Day 322 - Aaron (6th person I approached)
November 18, 2014 - I chatted with a young man in the heart of the DTES (Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada) today. He was sitting on the sidewalk eating some chow mein. He looked like he was having a rough time of things, and didn’t make any eye contact with me while I explained to him what I was doing. He nodded that he would speak with me, but when I asked if he would allow me to take his photograph, his demeanour changed.
He looked at me with stunningly beautiful, piercing blue eyes, set off against his dark features, and started low-level raging. He talked about getting kidnapped with his mother, at the age of eight, and taken to a nearby rooftop by aliens. After I listened to his abduction story, he calmed down. We spoke about triggers and things that reminded him of these experiences. He told me another story about God speaking to him about consequences of his choices. All the while he continued eating his food.
He said used to live at Riverview Hospital until ‘they put me out on the street.’ Riverview Hospital was a government mental health facility that closed down in 2012. It is thought that many of the former residents now are homeless, and have made their way to the DTES. He asked me if I had a cigarette, and I told him I didn’t smoke. I thanked him for his time, and we said goodbye to one another. I left him to finish his food. I shall think about him for a long time to come. Those clear, bright, sky blue eyes.
Aaron was leaning against a wall, in a little alcove just off the sidewalk. He looked like he was waiting for a bus, except there was no bus stop nearby, and he had a shopping buggy tucked in behind him. It was full above the top edge, and covered neatly with a grey blanket. When I asked him if he would chat with me, he said
“Sure, I’m just waiting for a buddy to show up, but we can talk while I wait. If he shows up, maybe I can meet you tomorrow to talk?” I explained that I prefer to get the story then and there. He understood and we decided to go for it.
“I was born in New Westminster. I have an older sister and a younger brother and sister, but the younger ones are related by marriage, I never lived with them,” he said. The family moved around a lot, Aaron told me.
“We lived in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Burnaby and everywhere out around there in the suburbs. It was okay, I guess,” he said.
“I played basketball in school. I was pretty good at it to. There was potential for me to get scholarships and train while going to university. I also got in a lot of fights at school. I couldn’t tolerate the bullying.” I asked why he was bullied and he smiled, telling me
“I wasn’t bullied. It was other kids who were getting bullied that annoyed me. I’d get into fights defending those kids. No one should be picking on other kids. I was a big kid, I was tall for my age, so I never got bullied. But I did fight a lot,” he said.
I asked where he thought the want to defend other kids came from.
“In part, from being picked on or singled out for being First Nations. Also from seeing my mother being abused by boyfriends she had,” he said. Both of his parents are First Nations, his mother coming from Alberta and his father from Ontario.
“We always grew up in the city though. There were enough reserves around that I saw discrimination and bullying first hand. My father was a golden glove boxer, and he taught me how to box when I was a kid. My mother taught me always to stand up for myself. ‘Don’t let anyone bully you, call you names or push you around’ she always told me,” he said.
That advice from his mother would have an unexpected impact on Aaron.
“I had this one teacher in grade eleven, for some reason he just hated me. If I arrived five minutes late for class he wouldn’t let me in. When I did make it into class on time, I’d see other kids come in ten or fifteen minutes late and he never said anything to them. I was the only First Nations kid in my class. And the teacher was Japanese. It was so weird,” said Aaron.
“This one day I arrived ten minutes early for class, and I went in and sat down. I got there before the teacher, and he apparently didn’t like that. He called me a (racial slur) and so I snapped and hit him. I got kicked out of school. Nothing happened to him. My mother told me she felt I went about it the wrong way, and yeah, hindsight is twenty twenty, but at the time, I felt a need to defend myself. It was insulting to have him talk to me like that, and I wasn’t having it,” he said.
Aaron said he thought it as unfair.
"From that one action, which was the result of the teacher being the bully, my entire future was effected." Throughout our conversation, Aaron remained calm, jovial and good natured. He seems to carry no ill will about any of this.
“I went into construction work. I moved from one side of the country to the other. Moving around and finding work on building sites in each new place,” he said. Two places stood out for him.
“I liked Toronto (Ontario). Sure it was cold and not as pretty as Vancouver, but it was very multicultural, and I didn’t have any problems when I lived there,” he said.
The other place that stands out for him, had a completely different reason.
“I was working in Barrie, Ontario. I had a good job in construction. I’d just finished an eighteen hour day pouring concrete, and I was coming out of a grocery store. Three guys got out of a car in front of the store and jumped me. They wanted my money. I wasn’t giving it up willingly. I’m 6’ 5” and it took the three of them each using baseball bats to get my money, but they didn’t get away unhurt either. That boxing my father taught me. I hurt them too. I liked Ontario, I just don’t have fond memories of Barrie,” he said.
The beating had a lasting impact.
“I had some brain damage from that. The baseball bats. I have difficulty remembering things short term. I might not remember this conversation tomorrow,” he told me. Aaron hasn’t been able to work since.
“I came back to Vancouver about two years ago, but I’ve been homeless since I’ve been here. I can’t get welfare, they just keep telling me to find a job,” he said. He still maintained his calm demeanour.
“I can occasionally go to the labour place and pick up day jobs on construction sites, but with my injury, it can be difficult,” he said.
“I’m a heroin addict. I was only smoking it at first, but I needed more and more to get high, so I started injecting it. The first time I stuck a needle in myself was kind of scary. And then I got so high. Heroin is not a drug for everyone. It’s hard and edgy and it takes over,” he said. I told him I appreciated his candour.
“These things need to be spoken about. I’ve been working on getting off the drugs. I used to do six points (a single point of heroin is a tenth of a gram, approx $50-$100, according to what I could find online) at a time. Now I can’t do a point all at once. I don't do it any longer to get high. I do it to maintain. There’s no high, but if I didn't do that small amount, I'd get so sick. It takes time to get off of it. I don’t want to use drugs any more. I’m tired of that,” he said.
“I have a thirteen year old daughter. She lives with her mother, who I’m not with anymore. My daughter is bright and funny and a really nice kid. She’s doing great at school, even jumped ahead a grade,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
“I haven't seen her for almost a year. I didn’t want her to see me when I’m at my worst. I’m getting better and I hope to see her soon.” I asked what he thought if she was to see this story on social media.
“That’s okay, I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. i just didn’t want her to see me at my worst.”
All of his belongings are in his shopping buggy.
“I have a few things that friends look after, but this is the bulk of it here,” he says looking at the buggy. Some nights, Aaron gets a bed in a hostel or shelter. Other times he sleeps on the streets.
“I have friends who let me crash at their place sometimes. That’s what I’m waiting here for. A friend might be able to let me crash at his place tonight, so I’m waiting here to see if he shows up,” he said.
I thanked Aaron for his honesty and willingness to share his story. I asked if I could have a hug, which he gave freely and genuinely. We shook hands, and I asked Aaron how it is that he can still smile and be upbeat through everything he has gone through. He chuckled and, with modesty, replied
“It’s easier for me to smile than frown. I just don’t need the emotions taking over.” #notastranger