Day 289 - Peter (7th person I approached)
October 16, 2014 - I’ve said this before and it’s likely I’ll say it again before the year is over. Those days when for whatever reason, X number of people say they don’t/won’t/can’t talk. When that person who is willing talk shows up, the reason reveals itself. Today, a young woman who had a pink construction hard hat was just too tired and needed to go home and nap. Another woman was right outside her home, and couldn't stop. The person who politely said ‘no thanks.’ A man in a park, collecting his thoughts after a long day at work, told me if had been Saturday, he’d talk, but not today. Another man told me he'd be okay to talk, but didn’t want his granddaughter on the east coast to see a picture of him because he’d fallen on hard times. All legitimate, and regardless of the reason, I can respect those that choose to say no. They help move me toward to the story of the day.
Peter was a little apprehensive at first, but was intrigued by the nature of my project. We chatted a bit about respect, and questions and sharing life stories. Then he smiled and said
“Ok, let’s give it a go.” He was born just outside of Toronto. He is the oldest of three children.
“I have two younger sisters,” he told me. The family moved when Peter was about five years old.
“We went to Connecticut in the united States (US). It was because of my Father and his work, and sometimes his lack of work. He changed jobs a lot when I was a kid, and that’s why we moved,” he said.
“It was tough to always be the new kid in school. It never got easier, just because it happened lots. In fact, it got harder.”
His mother, two sisters and Peter moved to Lichfield in Staffordshire, England when he was fifteen years old.
“I didn’t know at the time, but my parents were trying to keep from us kid that they were separating. I have no idea why my mother chose Lichfield either. I went to school there, but again, it was difficult. I was like the street kid to them. I recently looked the school’s website, and it has a history dating back some 450 years. Pictures of all the headmasters. Steeped in history,” said Peter. After six months in England, he decided to go back to the US where his father was living just outside of Boston.
“I never knew at the time that I had any kind of responsibility for my two younger sisters. I found out later that they felt I had deserted them,” he said quietly.
“My father was quite scattered when I moved back to live with him. Things didn’t quite work out. He felt he needed to go to England to be with my mother and sisters. He wanted me to go back with him. I didn’t want to go. He decided that he was still going to move, and asked if I would be okay with that. I was kind of relieved, to tell the truth. It was the best thing that he could have done. Truly. He gave me something that I had never had before. Freedom,” he said, earnestly. Childhood had been difficult.
“I lived with a family that my father had introduced me to. I came to think of them as my step-parents. I was fifteen years old, and I got a full-time job. I walked into the place and got a job. It was a union shop, and I was making pretty good money too. At fifteen. I was working nights in a traditional book binding factory. One that had all the traditional presses and binding materials and manual machines. Everything was done by hand,” he said. Peter worked hard and made it through completing, and graduating from high-school at the same.
It was the early 1970’s and the Vietnam War was still going on, and race riots were still happening.
“Things were getting pretty scary. Not many people realize that Canadians living in the US could be drafted to serve in the military. The draft ended two weeks after my eighteenth birthday,” said Peter with a sound of relief in his voice.
“I was dating a girl and we decided we would come back to Canada. On our way we stopped in Vermont,” said Peter. His girlfriend moved on, but Peter spent most of his adult life living in Vermont.
“I had a bunch of jobs, some cooler than others. I got a job working for the US Government building a railway. It was a make work project because there was such high unemployment. We rebuilt a railway line, through some of the most beautiful and rural locations in Vermont. We built it all by hand, no machines. You know where you have large swing hammers and you're manually driving railway spikes in the ties that are the base for the tracks. I worked with this huge guy we called Cleo, because he had this big head of hair. It made him look like Cleopatra,” said Peter, laughing enthusiastically.
"This guy was so big and so strong, he could drive one of those spikes into a railway tie with two slams of the hammer. You know how hard that would be? I decided I wanted to model myself after him. Me, the scrawny, skinny little kid,” he said, still laughing.
Peter also spent time working on a maple syrup farm.
“I was involved in all aspects of the farm. Putting taps into the trees, maintaining the buckets, and then collecting the sap. The hardest part was collecting all the sugar wood. That's what they call the wood that's used to fire the pots to produce the syrup. It’s not a species of wood, it’s just what it’s called, sugar wood. We had to collect at least twenty cords (an average ‘cord’ of wood, is four feet high and eight feet long, with each piece of wood chopped into uniform pieces of about sixteen inches in length).
I was about twenty-two and working with a guy who was eighty-five years old. It was definitely done with traditional methods. He had a 'cranker' tractor," said Peter. I had to ask what that meant.
"That’s a manual-start vehicle that requires you to turn a crank by hand to start the engine,” said Peter.
“I feel fortunate to have learned so much about a changing industry.” He got into construction, and became a finishing carpenter.
“I worked on new house construction and did a number of renovations of older homes too,” he told me. Peter did that for many years.
“I was in car accident when I was a kid, and had a pretty severe back injury. After so many jobs in labour and construction, it began to take a toll on my body. I had to find a way to start working less,” he said.
At the age of fifty, Peter went to University and graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work degree.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I didn’t work in that field. I mean the thing is to then go on and get a Master’s then a PhD. I didn’t do that. I did it because I like to learn, but I also like to do something with what I’m learning otherwise, maybe it’s a waste of time. But I do like learning,” he said.
In 2007, the US lead the way in a global recession and the economy suffered.
“Times were tough and there wasn’t much work going. I lived in a relatively rural area. The largest city in Vermont that I lived in was only about fifty thousand people,” he said. Peter decided to come back to Canada.
“I had never lived on the west coast, so I came to Vancouver. It’s the largest city that I’ve ever lived in as an adult,” said Peter.
“I’m not able to work at all now.” He lives in social housing in Chinatown, an area on the edge of the downtown area of Vancouver.
"I spend most of my time doing volunteer work. I’ve helped with tutoring in English at the Carnegie Centre (a community resource centre in the Downtown East Side, supporting people in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada). I also took lessons at a community Bike Kitchen (a resource to learn about maintenance and repair of bicycles). I made the wheels for this,” said Peter pointing to the wheels on his bicycle leaning against the bench we were sitting on.
"I never thought I’d learn how to make the wheels for a bicycle,” he said, with a slight tone of astonishment.
"This project you’re doing is really quite interesting,” said Peter.
“And there's a serendipity that I am talking with you here.” I asked him what the serendipity was for him.
“Well I was just having a conversation about this earlier. How I’m living in a kind of largely non-verbal situation. I live in Chinatown. A lot of the people who live in my neighbourhood are elderly folk who don’t often speak English, so I don’t have much chance to speak with them. There’s a lady that I see regularly and after about two years we got to waving and smiling at each other. Another older gentleman who lives in my building loves this walking stick of mine,” says Peter pointing to a walking stick attached to his bike. It looks like a well-loved branch of a tree grown by nature specifically to become a walking stick.
“Every time I see him in the elevator, he gives me a great big smile, runs his hand along the walking stick, and gives me a big thumbs-up. That's how we communicate," Peter tells me, with a thumbs-up.
"These are the only people that I’ve communicated with today,” he said.
“I do see a man that I tutored at the Carnegie Centre. Well, I actually did some advocacy work for him. He’s mute (not able to speak) and he needed to make a doctor’s appointment. But of course, he can't speak. There’s a telephone system for the deaf that he was trying to use, but it's lacking in efficiency,” said Peter.
“I find him fascinating. He doesn’t lie. He is the most honest person I’ve ever met. Because his communication is non-verbal, with hand signs and facial expression, he only tells his truth. We’ve developed our own way to communicate. And he has a great sense of humour too! He makes these incredible decorative pictures for the Carnegie Centre during the holidays. They’re quite something!” said Peter.
“So it’s really nice to just sit and chat with you.”
Peter told me that part of his apprehension about speaking with me, comes from a feeling that many writers take a story and put their own spin on things.
“If this turns out the way it sounds like it might, then this will have been the nicest thing that has happened to me today.” #notastranger