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