May 28, 2015 - Joanna

May 28, 2015 - Joanna (2nd person I approached)
When I first spotted Joanna, I noticed that she had a crutch propped against the wall next to her. She was sitting in the sunshine, with her back leaning against a concrete wall. Just above her head was a large overhang of ivy, seeming to protect the top her head from the heat of the sun. She seemed comfortable, with her right leg outstretched in front of her. 

 

I asked if she would chat with me, and explained what it was for, mentioning that I would want to take a photograph of her as well.

“Do I need to remove my sunglasses?” she asked. When I said I didn’t mind if she left them on, she smiled and said she’d chat with me. 

 

We spent a few minutes talking about how people don’t chat much these days, particularly to people who are homeless or panhandling for money on the street.

“I always give something if I have it,” said Joanna.

“Even if it’s some small change, or a cigarette. If I don’t have anything to give them, I’ll be sure to at least say hello. Sometimes people just want to feel like a regular person. Everyone deserves that dignity.”

 

Joanna was born in Calgary, Alberta.

“I have two older sisters, and two younger brothers. I wasn’t planned or expected. My mother was told she couldn’t have any more children. Then when I was born, I wasn’t the son they wanted. Three years later they had my brother, and then another boy. One of each, for each of them,” said Joanna. I wasn’t sure I followed.

“A boy and girl for my father. And another boy and girl for my mother.” There was a distinct sadness about her when we spoke about childhood. It was buffered with indifference. 

 

“I hated school. Just hated it. I was an outsider, and a loner. I was painfully shy, and I liked to read. I did well in school, I got good grades. I just hated it,” she told me.

“The same with high-school. I wasn’t popular, and didn’t fit in. I hated all of my school years. When I was sixteen, things were pretty bad at home. I left school, and left home. My parents didn’t really care. My father wanted me to continue with school because my two sisters had dropped out. I guess he wanted one of his daughters to graduate. But I couldn’t live at home and go to school. And I couldn’t live at home if I didn’t go to school. I stayed with a friend for a couple of months. Her mother was wonderful to me. Like a second mother. But after a couple of months, I left. I lived on the street for about eight months,” said Joanna. 

 

“I actually wanted an education, I wanted to go to school and finish it, even though I hated it. About three months after dropping out in grade ten, I went back, but to a Catholic school. I had been in regular public school before. I had difficulty with ‘confession.’ I didn’t know what that meant. Confess my sins? How long did they have to listen?” she said, looking at her watch.

“I didn’t last there more than about three months. That’s when I went to live on the streets.”

 

Joanna spent about eight months living on the streets.

“A friend of mine, someone that I had known from school, beat me up. The girl who I had lived with before living on the street. It was all over some guy that I had introduced her to. I didn’t know that he was seeing someone else. She beat me pretty bad,” she said.

“But I forgave her. I loved her, she was my best friend. And I knew that she wasn’t really angry with me. I understood her. You can’t choose your family, but you do choose your friends. And they become your family. So I forgave her.”

 

“I went back to live with my parents for a while. Until I got a job as a telephone operator,” she said.

“I worked the switchboard. Emergency calls and 411 information.” She was living on her own, working and dating a guy.

“I got pregnant, and during my pregnancy, my boyfriend cheated on me. My parents and brothers had moved to Nanaimo (Vancouver Island, British Columbia - BC). One of my sisters had a child and I was helping her, looking after my niece. My sister pleaded with me to go to Nanaimo with her. She was living with our grandparents at the time, but she missed our Mom and Dad. So I went with her to Nanaimo,” said Joanna.

 

“My plan was to get my sister settled in with our parents in Nanaimo, and then I was going back to Calgary. There were more jobs and better chances there for work. My mother wouldn’t let my sister stay. She told me that my sister was moving in with me, back in Calgary, and that was that. We didn’t have any say in the matter. I think my mother wanted my sister to spy on me, or at least felt she would,” she told me.

"My parents never really liked me, they made that very clear."

 

Two months after giving birth to her daughter, Joanna moved to Nanaimo.

“I had considered putting my daughter up for adoption, thinking that would be the best thing for her. But that didn’t happen. I wanted my daughter to grow up knowing who her grandparents were. That’s why we went there, to Nanaimo” she said. 

 

“I got a job working in the bush. In a forestry camp. I was a faller and a tree chaser. I was supposed to learn to become a choker, but I was nursing my daughter and the work wasn’t really that good. I was on a government subsidy, so they were basically getting free labour, and didn’t really want to train me,” said Joanna. 

 

In time she met and married a man and moved to the interior of BC.

“We had a little farm there, and had some animals, even a pot-bellied pig for my daughter. I was married for about seven years before getting a divorce,” she said. 

 

Joanna has worked in a few different industries over the years.

“I even went to school to become a secretary. But I’m not really a secretary type of person. I don’t want to be indoors all day. I finished the course though, it was about four months long. And I did some training to become a cook as well,” she said. 

 

Her daughter is an adult now.

"She has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. It’s not always great, but I’m so happy to have her. I’m a quiet person, and she isn’t. The mornings are the best, when I can get up early and soak in the bath before she wakes up,” said Joanna.

“She was staying with me in Nanaimo. She had to have some surgery, so I came over to Vancouver with her. It took longer than we anticipated. We were staying in a hotel, but I’ve run out of money now. Social Services have made arrangements for us to stay in a women’s transition house,” she said, quietly. 

 

Joanna’s social worker had been putting her rent payments directly into her bank account, to cover her rent in Nanaimo. With Joanna being over here on the mainland, the file was to be moved here temporarily.

“My landlord wasn’t getting any rent and hadn’t seen me for weeks. Of course, because I’m over here. I don’t have the kind of relationship with my landlord that I check in with him. He reported me missing to the police. He went into our place, packed everything up, and moved us out. I don’t even know where our belongings are now. All we have are the things we brought with us in a backpack,” said Joanna. And yet, she still smiled.

“What are you gonna do? I don’t know what will happen, but what can you do?”

 

In conversation, I found out that Joanna has a bad knee and wears a brace on her leg to restrict movement, and add support.

“I can still get around okay, but that’s why I’ve got the crutch here.” I thanked Joanna for sharing her story with me. 

 

I asked if I could take her picture.

“Do I have to take my sunglasses off?” she asked, as if to confirm it was still alright to leave them on. I told her that was fine. I asked if I could move her backpack so it wasn’t in the photo.

“I’m sorry,” said Joanna.

“I’m drinking a beer.” It was behind her backpack. I told her there was no reason to apologize.

“I just needed to get out of the place we’re staying at and spend some time on my own, quietly.” Joanna told me it was the first beer she had drank since her birthday, last October. I said I thought she deserved it, especially a nice cold one on a warm day, sitting in the sunshine.

 

I took her photo, and thanked her for her time and for chatting with me.

“Thank you for asking me to talk,” she said. I wondered if, for Joanna, it felt better to talk about her current situation.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I’ve never talked about it before.” #notastranger

May 24, 2015 - A personal story

May 24, 2015 - A personal story

The theme of personal connection has being presenting itself a lot in my life over the past few weeks. Connection and community are the driving forces behind The Stranger Project. They always have been, even before I really knew what this was going to be, or become. Lately though, it’s been at the forefront of my mind and experience, somewhat intensely.

I’ve been working on a couple of ventures related to expansion and future development of this project. While doing some research, the discussion of the impact of a story being that much greater, when there is a personal connection, has either being mentioned, implied, or manifested. 

One story was about a young man who hadn’t discussed his sexuality with his mother. He was raised in a religious family, in a small, conservative town in Texas. This young man hosted a potluck dinner at his home and invited a number of his friends who were also gay. His mother arrived unannounced, and joined the group for dinner. 

While preparing food in the kitchen, the host could hear his friends sharing with his mother their own stories of coming out to their parents. Some stories had happy endings, and others were not so happy. Some were embraced by their parents, others faced rejection. After dinner, when all the guests had left, the mother initiated a conversation with her son. She told him that she enjoyed meeting his friends, implied that she knew he was gay, and told him that it was okay with her. She loved him just the same. What had made a difference for her was hearing the personal stories of his friends. 

In 1998, a young man by the name of Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one year old college student in Laramie, Wyoming, was brutally beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on a cold dark prairie. 

Some eighteen hours later, a passerby found Matthew and called the police. The first officer to arrive on the scene spoke of the ropes around Matthew’s wrists being tied so tightly that she had difficulty getting a pocket knife underneath them to cut him free. He had been pistol-whipped beyond human recognition. Only where his tears had washed away the blood on his face, could she see the colour of his flesh. Matthew spent five days in hospital, never regaining consciousness, before passing away on October 12th, 1998. He died because he was gay.

His story made international headlines and certainly resonated with me, personally. It so easily could have been me, someone I knew, or a friend of mine. One year later, on the first anniversary of his death, I clipped out a small article that ran in a local newspaper. It spoke of a candle-light vigil being held in remembrance. To remind people of the importance of never forgetting what happened to Matthew. I taped that reminder to my fridge, and looked at it every day.

There have been books, documentaries and even a play written about what happened that night. ‘The Laramie Project’ is based on a collection of interviews with people who were connected to the story, the one that the world was hearing of Matthew Shepard. I have cried every time I’ve seen the play. Every year I’ve acknowledged the anniversary of his passing. I’ve taken to using the anniversary of that week he spent in hospital, to remind my friends of the horrors and torture he endured. 

Matthew’s parents Judy and Dennis Shepard, have worked tirelessly on behalf of the foundation they created in Matthew’s name. 

About three years ago, I heard of a documentary being made about Matthew. This one was going to be different. It was not about Matthew Shepard, the young man who is now named as part of an anti-hate crime bill signed into US law by President Obama in 2009. The documentary, “Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine” is the story of Matt as he was to his family, and his friends. The story of a young man with hopes, dreams, ambitions, wants and desires. A young man who wanted "to change the world,” without knowing exactly how he was going to do that.

One of Matt’s childhood friends, Michele Josue, went on to become a filmmaker. Michele wrote and directed the documentary. She launched a fund-raising campaign to finance the production. I did everything I could to support it. It helped me to connect to the story in a way I hadn’t imagined I would. It made me feel I was doing my part to carry forward Matt’s dream of changing the world. 

In time, Michele and I started to correspond. At first it was about the t-shirt and DVD I was going to get for contributing to the documentary. Then we started to send messages to each other on Facebook. I shared my personal connection and feelings about what had happened to Matt. About my want to do what I could to carry his voice forward. Michele would always respond, and update me a bit about the project.

In the three years from the first fund-raising campaign, to seeing the documentary, Michele I have become Facebook ‘friends.’  Sharing bits of my own story with her allowed me to feel connected to Michele, and in turn, to Matt. 

The team behind “Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine” have also been very supportive of The Stranger Project. I’ve been grateful for, and humbled by the support.  After the documentary being completed, I waited over a year for it to screen here in Vancouver. A friend in Amsterdam had gone to a screening there, and met Michele, sending me a photograph of the two of them. Another friend in Toronto had seen the documentary there, and also sent me a photograph of her and Michele.

Last Friday, May 22nd, was Harvey Milk Day, in memory of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist assassinated in 1978. It was also the day I finally got to see 'Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine' on a theatre screen. And, I finally met Michele. We hugged like friends who hadn’t seen one another for years, even though we had never met in person. We had our personal connection. After watching the documentary, we made arrangements to meet the next day for coffee. 

I spent two hours on Saturday with Michele. We spoke of Matt, who Michele told me, was never a stranger to anyone, because he was so outgoing. He loved people and was always the centre of any group. He spoke openly and easily with everyone. We spoke of Michele’s experience of living through the tragic murder of her good friend. We chatted about her life, going to film school, moving to Los Angeles, meeting the man who would become her husband. 

We discussed The Stranger Project, my diagnosis of depression, and how that, in part, motivated me to start this project. We talked of mental health, of stigma, peoples individual perceptions, and personal growth. We discussed healing, and living with emotional pain. 

We shared our experiences of being storytellers; the need for personal connection, not only as storytellers but in order to be healthy people. There was laughter and tears. We learned from each other. We recognized our deep sensitivities in regards to other people. For two hours, there was not a moment of silence. I know this is just the beginning. 

On January 01st, 2014 when I first started this project, I wasn’t sure what it was for, what it would be, or how I was going to present the stories I was listening too. I just knew I needed something that would help me leave my house every single day, and force me to make connections. 

I soon realized that going out and connecting with people was helping me to feel better. As the project grew in popularity, I became aware that I could share stories of people that might not otherwise have a voice. People were responding to and identifying with, the stories of everyday people. While we each have our own journey and experiences, the common thread is that we all have a story. It’s the personal connections that make the stories come to life, that make them relatable. It’s the personal connection that makes us care, that moves us to laughter, or tears. Sometimes both. 

The more I share stories and the outcomes of connection, the more integral to my well-being it becomes. 

All those years ago, when a young man named Matthew, so far removed from my world, was murdered, it touched me profoundly. I dove into the story. I felt moved, and I wanted to know more. I wanted a personal connection. I wanted to do what I could to carry Matt’s voice forward, to make change happen. 

I still want to do what I can to never let people forget what happened that night, seventeen years ago. To never forget a young man who dreamt of changing the world. 

And now, through the power of the internet, used wisely, I have connected with Michele. This personal connection solidifies, yet again, my commitment to working towards shifting perspectives. To changing opinions through the sharing of voices of those who might otherwise not be heard. 

When we hear the personal stories, when we make a personal connection, we can, in fact, change the world. I am humbled, overwhelmed with gratitude and steeped in humility through my experiences of the last two weeks. We don’t always realize at the time, yet sometimes we do; my life has changed. #notastranger

May 21, 2015 - Fabian

May 21, 2015 - Fabian (3rd person I approached)
I love words. When I’m reading something, if I have the slightest doubt about the meaning of a word, I’ll stop reading, and look up the definition. Sometimes I’ll use a word that I’m not even sure how I know what it means, and then surprise myself when it’s exactly what I wanted it to mean. 

 

Other times I get hung up on the meaning of a word, or words. Vulnerability took me a while to comprehend. It can even be difficult to find a positive definition of it, other than meaning a security risk. 

 

Humility. Humility took me years to understand, truly. When I first got sober, some sixteen years ago, I’d hear people talking of humility. I thought I knew it well; turns out humiliation and humility are not the same. My understanding of humility, that is, to accept, know and embrace that I am not the centre of the universe, is one of the drivers of my wellbeing.  

Fabian was sitting on a chair under the shade of a tree, on the crowded sidewalk of East Hastings St, on the Downtown Eastside (DTES). I told him what I was doing and asked him if he’d chat with me.

“Sure,” he said, standing up.

“Let’s do this.” He grabbed his bag that was hanging on a door behind him, told his friend

“I’m going for lunch, I’ll be back in a bit,” and asked his buddy to look after his chair. It still manages to (pleasantly) surprise me how willingly some people agree to chat.  

 

We walked a block down Hastings Street to Save On Meats. On the way to the diner, I explained my motivation for sharing peoples stories; that I hoped to show the human aspect of people from all walks of life. We went into the diner and grabbed a seat. Fabian excused himself to go and wash his hands. He came back, apologizing for keeping me waiting. We looked at the menu, ordered our food and then I showed Fabian my Facebook page, so he would have an idea of what I’d be doing with his story.

 

“I was born New Westminster. But I grew up in the Mission area. I’ve got a brother and sister, both younger than me, with two years between each of us,” he said. His name is actually Ryan, but everyone calls him Fabian.

“They have since I was in school,” he told me.

“I went to elementary school in Mission. It was alright, I liked school then. I was a good student and a good kid. I was quiet, and a bit shy. Nothing like the person I am today,” he said. 

 

“That all changed when I went to high-school. I got into a lot of fights and just didn’t like school. I dropped out in Grade ten and started working,” Fabian said. I asked what had changed for him, and where the aggression had come from. 

 

“My little brother, who is two years younger than I am, had some learning disabilities. We’d ride the school bus and walk home together. He got picked on by other kids because of his disability. I would beat up the kids that picked on him. My stepfather was very physically abusive when I was little. Well, from the time I was about three until I was thirteen,” he told me.

“He had all these rules. We had assigned seats at the dinner table, for example. One time, I sat in the wrong seat. I was about seven years old and he picked me up by my throat and punched me in the face. He did this in front of the entire family. I guess I carried that aggression forward,” he said.

 

Our food arrived. Fabian had ordered a beef dip and fries. The challenge in chatting with someone over lunch is making sure I give them time to eat, ask questions and listen to their story. I think I’m finding the balance, which involves me not eating much until we’re finished. 

For these stories over lunch, I’ve being taking notes on my computer. If you’ve been following this project for any length of time, you’ll know that I usually don’t take any notes. I remember the stories and write them as organic conversations, when I get home. 

 

The conversations over a meal can be more in-depth and personal. The most important thing to me is to honour the story that is being shared with me, so I take short, bullet-point notes. It adds a bit of a distraction, but I think I’ve figured out how to make it work, without allowing the computer to become a barrier in the natural flow of our conversation.

 

“My stepfather cheated on my mother, and I saw first hand what she went through. I never want to do that to a woman. I’ve had a number of relationships, but I’ve never cheated. I wouldn’t. Ever. I don’t want to be that man,” he said.

“My stepfather left after ten years, and my mother and I became best friends. Eight years later she got back together with him. I was in my early twenties then, and he tried to pull the same shit on me. Thing is, I wasn’t a little boy anymore. He tried to get physical with me, and I beat the shit out of him. He never hit me again, and we actually became friends after that. He learned to respect me as an adult,” Fabian said, gently. 

 

“When I left school at sixteen I started working right way. I did some landscaping. But you know, when you’re young, you wake up one day and decide to quit the job. I did that for a while. Then I got into construction and through doing that, I learned how to be a bricklayer. I was a bricklayer until I was twenty-seven. It's hard work, but I liked it and it paid well,” he said, looking up at the aged brick wall that we were sitting next to. 

 

“l started dating this woman when I was about nineteen or so. A few years later, we had our son. That was in 2007, and I was twenty-two. We had started drinking together and I was doing a bunch of cocaine by this time. I wasn’t really into drugs until I met her,” he said.

“But we all make our own choices. I wasn’t working and needed some money. A friend told me he knew how I could make some cash. That's when I started selling drugs. It was all so fucked up. I feel sorry for my son, that poor little kid. His father is an absolute useless waste of space, and he lives in shit. I can’t believe how smart that little guy is. I’m not sure where he gets it from,” Fabian said. 

 

“His mother and I split up, and I went to live my mother. I got clean and had three months. I started working as a bricklayer again. I had visits with my son every weekend, for a year or so. Then I went to this party,” he says.

“There was a guy that I knew from high school there. He offered me some heroin, and that’s when that started,” he said. Within two weeks, Fabian committed a break and entry to a house, and stole two guns.

“I got caught that afternoon.”

 

“I was held in remand for nine months. I hadn’t been before a judge or anything. They hold you to do assessments and that’s just the way the system goes. After nine months, they sat me down and wanted me to give up the people who were involved in the robbery with me. I wasn’t willing to do that. The next day I was before a judge and sentenced to four-and-a-half years,” he said. In Canada any sentence of two years or longer, is a federal  sentence and means going to a federal penitentiary, and not a provincial jail.

 

“I got into a couple of fights, and spent seventy-six days in the hole (solitary confinement) which means locked in a cell for twenty-three hours a day,” he said.

“Then the warden came to see me. He went out into the yard with me on my one hour walk outside. He told me that he had looked at my file, and felt that I was a decent kid. He told me that he figured that I shouldn’t go to a maximum security prison. He said he thought that would set me on the wrong path. I got transferred to a medium security prison, in Mission so I could be nearer my family. I don’t know why he did that for me, but I was so grateful,” said Fabian.

“My grandma came and saw me every weekend. Every weekend for the entire four-and-a-half years I was inside. We also spoke on the phone a few times a week as well.”

 

I asked Fabian how his beef dip was. He smiled, telling me, ”This is so good, I haven’t had one of these for a long time.” He became quiet, and was looking off into space. I could tell he was feeling emotional.

“When I was little, I’d go out with my Grandma, and all I ever had was a beef dip. She used to tease me saying ‘That’s all you ever eat.’” He used his napkin to wipe at his eyes.

“Sorry,” he said, taking a huge drink of his water. He cleared his throat. I sat quietly to allow him to have whatever emotions come up for him.

“Oh boy. Okay, this is tough. Can we change the subject for a bit?” 

 

I asked if he had a tough time in prison, especially as he’s a good looking guy.

“No, that’s all the stuff you see in movies. It wasn’t like that at all. Everyone seemed to like me. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always usually gotten along well with everyone. I’m a pretty upbeat and positive guy,” he said. 

 

“I had been inside for about two years. I was working out and getting quite buff. My grandmother told me she was worried about me. She said she thought I was starting to look like the tough guys she saw in prison with me. She said that if that was going to happen, that she wouldn’t be coming back to see me again,” Fabian said. 

 

He couldn’t hold back his tears, although he gave it a good try. I told him there was nothing wrong with crying and that it was a good thing, to feel comfortable to allow himself to let it go.

“I’ve already cried enough,” he said, wiping his eyes. Then he covered his face with a paper napkin. We sat still, and quiet. 

 

His grandmother had read him the riot act.

“I changed my life right then and there. I stopped hanging around with the guys inside who were involved with drugs. Sure, you can get drugs inside, but it’s so costly. I wasn’t going to spend the money my family gave me on getting high. I completed my high school while I was inside, and took courses in different things,” he said.

“I turned my life around while I was inside.”

 

A few weeks before he was due to be released, Fabian had tried to call his grandmother, and was getting no reply.

“I called my sister, and she told me my grandmother was sick. She had a few strokes and was in hospital,” he said, softly. He looked around the diner, and then leaned in across the table, speaking quietly.

“I told the warden what was going on, and that my grandmother was very sick. He gave me a choice. I could either go see her while she was still alive in hospital, or I could go to her funeral. I had to choose. That was so tough. I slept on it before making a decision. I felt that going to her funeral in shackles and handcuffs, with armed guards would be shameful and disrespectful to my grandmother. Everyone would see me there and it wasn’t about me. I didn’t want to make a spectacle. So I went to see her in hospital,” he said, again looking around, as if to see if there was anyone nearby that could hear us. 

 

“I was so ashamed. In federal (prison) they let you wear your own clothes, but I was kept in shackles around my feet and with handcuffs in front of me. There were armed guards with me as well. It was in Royal Columbian Hospital. I just felt such shame,” he said, looking down at the table.

“She had had a few strokes, but we rubbed her feet and she knew I was there. I got to say goodbye. Then I went back to prison and was all alone in my cell. She never got to see me get out of there. She died two weeks before I got released.”  

 

“You know, inside, no one yells at anyone. Everyone was very respectful. I had some guys apologize to me for being inside. I never got any grief for going to school, or taking courses. It was a good experience as far as being in prison was. It took me a good three-to-six months to adapt back into the outside world again. The noise,” he said. 

Fabian had planned to spend his time on parole living with his grandfather.

“My grandparents had been married for fifty-six years. He was so lost without her. He went off to Hungary to make arrangements for her funeral back there. So I went to stay with my mother for a while,” he said. During that time, Fabian became friends with his mother’s neighbour.

“I would say hello, and then started to hang out and we’d talk a bit. Then he offered me a beer. We became good friends. I told him that I used to be into landscaping when I first got out of school. He gave me some work and would pay me to cut the grass, that kind of thing. After we became friends, I wanted to tell him the truth. I told him I had recently gotten out of prison,” said Fabian.

“He told me he knew. He was a prison guard. Here’s me just getting out of prison for robbery, and now I’m good friends with a prison guard. My life had done a complete hundred-and-eighty degree shift!” he said with a chuckle.

 

“I got a job working in a place making bullet proof glass. I was seeing my son for regular visits. I was living with my grandfather. Life was good. I had a girlfriend, she was a prison guard as well. Yeah, I had all these prison guards as friends!” he said, a little bewildered. 

 

“We had been dating for about a year, then things started to fall apart, in the relationship,” he told me.

"I’ve recognized that one of my triggers is around relationships. I had done a bunch  of workshops and things in prison, like I said. I learned about my triggers and things through the programs I did. But we broke up, and I start doing drugs again,” he said.

“I went right back in with needles and injecting.”

 

“By this time I had gone to live with my sister. She has small kids, and I didn’t want them to see what a doped out person looked like. I was too ashamed to even tell my sister. But you can tell when someone is high on heroin. I’d nod off, and couldn’t keep my eyes open. I didn’t want her kids knowing what that meant. There was one time I had put a used needle in the garbage. My sister found it. I couldn’t lie to her. I told her I was back using again. But worse, what if my niece had managed to, say crawl over to the garbage and picked up that syringe. What if she go hurt? I couldn’t stay there any longer. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of my using,” he told me. Shame is a big factor for Fabian.

 

He moved out of his sister's house, deciding it would be better to live on the streets, than subject his family to his drug use. He’s been homeless for about four months now.

“I spent the first few months out on the strip in Surrey. I’ve only been down here (DTES) for the past week,” he said. I asked Fabian why he chose to come to East Hastings Street.

“I had been sleeping in a sober shelter occasionally in Surrey. Then someone that was supposed to be a good friend robbed me. I had fallen asleep with my bag over my shoulder. I woke up and the strap of my bag was cut and the bag was gone. A couple of days later, this guy tells me he did it. He was a friend, or supposed to be. I don’t want to be that guy. I might be a homeless drug addict, but I’ve got morals and standards that I hold myself to,” he said, passionately. 

 

“I came down here so I could be anonymous. I’ve being going around and picking things up that I find discarded on the streets, and in the alleys. There’s so much stuff that is just laying around in the alleys, on the sidewalks and in the dumpsters. I sell what I can, get the money that I need for the day, and then go off and do my thing. I’m not on welfare, and I don’t get any money for housing. That’s a decision I made. I can make my own way,” he said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time helping others out. If someone's kicked out of their place and needs help, I’m the one helping out. If I say to someone I’m going to be there to help, then I’m there. I’m a man of my word.”

 

“But now, I’ve got to start doing things for myself. I want to get clean again, and rebuild my life. I just have to learn to say no to others, so that I can take care of myself now.” 

 

I told Fabian that his humility, honesty and vulnerability truly showed through, not only in his story, but in his character. The person that he is. I thanked him for his open and honest sharing, and for letting me hear his story. Then I asked him for a hug. He smiled, and stood up to let me hug him. I asked when the last time he had a hug was, and he couldn’t remember. We hugged and I didn’t let go. He hugged tighter.

“Thank you.” My time with Fabian was a profoundly moving experience. #notastranger

Today’s story is sponsored by the Save On Meat diner, and their charitable organization, A Better Life Foundatio

May 20, 2015 - 'Not A Stranger'

May 20, 2015 Can you guess what I saw tonight? Kate, the Director & Producer of the documentary 'Not A Stranger' and Jason, her lovely husband, had me over for dinner and my own personal screening of the completed film! All I can say is it was an exciting, moving and somewhat surreal experience... As soon as there is more information to share, you'll be amongst the first people to know! #notastranger #documentary 

May 18, 2015 - Adam (an update)

May 18, 2015 Adam (an update)

in the seventeen months that I’ve been chatting with, and writing about, strangers, I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned about different cities, cultures, folklore, languages, history. So much information. I often come home and research things I’ve spoken with strangers about; I like to know what it is I’m writing about. 

 

I’ve learned a great deal about people, humanity, emotions and sometimes, just how cruel life can seem. I’ve heard stories about great feats of personal determination, strength and resilience. I’ve gotten to know myself better. The way I react to certain situations has changed, for the better. How I perceive the environment around me, and my response to others. The immeasurable value to my personal wellness by connecting with people, and being engaged within my community. Some stories have stayed with me for days, others for months. Some will guide me for the rest of my life. I’m blessed, grateful, and humbled ever single day.

 

I’ve also made some really good friends through talking to strangers. People who truly become #notastranger. Adam is one such friend. I met Adam last year, on Day 269, September 26, 2014 (see link in comments below). He was extremely easy to chat with and the conversation flowed. 

 

We became friends on Facebook, and kept in touch. When I gave my talk at TEDxRenfrewCollingwood, I invited a few of the ‘strangers’ that I had met to come along for the day. Adam was in the audience. 

 

The next time we got together, we went floating together (different rooms and tanks, same time and location!). Our plan was to go for breakfast after the float. We met a couple of documentary filmmakers at Float House, and they ended up joining us for breakfast. I liked Adam’s ease and comfort with unexpected new friends and his ability to just go with the flow. 

 

We keep in touch, and even though Adam works out of town four days a week, we often grab coffee together and catch-up. Adam is a dentist, and has never had a cavity. I have to say, it’s mildly annoying that he has such a perfect smile and flawless white teeth. I guess we all have our flaws. I have Scottish heritage, and a filling in almost every tooth. Enough said.

 

Today we made plans to meet at a coffee shop in Gastown, but with it being a holiday, it was closed. We went somewhere nearby, and got our coffees to go. Being such a lovely day, we went for a walk to CRAB Park, at the Port of Vancouver, on the downtown Eastside waterfront. (I learned from Adam today that it’s an acronym, though usually just called Crab Park - C.R.A.B. - Create a Real Available Beach).

 

Like any friendship, there’s always another story to be told or a past adventure to share. Since moving out on his own at eighteen, Adam has never owned a television. I couldn't imagine that; TV is my white noise. As we walked along the road bordered on one side by the rows of cargo trains, the topic of graffiti came up. There was a bunch of railcars that had illegible tags spray-painted on them. One legible and highly stylized piece was an artist's name, or ‘tag’ as they’re called. Adam smiled and told me he had gone to high school in Kamloops with the artist. We shared our own views on graffiti and tagging. It’s sometimes a fine line.

 

I was somehow reminded of the romantic notion of travelling across country by hoping on and off trains. It seems it was a way of life in the early to middle parts of the last century, but not something that you hear much about these days.

“I did that once,” Adam told me. I asked for clarification.

“A bunch of my friends were artists, and that’s how they got around. There’s often an extra engine car in the middle of a long train. And they’d hope on and ride it to their destination. A few of them were coming down to Vancouver, and I got invited, so I went along. I was about eighteen or nineteen at the time,” he said.

"We hopped on the empty engine of this train, and rode from Kamloops to Vancouver." I loved the adventurous nature of the trip.

 

I asked Adam if his parents ever knew he had done that.

“Yeah,” he said, laughing.

“My father actually drove me to the train station. He didn’t know exactly what I was doing. But eventually I told him. We still laugh about that to this day!”

 

We walked through the park, towards the little manmade beach, stopping a few times to enjoy the view and chat. After an hour, and neither of us wearing sunscreen (I know, I know), we decided it was time to get out of the sun. There’s a price to pay for embracing male pattern baldness. I walked with Adam back to his place. He was going get his stuff ready for his week of work out of town. 

 

We said our goodbyes, and as I walked home, I thought about how fortunate I am. I randomly approached someone and asked them to chat with me, and from that, we’ve become good friends. In a text conversation we had last week, Adam reminded me that I could tell him anything. That’s all he needed to say. I know this to be true, and consider myself lucky to have another person in my life that will listen, openly and without judgement, no matter what I want to talk about. 

 

When I got home, I sent Adam a message. I thanked him for paying for the coffee (he IS a dentist after all). I also let him know that no matter what or when, I’ll always be here for him. To listen. Anytime. That to me is the basis and foundation of a real and true friendship, and indicates to me, that Adam is truly, #notastranger.

http://on.fb.me/1HoAWYo

May 17, 2015 - Jillian

May 17, 2015 - Jillian (2nd person I approached)
The first person I approached was interested in my project. We spoke a little bit about her upbringing and the struggle she had to complete her education. However, now that she’s a teacher, she wasn’t comfortable sharing her story. It was okay if it was going to just be chatting with me, but there was a definite need to not have her students read about her personal life story. Something which was a completely reasonable consideration. We had a short conversation about a political article she was reading in her morning paper, and then I left to find today's story. 

 

Jillian was sitting outside a home-decor store, listening to music, albeit only with one earplug in. I explained to her what my project is about and asked if she’d chat with me.

“Yeah, sure. I’m just waiting for a phone call, about some paint. We’re painting my place and we’ve had a bit of an issue, so I’m trying to get this sorted out,” she said, by way of explanation. Jillian told me she had managed to get most of the paint off of herself. She did find a small area with a splash of lovely pink paint on her elbow, and laughed, telling me “That's the colour of my bedroom!”

 

“I was born in Kamloops (British Columbia). I remember always being able to smell the pulp mill wherever I was in Kamloops. The mill sits up near the top of a ridge, and then the wind carries the smell down into the valley. Scents are like that, bringing back memories. Chanel No. 05, always reminds me of my grandmother. Pulp mills always remind me of back in Kamloops,” she said. Jillian has a brother who is five years younger.

“I spent a lot of time looking after him. My parents split up when I was very young. My mother took off, and so my brother and I lived with our father.”

 

“My mother got into drugs and became an addict. She was hooked on heroin. My Dad worked a lot and wasn’t home much. So it was just me and my little brother,” she told me.

“My mother moved down to Vancouver, and we'd come down and spend time with her. Sometimes she’d be trying to get clean, and we’d spend a month with her dealing with everything that was involved with that. It was like I was the parent to my mother. Things would just be getting good, and then we’d go back home to my Dad. That was what time with my mother was like,” said Jillian.

 

“I remember when I was ten years old. It was Christmas Eve and my Dad got a call from my mother saying that she was in a bad way. Her boyfriend at that time was abusive and used to just beat the shit out of her. I remember her arriving at my Dad’s some hours later, and she had on this really lovely red sweater. She always took care of how she looked and what she wore. She always had on high heels, nylons, a nice skirt and top. This red sweater, I think it was Angora, it was so soft and pretty. But she was covered in blood. I spent ages picking pieces of glass out of her back,” she said, somewhat flatly. Jillian had a protective kind of detachment about her. Not unfeeling, yet a ‘this is what it was’ sort of manner.

“I knew then that I would always feel a responsibility for my mother.” 

 

“Elementary school was good. I went to school in Cache Creek and Kamloops. I always did really well. Even when I had the same teacher for two years that hated me. I just didn’t take any shit and I asked questions. I always got A’s and B’s though. I was a good student,” she said. 

 

By the age of fourteen, four years had gone by without seeing her mother.

“She had moved to Kingston, Ontario. I missed my mom and wanted to see her. I went to live with her in Kingston. She had been clean for three months. April 22, 1996. That was the first time I had seen her in those four years. The date stuck with me because it was a big day for me, to see her again. My little brother stayed with my Dad,” she said.

“Kingston was tough. It was hard making the adjustment. I hadn’t lived with my mother in almost nine years, and she was getting clean. I never felt comfortable there. Not long after arriving, my mother told me she was pregnant. My brother is fifteen years younger than I am.”

 

Unbeknownst to Jillian or her mother, her (now) middle brother, back in BC, had gone into foster care.

“He was a week away from becoming a ward of the court. My mother made some calls, and managed to get him out to Kingston, and the three of us lived together, with my mother’s boyfriend. The father of my youngest brother,” she said.

 

“High school was a living hell. I didn’t fit in. I got picked on and bullied every single day. I was that girl from BC and they all thought I’d be different than I was. I was prettier than some of the girls there too, and they hated that. I was having difficulty coping. Between living there, my mother, and school, I started to withdraw. I was getting depressed and was isolating myself. I left school in grade ten. I was okay if I was at home, but I didn’t want to be going out and dealing with people. After about a year or so of this, I knew something wasn’t right. I pleaded with my mother to take me to see a doctor. I was diagnosed with manic depression. The doctor wanted to put me on a litany of medication. But I had seen what drugs did to my mother. I didn’t want anything to do with that. I had my share of experimenting with drugs, but I didn’t want to be on medication long term, that’s for sure,” said Jillian.  

 

“What helped me,” said Jillian, with a bit of a giggle in her voice,

“Was a telephone psychic. She taught me how to meditate. I practised and used that every day. It really helped me. I did research as well. I mean I didn’t have a computer, but I read self-help books and got together some tools to help me get through it all. It helped me to be able to cope with whatever was going on around me, and not draw me into it.”

 

“We moved back to Vancouver when I was eighteen. A family road trip, in October!? Such a crazy time to drive across the country, but we did. As soon as we got back, I went to work. I got my first job and I worked,” she told me. Jillian had a few different jobs, ending up working in debt collection.

“A friend got me an interview with a company that he was working with. I got myself all gussied up and I was looking really good. I soon realized that I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about but they hired me! I got the job and was producing good results. Then I was poached by the competition,” said Jillian. 

 

She’s been working for the same company now for almost thirteen years.

“I love my job. It’s my career and I’m good at it. This is the best employer I’ve ever had. When the time came for me to move out from living with my mother, my boss went above and beyond to help me out. Financially and emotionally, they’ve always looked after me. I’ll never leave this job,” she told me, smiling with confidence.

“I reached a point where I couldn’t do it for my mother any more. I had to walk away. I needed to start living my life for me, and that’s why I moved out.”

 

Jillian got the phone call she was waiting for about her painting situation. Sitting next to her while she spoke, it sounded like her and her boyfriend were playing the ‘No, you hang up. No YOU hang up first’ game. She was all giggles and smiles, her body language excitably animated. 

 

“That man is such a dream,” she said after hanging up. I don’t know who actually hung up first. Her excitement was illuminating.

“This really is the best relationship I’ve ever had in my life! We met online, and spoke for about a week before meeting in person. When we decided to meet, he came in from (the suburbs) by bus. He got off the bus, and of course we’d seen pictures of each other. He made a beeline right for me, and without saying anything, he put his arms around me and planted the biggest and best kiss I’ve ever had, right on me. We hadn’t even said hello. We’ve been together ever since. That was July 26th of last year,” said Jillian. 

 

She made sure to show me her stunning engagement ring.

“May the 05th. I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t know when. We’re hoping to get married in August next year. He’s a bit bonkers and I love that about him! He the kindest, most caring person.” 

 

I took three photos of Jillian and showed them to her. I thanked her for sharing her story and chatting with me, saying it had been a real pleasure. She has such a vibrant energy about her, clearly she's a survivor, replete with a hearty sense of joy about her. 

 

“Well, if I didn’t laugh, I’d be crying, and I don’t want to cry. I have to say, talking with you, I’ve told you some things that I haven’t talked about in a very long time. Years in fact,” she said.

“It feels good, we all need to offload every now and again. But we don’t always get the chance. Thank you for listening.” #notastranger

May 16, 2015 - Matty

May 16, 2015 - Matty (1st person I approached)
Always look for the silver lining, right? A good friend is in hospital for a few days, and I was on my way to pay him a quick visit this morning. This meant leaving my building and turning right, instead of my usual left and down the main street. I didn’t quite make it to the end of my block, when I noticed a man across the street, removing a lightbulb from a standard lamp that someone had thrown out. It was standing next to a dumpster. 

 

I’ve been looking for pretty much this very style and size of lamp for behind my couch. I asked the man who was examining the lightbulb if he was going to take the lamp, but he just wanted the lightbulb. It was a win-win situation for both of us. I took the lamp back home, and was happy to discover that it works!

 

I left my house, and once again, turned to go right instead of the usual left turn I make when leaving my building. I got to the end of my block, and noticed a handsome man walking toward the intersection I was about to cross. Our eyes met, we smiled and both kept walking. I may or may not have turned around to look again. Maybe.

 

I carried on to the hospital to check in on my friend. It was good news. While he’s going to remain there for a few more days, he’s definitely on the mend. As I was walking home, I decided I’d see if I could meet a stranger for a chat. Another four days have passed since my last story, and I had mentioned to my friend at the hospital that I needed to get out and meet someone! 

 

I walked to my local shopping mall, going in a door that I don’t often use. I normally make a sweep of the main floor and then head upstairs if I’m checking out the mall for someone to chat with. Today, I went in through a door that was on the upper floor. I was going in reverse it seemed. I spotted Matty sitting at a table, drinking a coffee. He had a few books and a note pad with him, and looked like he was studying. He was the guy that I had passed on the street earlier, while on my way to the hospital. The handsome guy, not the one who took the lightbulb from the lamp. He readily agreed to chat.

 

Matty was born London, England.

“I lived in Essex. My parents split-up when I was very young, and I lived with my mother,” he told me. I couldn’t detect much of an accent. Matty told me that his accent usually becomes more pronounced when he's around other English people, or after a couple of pints (of beer). 

 

“I was good in school. I played a lot of soccer,” he said. His father had come to Canada and remarried.

“When I was sixteen, I moved over here to live with my Dad. He has two children with my stepmother, so I have a younger sister and brother,” Matty told me. 

 

“School was very different here in Canada. I feel like the students are smarter and work harder. In England everyone is working towards their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The teachers can’t give you your grades, it’s only the government that issues tests. I would go to school and have a good time with my mates, and then cram before exams, and I did alright. When I came over here, I learned the hard way. I wasn’t so good with Math. I did a test, knowing that I didn’t do so good. I figured it was not a big deal, and that I’d do better on the next one. Then I found out that test was worth forty percent of my overall mark for that subject!” he said, still with an air of surprise in his voice.

 

“After being in Canada for about six months, I went back to England to visit my mother and see my friends. Everyone was all excited to see me and it felt great to be around my mates again. When I got back to Vancouver, I decided that I wanted to move back to England. I missed everyone too much. I did the 30k move,” he said. 

 

I wasn’t sure what that meant and asked Matty to explain it.

“That's what it’s called when an entire family moves to a new country. There’s that risk that things don’t work out, so they have to pay to move everyone and everything back. It’s usually a 50k move, but as it was just me, I did a 30k move,” he said, laughing. 

 

“The thing is, when I got back to England after deciding to move, my mates didn’t throw a party for me or anything. It wasn’t the same as when I had gone back for a vacation. I started to realize that I actually had it better in Canada. We lived in West Van, and I was going to school in Caulfield (West Vancouver). My mother’s house was small, and it just didn’t feel right,” he told me. Six weeks later, Matty was back in school, in West Vancouver. 

 

“I had just missed the chance to graduate from Grade eleven, so I had to do some courses over the summer to make up my grades. I took ten classes that summer and worked really hard. The school even called my stepmother to discuss how many classes I had signed up for. She told them if I signed up, then I was going to do them, and I did,” he told me, proudly.

“The best thing about going to school in Vancouver compared to England? Having an English accent and going to school in West Van!” he said, with a coy smile, laughing.

 

Matty continued to play soccer, and was applying at colleges in the United States (USA).

“I got a full ride at a school in Indiana. It was through the NCAA (The National Collegiate Athletic Association). I was at the airport about to get on a plane to go to Indiana, when I got a call from the coach. He told me that I was ineligible. Because I was an English kid who had gone to school in England and Canada. They'd either pull your transcripts from England or from Canada. They considered me to have graduated twice, so I wasn’t eligible," said Matty. 

 

"I had been in contact with a coach at UVic (University of Victoria, British Columbia), and I called him. He told me I could start the next day. I went straight from the airport to the ferry terminal to the Island (Vancouver Island),” Matty said. Two weeks later, he got a call from Indiana saying that they were going to accept him.

“I had already started training camp at UVic, and I liked the school and the campus there, so I stayed.”

 

Four years later, Matty got his Bachelor’s degree in E-Comm (electronic commerce).

“I could have done business, but I had worked a number of summer jobs and knew that sales was where I wanted to be. I’m good at sales and I like it,” he said. Right after graduation from university, Matty came back to Vancouver and started working.

“I’ve done some property management and am a realtor as well. I really like real estate, but I want to get set up so I’m generating an income stream. Sure I could sell one high-priced (real estate) listing and make a hundred thousand in commission, but there’s a risk to that. I want to be generating a constant source of income,” he said. 

 

“I’d like to have a brokerage, where I’m looking after a number of brokers and working that way. I’m studying for my brokerage license now,” he said, gesturing to the books on the table in front of him. 

 

After I took a photograph of Matty, he said he had to get going. He and his girlfriend were heading off to an afternoon at the racetrack. We walked back to the intersection where I had first seen him. I asked if he had gotten much studying done today.

“Well,” he said, "I was doing okay and then this guy came over and started asking me all these questions,” he said, smiling at me. He has one of those smiles that lights up his entire face. He’ll sell lots of houses. Or water, or ice-cubes, or whatever he chooses to sell. #notastranger

May 11, 2015 - Isabel

May 11, 2015 - Isabel (2nd person I approached)
In my efforts to be fully self-employed, some days I feel busier than when I worked full-time. A friend arrived from out of town this afternoon, and is staying with me for three days. I wasn’t sure I was going to get a chance to go out and meet a stranger today. 

 

However, my friend made plans to meet another friend of his for dinner, and I was able to head out to find a story. It’s really gotten to the point where if three days go by and I don’t meet someone, I feel like something is lacking. It was wonderful to walk out of my building this afternoon with the sole intention of chatting with a stranger.

 

The first woman I approached told me she was a private person and would be happy to chat with me about anything, but wasn’t into having it published. It was still a nice exchange of more than hello.

 

I saw Isabel not far from the first woman I had approached. I said hello, and was met with an extremely cheery and outgoing “Hi,” from Isabel. Her genuine pleasantness was worthy of compliment, which of course, I followed through on. She wanted to know why I was doing this project and a little about the project itself.

“I’m heading to a class, and don’t have a lot of time,” said Isabel.

“But how about you walk with me to the train station and we’ll talk.” I explained The Stranger Project, and clearly did well enough that Isabel told me, “Ok, I get what this is about. It's great, let’s start talking about my story, so we can do this!” Perfection.

 

Isabel was born in Ontario.

“I’m from a place called St Catharines,” she said as we walked to the train station. "

I have two sisters and a brother. We grew up as a very close family. Going on vacations and road trips. The whole family. My childhood was a lot of fun. I’m closest probably with my younger sister, we’re only a year apart. Everyone is older now and we’re all spread out across the country, but we try to stay close,” she said.

 

“I was really into sports when I was in elementary school. Track and Field, sprinting was my thing,” said Isabel, in a clear voice, that has a hint of excitement. Isabel knew what she wanted to do when she graduated from high-school.

“Well, I went to Grade thirteen in school. That’s how it was in Ontario back in the day,” she said.

“I went to college right after graduating from school. I was interested in marketing and advertising. It had just always appealed to me. I took a three year course in Business Administration - Marketing,” she said.

 

After completing the program, Isabel went to work.

“I was working right of of college. I got a great job with a very successful company and gained experience in the field. I realized that if I wanted to go anywhere with it, I would have to go to university. I didn’t want to spend years in school. I found a program at Royal Roads University, (Vancouver Island, British Columbia) that was twelve months long. They only accept one hundred students. I was able to transfer my credits from college for the application. They also took into account the industry experience I had. Most of the students that get accepted have worked in the industry, and then there are a few that get in right from high-school,” she told me.

 

I asked Isabel how she felt about moving across the country and being away from her family. “I loved it,” she said, with no hesitation.

“I firmly believe in taking risks. If you’re not taking risks, your lacking in self-confidence, and I guess I was fairly confident to make the move,” she said.

“The program was twelve months, full on and no breaks.”

 

Upon completing university, Isabel got a job that took her to the east coast.

“I went to work for a video company in mid-town Manhattan, in New York,” she said. One of my favourite countries as I like t call it - there’s no place like NYC!

“I was in New York for a couple of years. I sort of developed a love hate thing for the city. I moved here after my two years in New York,” she said.

 

“I got married and my husband was a grad student at the time. We headed back to Ontario in 2012 so he could go to school. We just moved back to Vancouver last year,” Isabel told me. He works as a software engineer. 

 

Isabel's now working as a recruiter for an Engineering company. “It’s a bit of a departure from what I’ve been doing, but I like the people connection,” she said. 

 

When we had first started chatting, Isabel had mentioned that she was going to a class, and I asked her what the class was for.

“I’m learning to speak Farsi,” she said, with a big, proud smile.

“My husband is Persian.” Isabel has been in this class for twelve weeks.

“I’m learning to put sentences together now!” And then it was time to head to school. #notastranger

May 07, 2015 - Don (an update)

May 07, 2015 - Don (an update)
One of the many unexpected pleasures of this project for me, is the ongoing connections. Friendships that I’ve forged with people that I’ve met simply by asking strangers to chat with me. There are days when I’ll see three or four people who are no longer strangers to me. Sometimes we wave and say hello as we pass, other times we'll stop on the sidewalk and have a catch-up chat. Some people I’ve become good friends with and we go out for coffee, or lunch, or walks. It really has become a community of connected people.

 

I first chatted with Don in July of last year. (See link below in the comments.) His story was somewhat of an emotional roller-coaster, yet throughout our chat, he held his head high. He has made it through and survived situations that a lesser person might not have been able to endure. His story was very well received and sparked quite a bit of dialogue. Some of his family managed to find the story as well. It was wonderful to see the outpouring of love for a man that had warmed my heart in the thirty minutes we had initially chatted for.  

 

I ran into him a few days later; he was grinning as he told me that he had been getting messages from people that had read his story.

"How cool it that? People read about me!" 

 

Three months later, I was walking across the Cambie Street bridge with two friends of mine who were visiting from New York. I saw Don walking towards us and I stopped to say hello. I introduced him to my friends, and we stood and chatted for a couple of minutes. Once again, he told us all about more of his family reading his story, and how great it had been that we got to chat that first time. As we walked away, one of my friends couldn’t believe that this had just happened.

“That is so amazing that you’re making these connections. Running into people that you randomly approached, and now it’s clear there’s a connection between the two of you. I’m so glad I got to witness that,” he said. 

 

On Tuesday, I was walking down the street and saw Don just ahead of me, not far from where we had first met. I caught up with him waiting to cross the street. At first he seemed a little unsure whether or not I had the right person when I said hello. I called him by name, which only made him look all the more puzzled, in a ‘How do you know my name?’ sort of manner. I reminded him that we had met last year, in a small park nearby and that we had chatted and I wrote about his stories.

“Oh, yeah. I remember you,” he said cheerily. He might have had a beer or two.

“We met up there, in that park, didn’t we?!” he said pointing to exactly where we had indeed, first met. It's been almost a year since then, and eight months since i've last seen him. We walked and chatted for a few minutes. I was going to get some groceries and Don was going to cash-in some bottles and cans he had collected. 

 

He told me that he wasn’t doing so well, when I asked.

“I’m having to move out of my place,” he said, stopping and standing still on the sidewalk.

“I’ve been in this place for three years, and I like it. I was the first person to move in there. I was the first one they called when it opened. It’s First Nations housing. But now I have to move,” he said, rather sullenly. 

 

Throughout his childhood, moving was something that happened frequently. His mother would suddenly tell him ‘We’re going to Vancouver,’ and they’d leave the North Coast immediately. They went back and forth. He was also removed from his family for a time, unexpectedly, as a kid while other siblings remained in the home.

“It’s so stressful to have to deal with this again,” Don said. It seems he was only permitted to stay in the room he was in for three years.

 

“They’ll find me other housing. I’m just not sure where it will be, or how long it will take them,” he told me.

“I know it will all work out in the end, but it’s tough not knowing where or when I’m going to get another place to live. It’s frustrating.” We had walked for a couple blocks and Don was going to go into the LCB and I was carrying on toward the grocery store. 

 

I asked him if I could take picture of the two of us and write an update about running into him.

“A picture? Really? If you must. I don’t like my pictures that much,” he said. That had been the theme of the conversation the first time we met and I took his photo. Don doesn’t like having his picture taken. I took two photos of us. I didn’t like the first one, because I also don’t like having my picture taken, although I’m getting over that. I showed Don the one I liked of him, and before I could say anything, he said, “See. What a horrible picture!”

 

I look up, only to see Richard, another strainer from last year heading our way. Richard had agreed to not only chat with me, but he allowed our conversation to be filmed, and that footage was used in the trailer for the Indiegogo campaign for the documentary 'Not A Stranger.' I introduced Richard and Don. We had a conservation about Don's birthplace, Kitkatla, near Prince Rupert. Richard had travelled up and down the north coast of British Columbia for his work, and knew where Don was from. Such a wonderfully occurrence. I didn't think about it until later, when I was walking home, that I should have gotten a photo of the three of us. Sorry Richard, I know I'll see you again though!

 

Before Don left, he told me, “Oh I should tell you. Everyone in my village read the story. They all liked it,” his face beaming with pride.

“The next time I go home to visit, and it won’t be that long now. Well, I might even be a bit of a celebrity!” He made me smile so much, I instinctively threw my arms around him. He hugged me right back. These moments are precious gifts. #notastranger

May 06, 2015 - Balvinder

May 06, 2015 - Balvinder (1st person I approached)
To be honest, the past few days have been, let’s call it ‘reflective.’ There have a been a few really great happenings, and then a few kind of flat line moments as well. Transition of any kind, is a challenge. In my case it’s striking out on my own, and pursuing this dream I have. I’m up for it. Some days are just a little tougher than others.

 

I decided it should be a park today. I needed to get out and be in the sunshine. I also was aware that finding a stranger to chat with would be just what I needed. I walked through a small park not far from my house, but didn’t see anyone that was sitting alone. The next park destination is about a ten minute walk. Along the way, I spotted the bright red of Balvinder’s turban, from across the street. Red is one of my favourite colours and the vivid warmth beckoned me. Just as I was about to walk over to him, he got up, and I thought I might have to chase him down. Fortunately for me, he walked to a newspaper box, returned a newspaper and went back to sit down. 

 

Balvinder told me he had “five or six minutes left of a break,” and that he would be happy to chat with me in that time. One of the recent changes I’ve made in my life, for now, is to cancel my phone and data plan. Trying to show someone my Facebook page to verify who I am, can then present a challenge (note to self - really need business cards). I showed him a couple photo’s that are on  my phone, of other folk I’ve chatted with.

“That’s fine, we can talk,” he said, generously.
 

“I was born in Ludhiana, near Chandigarh, in India. It is a large, popular modern city,” he said.

“I’m third from the top, and second from the last,” he told when I asked about siblings and where he fit in the line of children.

“I have two sisters and one brother. We were very close as a family, yes.”

 

“All of my schooling until university was in Ludhiana. After I graduated from high-school, we go to college in India. It’s like a preparation for going to work, or to university. You get a Bachelor’s degree from the four years in college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started,” he said, smiling.

“I went into Sciences, but decided that it was not for me. So I studied Arts, Political Science and Economics,” Balvinder said. 

 

We had a discussion about Arts as a subject. I of course thought of painting and art history. However, Balvinder had studied liberal arts as in social sciences.

“And we had to study English as well, for the degree. I had started learning English since I was a small child. We were taught our lessons in Punjabi, we learned Hindi as our second language and English as well,” he said.

 

There wasn't much of a gap between his academic endeavours.

“After getting my Bachelors degree, there were not many jobs going, and so I decided I would continue with my studies,” he said. Balvinder went to Punjab University in Chandigarh, getting his Master’s degree in Economics.

“When I finished my Master’s degree, I thought I should take some class in computers, so I did a course in Computer Science. It was just for six months,” he said. 

 

“My parents met through an arranged marriage. It is our custom,” he told me.

“My parents chose for me as well. It’s not just about getting you married. They look into the background of the bride and groom-to-be. For compatibility, similar educations, interests. It’s not going to be a one hundred percent match,” he said, smiling.

“My parents chose well for me.” Balvinder’s family have had ties to British Columbia since the 1960’s.

“We had relatives that were here.”

 

Balvinder and his wife have three children.

“They are all grown-up now,” he said.

“One of my daughters is already married,” he told me. I had to ask if he and his wife were involved in who his daughter chose to marry. He smiled, telling me,

“Well, not in the traditional manner no. But we had met my son-in-law beforehand and the families met as well.”

 

Even though Balvinder kept his sunglasses on throughout our short conversation, I was surprised that he had three grown children. We didn’t discuss his age, but I did tell him he had a very youthful energy about him.

“Thank you very much,” he said, softly. 

 

He checked his phone for the time, and wanted to take note of my project.

“My wife looks after the Facebook,” he said, writing down the page name.

“It was good you found me sitting out here today. I’m usually sitting inside on my breaks from work,” he said. It was my good fortune. Our time was up. And I felt grounded. #notastranger

May 05 - "Not A Stranger" the documentary

This morning's wonderful post from Kate of Kate Green Productions, the Director/Producer of the documentary 'Not A Stranger' completely made me jump for joy, laugh, tear-up, feel humble, proud, and so damn excited to see the finished product - no advanced screenings for me! Thanks to everyone for all the good wishes, support, encouragement and for believing in The Stranger Project - est. 2014. My life is so much richer for this experience. Kate, I love you like no other. Thank you... On to the next stage! ‪#‎notastranger‬

May 01, 2015 - Alex (an update)

May 01, 2015 - Alex (an update)
I had one of those unexpected-things-are-happening-and-I-might-panic mornings. I haven’t said anything publicly, but back in February, I quit my full-time job. I want to be able to focus more on what drives my passion and feeds my soul. Of course, The Stranger Project, meeting people and writing are what I'm passionate about. Photography as well. Networking and Social Media have long been interests of mine, and my hope is to generate an income by taking on clients as a Social Media Manager. 

 

So this morning, when I realized my internet had been disconnected, I kind of freaked out. It was an interesting observation, because I’m trying to be aware of my time spent online. Everything in balance. But going on a diet doesn’t mean you have to stop something all together, right? 

 

I had made arrangements for my internet bill, and didn’t keep my part of the deal. I agreed to make a payment yesterday, and just didn't get around to it. So I had to scramble today, head downtown to an in-person retail outlet for my service provider, and plead my case. The customer service representative was my hero of the morning. He not only talked me down off the counter,  he also figured out a way for me to get my service back, while still making a smaller payment. 

 

I had some work to do for a client, so I came back home to get to work. I hadn’t intended to write a story today. As I was walking up the street, I saw Alex sitting at a bus stop (from Day 241 - August 29, 2014 - see link in comments below). I went and sat down next to him and said hello. He gave me a blank stare, and didn’t say anything. I reminded him that we had talked last year a few times and that I had written about him for my project.

“No, not at all,” he said, face deadpan. I was certain he would have remembered me, but he shook his head and said “I don’t know who you are.” I smiled, realizing he was pulling my leg.

“It’s Colin, isn’t it?” he asked, laughing. 

 

“I’m doing okay, but living in hell,” he said when I asked how things were going. He had lived alone for over twenty years in the same apartment. Misfortune, and getting laid-off from a job of twenty-five years in camera repairs, had changed his life. He was homeless for a few years, and then got into an SRO (Single Room Occupancy hotel).

“It’s a nightmare. The system is backwards. They make you feel like there’s a chance of getting into something decent and then they end up treating you like you're just a number. The place I’m at is dreadful, it’s noisy, dirty and like living in hell,” he said. 

 

“It really does effect your well-being when you’re not happy with where you’re living,” he said calmly.

“In my conundrum and my doldrums, I get into procrastination. I don’t do the things I needed to do yesterday, to look after tomorrow. I passed on three pounds of frozen shrimp yesterday as well. One of the restaurants had thrown it out. You know, if it goes one day over the use-by date, they don’t want it. It was still frozen solid, but I just couldn't the lid up far enough (to get into the dumpster), because it was locked. And I couldn’t quite grab it,” he said. He spends his days digging for bottle, cans and whatever food scraps he can find. He likes to keep busy. 

 

“The past, the present and the future,” he said.

“You know, I was thinking about this last night. I try to get ‘past’ the ‘present’ so I can make it to the ‘future.’ But it’s hard sometimes to let go of some of the thoughts and memories. They get stuck in there," he said, pointing at the back of his head.

"I’d hope I could get rid of them and make way for new stuff,” he said, with some contemplation. 

 

He was the right person, at the right time to run into. As always happens.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

“We might not know it at the time, or for a while, or ever know why. But there’s always a reason.” 

 

I asked if I could take picture of the two of us and write about running into him.

“Well, I’m getting recognized more and more all the time. I don’t really know, news items, and stories about me,” he said smiling as I took our photo. Alex likes to joke around.

 

“If it takes an hour to dig a hole,” he asked,

“Then how long would it take to dig half a hole?” I laughed and told him I’d play along and guessed half an hour.

“Don’t be silly. You can’t dig half a hole," he said laughing at me. He stood from the buss top bench we were sitting on.

"It was nice chatting with you again. You take care, I’ve gotta get going. I'll see you again, Colin!” #notastranger

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