November 29, 2015 - Patrick
Buckle up. Last week, I had three people from my childhood, that don’t know each other, reconnect with me. I haven’t seen or spoken to any of them for almost forty years. I enjoyed the connection, and sharing memories filed away for decades. It seems like so many lifetimes have passed since then.
It’s exciting to hear from someone that has remained on the peripheral of one's lifetime highlights. Then when a second person connects, and it’s freaky and what a coincidence! The third person just took my breath away. What oh what, am I to learn, or see, or ponder here? This is my process. My navel gazing.
I recently chatted with a friend about how I was feeling with regard to not writing as consistently as I had been. I wasn't going out and meeting strangers. I even have two other stories that I’m holding onto, from encounters with strangers. They weren't random encounters though. I will write them; I’ve just been lazy and resistant. And navel gazing about why my past was coming into my present so boldly. I may have gotten a glimpse of the answer, last night.
Before going to bed, I wanted to take the garbage out. There was a man checking out the recycling bins at the back of my apartment building in the wee hours of this morning. It was 12:30am. He was pushing a blue shopping buggy, half filled with empty glass bottles, all seemingly tidy and organized in some manner known only to him. It was minus 3C (26F). I noticed that he had numerous layers of clothing on, and that his outer coat was shiny with wear.
I said hello, to which he replied “It’s a cold one tonight, isn’t it?” We spoke about staying warm. “I just keep moving,” he said, gesturing to his buggy. I asked if he ever considered going into the cold shelters that open during nights like these. “No. I spent many years inside, and going in those places is like that all over again. I just keep moving. When you’ve seen active duty, you don’t want to stop, or you might sleep. I try not to do that. The dreams, the PTSD, the others trying to steal your stuff. The rats. No, I keep on moving.”
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cigarette package, lighting a smoke that was bent out of shape, and torn. I asked where he had done his active duty. “I was in Kuwait, then Iraq. And then another round in Iraq, after the invasion” he said, emotionless. There was a silence. I asked “Is your name Patrick?” wondering if it might be odd to him if I had gotten it right.
“Yes, it is,” he answered, smiling. When I asked if he remembered chatting with me, he pointed to a spot not ten feet away from where we were standing. I had met Patrick last year. Day 01 of The Stranger Project 2014. He was the first stranger that I had approached. New Year’s day 2014, I went out for walk, intending to meet a stranger and see if I could get someone to speak with me. I had gone out the back door of my building, to dispose of my garbage, and Patrick was in the alley. The rest, as they say, is history.
I was surprised and delighted that he remembered our conversation. I knew there could be no real way to convey just what has come from that very first conversation. Once again, that seems so long ago. I was surprised and saddened to see that the last, almost two years, have taken a toll on Patrick, physically. He had a black backpack that sat in the child-seat of his buggy. He opened it, pulling out a can of beer.
Another chance encounter with my past. I realized that this was a unique measurement, or gage for me to look at just how far, through this project, I've come. Creating space for conversation to flow, to not judge, to open my heart and listen. It doesn't matter what judgements or labels, we as a society put on everyone and everything. Every single person has a story, and until we’ve heard it, we know nothing.
Our conversation jumped around a fair bit. Patrick was animated and loud at points, and quietly reflective at others. Nonetheless, his thoughts and conversation were all well ordered, in their small bundles.
“When I was a kid, sure I was abused by my father," he told me. "I left home when I was fifteen. It was a choice. I would rather be on the streets than live with him. I mean, we were all alcoholics, yeah.” Patrick and I hadn't spoken about much when we first met, back on day one, although at the time I thought I’d heard his life story.
Patrick left home and lived on the street. He was born in Canada, but had grown up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the US (United States of America). When he was 19, on a cold day in February, which Patrick described as 'unbearable,' he stepped into a US Navy recruitment centre, and enlisted. “I thought it had to be better than what I was doing.”
After four years, and three tours of duty in active service, Patrick left the Navy. “Give your life to the Navy, to serve and protect, and when you’re done, you get nothing. Nothing. No one cared that I had PTSD. I drank because it was the only thing that could numb the pain. Even then, it doesn’t numb it really. It makes the days bearable. It’s how I function,” he said.
He returned to life on the streets. “They told me ‘You just have to start again. Find a job, get a place, start again.’ I couldn’t just start again. I was fucked up. There was nothing for me, no help, nothing,” said Patrick. His crimes led to repeated jail time, spending the better part of nineteen years in prison, after his military service. I had learned from Patrick when we first met, that he was deported back to Canada not long after his last release. He had married between his release and being deported, and his wife chose to stay in the States.
“I came here with nothing, and not knowing anyone. I can’t go into a shelter. They tell you what time to be in by, what time lights go out. They wake you up, those that can sleep, and tell you have to leave. It’s like another prison. I know it’s not prison, but with my past, that’s exactly what it feels like. I choose not to put myself in there,” he said, without any hint of self-pity. "They won't let you bring in your belongings, either."
There’s a couple of places that Patrick goes to, during the day where he knows he can rest for an hour or so. “I never really sleep. I’ve always got to keep one eye open. When I hear footsteps, and they get closer, it’s gonna be 'Excuse me? Are you awake? You can’t sleep here.' No one wants to say hello, or acknowledge me or cares, even. I’m just that dirty binner in the garbage. The trash that goes through other peoples trash. I don’t have any life or any story that might be of interest to those people. I am beneath them, in their eyes. I just keep on moving,” says Patrick.
There’s a spot near downtown Vancouver commonly known as 'Cash Alley.' On weekday mornings, a predominately male crowd gathers, at a certain intersection. Local building sites and contractors drive by, offering cash jobs to those looking. “I could stand around there, and hope that someone will give me a job. Or I could keep moving all day, and make money binning and collecting empties. More than I'd make, if I stand around doing nothing, waiting to see if someone will give me work. Instead, I do my own thing,” he tells me.
"I used to go directly to construction sites and get work, sometimes. I’d ask if they’d be okay if I brought a six pack (of beer) with me. I told them I’d be able to work, harder than most already on the job site. The six pack doesn’t make me drunk, it keeps me level. After all these years, it’s how I am, My body needs it or I get sick, and then I can't do anything. I don’t get drunk at work. I function. Of course they wouldn’t hire me. They hire some kid who’ll do a shitty job, with attitude, rather than hire me. I’m just a dirty drunk to them. If they knew what I’ve done, what I’ve been through, they’d hire me. I’ll work harder than any young punk kid that knows nothing about life. And I'm not interested in any crime or stealing or anything like that anymore. That's done. I keep moving. Make my own way,” he said.
As we stood in the parking lot of my apartment building, a neighbour, new to the building, drove in and parked. The same neighbour came back to his vehicle three times, removing all of his belongings. I wondered if he thought Patrick and I were waiting to break into a car. I realized that this is what Patrick feels from others, almost constantly.
Throughout the conversation, Patrick laughed a few times, and got angry a few times too. He cried as well. Each emotion was real, and raw and unabashed. I gave him silence and eye contact. That’s sometimes all I have. That’s sometimes all it takes.
“I’m so tired of it all. I don’t have much left,” he said, wiping away tears as they rolled down his cheek. “My wife has gotten a six year sentence for tax evasion. She said she felt it was free room and board, and so why not. Not like they’d let her into Canada. And they won’t let me back into the US. I’ve got nothing left for me. Why should I sleep? Why rest or look after myself? For what? For who?”
Patrick told me that he’s tried to commit suicide four times. “Each time, I wake up.” The hospitals and medical centres, he tells me, will only give him two aspirin and then tell him to leave. “I’m a drunk. I'm a homelss useless binner. They don’t care. I’ve done the paperwork, I’ve been told to come back. 'We’ll house you,' they say. But nothing. Three-and-a-half years I’ve been doing this on the streets, waiting. For what? I’m a vet, sure, but not a Canadian vet, so they won’t help me. And America? They don't care at all. I’m Canadian to them. So I just keep moving. But not for much longer.”
I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t have an answer. I said I was happy he was around, and that he had made a huge contribution to one of the biggest turning points in my life. I talked about all the people who read these stories, the emails I get, the comments people leave. I told Patrick all about how so many people read these stories, and for some, their perspectives shift. I told him that people do care.
I asked if I could have a hug. I squeezed Patrick as tight as I could, holding him as fully and as close to me as possible. I heard him say quietly, “It’s been so long. So very long.” He patted my back. He let go first.
“I have two choices here,” he said, wiping his eyes again. “I can keep moving, and doing the same old thing, day after day. But I’m tired. I can’t do that much longer. It’s time. You take care partner,” he said, smiling softly and holding his fist up to mine. We fist pumped.
“It’s been wonderful to see you again Patrick,” I told him. I made sure that he knew I wanted to see him again. I told him I care. He smiled. “I think I’m going to go and get absolutely inebriated,” he said, a big grin on his face. As he pushed his buggy away, I asked him what his second choice was. “I’ll see you one day. When it’s your time. In heaven.” Keep moving. #notastranger