Day 71 - Gary (3rd person I approached)
March 12, 2014 - When I first saw Gary, I knew I wanted to talk with him. His long hair was tied in a pony tail, and his hat had an "I love East Van" pin on the side. There was just something about him and I wanted to hear his story. He was talking to a guy on a narrow side-street. Gary was on the sidewalk on one side of the street, the guy he was talking with was on the sidewalk on the other side. I waited to see if Gary would walk towards me when he was finished talking. Sure enough, he did. He took a seat on a little bench, and so I moved in for the approach! At first he said he wasn’t really into talking with me, that he had his “doubts about the whole social media thing.” I thanked him for his time, and turned to walk away. He then asked me a few questions about my project, so I showed him the Facebook page on my phone. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to share much with me, and then he asks me
“If I talk with you, does that mean that you got what you need for today?”
I said yes, and then he asked
“Will it be okay if I smoke while we’re talking?”
Done! We traded sides so I’d be upwind of his cigarette, and we spent the next 45 minutes talking.
Gary was born in Verdun, Montreal.
"We moved several times when I was a child, but it was always within the Montreal area," Gary says.
He is the youngest of three children,
“But it’s a bit complicated. I essentially was raised as an only child. My mother had a child out of wedlock, before meeting my father, and her mother raised that boy. I didn’t find out that the man I thought was my Uncle, was really my brother until I was about 14 years old. And then my mother met my father, they had my sister and then a year later had me. It was too much for my mother having the two of us so close in age. My mother was having some challenges with her mental health and well being. My father arranged for his mother and his aunt to raise my sister, leaving me as an only child. It was a tough time for my mother,” Gary told me.
When Gary was 18, after completing high school, Gary was enrolled in the first CEGEP program rollout in Montreal. CEGEP is essentially a two year preparatory college program, bridging the gap between high-school and preparing students for University. Gary was told that there would be no testing and no tuition fees. His goal was to get into University, to study Engineering. Four months into the program, his teacher, flustered by the students lack of attention and interest, introduced a testing qualification, and with that Gary quit CEGEP.
“There was about 15 of us, all friends from high-school and the neighbourhood kids who had been friends for some time. We all moved to a location north of Montreal, still in Quebec and started a commune. We were all what would later become known as 'hippies.' We were starting to experiment with drugs, and spent a lot of time smoking pot and doing acid. That lasted for about a year,” Gary says, with a smile, and shaking his head.
Gary moved back to Montreal and tried the CEGEP program again, this time hoping to get into arts and education. He goes on to tell me
“That was a major turning point in my life, that year. Some of my friends from the commune decided it was time to ‘stick it to the man’ if you will, and basically, started committing robberies. We would rob corner stores and steal the cash. There was some talk of working our way up to doing a bank robbery. One night, I was at home asleep. There was a group of us all living together, and the cops raided the house. Two of my friends had committed an armed robbery and got caught. The cops put a number of things together and we were all charged, and I got four years in a federal penitentiary. I ended up serving almost two years in a medium security prison in Quebec.”
Gary participated in the Federal Training Program, and learned about computers while serving his time.
“It definitely was turning point in my life,” Gary says.
Once out of prison, Gary worked at odd jobs, doing what he could to pay the bills. He got into a relationship with a woman who was originally from Burnaby, but was living in Montreal.
“We had a young daughter, and my girlfriend wanted to move back to Vancouver. Jobs were hard to find, and the economy wasn’t doing very good, so we headed west. I took what work I could and then we had our second child, a boy. It was tough, providing for two children and making ends meet,” he said.
A friend offered Gary a job opportunity that took the family to Toronto for a number of years, and Gary married the mother of his children.
“Things were good until my wife said she wanted to move back to Vancouver. She moved back and took the kids. I spent a while longer in Toronto because I had a good job. But I missed the kids, so I packed everything up and when I got back to Vancouver, my wife told me she wanted a divorce. I’ve stayed in Vancouver because I wanted to be close to my kids.”
Gary’s daughter has three children now, and his son is expecting his first child later this year.
“I spend my days visiting friends, and keeping busy. I have a great relationship with my kids. I have my walking routes that I go to. I like to come here to this spot where we’re sitting now and sit in the sun and watch the world go by. I’m officially two years too young to be retired, but I’m on disability now, so I guess I’m done working.”
As we parted ways, I thanked Gary for spending time with me and for sharing his story. We continued talking for a little while longer, then we shook hands and went our separate ways. As I walked along the street towards home, I couldn’t help but smile. Gary had really opened his heart and shared such a great story. It feels good knowing that Gary is definitely now #notastranger.