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