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