Day 359 - Mike (1st person I approached)
December 25, 2014 - I saw Mike from across the street. He seemed oblivious to people walking by him. He was elbow deep, digging in a city garbage can, on a street corner in the heart of Chinatown. I noticed the crosswalk light at the intersection was on ‘walk,’ and I took this to be a sign to cross the street and ask him if he'd chat with me. He seemed a little startled and uncertain when I first asked to talk with him. But once I had explained everything to him, he readily agreed to chat.
“I was born in North Vancouver (British Columbia),” Mike told me. We high-fived in celebration of him being a born and raised local.
“I grew up in West Vancouver. I have one brother, he’s ten years older than I am,” he said. We stood next to the garbage can Mike had been rummaging through when I first saw him. It was jammed full, and, being only three feet away, I could smell the stench easily. His beard was neatly groomed, and looked to have been recently trimmed.
Mike went to school in West Vancouver.
“Elementary school was okay. I left high-school early. I quit. I stayed until half way through Grade eight. We did some vocational training. I think I did level one, two and three. It was training for things you could do for work once you had finished school. I did woodwork, and metal work. Maybe I only did two levels. Once we got onto using the lathe, I wasn’t interested anymore. I left school and went to work,” he said. I asked what his parents thought of him leaving school.
“They were alright. Didn’t really say too much about it.”
At sixteen, Mike started working in the meat department at a grocery store in West Vancouver.
“I was still living at home. I lived there until I was about twenty-four. My job was just doing some cleaning up and odd jobs. I wasn’t learning to be a butcher or anything. I worked there for four years. Then the boss told me that he couldn’t afford to pay me anymore, and that I should start looking for another job,” he said. Mike got another job working for another grocer’s market, in the meat department.
“I did that for a few years and then went to work at Safeway (grocery store). The Safeway store was in North Vancouver. I seemed to have found my niche, I guess. I worked in the meat department in all those stores,“ he said. He stayed with Safeway for three or four years.
I wondered about Mike’s family living in West Vancouver. He had told me the street name he grew up on, and the locations of the stores he had worked in. West Vancouver is one of the wealthiest municipalities in Canada.
“I don’t know if we had money or not,” Mike said. I sensed he had thought about this before.
“My mother didn't mention having money. She never talked to me. I guess she just had too much going on. She sure could cook though,” he said, smiling. “Her food was really good.”
After Safeway, Mike tried driving a cab for a while.
“I lasted about six months. I worked nights. It was okay, but it’s better suited to someone that knows all of the streets all across town,” he said. Mike had been scratching his arm, his left hand working up the right sleeve. He started to clean under his nails, using another fingernail to remove the dirt. His hands seemed clean, but his fingernails looked like those of someone who had been working in construction. Mike told me that for the next twenty years, he worked at random jobs, in restaurants and grocery stores.
“Oh, I worked at Canada Packers over here on Terminal Avenue as well. Do you know the place?” he asked. I did know of Canada Packers. It was a slaughterhouse and meat packing company that had been been in Vancouver since the 1930’s.
“I was there for five years too,” said Mike.
Mike is sixty-three. For the last ten years, he has been homeless.
“I just quit everything. I had never been homeless before. I wanted to just get away and I thought I’d try living on the streets. I didn't want to be in an apartment anymore,” he told me. “I do the garbage thing, collecting bottles and cans. But I don’t do it all the time. It’s just something to keep me busy. Plus I walk all over while doing it too,” he said.
“I’m on disability, and I’m not able to work. It doesn’t give me enough to pay rent. I spend all of my money on food.” Mike said that alcohol and drugs had never been an issue for him. ‘I would't mind finding a job, maybe even just part-time. But it’s tough to find a job when you don’t have a home. And you can’t get a home if you don’t have a job,” he said. He continued cleaning under his nails. Throughout our conversation, Mike maintained a calm, steady tone, there was no self-pity in his voice.
“I slept in a shelter last night, and I’ll probably go there again tonight. It’s too cold to be sleeping outside. I don’t sleep on the streets when I’m outside. I prefer to sleep under bridges. Somewhere that people can’t see me. Not on the street,” he said. The shelter gave everyone who had slept there last night, a box for Christmas morning. Mike had it in a plastic bag, one of the bags a hospital puts your belongings in when you’ve being a patient.
“The box had a nice blanket in it. And some toiletries, and a granola bar,” he said with a smile.
“It was nice of them to do that.” He tore a strip of fingernail off, just along the top, and put it in the garbage can.
“I talk to my brother every now and again,” he had told me.
“Usually I call him to ask if I can borrow some money. My brother lives downtown,” he said. I asked Mike what Christmas means to him.
“It means family. And spending time together,” he replied. I suggested maybe today would be a good day to call his brother.
“Yeah. That’s a good idea. Maybe I should.” I asked to take his picture and he shifted and stood almost at attention. I laughed and said he could relax, I just wanted a photo of him being natural.
“Ok,” he said.
“How’s this?” We shook hands, I said thank you, and wished him well. I turned to walk away, and looking back, he was smiling and watching me. I walked about half a block away, and turned around. He was still watching. #notastranger