alone in a deli, having a bite to eat and reading, has done in their life. All I needed to do was step away from my grey-well-watching, introduce myself and have a conversation. It all started with ‘Hello.’ #notastranger

Today’s story is sponsored by Moii Cafe, 2259 Cambie Street, Vancouver

March 25, 2015 - Jazzy

March 25,  2015 - Jazzy (3rd person I approached)
For a number of different reasons, I’ve been laying low the past few days. I usually like rainy days and if I’m at home, I feel comfortable and cocooned. Not today. I felt like I was slipping into a deep grey hole, and I needed to get out. Despite how I was feeling, and the rain pouring down, I headed out to find a story.

 

I saw Jazzy in an alley off of Hastings Street. There was a stream of water pouring out of a drain-spout, forming a large puddle in the alleyway. Jazzy appeared to be playing in the puddle, tapping and splashing her feet in the water. She had earphones in, with her hood up, and didn’t hear me at first as I said hello. Turns out she was cleaning her shoes, not playing in the puddle. When I got her attention, and told her what I’m doing, she agreed to chat with me. 

 

“I just have to stop at my place first, come with me,” she said. This was unusual. We walked down the street a bit, Jazzy telling me she jut needed to grab something and then we could chat. She invited me in and at first I told her I would just wait on the street. She seemed puzzled by that.

“This is my place right here, just come in,” she said.

 

Jazzy lives in a shelter in the DTES (Downtown Eastside). It’s staffed with a person at the front desk who buzzed the security door open. There was a small reception area, with the staff person behind a glass-enclosed counter. I went into the lobby with Jazzy. She introduced me to the woman working at the desk. I told her about my project, saying that Jazzy and I were going to have lunch and chat. Jazzy needed to take some medication, which was dispensed by the staff member she had introduced me to. 

 

As we walked out of her shelter, Jazzy casually put her arm in mine. It was such a small gesture, and yet it was powerful to me. It meant she felt safe and comfortable. Jazzy told me that the gentleman always took the outside of the sidewalk, and the lady walked on the inside. I joked that the reason it went this way was in case a car ran off the road, the gentleman would be the one hit.

“Yeah, and then my job is to be the one who screams,” Jazzy said, laughing. She threw out a little scream for effect. 

 

We were almost at the diner, when Jazzy suddenly disappeared. The door to a women’s resource centre had opened and she jumped in there. I waited and a minute later, she reappeared. She had two small, brown paper lunch bags in her hand. She gave one to me.

“They always have baked treats in there,” she said, smiling.

“I wanted to get one for us.” She gave hers to a man standing on the street, and insisted that I keep mine.

 

“I was born in Grand Prairie, Alberta,” she told me when we had sat down.

“My mother named me Jazzmin, with two z’s. But everyone calls me Jazzy.” She has one brother, seven years younger. They have different fathers.

“I spent a lot of time looking after him. Changing his diaper, feeding him, playing with him. My mother was out a lot of the time. It was just me and him,” she said.  

 

Jazzy’s father met her mother in Mayerthorpe, Alberta.

“My mother was thirteen when she first met my father." They got married when her mother was sixteen years old.

“I don’t remember too much because I was just little, but he used to beat my mother. I remember her with black eyes and bruises. She had to move to get away from him. We took off to Edmonton,” she told me. 

 

“My Mushom (moo-shoom), that's 'Grandpa' in Cree, my Dad's father, used to beat him with his cane when he was a boy. I don’t know why.” I asked Jazzy if she had any memories of time with her father. She said she remembered once going to the (First Nations) reservation he was from with him, but that was about it.

“My Uncle, though, he was incredible. They called him Texasgate. He was on the Council for the Sturgeon Lake Reserve. He was my favourite. I loved all my family. They were my family, but he was my favourite,” she told me, excitedly.

 

Her mother moved to Edmonton, taking Jazzy with her, to escape her abusive father.

“I grew up there, in Edmonton. Even though I was born in a small town. Are you writing this down? I was born in a small town, but I was really a city slicker. A simple looking girl, a city slicker,” she said. When I asked why she thought of or referred to herself as a ‘simple looking girl’ she told me it was

“Because of my First Nations background. I’m just a plain looking girl. Nothing special. I’m a simple looking, city slicker girl.” I said I disagreed, but Jazzy wasn’t having anything to do with it.

 

Since I started this project, over a year ago, I’ve not taken notes. I like to remember the conversation and write the story later, from memory. However, since starting these chats over lunch, I’ve found the conversations get deeper, quicker. Sharing a meal with someone, the conversation seems to be more intimate. So I've been taking notes on my computer, while we’re talking and eating. It's something I'm adjusting to; I prefer not to take notes. But I want to be sure I’m getting the many details correct. It's also less pressure to remember these hour long chats. Jazzy asked me to turn my computer around and read every word as I typed my cryptic notes. It brought about a collaborative feeling between us. 

 

“I liked school,” she told me, enthusiastically.

“I was the class clown. Everyone came to school to laugh. I liked Social Studies, the teacher had a nice haircut. And I like gym class. My teacher was really sexy,“ she said, laughing.

“Well, he was.” She left school in Grade ten.

“I ran away. That’s why I left school. I ran away. I ran because I could. I saw an opening so I ran,” she said.

“Write that down.” I asked a couple of times why she left Edmonton.

“I used to beat up my little brother. Because I could. I was always the biggest kid in my class at school. I was in charge when she wasn’t around. So I would beat him up,” she told me, with a quiet defiance.

“It wasn’t because she was gone no. She went out to meet men. I was left at home. That’s just the way it was, so I would beat him up.”

 

Jazzy came to Vancouver.

“I would stand around outside of the bars on the DTES. I’d wait for the men who would come down to this part of town. Not for sex. I waited to find someone who would take me home and give me a place to stay,” she said.

“I never prostituted myself. I went back to Edmonton once. I went to make reconciliation's with my little brother,” Jazzy said.

“Of course he accepted them, he had too. I’m his big sister.” 

 

She got a place in a woman's shelter in Edmonton.

“It was a real nice place. You only had to go out during one time every week. They would spray the entire place to make sure it stayed clean. But most shelters you have to be out all day. Not at this one,” she said. Jazzy stayed in Edmonton for seven years.

“I came back to Vancouver for the weather. I didn’t have money for winter boots and clothes and it was getting cold again, so I came back out here.”

 

“I was standing outside of a bar and I met this guy named Mike. We would talk and laugh. He took me to his place for a visit. We just hung out and talked. I went back to his place three or four times before he offered me a place to stay. He became my best friend,” Jazzy said.

"Did you write that? Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t be talking with food in my mouth. I’m sorry,“ she said, covering her face with her napkin.

“My mother came looking for me once. She found me. She told me my brother was crying for me, and she wanted me to go back. I told her to go away, she was drunk and I wasn’t interested,” Jazzy said.

 

Mike and Jazzy were roommates for three years.

“There was never any romantic interest. He was my buddy,” she told me.

“Until he talked me into assaulting a cop. There was this big situation went down at his building where we lived and it was confusing and I didn’t think. I did it. I assaulted a cop,” she said.

“I got sentenced to a year in jail. But they put me on CSO (conditional sentence order). I didn’t have to go to jail. I had a curfew, to be in by 10pm. And I had to keep the peace,” she said.

“Then I met this kid. I was trying to help him out. He was young, and I was gonna teach him some stuff. He lived way the hell out in I don’t know where. I got caught out after my curfew. Then I breached my conditions again running an errand for a friend,” she said. 

 

“I went to jail for two weeks. I breached some more. The judge, put her name down. Why aren’t you typing this?” I told Jazzy I didn’t need to include the judge's name.

“But it’s her name, you should include this,” she explained. Jazzy breached her conditions a total of eight times. The judge told her she couldn’t do anything more for Jazzy, and she spent three months at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women.

“I was there for eighty-two days.”

 

When we first sat down in the diner, I had asked Jazzy if she was high. She seemed a little unfocussed and restless. She was talking quite loudly.

“No, I don’t do any drugs,” she said. Fast forward to this point in the story, and Jazzy tells me,

“I got out of jail and I had been clean for three months. By clean I mean no drugs, looking after myself, and not on the streets,” she told me.

“Within three weeks, I smoked a bit of speed. Make sure you write I was talked into smoking a bit of speed,” she dictated, watching as I typed her words. 

 

“One thing lead to another and it just got out of hand,” Jazzy said. She had finished eating and was putting the condiments back in their holder at the edge of the table. She grabbed a napkin, wiping where her plate had been. She stacked her dishes into a neat pile and moved them to the other edge of the table.

Looking right at me, she said “I assaulted myself.” 

 

Her arms were folded on the table in front of her. I sort of expected her to lift her sleeve to show me razor cutting scars. No.

“I was downtown and I had been high and awake for three days. I was a mess. All I could hear was a throbbing sound in my head. Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. I could hear other things too, but mostly the sound in my ears. It started to drive me mad. I walked past a Korean fast-food restaurant. I went in and asked for a pair of chopsticks. I went to the nearest alley, between two buildings, and assaulted myself,” she said. 

 

“I started with the chopsticks. I inserted them as far as I could up my ass. That wasn’t enough. I had really long sharp fingernails and I worked my fist inside and twisted my fist around and scratched as hard as I could on the way out. I was trying to grab hold of my insides and pull them out,” she told me.

“It was so painful, but I didn’t really feel it. I looked down and saw that there was blood everywhere. My clothes and my hands were covered in blood and shit. I knew I was in trouble. This wasn’t good,” she said. 

 

Jazzy walked to St Paul’s Hospital, about a mile away from where this happened.

“They called the police. Everyone's concern was that someone had done this to me, and they kept asking me over and over again to tell them how it happened. I was in hospital for nine days,” she said. This was last October.

 

Jazzy now has a colostomy bag. She wanted me to photograph it. I didn’t feel it was necessary.

“Well, how about if you take a picture with me holding my shirt up like this so you can see it,” she said. She lifted the hem of her shirt, showing me the colostomy bag, which is taped to her waist and then bandaged in place. I told Jazzy I didn’t want to photograph her that way, that I wanted to show a photo of her, with her beautiful face. She got up and came over to where I was sitting, to get a better look at what I was typing.  

 

The shelter she is living in is specifically for folk who have had surgery, or an injury and require medical care.

“They take really good care of me there. And I can stay as long as I need to,” she said. I asked if she was receiving any support to help her through the trauma she had been through.

“I’m seeing people, yeah. The police officer who came to the hospital that night came by to see me yesterday. She wanted to check on me and make sure I was doing okay and getting the help that I needed,” Jazzy said. 

 

I asked how she was doing with regards to drugs.

“Oh shit. I’m never doing drugs again. I’ve been scared straight. That was a terrifying experience. I never want to do drugs again,” Jazzy said, with certainty.

"Thank you for sharing my story. It's important," she said. As she left the diner, she walked slowly toward the door. I watched her, completely blown away at the strength of the human spirit. And bewildered. Jazzy got to the door, turned around, and gave a little wave. And then she blew me a kiss. #notastranger #beinghungrysucks

Today’s story is sponsored by the Save-On Meats diner, and their charitable organization, A Better Life Foundation

March 22, 2015 - Craig

March 22, 2015 - Craig (2nd person I approached)
It’s been a while since I’ve wondered around the mall looking for someone to chat with. I spotted Craig in the food court. He had finished eating and was looking at his phone. I told him about my project, and he didn’t utter a word while I built up to asking him if he’d chat with me.

He smiled, telling me “Sure, I suppose so.” He had been looking at Facebook on his phone so I suggested he look for my page so he could see what I was talking about. 

 

“I was born near Bow Lake, in western Alberta,” Craig told me. He is the oldest of four children, with two sisters, and one brother.

“I was a little different than my siblings growing up. They went to church and it wasn’t really my thing. We were raised in an evangelical household. We all got along, I just wasn’t into church,” he said. The family lived on a three-hundred acre grain farm.

“My father would take other work to supplement his income. He’d drive trucks, so my mother and I ran the farm when he was gone. We had some cattle, and sheep. We had dogs. I had a horse for a while too. I stopped going to church when I was sixteen. By that age the parents can’t really tell you what to do as much,” he said. 

 

School was a four-mile bus ride away. Three months before graduating, Craig left high-school.

“I had already left and gone back twice. I just didn’t see any value in it. I didn’t think it would be so important once I had left,” he said. On the farm, Craig would ride around on dirt bikes.

“I got my motorcycle license when I was fourteen. Back then, you could ride on the road, on any motor bike as long as you had your license. You had to be at least fourteen,” he told me. We talked about how people either liked motorbikes or they did not. I’m in the latter category.

“No, it’s in your blood or it isn’t,” Craig said, smiling.

 

“I worked with my father for a while once I left school. He was driving oil trucks and I’d go along with him. I worked for a couple of farmers and on a ranch as well,” he told me. When Craig was eighteen, the family moved to Fort St John, in British Columbia (BC).

“I worked with my Dad for a while, filling in as driver for him when he wanted some time off. Then I started driving oil trucks, full-time. I’ve been doing that pretty much all of my working life,” said Craig.

“I have my own oil tanker truck now. Bought my first one off of my Dad. It’s a good life. I’m home every night. But there can be long days. The money is good, but you’ve got to put in twelve and fourteen hour days. I’d like to have more time off to travel,” Craig said.

“I’ve got a Harley now. Just had it repainted,” he said proudly.

“I like to go out for rides. If there’s friends to join me, that’s great. But I don’t mind going out riding by myself.” Craig has been married.

“Once, for about a year, but that didn’t work out,” he told me.

 

“My mother passed away last April,” he said.

“I was always close with her, on account of my father going out for work. He and I weren’t as close. We’re both stubborn,” he said. His mother had breast cancer.

“It was about a year-and-a-half that she was sick,” Craig said.

“There were a lot of complications. She and my father, well they trusted the Doctors and never questioned anything. She was halfway through radiation treatment when they realized she was supposed to have had chemotherapy first, then radiation. Her oncologist was in Victoria. She’d go to Prince George for treatment and her doctor was in Fort St John. There was a lot of miscommunication. They operated and didn’t put in a shunt and she got an infection. We’d go to the hospital in Ft St John for teleconferences with her doctors and nothing would be set-up. No one knew anything about it. Then they just told us there was nothing more they could do for her,” he said. Craig held his composure well.

“They were two months short of being married fifty-four years,” he told me.

 

“Last November we found out Dad has cancer. Triple-hit lymphoma. It's a very aggressive type of cancer. But apparently it responds well to treatment. There is a high-survival rate. Dad was referred to the BC Cancer Agency here in Vancouver, within five weeks. It’s world-class. We’ve had nothing bad to say about any of it. The staff and doctor’s have been incredible,” said Craig. 

 

“It’s been a huge contrast from the experience we had with Mom. It makes me think that she might have survived if she’d come down here. But that was my parent’s first experience with cancer and they didn’t know any different,” he said. His father is in his fourth and final treatment cycle at this stage.

“He get’s chemotherapy intravenously, twenty-four hours a day, for five days,” said Craig.

“There’s a place that family can stay, right across from the hospital, and it’s cheaper than a hotel,” said Craig. There’s been a family member with his father throughout each of the treatment sessions.

 

Craig’s father is responding well to the treatments.

“Dad and I have become a lot closer,” he said.

“We’ve never talked about the past or anything. It just seemed to happen, and I’m glad of that,” said Craig.

"It's what I’ve wanted all my life.” #notastranger

 

Today’s story is sponsored by Moii Cafe, 2259 Cambie Street, Vancouver

March 20, 2015 - Robert

March 20, 2015 - Robert (2nd person I approached)
Can someone you used to know be a stranger? It brought up so many memories, some good and some not so good. The past occasionally pops up and meets me, face to face. It looks me in the eye and says hello. This was a tough one. 

 

Robert was standing outside a pub on West Hastings Street. He looked like he was tuning his guitar. I walked up to Robert and was just about to launch into my pitch, when he said

“I know you. It’s Colin, right?” It was a slow-motion moment, like the cards in a rolodex spindle flipping around. In what felt like an eternity, and yet wasn't even a nano second, I had put it together. I had first met Robert when we were both sixteen or seventeen years old.

 

I haven’t seen him for years. I told Robert what I’m doing, and asked he’d chat with me for my project. He mentioned he was waiting for a friend but had an hour to kill. The timing was perfect! We were standing right next to Save-On Meats, and I asked him to come and have lunch with me.

 

Robert was born at Lion’s Gate Hospital, in North Vancouver. He is the youngest of four children, with an older brother and two older sisters.

“I was kind of the quieter one, sitting back and watching everything,” he said. I knew that he had been well-educated, going to a private school for Grade eleven, as a boarding student.

“During grade eleven, my Dad would pick me up and drive me home to North Van(couver) for the weekend, then I’d stay at school during the week. They wanted me to board for Grade twelve and I just didn’t want to do it. I went to high-school in North Van for grade twelve. I did an arts program,” he told me. 

 

We had mutual friends. His best girlfriend was good friends with my best friend at the time. We were all just getting into underage clubbing, fashion and trying to be adults at age sixteen. My friend had an apartment in the Westend (downtown) of Vancouver. That’s where everyone converged to get ready for a night out, or crashed after a night out on weekends. Robert was extremely good-looking, and charming. Many of us were in awe, or slightly jealous of his calm, easy-going air of self confidence. It was also very attractive that he never came across as aloof or stuck-up. 

 

He was an incredible dancer as well, winning a local competition that got him and his friend a spotlight dance on the Dick Clark television show “American Bandstand.” This was at the time of the movie ‘FlashDance,’ and Robert was the closest we knew to being a star.

 

Over the next ten years or so, we would see each other at parties, or out with other mutual friends. In the early eighties, Vancouver's underground nightclub and after-hours scene was alive and vibrant. We moved in the same circles and I’d run into Robert at various late-night parties and clubs. Even as we got older, and our own circle of friends shifted and changed, our friends always seemed to over-lap. In 1987, I moved to London, England. Robert had left Vancouver and headed for Europe sometime before I did. We were all seeking something that we thought wasn’t to be found here in Vancouver. 

 

I was working in fashion at the time, and Robert had spent six months living in Milan, with a good friend of mine. He was signed to a top European modelling agency, and did some very successful and lucrative campaigns, before heading back to London. Once again, we’d see each other at mutual friend’s house-parties, or at nightclubs. As Robert said today

“It takes a while to get to know anyone outside of the Canadian circle when you’re living in another country.” He got a job bar-tending, as many models do, to pay the bills, and did some mainstream ‘high-street’ campaigns. Our time in London only overlapped for a year, before he returned to Vancouver.

 

“I had wanted to learn to play the guitar while I was in England and took lessons. I had two very good teachers, and I’ve been playing ever since,” he told me. Throughout our hour-long lunch, he never put his guitar down. It sat on the floor leaning against the bench next to him, with the neck in his hand, or placed across his lap, while he ate. 

 

Robert spent time working in restaurants and bars.

“I did go to New York for a while, to pursue my music, and some modelling. I had some great opportunities with a music management company as well,” he said. Our conversation kept weaving in and out of Robert's story and us chatting about memories of events we were both at, or people we knew. We talked about the last connections we’d had with various people. We also spoke of a few mutual friends who have passed away.

 

In conversation, Robert mentioned that he had been in recovery. I asked if we could talk about drugs.

“Yeah sure. I love drugs. They’ve saved my life a few times,” he said, smiling. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that.

“Antibiotics are good for you,” Robert said, seeing the puzzled look on my face. I got the feeling that it was something he didn’t want to talk about, but when I asked, Robert told me he was fine to share his truth. 

 

“Alcohol, Meth and marijuana. Everyone's addicted to something. And often recovery is just shifting the addiction to another substance. Alcohol is addictive, cigarettes are addictive. There’s so much around that is addictive,” he said. 

 

Robert reminded me of a party he had at his place one snowy night about twenty years ago. A group of our mutual friends were all in Vancouver from various cities in Europe. We went out to dinner and then to Robert’s afterwards. I was so drunk that I have no memory of even being there at his place. A friend had to take me home and then called me the next morning to make sure I was ok, telling me what I mess I had been. I only knew about the party Robert had thrown because of how embarrassed I was about being so drunk. I made sure to show Robert that one of my tattoo’s includes my sobriety date.

“Good for you, Colin,” he said. “That’s great to hear.”

 

It would have been too difficult to capture all of Robert’s story over a lunchtime chat. While I can do that with someone that I have never met before, it proved to be difficult to separate myself from Robert’s story. I was okay with this, once I let go and realized that there is still a story to tell. We talked about circumstances, life and mental health, presumed and otherwise.

 

“I never knew I was depressed, until I was diagnosed with depression,” he said, laughing incredulously.

“It was almost like the system wanted me to be ill so they could look after me. I’m only disabled by the laws of society.” Robert spent some time living back with his parents in North Vancouver, at his childhood home.

“I was there for close to a year,” he told me. 

 

“A friend told me of a new shelter that was opening downtown, RainCity Shelter. This was different because unlike all the other shelters, they didn’t kick you out at 7am with a muffin. For kids on the street this made a real difference. Some of them were just going to sleep at that time,” Robert said. He stayed there for a short time. 

 

He told me of living in an apartment on the Eastside that had no windows.

“It was like a bunker. It was cheap. but it was also dark and gloomy. That's just not healthy. It seemed that there were always people coming over. It felt like I wasn’t ever able to be alone,” he told me.

“I went in and out of detox a few times while I lived there. Every time I got home, there’d be people there and they had drugs and I’d get high as soon as I got in. I used to get high and go for walks, just to get away. To walk off the shame I felt," he said.  

 

"A neighbour called the fire department one night. There wasn’t anything on fire, she just didn’t like me being there. When they showed up and saw where I was living, I was told it wasn’t a legal apartment and that I’d have to leave. I got into some difficulty ‘cause the landlord wouldn’t give me my damage deposit back. I had to move all my belongings outside and put them at the edge of the property under a tarp. Just for the night until I could figure out what I was going to do,” he said. Everything he owned got stolen.

 

It was while out on one of his walks that Robert passed by Turning Point Recovery Society.

“I spent two-and-a-half months there. I needed a certain amount of time in a shelter before I could qualify for housing. After that I got a room at the Drake. It was an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) Hotel. This was the second place I had seen, and if you said no to three places, it didn’t matter where they were located. If you said no, you went to the bottom of the list again. It had a window, and it looked towards the North Shore mountains. There was cockroaches too, I’m sure the place was built on cockroaches. But if you’re nice to to them, they don’t bother you,” he said laughing. It reminded me of living in London, where almost everyone has some kind of insect pest.

 

The Drake hotel was demolished eleven months after Robert had moved into it.

"They interviewed me twice, with a different person each time, for BC Housing. They come by to check out what your current living conditions are like. I don’t know if it’s the place, or you they want to check on,” he said. 

 

“They asked me what I needed. At the Drake, you weren’t allowed visitors past eleven at night, and you had to show ID (identification) to get in every time. I told them I needed to be treated like an adult,” he told me. Robert has a small apartment in a newer building, on East Hastings. 

 

“I’m still on the block, but what can you do. It’s a nice place. It’s not home like my parents home is. My father died a couple of years ago, and my mother is living in a care home now. My brother and one of my sisters are living in the family home. I say I’m not homeless, I’m just home less often,” Robert joked. There was a sparkle in his eye. We had finished our lunch, and there was a relaxed easiness about the conversation. 

 

“I go out and busk. I rarely make any money, and that’s not why I play. I do it because I like my music and I like playing my guitar. I’ll go and play out on Granville Street. Standing in front of the crowds down here on the block, now that’s a hard crowd to play in front of. They all stop and watch. One time I was playing and I looked down and someone had written in chalk in front of me ‘Drugs bring people together.’ It’s true as well. There’s a real community down here. I know a lot of people on the block. Some really good celebrity spotting to be had as well. There’s been some very famous people spotted down on the block,” he said with an all knowing nod of his head. 

 

Over the years, Robert’s sexuality has always seemed to be a subject that people wanted to put a label on.

“I’ve dated boys and there are girls that have dated me,” he smiled.

“There’s no need to talk about sexuality. There’s only a need to express it,” he added.

“I haven’t been in a relationship for a long time. It would be nice to maybe change that, at some point.” 

 

Having lunch with Robert was a gift. We were never friends who made plans to hang out together. We didn’t ever exchange phone numbers, or go for dinner together. But over the years, there’s always been a connection between us. Out of all the people I know in my life today, outside of my family, Robert is one of the people that has been in my life the longest. 

 

It was still a tough conversation, in some ways. It was tough, not because of Robert’s journey or mine. It was tough reflecting on all the years, and all the opportunities. It was tough to try to only dig into Robert’s past, because it’s so intertwined with my own. I asked him if he was happy.

“Looking back, when I see where I am, I think I’ll be able to say I’m living the happiest years of my life right now,” he told me. #notastranger #beinghungrysucks

Today’s story is sponsored by the Save-On Meats diner, and their charitable organization, A Better Life Foundation

March 17, 2015 - Murray

March 17, 2015 - Murray (2nd person I approached)
I was downtown today, working on a short contract job I’ve started. The work day finished earlier than expected, so I wandered around looking for today’s story. I had drank a lot of water throughout the day, and really needed to find a washroom. Over the years, I’ve developed a liking for the facilities at the Four Season’s Hotel. Clean, odour free, and available. I saw Murray painting in the upper lobby and after availing myself of the gent’s room, I stopped and asked if he would be willing to chat with me. He agreed to chat, telling me that he had heard of my project.

 

We moved away from his easel and took a seat in the far-too-comfortable couches of the hotel’s lobby. Murray started by telling me that he is invited by the hotel to come in and paint for two occasions, annually.

“I teach children to paint. I’m here now because it’s spring break (a school holiday) and I’m always here for a couple of weeks near Christmas time as well,” he told me.

 

“I was born in Drumheller, Alberta,” he said, smiling.

“Although when I was about six months old, we moved to Winnipeg (Manitoba). But I was born in Drumheller. I have two older sisters, both of whom have passed away now. I was the youngest of the three children,” he told me.

His father was a baptist minister, and his mother "was a quiet soul,” said Murray.  

 

“My father was a very good minister. He was also a hobby photographer, and later in his life, he went on to pursue his love of photography. He was a better man for that decision. It made him a richer, more satisfied person. That’s not to say that being a minister wasn’t satisfying, it was. Photography enriched his life, at the time he pursued it,” he said.

“I learned from that.”

 

“I spent twenty-one years in post-secondary education. I never did it to get a job. I simply loved learning. I was an anthropologist. I had gotten scholarships and awards which allowed me to continue with my education. I also worked and provided for my family at the same time,” he said.

“I had done everything I needed to do to get my Doctorate. The only thing I really needed, was to defend my thesis, the bulk of which was written. I had been a hobby painter up until then. I never figured I’d ever paint for a living." Murray was married and had three children. 

 

"One day. I told my wife,” said Murray, stopping to gather his thoughts. His eyes were filling with tears and he took a deep breath before continuing.

“I told my wife that I wanted to purchase an art gallery, and paint. She looked at me and said...” 

Again, he sat in his emotion, and a tear ran down his right cheek.

“She looked at me and said ‘I think that’s a wonderful idea!’ Who says that? Most people would react by saying ‘What? After all that education and you’re at this point? Why stop now?’ Not my dear wife. She gave me the key to open a door to my future,” he said, wiping his tears away. They had been married twenty-four years by this time.

 

Five years ago, Betty, Murray’s wife, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

“She got progressively worse," he said. As time was getting closer to the end, Betty was at the Langley Memorial Hospital. They were transferring her to the Langley Hospice, which was almost across the street.

"The ambulance attendants wheeled her down to an ambulance, waiting outside the hospital,” said Murray. 

After some conversation with the attendants, Murray convinced them to allow him to wheel his wife over to the hospice himself, without the ambulance.

“As we were heading there, Betty took my hand and said ‘Murray, I’m dying and need you to help me.’ I asked her what I could do for her. She told me she wanted to ‘Live my dying well.’ And that’s what she did,” he said. (*Fact Check - see links below.)

 

"The people at the hospice were incredible. I spent a lot of my time there. All the family did. My wife wrote a letter for every one of our children, the grandchildren, and one for me. She asked me to have her friends come to the hospital to say goodbye,” he said, pausing between sentences.

“The nurses would tell me to spend the night. They’d say ‘Climb up there and lay down next to her. I’m sure she’d love you to hold her.' I’d take her frail body in my arms.”

 

“We spoke about marriage. She told me she didn’t want any deathbed promises. Betty told me that she wouldn’t ever have remarried because our grandchildren were her everything. But she said I should remarry. She wanted me to. ‘You need to have someone to talk to’ Betty would say to me. I spend a lot of time travelling around giving talks and teaching painting and raising money for various charities. She wanted me to have companionship,” said Murray. Betty passed away two years ago.

 

Some of the staff from the hotel attended her funeral.

“They took such good care of her. Betty would come and stay with me here, even when she wasn’t well. One night, she was lying awake at two in the morning. She got up, needing to use the restroom. She saw a note that had been slipped under the door of our room. It was from one of the hotel restaurant’s wait staff. Wishing her a good night. He had written it at 1:30am, She cherished that,” said Murray. 

 

We spoke of three guiding principals Murray has in his life.

“The first one is I ‘see slowly’ which allows me to really see what I’m looking at and then paint it in detail. In today’s technological world, we see hundreds of images per day. Everyone's pace is high-speed everything. They’re going so fast they don’t see anything,” he said. 

 

“The second thing is I ‘feel deeply’ by allowing myself to experience what I’m feeling, as I’m in it. I spend four months each year out in the wilderness. So many people say they enjoy the wilderness. But really they’re not experiencing it. Saying you go to drive a snowmobile in the back country isn’t experiencing it, it isn’t in wilderness, it’s on it,” he said. We talked about this at length, with various analogies and relatable situations.

"People have little regard for it because they simply call it wilderness. They need to go in and name the things that are in the wilderness to fully appreciate it all as the wilderness."

 

“The third thing is I ‘communicate passionately.’ This is about my art, and painting as a way to express what I’m feeling. Where there are no words to communicate that. This is about when I talk about art,” he said. I gave an example of what I understood that to be. 

 

When Murray had told me his wife Betty had passed away, I didn’t say ‘I’m sorry.’ I explained that this was a conscious and intentional decision. I feel that often people say sorry, as a form of metatalk. A ritual of words that don't ring true for me, personally. 

 

“Exactly!” Murray said.

“I’m so glad you said that. I love that you feel that way. People are generally afraid to speak of death and grieving and so they say 'I’m sorry for your loss,' it's a way to acknowledge it. I don’t want people to say they're sorry. I don’t want people to be sorry - they’re not responsible for the grief. I understand why people do it, but I’m so glad that you understand. There are no words to describe how you feel in grieving such a loss. That’s how I 'communicate passionately,' through my painting,” he said.

 

“My life has been a series of goodbyes. My sisters, my parents, my wife. I’ve found that when I go into the wilderness, and I see slowly, I feel like I’m seeing some things that no one else has seen. I paint the things I see, in detail and I’m feeling deeply, and communicating passionately, through my work. I often feel a sense of relief after working on a painting. It’s a cathartic experience, because I can communicate in a way that is deeper than words. It’s how I feel, at the time,” he told me.

 

Murray spends a lot of his time raising money for charity, and teaching.

“I’m currently trying to raise (a large sum) for the Langley Hospice. I work with Aboriginal communities, and I teach children painting. I probably make more as an artist than I would have made as a Professor, but that’s not the point. I use what I’ve learned to help others wherever I can,” he said. 

 

I asked Murray what teaching children art looked like.

“Well, children can paint, but the brush is a new tool. They don’t know how much paint to put on the brush. It’s not about colouring within the lines. You have to let them discover it for themselves.” He told me that he had two children come by the hotel for a lesson earlier today. 

 

“I used this painting here as a guide,” he said. He was referring to the painting you can see in the photograph I took (top, centre), with the trees on a horizon, reflected in water.

“I asked one child to paint one half, and the other child to paint the other half. They were brother and sister, so when they take the paintings home, they can connect them to make the one painting. It was a wonderful lesson,” he said, with a large grin on his face.

"I'm seventy years old, and I don't have to work, but I love what I'm doing. I'm a better man for it."

 

Murray was one of fifty Canadian artists selected for ‘Art for an Oil Free Coast.' It's a campaign to raise awareness and bring attention to our fragile coastline. It highlights the fact that an oil spill from a supertanker would have a catastrophic impact on our coastline. 

 

While we spoke, several people were stopping and looking at Murray's work. A family of three wanted to take a photo with him. One lady asked for his card saying she would be in touch, that his art reminded her of a family friend. Murray told me, somewhat modestly, that he has had people burst into tears when looking at his work.

“And not because it’s so awful either,” he joked.

“I tell my students to learn to paint scents. The smells of a forest, or a mountaintop. The person who cries when looking at art has had a sensory memory triggered. I try whenever possible to ask what it reminded them of, where they were when that memory was formed. Art is very powerful,” said Murray.

 

His phone had rung a few times while we chatted and Murray graciously let the calls go. He had sat patiently with me for about twenty minutes or so, sharing his story. I thanked him for his time and we shook hands. A firm shake with a soft touch to match his gentle heart. Murray did answer one of the phone calls he received. It was his wife.

“I’m actually on my honeymoon. I got married seventeen days ago.” #notastranger 

*Fact Check - Remembering Betty  - http://bit.ly/1MItpX0
**Fact Check - Art for an Oil Free Coast - http://bit.ly/1FyT56q

March 15, 2015 - AN UPDATE - Craig

March 15, 2015 - Craig (an update)
Ego. It can be like a poison that leeches life, into the spiral of water swirling round and round, before it disappears down the drain. I planned to head out and find today’s story, then sit in a coffee shop and write. I saw Craig just a few blocks from my house. I first met him last year (Day 266), and we had chatted for The Stranger Project. (*Fact Check - see link below.) Three days after first sharing his story last year, I ran into him again. I made sure he read all the wonderful, supportive messages that people left for him. It was truly satisfying to share that encouragement with him.

 

The last time I saw Craig, he wasn’t as talkative as usual. He stopped long enough to tell me he was homeless and sleeping under a bridge somewhere.

 

This morning, he was sitting at Tom’s Bench, and I stopped to say hello and have a chat. Craig has struggled for years with drug addiction. We come from very different backgrounds, yet there’s a mutual respect. There's also a genuine kindness between us; Craig is a friend. He may have a tough, street-smart kind of guy exterior, but he isn’t afraid to share his vulnerability. Tom, my good friend from Day 10 whose story really set in motion what The Stranger project would become, had introduced me to him. Last week Tom mentioned to me that Craig was in hospital.

 

I mentioned to him that Tom had told me about his situation. I asked him what had precipitated all of this.

“My wife chose drugs over our kid,” he said, almost defensively. He and his wife haven’t been together for some time, and I’m not even sure how often he was seeing her or his daughter.

“The Government have my kid now.”

 

The news of his daughter going into care was the precursor to his latest relapse.

“My life has been such a roller coaster ride lately, man. I relapsed, and had a nervous breakdown. I checked myself into the hospital,” he told me.

“I started to hear voices, and I was considering finding a good knife. My plan was to tie weights to myself, slit my wrists and then jump off a bridge. The voices were telling me to do it. I checked myself into hospital instead,” he told me.

“The upside is I’ve been clean and haven’t used drugs in almost a month.” We spoke for a while about suicide and the relationship with the insanity of addiction.

“I don’t drink. I’ve been pretty much sober for probably twelve years, but I don’t seem to be able to apply that to drugs. I think I’ve had maybe two mickeys of booze in all those years.”

 

Craig’s relapses involve crack cocaine and crystal meth. They are two of the most commonly used drugs amongst heavy drug users. Both are highly addictive substances. He prefers to smoke his drugs.

“That batch of the crack was so pure. It was incredible,” he told me, slowly and with a reminiscent smile. He hadn’t heard about the recent police warnings of Fentanyl being used to lace street drugs in the Downtown Eastside. Fentanyl has a heroinlike effect, and in many cases, it's misuse can be fatal.

“Shit, that’s not good,” he said.

“I’m glad you told me.” 

 

I asked if he was afraid to die from Fentanyl.

“Yeah dude, of course.” I pointed out that apparently he didn’t want to die, or commit suicide.

“I’d hate for my wife to tell my daughter when she was older that everything was all my fault. For her to blame everything on me.” I suggested that was all the more reason to stick around, to let his daughter know that he’s not to blame for everything.

“That’s a good point,” he said.

 

While in care, Craig managed to make arrangements for housing, which means he won’t be on the streets or in a shelter. After two weeks of being in hospital, Craig was told they no longer had a bed for him. He is still ten days away from moving into his apartment.

“They don’t have a bed for me in the hospital, but they’re paying for a hotel room for me. It won’t cover the entire time until I move into my place, but I’ll get that worked out. It seems ironic that they don’t have a bed, but can pay for a hotel. They told me it was a budgetary management thing,” he said. 

 

While he’s staying at the hotel, Health Services has a healthcare support worker visit with him daily, to make sure he’s doing ok, and not suicidal.

“It’s a different person that comes over each time. We hang out for maybe half an hour and shoot the breeze. I’m seeing my social services worker tomorrow. At least I know her and she knows my story,” Craig said. 

 

He doesn’t go to any support meetings.

“I don’t want to sit around and listen to a bunch of people tell me how shitty their life is. I’ve got my own story. I know how shitty it is. I just wish I had never started using drugs. Ever,” he said. When I asked Craig what the aversion to going to meetings was, he thought about it for a bit before answering.

“I guess I want to be able to say I did it by myself,” he said. Ego. He knows it takes a village, and community and connection.

 

I asked if I could take a picture of the two of us and write an update about our conversation.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. I took several photos and we looked at each of them. I’ve never liked photos of myself. Craig looked very serious in the one I was okay with.

“I like that one of me,” he said. I told him I wasn’t going to use it, and he laughed, suggesting I take another photo if I wanted. I did. 

 

After we said goodbye, as I walked away, I mulled over whether or not I was going to use our conversation for today’s story. Did I really want to write an update? Part of me wanted to meet a new stranger, with a different narrative. I'm personally doing fine, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about depression, drugs, mental health and addiction for the past few days now. Especially since meeting Nikki on Thursday. I’m still getting messages from folk about her story. 

 

I questioned my own reason for hesitating about continuing with Craig’s story today. Ego. Sometimes the story, result, action or finale happens and while it might not be clear at the time, there's a reason why. I’ve put my ego aside, and right here, in this sentence, I know it’s the right thing to do. Maybe that’s the lesson in itself. #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://on.fb.me/1MDekpm

Today’s story is sponsored by Moii Cafe, 2259 Cambie Street, Vancouver

March 13, 2015 - Lance

March 14, 2015 - Lance (1st person I approached)

All week I had been planning to take yesterday off, and do nothing. I intentionally kept my calendar free. It was far removed from the days of isolating under the grey of depression. It was more about balance than avoidance. It felt good to recognize that it felt different too. Chipping away at the greyness of depression one day at a time is working for me, most days. Turns out I’m glad I took the day off. 

 

The story I wrote and posted about Nikki on Thursday attracted a lot of attention. It certainly resonated with me. For others, including several who were supported in one way or another, by Nikki in their past, it was powerful and moving. Everyone has a story, and each story has it’s own impact. I spent a lot of time reading, contemplating and replying to the many comments people left, as well as replying to direct messages I received. It was a good measure of the impact and awareness raised through sharing our stories and personal experiences.

 

I dropped off a prescription at the drugstore today, and had some time to wait before it would be ready for pick-up. I planned to go out and look for today’s story, and then collect the prescription on the way home. I saw Lance just as I was walking out of the store. He was paying for his purchases. He had on dark sunglasses and a set of headphones, with one ear uncovered so as to hear the person helping him. I walked out of the store, and waited outside for a minute or two and when he didn't come out, I went back inside. 

 

He was sitting in a chair, next to the entrance. I approached him and explained my project to him and asked if he'd be willing to chat with me.

“Well that depends on what you want to know,” he said, with a bit of laughter in his voice. I told him that I was working on a project exploring connection, community and conversation with strangers. I told him I was curious to know about his life, from childhood onwards. I also explained that I’m not a journalist and that he didn’t have to talk about anything he chose not to. He laughed and took his headphones off.

“Sure. I’m waiting for the HandyDart bus to come and get me. They usually call to say they’re on the way, and I’ve not heard from them yet, so I have some time,” he told me. I crouched down on the floor next to the chair Lance was seated on.

 

“I’m from here, Vancouver. Born just on the outskirts, in New Westminster, at Royal Columbian Hospital,” he said.

“I have siblings, yes,” he said when I asked him. He offered no more information.

“Well, I have two of each, brothers and sisters,” he offered after I asked more specifically about his family.

“I’m the second oldest. I don’t have any contact with either of my brothers, or my father. I call him the sperm donor. That should tell you enough,” he laughed.

“I am in contact with my sisters and my mother.” 

 

Lance was born blind.

“My headlights don’t work,” he told me. He can’t see anything.

“Both of my parents had issues, or at least they both wore glasses, that much I know. I’m not sure if it runs in either side of the family. But my baby sister is blind as well,” Lance said. 

 

“I was misdiagnosed as an infant. They told my parents I was mentally, well they used a word we don’t use anymore. But the diagnosis was that I was mentally (disabled). Of course, I wasn’t, but back then, my parent’s took what the high-and-mighty doctors said, to be correct,” he told me.

 

“I went to (a school for the blind). It was a dreadfully awful, horrible place back then. I was there when it was a boarding school, in those days. My parents figured it was for the best. There were staff working there who were mean and abusive. Emotionally, and physically. Pedophiles who preyed on the kids. They threatened to kill you if you ever dared to say anything,” he said. Lance was abused while there.

"I’m left handed as well, so that had it’s problems too. They tried to ‘correct’ it. I’d get hit over the knuckles every time they saw me using my left hand. I was constantly punished and hit for not using my right hand,” he told me.

 

When I asked Lance what grade he completed in school, he corrected me.

“You mean what grade did I get kicked out in, Colin? Grade ten. I was always a bit of a rebel,” he said with pride in his voice.

“They wanted me to talk my baby sister into going to the school. I flat refused. There was no way I wanted her going there. I couldn’t imagine what would happen to her. They said if I didn’t encourage and support my sister going to the school, that they would no longer teach me, and that I’d have to leave. So I left,” he said. Lance was twenty years old when he left the school.

“They held me back in a few of my grades.”

 

“I went to work for the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind). I did all kinds of things. A lot of basketry, I was good with my hands. I would fix radio’s for my friends as well. Just for my own interest. I liked that kind of thing,” he said. Lance moved into a care home for blind and deaf people when he left the boarding school.

“I lived there for a while. I also lived in a group home for a bit as well. Then I moved out on my own,” he told me.

 

We chatted about hearing.

"It’s a myth you know. The myth that people who are blind can hear better. It’s not true. Everyone hears differently and at different levels. I might say to someone ‘Did you hear that?’ and they say no. Their hearing can be good but they just don’t hear at that level. One person might not hear it and the person next to them can,” he said. There was a machine making a beeping noise off in the background. I used that as an example.

“Exactly!” Lance said.

“Everything has a sound. It’s just a matter of learning what that sound is,” he said.

“I also don’t care for labels, not at all. People use labels for everything and it’s not right. Doesn’t matter if someone is black, or Chinese or white. We’re all people first. That’s what matters. Not labels. I don’t care for them at all,” he told me.

 

For most of his adult life, Lance has used guide dogs to assist him.

“I lived in the same house for thirty-four years. But the dogs have  helped me with everything. Sure I knew that house incredibly well, but the dogs helped me get around. I’ve had four dogs. And each of them have been my best friend. I don’t have a dog right now. My last dog died suddenly of a heart attack last year. I’m supposed to be getting a new dog soon though. Once that happens, I’ll be back riding the public bus system again. I’m only using HandyDart because I don’t have a guide dog,” he said. Lance has had to move a few times over the last few years.

“Well, it takes time getting to know a new place. I have a lady-friend, just as a room mate and we help each other out,” he said.

 

After his time working at the CNIB, Lance got a job working for a speaker company.

“I did repairs and built speaker systems. As in music speakers,” he told me.

"I’ve always been good with my hands, as I said. I’ve done some wood carving too.” Lance has never married and has no children.

“They’re too expensive,” he says with hearty laughter.

“It means I’ve got more money for myself!”

 

In November of last year, Lance, who is in his sixties, started a college course.

“I’m back at school learning to use a system they have for computers. I’m taking a keyboarding course right now. I use a tablet and things, and they’ve been around for a while of course, but I started a bit later. I’m learning now so that I can help to improve the courses for people who have impaired vision. Then I’ll go on and learn more about the software to help me operate the computer,” he said. I asked Lance if he has professional aspirations in computers.

“No, I’m doing this for my own personal interest. You’ve got to keep the mind active and sharp, you know,” he tells me.

 

Reaching over, I place my hand on Lance’s and thank him for chatting. We shake hands. I realized later I hadn't asked if I could shake his hand. Although Lance seemed to be absolutely fine with it, I made a mental note to always remember to ask. 

 

His headphones were in his other hand, and I asked him what he likes to listen to.

“I try to get CJOB, a radio station out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s a favourite of mine,” he tells me.

“There’s a similarity in their ideals and morals that I agree with.” 

 

I ask Lance if there is anything that he feels is better, or that he does better because of being blind.

“Memory,” he says instantly.

“Nowadays everyone with their smart phones and technology, and no one can remember anything. I’ve always had to remember where everything is and use my memory. It’s not that my memory is any better, I just use it more than most people do. Always have done. Everyone has the ability, but they don’t exercise it. I do.” #notastranger

March 11, 2015 - Nikki

March 12, 2015 - Nikki (7th person I approached)
I believe there are many 'firsts' throughout life. First love, first fight, first car, first room mate, you get the drift. I think that living life out loud, invites more firsts. Today was another first for me. My first time wondering around the Downtown Eastside (DTES) looking for someone to share their story with me. I've done that before, today however, it was going to be over lunch at Save-On Meats diner. 

 

My approach didn’t change; I still told people about my project, asked each person if they’d chat with me, let me take their picture and post it online. Then I mentioned lunch. I only got that far three times. There’s can be a sense of caution with people on the DTES. Either people don’t want to share their story, or they don’t want to share their story and have their photograph included. I will always continue to operate with nothing but respect, and won't ever try to convince someone to chat with me. 

 

I saw Nikki sitting in Pigeon Park. She had sprained her ankle, and was trying to repair the zipper fastening on her boot, that had come apart. When I asked Nikki to chat with me, tell me about herself and let me take her picture, she was more than happy to do so. When I asked if she would chat with me over lunch, she hesitated, and then agreed. We walked to the diner and took seat in a comfortable booth.

 

Nikki was born at Burnaby General Hospital. Burnaby, once a suburb, is a city within the metro-Vancouver region.

“I have one sister, she’s ten years older than I am. I was raised by my mother, a single parent. The ‘typical’ welfare alcoholic,” she told me.

“I never met my father. I know his name, but that’s about it.”  Growing up, Nikki and her sister were removed from their home a number of times.

“Because my sister was ten years older than me, she went to group homes, and I went to foster homes. They usually don't send kids under twelve or so, to group homes. It would be too traumatic for a young kid. It’s already scary enough,” she said. 

 

Nikki doesn’t remember much about the first foster homes she went to.

“My mother would get better and we’d go back home with her, then it would start all over again,” she told me.

“I remember being in and out of foster homes from around the age of five until I was about ten years old.” Nikki played with her hair throughout our conversation, wrapping it into a pony tail and twisting it all around her hand.  

 

“I was teased all through elementary school, that’s about all I remember of that. I was overweight as a child and I got picked on and called names daily. They called me ‘Miss Piggy’ and I would hear oinking noises everywhere I went,” she told me.

“I do remember there was one foster care placement that was a great home. It was not only a nice house, but the family were nice to me. The thing that stands out for me, is that there was a real sense of family there in that home. Something that I longed for. but of course, that said, I didn't know at the time, that it was missing from my life. I thought my life was ‘normal’ because that’s all I knew. The mother packed me really good lunches for school. I do remember that!” she said, pulling her hair into a ponytail again.

 

“When I was seven, my sister moved out of the house. She never got the addiction gene. We had different fathers and I guess the gene skipped her. I seem to have gotten everything that my mother had,” she said.

“I really bloomed in high-school. Things turned around for me. I was big for my age, and I guess I was going through puberty and developing into a young woman. I was tired of taking shit from the mean kids." 

 

"One day, I saw the main group of girls who were my tormentors, all sitting together in the hallway. I marched up to them, stood there and said ‘So, do have anything to say to my face, now!?’ I was just tired of their shit, and I wasn't going to take it anymore. The bullying soon stopped. It gave me confidence. I realized that I was in charge and that by confronting them like that, made them know what what it felt like,” Nikki told me, proudly. She started making friends and became one of the popular girls in school.

 

Occasionally Nikki would go to church with her mother.

“When she was clean, we’d go sometimes. My mother wasn’t religious but she was spiritual. She wasn’t a bad person, and I knew she loved me. She just had her own troubles. I told a lady at church what it was like at home. She asked my mother if I could go and stay with her family. My mother agreed. This lady was well intentioned, and also very religious. For example, there was no watching television because it was 'the work of the devil.' After being there for a week, I told my mom what they thought about the devil's work, and she wasn't too happy. My mom didn’t want me to become brain-washed with religion,” she said.

 

Nikki’s older sister was living in Alberta, and Nikki went to live with her.

“She saw what was happening to me, and knew what my life was like. She didn’t want me to become like my mother. My sister had gone in the completely opposite direction, with regards to drugs or alcohol. Even at only twelve years old, I had already developed a lot of bad habits. I lied, and was really good at it. I would lie about stupid things to my sister, and she’d ask me why. I only did it because it had become a survival mode for me,” she said. After a year, Nikki wanted to come back to the city, and her mother. She had started using drugs in high-school.

“I would go to parties with my girlfriends and there would be guys there and we’d get drunk and, well, you know. Boys will buy you alcohol if you like to party. And I liked to party,” she told me. 

 

During the last three years of high-school Nikki was enrolled in an alternative program called ‘Take a Hike.’ It was two days of regular school curriculum, a day of doing volunteer work in the local community, and two days of outdoor activities.

“We went kayaking, and climbed the Grouse Grind (local mountain trail). We learned rope skills and tying knots. We went swimming and running. They were teaching us leadership skills. Not with the intention of becoming leaders, but so that we could develop as individuals,” she said. 

 

“I surprised everyone by being really good at long boating. I made it onto the honour role for that program. I even had a chance to get a scholarship to go to college if I had stuck with it, but I didn’t. I used to show up to school drunk. They tried everything they could to help me. I had councillors, and so many chances. I went to meetings and rehab programs. But the thing is, you have to want it before anything will work. At that time, I didn’t want it,” she said. 

 

As she wrapped her hair around her hand, Nikki told me that she started to make money prostituting when she was seventeen.

“I’ve worked the streets off and on since then. It isn’t enough to have guys buy me alcohol. I needed drugs and clothing and things.”

 

“My mother had been bringing men home for years. She was always trying to fill that void. She was dating this one guy and I could see that he was being emotionally abusive to my mother. He wasn’t physically abusive with her, and he never tried anything with me. He knew he couldn’t. I told her she had to choose - it was either him or me. Much to my surprise, she chose me. Then a year later, he was back on the scene. I moved out. I was about fifteen then,” she said. She spent her time at the homes of various friend's, crashing where she could.

 

A friend took her to party where she met a guy that was a drug dealer.

“That was the first time I smoked crack cocaine. There were three other people sitting at the table with us. They told me not to do it, that I’d regret it, but I didn’t care. And I didn't listen. That was that. I woke-up the next morning still at my friend's place. They guy I had smoked crack with saw me and handed me the crack pipe. All he said was ‘Here, you’ll need this’ and I’ve been addicted ever since. The funny thing is, I had grown up with addiction, but didn’t realize I was an addict myself,” she told me. The man she had been doing crack with that night was thirty-five years old, and Nikki, at seventeen, became romantically involved with him. That lasted for a year, in which time, she also sold drugs for him.

 

“I went back home to live with my mother. I would see signs of her drug use, more and more. Then one day I pulled out my stash, and we got high together. I regret that. I wish I had never used drugs with my mother, but I did. She knew I was working the streets and would let me bring tricks home. She knew it was how I got money for my drugs, which meant she got drugs as well,” she said, tears running down her face. 

 

“I got pregnant. I had been dating this guy, and he completely took responsibility for the baby. For him, there was no question, he was going to accept that the baby was his. I continued using and that’s when I realized I was an addict. I thought having a kid was going to fix me. It didn’t,” she said.

“I went to Fir Square (Combined Care Unit). It’s a resource centre for new mother’s with addiction issues. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. They help new mothers learn skills to look after their newborn babies, providing guidance and support,” she said. (*Fact Check - see links below). 

 

“I got clean a couple of times while I was with my boyfriend. When my son was not quite a year old, I got an unexpected cheque in the mail. I cashed it and immediately scored drugs. It wasn’t what I had been planning to do. Once the decision was made, the fuck-it-muscle took over,” she said. Nikki’s mother looked after her son for a while. Then her son went into the foster care system.

“In the end he (her boyfriend) couldn’t take my addiction any more. I did some horrible things. I was a terrible, horrible person. And he put up with a lot of shit. He was an alcoholic, but didn’t use while we were together. He left me. Sadly, he’s using now,” she said. Nikki had been in that relationship for nine years.

 

“My mother passed away last year. A bottle in one hand and a pipe in the other, that’s what killed her. She had Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, and she continued to drink and use crack," she said. 

 

"My sister was the one who told me my mother was going to die. She, my mother, was in hospital, and I went to make amends with her. I understood my mother, and she understood me. We understood each other because of the addiction,” she said. Her face was stained with tears. Nikki continued to pull her hair into a ponytail. I’m sure she wasn’t even aware she was doing it.  

 

“I went to Hannah House, a residential treatment centre. I went to avoid dealing with my mother’s death. I was in and out of there a few times. I had become a really good cook, and every time I was at Hannah House, that was my job. I stayed at Hannah House and got really busy there. I was cooking, helping with volunteer orientation and became the health and safety supervisor. I got clean because I wanted it," she told me. 

 

"My mother’s death changed my life. Some of it for the better and some for the worse,” Nikki said.

“I was just about to get into level one counselling. I had been working hard with some of the other girls at Hannah House. I learned that the most important thing anyone can do is share their story with another person. I was never going to become an actual counsellor, but the training was going to help with my own growth and emotional development. It was to be a tool I could use in my own life.” She relapsed after her mother’s death.

 

“I got back into that dark emotional spiral that is addictive thinking. The black void. The self pity, the poor me, the poor woes me, my mother died, why does this always happen to me. I told people they’d use if they had to deal with the things I’ve had to deal with. I wallowed in self pity. Addicts like to live in a shitty diaper. I made the switch from ‘normal’ thinking to insanity. The fuck-it-muscle was back in action. And yet, I was fully aware of my behaviour. Once you get clean, the seed is planted. even when you use again. It’s not the same,” she said. As a sober alcoholic myself, I knew exactly what Nikki was talking about. Addiction is addiction, no matter the substance or behavioural pattern.

 

“I’ve been dating a guy since last September and we fell in love. He’s an addict as well. He wants to stop using. We’ve talked about getting clean together. But you can’t get clean just because your boyfriend or whoever wants you to. If I don’t want it for myself, then it won’t happen. Not with any longevity anyway. I don’t honestly know if I’m ready right now,” she says, with stark honesty.

“He wants to marry me. He wants to get married on August 12th. That’s my mother’s birthday,” she said.

“I’m still using, yes. I smoked some heroin and some speed this morning,” she told me. 

 

“My son has been in the foster care system for years now. He’s nine years old. I’m trying to remove myself from the situation, and to consider what is best for him. I mean he’s only a child still. He could be a doctor, or a scientist, or an astronaut if he wanted. I’m trying to think of the situation not with my heart or my ego. It’s so very hard to even say this,” she says, catching her breath. 

 

“I think it’s time to let him go. All the time that he has spent in care, he’s always been with the one family. His foster mother has been so kind and supportive of me. But recently she’s been talking to me about his future, and letting him go. Putting him up for adoption, so that he can have the best chances in life. I’ll always be his mother, and he will always be my baby boy. But I need to think of what’s best for him. And I’m not able to provide that for him,” Nikki told me. The tears were running down her face, but her voice and conviction was clear.

“I need to think about him, and not about me.” She had stopped playing with her hair.

 

Nikki didn’t finish her lunch and asked if she could take the leftovers to go. I had taken pictures of Nikki while we talked. She told me she had to get going.

“I’ll be honest, I have some dope in my bag, and I need to go smoke a bowl. When you asked me to chat with you, I thought it would be fine. Then when you mentioned having lunch, I almost said no. I just had to fix my shoe, then I was going to go use, when you approached me. The most important thing I can do is share my story. If I share my story, it not only helps me, but it might make a difference for someone else. I decided I could wait to get high until after we chatted.” #notastranger

*Fact Check - Fir Square - http://bit.ly/1Bz3IV5 
*Fact Check - Hannah House - http://hannahhouse1.ca

Today’s story is sponsored by the Save-On Meats diner, and their charitable organization, A Better Life Foundation.

March 10, 2015 - Atsushi

March 10, 2015 - Atsushi (1st person I approached)
I had gone downtown to meet a friend for a coffee and a good catch-up. I hadn’t seen my friend in quite sometime, and as happens with good friends, it was like yesterday. The only awkwardness was both of us trying to fit in what we both wanted to talk about!

 

After coffee, I decided to walk home along the False Creek waterfront, via English Bay. I spotted Atsushi sitting on a bench, looking at his phone. I sat down next to him, as I explained what I was doing. He smiled and told me that his English wasn't very good. I said we could give it a try, if he was willing to chat and let me take his photograph. He smiled again, and agreed to chat, putting his phone down.

 

“Do you know what ‘sushi' is?” he asked.

“My name is like sushi with an A-T in front.” It made me smile, and also made me think he has used that example before.

“I am from Kobe, Japan.” Atsushi is the youngest of three children.

“My brother is five year older, and sister is seven year older,” he told me. As children they all got along, and even though his sister was seven years older than Atsushi, she didn’t boss him around or want to be in charge.

 

“Making friend was my favourite thing about school. Nothing else. I liked school and my friends,” he said.

“I go to university right after high-school. My parents make me go, it is what happens in Japan. But brother and sister do nothing. They did not go to university. I had to,” he laughed. I joked that he had to carry the pressure of being the youngest, which made him laugh.

“I studied nutrition. When I go first to university, I do not know what I want to do. My mother told me ‘nutrition’ and I do that,” he said. Atsushi spent four years in university.

“I liked high-school better. More about my friends, and social. University is, about work,” he said. 

 

After graduating university, Atsushi started working.

“Do you know the Donkey Hotel,” he asked me, or that’s what I heard. Hours later when I started to write this story, I couldn’t find anything online called The Donkey Hotel (not as a department store anyway). I reached out to a friend of mine, Peter. He’s a Canadian born, Australian raised, lived in Japan traveller, and when I asked about what had now become ‘The Doggy Hotel’… we went back and forth until he told me of Don Quixote, a trendy department store! So, back to Atsushi, who had worked in the cosmetics department of Don Quixote.

“I sold shampoo and conditioner, cosmetics and things,” Atsushi told me.

 

As we spoke, the story timeline jumped around a bit, and at one point, Atsushi pulled his toque back and briefly showed me the top of his head. He had a patch of hair missing, telling me he had what I understood to be surgery. I asked why he had surgery and Atsushi tried to come up with the word in English, but we weren’t landing on anything. He grabbed his phone and used a translation app, and showed me the word ‘depression’ translated from Japanese. Things got very muddy then. I tried to find out why Atsushi had undergone surgery for depression.

“I worked for three years in the donkey hotel (that’s what I heard), and my boss stressed me. He cause many peoples to be stressed. My doctor tell me this is because of stress,” he says, pointing to his head. I asked how long he had been in hospital for.

“Five times I’ve been in hospital. I take how do you say,” as he made a gesture that looked like eating food with his hand. I asked if he meant he taking medication.

“Yes, I do that,” he says, repeating the gesture with his hand. 

Living with depression myself, I really wanted to know why he had undergone surgery.

“I don’t know," he told me. We both knew that we were having an issue with communication, and we were both smiling. I continued asking him questions.

I said ‘So you went for surgery, but you don’t know why you were being operated on?’ to which he replied innocently,

“No, I don’t know. The doctor said it to me.” 

 

I asked again how long he had been in hospital for the surgery.

“It will be four or five years,” he replied. Now I was really confused. Then it occurred to me to ask him to remove his toque completely. Turns out he hadn’t had surgery at all. He had a few small, circular bald patches on his scalp (a form of Alopecia areata, or ‘spot baldness').  I had a friend who also experienced this before. It is related to, or a symptom of, stress. 

 

Atsushi had undergone treatments to replace the hair. Hence the five times and the process taking four or five years! I laughed and told him what I had figured out, he nodded in agreement. I explained that I thought he had told me he was cut open and made a knife and cutting gesture. Atsushi burst out laughing,

“No, no cutting. Hair.” While our conversation was somewhat stumbling and broken, we had managed to make a connection. Through perseverance, and his patience, we had connected and communicated.

 

Atsushi had a friend of his come to Vancouver a couple of years ago. She wrote and told him that Vancouver was wonderful and that it would be good for him to travel here.

“I plan to work at (donkey hotel) for three years and then come to Vancouver,” he told me. He has been here for four months.

“I’m working in a restaurant. I am a chef,” he tells me. It’s a popular restaurant in Yaletown, a trendy neighbourhood for shopping and restaurants, in downtown Vancouver. Atsushi had learned to cook while he was in university.

“I worked in a Chinese restaurant for four years while I go to university in Japan,” he explains.

“And now I cook here too.”

 

I asked Atsushi if today was his day off. He looked a little perplexed.

“I have a band,” is what I heard. Clearly that’s not what he was trying to tell me. He makes a gesture that looks like he might be using a foot-bath and pouring water in a basin. He grabs his phone again. This time he shows me a picture he found on the internet. It is a shocking image of what looks to be a painful burn on someone’s foot.

“Yes, I have accident at work. Band my foot,” he says. I correct him and say b-u-r-n-e-d slowly. He repeats it.

“I b-u-r-n my foot.”

 

Atsushi has been given a few days off work, to rest and hopefully, his foot will get better soon. I ask if he likes being in Vancouver.

“Yes I do. I stay for maybe one year. It is good here.” I take Atsushi’s photo. He thanks me for doing so. Then he hands me his phone.

“Can you please?” He has opened Facebook and wants me to search for The Stranger Project page. I type it in and then show him, and he wants me to ‘Like’ the page for him. I am happy to oblige. He looks at the pictures of some of the other stories I’ve written.

“Ahh, my picture will be here, like this?” he says, looking at Vania’s picture from yesterday. I say yes and ask if that’s still ok.

“Yes, that’s ok. Thank you. Have a nice day.” #notastranger

March 09, 2015 - Vania

March 09, 2015 - Vania (3rd person I approached)
This project has lead me to many new and unexpected connections. Today I met with a young woman by the name of Violet-Rose, who wanted to ask me some questions about how I started this project. She’s working on some ideas of her own, and wanted some insight about getting started. 

 

We met at a coffee shop and bakery on the border between Gastown, the birthplace of Vancouver, and the Downtown Eastside (DTES). The coffee shop's called Nelson the Seagull, it’s another of my go-to places to sit and write; they serve great coffee, and who doesn’t like the smell of freshly baked bread? 

 

After an inspiring hour of conversation with my new friend Violet-Rose, I stayed at the coffee shop. The sunshine was streaming through the window and I sort of got caught up on some social media things that kept making it onto my ‘to-do’ lists.

 

Whenever I’m leaving this particular coffee shop, I usually make my way home through the heart of the DTES. To many people, it’s a scary part of town, and to many more it’s a sad part of town. There are many people in the area with mental health issues, and or drug addiction issues. Homelessness is another issue in these few blocks along East Hastings Street. 

 

I too used to avoid this part of town, somewhat out of fear, mostly out of ignorance. Through my many enlightening conversations, with people from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences, my perspective has shifted. I spend more of my time actually looking at the people, not the situations, or my perceptions of the situations. The DTES truly is a community.

 

I saw Vania sitting on an abandoned office chair at the edge of the sidewalk. She had her feet up on a plastic black crate, and was doing a crossword in a newspaper. I couldn’t see her eyes through her dark, reflective sunglasses. I stopped and crouched down next to her and told her about my project and asked if she would be willing to chat with me.

“Yeah, sure. I love the idea of this,” she told me, smiling. She also agreed to let me take a photograph of her.

 

“I was born right here in Vancouver,” she said.

“Let’s see. My father died before I was born so I never met him. I’ve never met any of his family either. I really don’t know much about him. I’ve been in the care system since I was six years old.” Vania stopped to think about what else she wanted to tell me. I started to ask her some questions.

“I don’t have any brothers or sisters that I know of,” she told me, pulling on the earring in her left earlobe.

“My mother raised me off and on. She had issues with drugs, and so I was in and out of foster homes until I was fourteen,” Vania said.

 

“One of the first places I remember being placed, was at Main & 33rd (Little Mountain, a now-demolished social housing community). I was in bed asleep and I woke up in the middle of the night, and it seemed really bright in my room. I got up and looked out the window and there was a van parked on the street and it was on fire. Completely engulfed in flames. It was crazy. In the morning it was just a burnt-out shell.”

 

“My mother used to go into the bar down there (on East Hastings Street) and leave me on the block (outside), while she got drunk. That started when I was around six years old. I got to know a lot of the people down here. It’s always changing though. People that I knew just disappeared, or they died. Some don’t recognize me, and I guess there’s some that I don’t recognize. But this place right here, has always felt familiar and comfortable to me. I like to come here and sit and do my crossword. I love doing my crossword puzzles. I can clear my head and do some thinking and this is where I come to figure things out,” she says, looking around.

 

When her mother was first pregnant with Vania, she didn’t know.

“My mother got hit by a vehicle and was taken to hospital. That’s how she found out she was pregnant. She was in a methadone program when she was carrying me. I was born addicted to methadone. I don’t know of any medical complications or anything that I was sick with. I think I was okay,” she says, tugging her earring.

 

“Because I was in so many different foster homes, I went to a bunch of schools.” I asked Vania if she knew how many different homes she was in over the years.

“Oh god. You’ll have to give me a minute while I try and figure that one out,” she says. I can see her counting, using her fingers and looking up to the sky as she goes through her memory.

“No, I really can’t say for sure. But something like a dozen sounds about right. Definitely more than five, for sure.”

 

By the time Vania was in Grade four, she was already acting out and was placed in an alternative education program.

“Yeah, I was acting out. The alternative program was like a school within the school," she said.  

"I had to be almost, like, the adult at home. When I got to school, I guess I acted out all the feelings and played into being a kid for those hours I was in class,” she told me. Vania went as far as Grade nine, before leaving school. She has since then gone to various adult education programs and has gotten as far as Grade eleven.

“I don’t know what it is that I keep going back for. Other than I know that in the real world, you need that piece of paper if you ever want to be considered for any kind of job. Even though what they teach you isn’t applicable to the real world,” she said. 

 

Vania has several tattoos, including letters written across her knuckles and a series of tiny circles above her right eyebrow. I noticed that on her left inside ankle she has ‘RIP MOM’ tattooed.

“Yeah, she died when I was eleven years old. I was there for that whole fucking shit show,” she says. Vania picks up the pen she was using for the crossword. She starts to click on the pen repeatedly while telling me about her mother’s passing.

“It was a professional day. I got up around 9am, and wanted to play video games. My mother was in bed and I told her what I was going to do. She usually slept until around ten or ten-thirty. I was playing my games and I realized that my mom wasn’t up. I had lost track of time, you know, 'cause of playing. I went into her room and she asked me for a glass of milk and her (asthma) inhaler. I got it for her and then went back to playing video games,” she said, clicking away on her pen.

“I guess maybe another hour or something like that went by, and she still wasn’t up. I went into her room. She wasn’t breathing, and she felt cold. I went into instant denial mode,” Vania told me. She called her aunt and told her what was happening. Her mother was taken to hospital by ambulance.

“They left my apartment and in the lobby of our building they were giving her CPR and everything. My aunt took me to the hospital. They told me I could go in and see her. She had all these tubes and things. I didn’t know what to say.” Her mother died of a heroin overdose.

 

“I became a ward of the court. I got to stay with my grandparents for a while. Then I went to Horseshoe Bay and lived with my god-grandparents. Here I was this ghetto kid living with these two older people in Horseshoe Bay. They got me into piano lessons, and kayaking and wanted me to wear all kinds of dresses and shit. Trying to make me be who they thought I should be. They meant well and their intentions were good, I know that, but it was overwhelming. And so not me,” she said. 

 

“There is one thing they did do for me, which I’ll never forget. That was the first and only time ever that I got an ‘A’ at school. In math. They were pretty rigid and disciplined about 'you go to school, and when you get home, you do all your homework.' Then we'd spend an additional hour doing more school work. If I spent twenty minutes in the bathroom during that hour, that was all fine. They simply tacked another twenty minutes onto the time I studied. I learned that if I applied myself, I could achieve things. Even if it took me three hours to do an hour's worth of work,” she said, clearly.

 

A year after living in Horseshoe Bay, Vania was moved to a different family within the care system. She spent a year living on Bowen Island, located about thirty minutes by boat from Vancouver.

“I left fostering after that. I needed to be back down here, on the street. I was a city kid, and the being out of the city was driving me mad,” she told me. Vania continued to go in and out of foster and group homes in Vancouver, until she aged out of the system at eighteen.

“I’ve been homeless, yeah. It’s not so bad in the summer, I don’t mind it so much then,” she said. 

 

Throughout our conversation, I had been sitting on the little black crate that Vania had her feet on when I first asked her to chat. I initially sat on the sidewalk, but she moved the crate for me to sit on. There was a constant stream of people walking past us. One guy walked past and complimented Vania on her runners.

“Nice kicks you've got there,” he said. Immediately after saying thank you to him, she doesn't miss a beat,

“Even though I fucking hate these shoes. But thanks man.” I enjoy deadpan humour, done right. 

 

A woman was walking towards us, intently focussed on the ground. She comes right up to Vania and I. She has a black plastic garbage bag. This woman reaches into the planter that Vania is seated next to. As we’re talking I’m watching this woman. I assume she’s collecting cigarette butts to make a smoke, or something else. I can’t see what she’s picking out of this planter. I’m somewhat surprised when I see that she’s collecting used syringes. She also picks up a syringe cap and carefully places it on the end of one the discarded syringes. She opens her bag and puts the needles inside it. She is collecting litter, doing her bit to clean up the area.

“Everyone down here looks after the place, in whatever way they can,” Vania tells me. “For every one who makes a mess, there’s another who is swilling to pick it up.” 

 

“I’m sharing a bachelor apartment right now with two other people. I sleep on the couch, sometimes on the floor. From time to time, I’ve slept in the bath tub, because it’s like my own room,” she says, laughing.

“Anything to get some privacy!” 

 

Vania considers herself to be a drug addict.

“I say I’m an addict because I think we are all addicts. Whether it's coffee, or cigarettes or walking even. Everyone has something that they do. I started using drugs when I was about twelve or thirteen. Jib became my drug of choice, I guess.” I felt very old and not-so-street smart. I had to confirm what ‘jib’ is.

“(Crystal) Meth,”  Vania confirms, without judgement. 

 

Another reminder of something that I already knew, and here was a case in point. Not all addicts look like our stereotypical idea of what an addict looks like. Vania is bright eyed, has beautiful, flawless skin, nice teeth, clean clothes, is focussed and completely lucid.

“I used yesterday, so I’m little tired today. It’s a good day to sit here in the sunshine and figure out what my next move is. It’s a little complicated, but I have some decisions to make. So I came here to sit in the sun, do my crossword and some thinking," she said. 

 

I thank Vania for chatting with me, and we shake hands. She has a bit of a directed, intentional gesture swooping in for the handshake, and gives a well-connected and firm grip, making good eye contact. She writes down the name of my project so she can read the story the next time she’s on Facebook.

 

Vania is twenty one. She has a tattoo that runs the length of her inside calf on her left leg. It’s a quote by  Albert Einstein.

”I never think of the future - it comes soon enough.” Except the tattoo isn't finished. It ends after the 's' in soon. #notastranger

March 08, 2015 - Rhiannon & Avery

March 08, 2015 - Rhiannon & Avery (1st people I approached)
It was such a lovely day and all I could think about was getting outside this morning and finding today’s story. Aside from meeting Emily during filming for the documentary ‘Not A Stranger,’ I haven’t written about anyone new for five days. I’m experiencing stranger’s withdrawal, perhaps? 

 

I had it in my mind I was going to go out, find today’s story and then go sit at one of my favourite coffee shops, Moii Cafe on Cambie Street. It’s a small independent cafe near Broadway on Cambie St. It has an eclectic decor, including a decent collection of Archie comics. They serve some amazing looking crepes, bubble tea and good coffee. Recently, Moii Cafe become a sponsor of my project, buying my coffee when I go there to write. 

 

I had a few areas in mind that I was going to walk to, looking for someone to chat with. I saw Rhiannon and Avery, who I took to be mother and daughter, walking down the street holding hands. I wasn't even that far from my house. I walked ahead of them, as thought about asking them to chat. I stopped, turned around, and asked if I could chat with them for a bit. I explained what my project is about, and said that I normally speak with one person at a time. With it being International Women's Day, I thought it would be nice to speak with a mother and daughter. The mother told me she didn’t mind, and asked her daughter if that would be ok. The young girl shrugged her shoulders and said “Sure, I guess so.”

 

After I asked Rhiannon how to spell her name, she told me

“If you can’t remember it, there’s a Fleetwood Mac song called Rhiannon. It’s a Welsh name.”

Avery added “I knew that,” proudly. I asked if she was referring to knowing it was a Fleetwood Mac song, or a Welsh name.

“No, I just know it’s a good song, I like it,” she said.

 

Rhiannon was born in Edmonton, Alberta.

“So you’re an Albertan?” Avery asked of her mother.

“I was born there,” Rhiannon said.

“But when I was three years old we moved to the (Vancouver) Island. We lived in the Parksville/Qualicum area,” she said. I asked if she had any siblings, and Avery answered at the same time as her mother.

“No.” Her father had passed away when she was very young, Rhiannon was an only child, raised by her single mother.

“I left school in Grade nine. I just wasn't a student sit-in-school type of teenager,” she said.

“I worked and then when I was about eighteen, I left and started travelling. I’ve been all over the country.”

 

“I was pregnant with Avery when I was twenty-seven,” said Rhiannon. Avery was sitting on a low, concrete wall behind the bench where we were sitting. Then she would jump off the wall, and climb back on again. She’d come back, sit down and join in on the conversation, then move around some more. 

 

“I’m eight,” she told me when I asked.

“I was born in January, 2007.” It’s clear the two of them have a good relationship. Avery attends a Francophone school and is fluent in French and English. I asked Avery if she ever spoke in French so that her mother didn’t know what she was saying. She smiled and told me that she didn’t.

“She’s tried. I’m not fluent in French, but I speak some of it. We get along well. And I’m the mother,” said Rhiannon, looking lovingly into her daughter’s eyes. They smile at one another.

 

Rhiannon recently completed high-school and got her Dogwood Certification (British Columbia Education standard).

“I’m doing a writing course at UBC (University of British Columbia) now. I’m taking the HUM course (Humanities). They offer support with transit fares and they provide meals before classes as well. And I’ve got my UBC Student Union Card. The course is designed to help people living in the Downtown Eastside, downtown south, as well those living nearby. It’s a good program,” Rhiannon told me. (*Fact Check - see link below.)

 

“Avery isn't a glittery girly type girl, she never has been. She spends time playing with other girls but she also had good friends who are boys. My best friend was a boy when I was growing up as well,” said Rhiannon. Avery then makes sure we know that she either plays with her group of friends who are girls, or her group of friends who are boys.

“I don’t play with (them) together at the same time,” she says, using her hands to punctuate the distinction.

“She has a good solid group of friends,” her mother adds.

 

“I thought about the fact that it's International Women’s Day when we got up this morning,” Rhiannon says.

“I was wondering what we could do to mark the day, or something that would represent it.” As a mother of a young girl, Rhiannon worries about the information that Avery sees as an eight year old.

“We haven’t gotten into sexuality, or boyfriends or the like, yet. But I know she sees information everywhere. On television, in advertising, it’s everywhere. She sees Victoria’s Secret models and doesn’t think of it in terms of sexuality, but she knows that the boys look at it,” Rhiannon says. 

 

“My mother has a close and different relationship with Avery. She’ll come home from school and tell me about something that happened at school, and I panic and worry. My mother is a bit more removed from it in that way, and has a good handle on speaking with Avery about all kinds of things.” Rhiannon’s mother grew up in Vancouver.

She was, as Rhiannon describes her “a feminist at a time when they were and still are, fighting for rights and equality.” Her mother has talked with Rhiannon about how life was as a single parent then, compared to how thing are now.

“Avery can ask her anything, it doesn’t matter. And she knows that. There isn’t anything we can’t talk about.” Rhiannon is a single parent.

 

I asked if Avery she knew what International Women’s Day means, or if she had any thoughts about it.

“I only heard of it for the first time last year,” she says quickly. She then spends a few moments considering the question.

“No, I don’t really know what it is.” Her mother asks her what it means to her, when she hears the term. Again, Avery considerers it for a bit, then replies,

“I really don’t know.” Rhiannon tells her that it’s about celebrating women all over the world.

"It’s to acknowledge all the work that women have done for all of us. For those who have fought for rights and for those that still do. It’s about how strong and wonderful women are. We can grow and carry a baby in our bodies. How amazing is that?!” Avery replies

“Well, men can grow a baby, but they can’t give birth to one.” I confirm this to be true. 

 

Avery agrees that it’s important to celebrate women. She tells me that she doesn’t feel that boys and girls are any different.

“No, not really,” she says. Avery also says she doesn't experience being treated any differently from boys either. She continues moving around, climbing on the wall again, walking along it, jumping off one end, then running to the other end to climb it again. It’s time for them to continue on with their morning.

 

"I worry that she won't... well, I certainly can't afford to buy a house, and I worry about what things will be like for Avery when she's older. I mean it's not that buying a house is the only measure of success. But it's a security. You don't hear as much now about people having the family home that they've had for generations," Rhiannon tells me. 

 

“Tell Colin what we’re going to do, Avery,” says Rhiannon.

“We’re going to go buy some tennis balls so we can go and play tennis,” Avery says, excitedly. 

I ask to take their picture, telling Avery to sit however she wants to for the photograph. She climbs on the bench, then onto the wall. She puts her arms around her mothers neck and then slides in behind Rhiannon. I take a few pictures and Avery stops long enough to take a quick glance, before getting back to climbing. “I used to climb a lot when I was younger," says Rhiannon smiling.

"Except it was hiking in mountains and hill climbing that I did. Nowadays all the kids are climbing on everything, everywhere.”

I thanked Rhiannon and Avery for chatting with me, especially with it being International Women’s Day.

“I grew up with a lot of women in my life, and Avery has a lot of women in her life also. Lots of girls and women.” 

 

As we were saying goodbye Avery calls out

“Hey Mum, watch this!” She runs at a pillar at the end of the wall. It's tall enough that she can just reach up and grab the top with her hands, her arms fully extended. She climbs the pillar, pulling her weight up. With very little effort, she gets to the top.

“Ok, let’s go get those tennis balls.” #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://humanities101.arts.ubc.ca

Today’s story is sponsored by Moii Cafe, 2259 Cambie Street, Vancouver.

March 07, 2015 - Last day of filming

March 07, 2015 - I took this photograph at Spanish Banks early this morning. A wonderful way to kick off the final day of filming for the documentary 'Not A Stranger.' The gifts from this project are plentiful!  #notastranger

March 06, 2015 - an unexpected double update!

March 06, 2015 - an unexpected double update!
Spending the day filming for the documentary ‘Not A Stranger’ yesterday was a lot of fun. It’s also a unique kind of exhausting. This afternoon I was wrestling with the fact that I has said I’d write a story today. I had a couple of meetings and then all I really wanted to do was come home, eat and watch trash television. As happens, with no surprise, the universe stepped in to offer a viable solution. 

 

I see Jessica, from Day 46 last year around the neighbourhood from time to time. (*Fact Check - see link below.) She’s a bit of a chameleon, often changing her hair colour. We always say hello and when time permits, we’ve stopped to have quick conversations. Today, I was about to cross the street when I saw Jessica walking toward me, with a new hair colour. I was happy that I recognized her, despite the new look. We had a nice hug, and chatted for a bit. I took the opportunity to thank Jessica for continuing to follow the project. She also often acknowledges the tweets I post about the stories I collect.

“I love what you’re doing,” she told me. 

 

“I also appreciate how open and honest you are about your own story. It’s been a great inspiration for me, personally.” I asked Jessica if she would mind sharing with me in what way she’s felt inspired by the stories of others.

“I was coming to terms with my own personal health issues. I had taken some time off work and was feeling isolated and alone. Reading about how you’re living with depression was an inspiration. Your story gave me a sense of connectedness. I knew I wasn’t alone. It helped me to feel more comfortable with my own situation,” Jessica told me. We talked a bit more about our own challenges with personal situations and growth. The importance of connectivity, community and getting past stigma are all of importance. 

 

I asked Jessica if I could take a photo of us and use the chat we had as an update for today’s post. Clearly she agreed, as evidenced by our selfie! It was the perfect chance encounter. It gave me another great story to post. It also gave me a nice boost and validation. Proof that connections with others, even those who were once strangers, can have a profound affect on all involved. 

 

I got some groceries and was kind of writing today's post in my head, as I headed home. I looked up and saw a man coming towards me, pushing a shopping buggy loaded with empty bottles and cans. I couldn’t see the man's face because the sun was shining in my eyes. We got closer, and I saw the man wave, and I realized it was Don who I met on Day 165, last year. I’ve written a couple of updates about Don already. One was back in December when I was the first person to talk with him moments after he found out his brother had passed away. I wrote another update a few weeks ago, when I next saw Don. At that time, he had just returned from spending a month with his family in Edmonton. He had decided to go spend some time with his family, after his brother’s death.

 

I see Don around on a semi-regular basis. Today he told me that he’s decided to move back to Edmonton, permanently. He asked if I was in a hurry or if I could sit down and talk with him; he had something he wanted to share with me. We sat down on a nearby bench and Don pulled a plastic bag from his coat pocket. We spent the next ten minutes looking at a collection of photographs of his very large family. Don’s sister had given him copies of the family's group photos. He told me everyone’s name and how they were related. Don comes from a large family with sisters, brothers, in-laws and plenty of nieces and nephews.

 

It was very clear just how proud he is of his family, and how happy he is to have made that trip home.

“I’m sixty-five now. I want to spend time with my family, enjoy them and re-connect. I don’t want the next time they see me to be in a cedar box. I’m just getting some things taken care of, and I hope to be back in Edmonton by the end of the month,” he said.

“When I was there last month, they were all so supportive. It really blew my mind. My kids, my sisters, even my (adult) nieces were telling me I could stay with them. My daughter told me I didn't have to worry about not having a job. My sister told me I don’t need any money. They just want me home. No judgements.”

 

Don is homeless, lives on the streets, and sleeps outside.

“I’ve thought about it for a while now. I knew I wanted to move to Edmonton when I was on the bus coming back to Vancouver last month. I have a girlfriend here. I just had to figure out how I was going to tell her. She’s a beautiful woman and I enjoy the time we’ve spent together. But this is something I need to do for me. She has a home and a job, but she could have that in Edmonton too, if she wanted," he said.

 

"She asked me to stay over at her place the other night. I told her that if I didn’t go to Edmonton, I’d end up resenting her for my own decisions. I’ve been here in Vancouver for about twenty years. I’m old enough now to make the decision all by myself, for myself. It’s what I have to do.”

 

“I’ll see you again, before I take off,” he said. I wanted to make sure Don knew I was grateful for the friendship we have developed over the past months. We hugged and shook hands. He waved goodbye. As I walked home, I realized that even though I only ever run into Don by chance, knowing I soon won’t run into him anymore, I felt a twinge of sadness. In my own selfish way; sad for me, but much happier for Don. And his family. ‪#‎notastranger‬

*Fact Check - Jessica - http://on.fb.me/1EyBjzb

March 05, 2015 - filming for the documentary

The three hugs for ‪#‎sebastianhug‬ ‪#‎GiveAHug‬ and the filming that took place today.

I met Emily as part of the filming for 'Not A Stranger' the documentary. Emily was the first person I approached, on camera, and she agreed to chat and be filmed - challenging to say the least. I'm grateful that she was so willing to share her story.

She did however, give me the "I don't have anything that interesting to tell you." If you've been following this project for any length of time, you'll know my philosophy and learned testing of that statement demonstrates that when someone says that, they have very interesting stuff to share. Emily was no exception. 

Emily went to the University of British for five years, to get her undergrad degree in sociology. Her insights of people through her studies lead her to the conclusion that we can't judge people based on what they present to us on the outside - a perfect fit with the Stranger project. During her last semester at UBC she went to Guatemala and did research into the examination of volunteer-lead programs. She then came back to Vancouver and got her law degree. So average, right? ‪#‎notastranger‬

TL - Tom, from Day 10 - 2014
BL - ran into Graham from Day 19 - 2014
Right - Emily, the newest #notastranger

March 03, 2015 - Eunice

March 03, 2015 - Eunice (1st person I approached)
Today started in one of my most favourite ways. I live on the seventh floor of my building, facing south, and the morning sun was pouring in the window. I got up feeling refreshed and was pleasantly surprised to see it was about two hours earlier than I thought it must be. Fresh coffee, silence and reading. Bliss. I decided to head out early and find today’s story. Then I headed to one of my favourite coffee shops, and got caught up some writing and things. This is my perfect start to the day.

 

I spotted Eunice sitting on a bench, looking at her phone. I walked over and explained my project to her, asking if we could chat. She explained she was on a break and could only chat for a few minutes. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person when you’re committed to a time frame!

 

Eunice was born in Burnaby, British Columbia (BC), once a suburb of Vancouver, now a city in it’s own right.

“I have one sister, she’s five years older than I am. We’re best friends now. That sort of happened when we were in our twenties,” she said.

“As kids, the age gap meant we didn’t spend much time together.” 

 

“I was always interested in arts in school. I was in the arts group. You know how there are the different groups of kids, the geeks, the science nerds and the arts kids. I was an arts kid. I loved English and sociology,” said Eunice.

“I went to Langara right after high school to upgrade. I spent a year there. Then I went to SFU (Simon Fraser University) to study education. I wanted to be a teacher, and went to university for three years. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Science degree,” she said.

 

After university, Eunice went travelling.

“I had always wanted to go to Japan. I was going to teach there. I had to decide between Japan or Korea. There’s more money to be made in Korea. My decision was between making more money, or going for the experience. I chose the experience and went to Yokohama, in Japan. I got a job teaching English to first-year university students,” she told me. Eunice spent a year-and-a-half in Japan.

“Before coming home, I went backpacking with a friend in Southeast Asia for about four months.”

 

“I came home and realized that I didn’t feel I had the patience I needed to teach. The job in Japan was great. It was good working with adults, but I knew it would be completely different working with children,” she said. Eunice worked at a couple of jobs and decided to go back to school.

“I went into the sciences which is weird considering I was the arts kid in school!” Eunice went to Douglas College in Coquitlam and studied to become a nurse.

“There was a waiting list to get into Langara College. I applied at a few schools and was going to go wherever I could get in. Douglas College takes a few different things into account in the application process. Because I had my undergrad degree, I got accepted there,” she said.

 

During her schooling to become a nurse, Eunice spent some time working at VGH (Vancouver General Hospital).

“I was a student there and got a job at VGH once I finished school. I only graduated last April. I was working in the surgical ward until recently,” she said. Eunice just got a job working in Richmond.

“I’ll be working as a home visit nurse. The program's run out of (a hospital), but I’ll be going into the patients homes. I’m looking forward to that because I’ll be able to spend more time with each patient, one-on-one. In a hospital setting, you do spend time with a patient, but there’s always another patient needing some care. This way, I'll have one patient at a time,” she said. 

 

We chatted about the possibility that Eunice could be the only connection with another person that her patient might have that day.

“I’ll have a great opportunity to get to know the patients, and go back every couple of days and check in with them. I’m looking forward to getting to know my patients. The days will still be busy, you have to see a certain number of patients each day. When I was in school we did home visits and it was one of my favourite parts of the training. It’s a great opportunity.” #notastranger

March 02, 2015 - Exciting NEWS!

March 02, 2015 - Exciting NEWS!
Today I spent a few hours with Kate Green, the producer and director behind the documentary ‘Not A Stranger’ - an examination of my experience with The Stranger Project. 

After a good chat over breakfast, we drove around to various locations that will be used for filming which takes place this week. To say I’m excited is a huge understatement! Never did I imagine any of this would happen when just over a year ago, I set out to help myself, and build community by talking to strangers. I'll give  you a heads-up now, there may be another day or two this week, that I won’t be writing; I’ll be on set, darling! (Ok, so there aren’t sets, but I’m sure you get the dramatic intent.)

I have even more news! I’ve had for some time, a vision for the continuation of The Stranger Project, going into the future. I’ve been formulating this idea for some time, and I am incredibly happy, honoured and humbled to share this exciting news with you. I’ve partnered with the good folks at Save-On Meats (Gastown, Vancouver) and their wonderful charitable organization, A Better Life Foundation. (*Fact Check - see link below.)

The idea is that every week, I will be meeting with someone and inviting them to share a meal with me. Save-On Meats will host and provide the meal, in support of A Better Life Foundation. I want to explore ways that allow me to make an even deeper and more meaningful connection with people. As we all know, sitting down and breaking bread with someone is an intimate and personal experience. 

The conversation over this meal will be the story that I will then share here. In order to honour the generosity of Save-On Meats, and in turn A Better Life Foundation, I will be placing their logo’s on my website. A short tagline will be used at the end of each story they support.

I’m on a personal mission to continue growing the reach of this project, to push the boundaries outward. By asking for help from within the community, I want to see the ripples extend further and further. No matter how small, a ripple is a ripple, generating movement. 

I hope that you’ll continue to read and share the stories of the everyday people I meet and write about. Your comments and support have meant the world to me. I hope that you’ll continue to support this project. 

Together, we can and ARE making a difference. I ask you to please continue sharing this journey with me, and with our new friends. A community needs people to come together, to be a community.

I’m extremely grateful to Mark Brand, owner of Save-On Meats for supporting The Stranger Project and for sharing the vision. My sincere gratitude goes to Leigh Carter, the Senior Community Coordinator at A Better Life Foundation, for helping me to put this together. #beinghungrysucks  #notastranger

A Better Life Foundation - http://abetterlifefoundation.ca/mission/

March 01, 2015 - Joshua

March 01, 2015 - Joshua (4th person I approached)
The first two people I approached both agreed to chat with me, but unfortunately didn’t want their picture taken. The third person made it clear he did not even want to talk. I noticed Joshua walking around the park in front of the bus depot at the Pacific Central Station, at Main and Terminal streets. He was walking slowly and almost looked like he was pacing around, while waiting for someone. As the saying goes, we can’t judge a book by the cover. We can’t make determinations about the book jacket either.

 

Joshua has an extremely gentle handshake, so much so I even commented on it. He gave me a big smile. He was like a visual contradiction. His clothing was rather dirty, but he himself, was clean. Almost like an actor wearing a costume. His beard was neatly trimmed around his mouth and chin. His face was clean. He had on nice glasses. Joshua was very well spoken, giving measured and thoughtful responses during our chat. He wore gloves throughout the conversation.  

 

“I was born here in Vancouver, at Vancouver General Hospital,” he told me, as we make our way to sit down at a nearby picnic table. Joshua was given up for adoption when he was 18 months old.

“I was in foster care before that. I lived in that home, with my adoptive  family until I was six years old. Then I was removed," he said.

"There were some horrible things happening there,” was all he would say.

“I lived in lots of different foster homes until I was fourteen. Then I went into group homes.” Joshua aged out of group homes wen he was eighteen. ‘Aging out’ is when someone no longer qualifies for the same resources as a young person living in care.

 

Joshua didn’t do well in school.

“I couldn’t relate to the schooling system. It made no sense to me. They weren’t teaching me anything that I could use. I spent my time just hanging out and wandering around,” he said. He left school in Grade six.

“I still lived in the group homes when I left school. Then I stayed in shelters.”

 

“I started working as a labourer. In construction. I did that off and on, throughout my twenties. Or for some of the time anyway,” said Joshua.

“I’ve got schizophrenia. I was diagnosed in my early twenties. That really saved my life. Being diagnosed. It meant I got a little more money because of the disability. I didn’t get much more, but it meant it was almost enough to live on. Just enough,” he said.

“I’m on medication. I go for an injection once a month. I guess it helps me. It must because I fell okay. But it has side effects. One of the worst is the amount of time that I sleep. Usually by 4pm I’m ready to go to sleep, and I sleep right through until the next morning. I guess the upside is that time passes by that way,” he said. 

 

“My life changed completely when I became a parent,” Joshua said. He had been in a relationship with a young women for three years. They had spoken about having children. It seemed that Joshua wanted a child more than his girlfriend, based on what he told me.

“She said she was okay with it. Then she got pregnant. When our son was born, she wasn't ready. She didn’t want to be a parent,” he said quietly.

“It made me look at everything in my life completely differently. How I was living, what I was doing, my childhood. Everything changed. It made me much more aware of the trouble I was having in my own life,” he told me. Their son was put up for adoption. 

 

“Through the process of having my son adopted, I was able to find out about my own birth parents. I managed to track my father down. He still lived here in Vancouver. What shocked me was how much our lives were similar. He was in the same economic state I was. Exactly the same income. But he had more difficulty managing his own life. I ended up helping him and paying for things to assist him,” said Joshua.

“He was pretty twisted. I think both of my parents were. I don’t know who was more twisted, my mother or my father. They were both twisted though.” Joshua also learned that he had five other siblings.

“I’ve met a few of them, but not everyone,” he said.

 

Joshua told me that he was permitted to see his son once a year.

“I haven’t made any contact for the last two years. It scares me. I’m afraid to contact the adoption people and then have them contact the adoptive parents. He's with his own, new family. It’s just too uncomfortable. So I haven’t seen him for two years. It just scares me.” I got the sense that Joshua maybe felt it was best that he not see his son. For both of them.

 

“Technically I’m not homeless, but the housing I’ve got is so disgusting that I don’t stay there,” he said, shaking his head. Joshua chooses instead to sleep at a local shelter in East Vancouver.

“They kick you out during the day. I’m not allowed back inside until after 4pm. And I go to bed, then sleep right through until they kick me out again at 7am,” he told me.

“I spend my days outside. I don’t panhandle. I personally think it’s wrong. I’m too ashamed to do it, so I don’t. I don’t steal, I don’t drink. I end up here in parks surrounded by all the bums. But not with them,” he says. 

 

I ask if he spends all of his day wandering around. Joshua ponders this for a moment.

“I guess that would be a reasonable graph of my days. Yes, I spend my days just wandering around. Until 4pm then I can go and sleep.” 

 

I took his photo and showed him the picture. Such a gentle soul. Again, we shook hands, Joshua giving a soft and delicate handshake. It reminded me of the handshake of a young child. I stood up to walk away and thanked Joshua for chatting with me. As I was walking away, I turned to look back. Joshua was slowly walking behind me, his eyes to the ground. He looked like he was pacing, maybe waiting for someone, or something. #notastranger