Day 362 - Gina-Mae (1st person I approached)
December 28, 2014 - It was an early start to the day. I had an appointment and then I was meeting a friend in Gastown (an area of downtown Vancouver) for coffee. Afterwards, I walked home, as usual, but went via Main and Hastings Streets, the poorest area in Canada. I used to be uncomfortable walking through this part of town. Now I realize most of the fear was of my own making. People who are there on the streets for the most part, don’t care about who is walking past. Some aren’t even aware of others walking past.
I saw Gina-Mae as she sitting in a doorway on Hastings Street. There was a gold lamp on the sidewalk next to her. A small grocery bag was on her other side, and she had a coat folded on her lap. I started asking questions in my head, and that was enough to walk over and approach her. I crouched down and explained my project to her. I asked if she would be willing to chat with me for a little while. When she agreed, I said that I’d like to take her photo to go with the story, and asked if that would be alright.
“Yeah sure. I look pretty rough today, but sure.”
“I was born in Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon. I’m the second oldest of five kids. My Dad has fifteen kids. We didn’t all live together at the same time. There was always some of us together, but not ever all twenty of us in the same house. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. On my mother’s side. My mom went to jail shortly after I was born, so they took me in. I stayed there, mostly. Some of my brothers and sisters would stay with my grandmother too, but I was there more,” she said.
“I did live with my mom for a few years, but it was tough.”
Gina-Mae told me she went to about twenty elementary schools.
“My mother was trying to keep us kids away from our father. She was hiding us. He was abusive and she didn’t want him to harm us. He was abusive to my mother and her sisters, my aunts, and his own mother and sisters. I’ve never met him,” she said.
“I quit school in Grade eight.”
She started using crystal meth when she was fifteen years old. She spoke openly and honestly.
“My grandmother passed away. I just wanted to escape. One day I decided I was going to get high. I started with crystal meth. I became addicted to that and speed,” she said.
“I worked at ‘normal’ jobs for a while,” she said, with a slightly sarcastic emphasis on the word normal.
“I worked at Burger King, and did some inventory stuff for a store. Did some retail.” She had a son when she was twenty years old.
“He’s with his grandparents.”
“Hastings. That’s why I came here, I wanted to check it out. I’d heard all about it. From some friends, the news, and a couple of documentaries I watched. I wanted to see what it felt like to be here,” she said.
“I never meant to stay.” Gina-Mae intended to see what it was all about, then head back home. She had stopped using speed. While she never said specifically when or why she stopped, it seemed to be around the time she was pregnant, and afterwards.
“I came here and I got really sick. I got bird flu, or the Norwalk virus or something. Whatever it was, I got so sick,” she told me. Gina-Mae had become fast friends with a guy she had met outside a bar on Hastings Street. She never saw a doctor, but self-medicated instead.
“He took care of me. Let me stay at his place, just up the street from here. He had morphine, and I used, to stop feeling so ill,” she said.
“I got better and started using speed again, and then heroin.”
Six years later, Gina-Mae is still on Hastings Street.
“My father is somewhere around here, but I’ve still not ever met him. I haven't spoken to any of my family since I got here. Six years. It’s been too long and it’s just hard now,” she says genuinely. She looked me right in the eyes, then looked away.
“I haven’t seen my son or spoke to him.”
It’s apparent that Gina-Mae has street smarts. An exterior shell that doesn’t let things affect her, or at least, not appear to. Despite the hard exterior, I could hear the emotion in her voice. She checked herself.
“We never celebrated Christmas when I was a kid. So it’s just another day. Although, I think about my son everyday, and wonder what he’s doing,” she told me. I casually mention that the New Year is a good time to reconnect with people that we haven’t spoken to in a while.
“There’s a shelter I stay in, just down towards the water,” she says. It’s not a SRO (single room occupancy) hotel, but she is allowed to leave her personal belongings in the room she has.
“It’s a place to sleep, but a couple of months ago I could hear all these animal noises, then every night. No one believed me. I woke up one night, and I could feel an animal on my bed. It was a fucking racoon! I think it’s got babies now, because I hear more noises at night. I told the people who work there, and they came and checked my room. But of course, it’s not like the animals going to be there when we go in. I'm sure they think I’m imagining it,” she says very calmly.
“It shit on the floor in my room. Am I imaging that?”
“I use to work a lot with copper,” Gina-Mae said.
“I would buy it for half the going price, and strip the copper out and then sell it to metal places. But I don’t do that anymore. Occasionally I work the streets. Go on car dates, but not all the time. Just now and again, if I really need the money.”
She tells me she is waiting to see of her friend, the guy that took care of her when she was sick, walks by.
“He’s usually around here, so I’m just hanging out, waiting for him to wander on by.” She tells me that a friend gave her the lamp thats next to her.
“It’s nice isn’t it?” she asks with a smile.
Throughout our chat, Gina-Mae has been friendly and polite; she’s a really good conversationalist. I thank her for sharing her story with me, and for being so open and honest. I ask to take her picture. We move the lamp, Gina-Mae doesn’t want it in the photo. I take her picture and show it to her.
“Yeah, that’s good enough I suppose,” she says, raising her eyebrows. She offers me her hand, and we shake.
My friend that I had met for coffee earlier, had given me a bag of apples and oranges. I ask Gina-Mae if she would like some.
“Oh. Yes, please. May I have an orange please?” I give her an orange and an apple, and ask if she wants more.
“No, no thank you, this is good,” she says, peeling the orange open.
“Thank you so very much,” she says, three times.
“What will you do with this story?” she asks. I tell her my hope is, for the stories that I get to listen to and share, to perhaps shift perspectives about the way we see people on the street. Not only people that live on the streets, but people in general. I go on to tell her that I think we can get so caught up in our own struggles and lives, that we don’t stop to consider others. She puts the orange in her lap, and looks right at me.
“There’s too much of that. At the end of the day, we’re all equal. As soon as someone sees themselves as better than others, then they become the one with the problem,” says Gina-Mae.
"I think you're right. I will call my family. Thank you."
She thanks me once again. ‘No. thank you,’ I say. #notastranger