Day 365 - Colin

Day 365 - Colin (the last person I approached)
December 31, 2014 - DAY. THREE. HUNDRED. AND. SIXTY. FIVE. If you had asked me last year if I thought I’d fulfill the idea of talking with a stranger every day for a year, I probably would have laughed at you. It was daunting enough to think of this project as something to do, just for myself. I thought I'd just share with it my friends and family. I had no intention of becoming so public with it. 

 

This social experiment has taken on a life of it’s own, far beyond my wildest ideas, or expectation. I thank you, for being a part of this ride. About four months into the project, I had been asked several times if I would ever share my own story. The answer was always 'no, this isn't about me.' 

 

Looking back, I’ve shared more and more of myself, throughout the year, in media interviews, and in the two TEDx Talks I did. Mostly, I shared bits of my story on a one-to-one basis, with the strangers I chatted with daily. I found things in common, or in complete contrast to speak about, with every person. We may be all different people, but at the core, we’re not so far apart.

 

If you’ve been following along all year, you’ll know that I’m okay with breaking my own rules. I deal with change well. The one rule I have stuck with, is not writing about anyone I know. Until today… 

 

I was born in a small gold mining town, Bralorne, in the interior of British Columbia (BC). My parents were both immigrants from Scotland, and my sister and oldest brother are both Scottish as well. My older brother and I are the Canadians in the family, making me the youngest of four. When I was two years old, the family moved from Bralorne to Port Moody (BC). 

 

My sister was almost ten years older than me, and we spent a lot of time together. I have fond memories of watching ‘Bewitched,’ eating Kraft Dinner and wieners for lunch, with my sister. My parents divorced when I was three. In time, my siblings went to live with our father and I stayed with my mother, who remarried. 

 

My mother, stepfather and I lived in an apartment. When I was nine years old, I went to live with my father and siblings. They lived in a house with a dog and lots of people. I wasn’t particularly close to my brothers, but I was always close to my sister. My father had remarried, and his wife had two kids. It was always a busy household. However, I only lived there for a short time. My father left his second wife, and my older brother and I went with him to his homeland - Scotland. I was ten years old.

 

School in Scotland was a difficult transition. All the kids spoke a local Scottish slang, and I was ostracized because I didn’t. I was considered ‘posh’ because of my accent and diction. We lived in a tiny town called Montrose, on the east coast for the first six months or so, staying with my paternal grandmother. I remember I was the first Canadian kid that most of the others had ever met. About three months after starting at my new school, an other kid who happened to be from New Foundland came to our school. All the Scottish kids wondered if we knew each other, with both of us coming from Canada.

 

My father, brother and I moved to Dundee, also on the east coast of Scotland. We stayed there for five years. I learned to speak with a Scottish accent and blended in. Until I was fourteen. I became a fan of David Bowie. One day, I went into the bathroom with a few sachets of red hair dye, and a pair of scissors. I shaved my eyebrows off, cut my hair, dyed it bright red and proclaimed ‘I am Ziggy Stardust.’

 

It was the early seventies, and looking back, it was a remarkable time to live in Scotland. The glam-rock, pop culture of Bowie, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, Abba, Blondie, Elton John, Queen, Sparks, Suzi Quatro and many others had a huge impact on me. It seemed everyone in Scotland stopped on Thursday night at 7:00pm to watch Top of the Pops. 

 

I got along with pretty much everyone at school, even though the others sensed I was ‘different.’ I hated gym, took cooking classes and wanted to be like David Bowie. They all seemed to know something I didn’t. At that time in Scotland, most kids completed school by sixteen. Because of my birthday being in November, I finished school at fifteen.

 

We came back to Canada just before my sixteenth birthday. I got my first job working as a busboy in a restaurant. They told me they hired me because of the Scottish accent I had acquired. I worked in customer service positions and continued exploring fashion, music and alternative culture. I came out to my family when I was eighteen years old. Within a two week period, I told all the people in my life that I’m gay. I was fortunate to have an entirely positive and supportive reaction from everyone. A couple of people maybe took a while longer to understand, but that was their issue, not mine.

 

My friends were all artists, involved in fashion, theatre, photography, and performance. I was working as a manager of a hair salon and making my own clothes. We’d go out to night clubs and I’d go home halfway through the night to change into a different look. Underground night clubs, a thriving art scene, alternative performance art shows, fashion, theatre and culture. Despite the fact that most of us wanted to move to Europe, Vancouver in the ‘eighties was a very fun place to be.

 

I moved to London, England in 1987, hoping to revolutionize the fashion industry. Because of my Scottish heritage, I was able to live and work there. I had some goals I wanted to achieve, working with fashion photographers as a photo stylist. I met some of those goals. I also became what I call a ‘professional drunk.’ I was working, clubbing and drinking. Not always in that order. The idea of working in fashion slipped away, and I continued working in retail, and partying. 

 

I loved being in London for the cultural opportunities as well as the bars and clubs. A day off, reading the newspaper and two hours later, listening the Vienna Boys Choir singing at the SouthBank Centre. I walked everywhere, tired of waiting for transit delays due to IRA bombs threats or 'Delay due to passenger under train at next station’ signs. Walking became a habit that has stayed with me. I love walking everywhere. After six years in London, it was tme for me to come back to Canada.

 

My alcohol consumption had really taken a toll and I grabbed at straws for normality. I got a job in Victoria, on Vancouver Island (BC). I worked at the Belfry Theatre, one of the top, independent live theatres in Canada. My job was essentially looking after the audience and the team of volunteers. My life changed there. 

 

I woke up one morning at 5:30am, and I had no memory of finishing work. I couldn't even remember leaving. The Belfry is in a historic building, a fully restored, one hundred plus years old, former church. I got dressed, and ran to the theatre, relieved to find that everything was just as it should be. I had gotten so drunk at work that I blacked out. This wasn’t good. While many places would have fired someone for my behaviour, I was fortunate to be cared for. A few very special people in my life saw more in me than I saw in myself. I got sober on January 18th, 1999, almost sixteen years ago. The Belfry helped me save my life.

 

I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I had had the experience of ugly crying in the mirror, upon seeing my own reflection. I went to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) for five years. I wanted to get sober. At forty-two, I went back to school. I took an intensive two year multi-media course at Camosun College in Victoria. I went in thinking I wanted to be a videographer, and graduated with a passion for radio. I wanted to make documentaries and had a profound love for story-telling. I got a much-sought after contract right out of college, working on Victoria FolkFest (2006) as the Programming Coordinator. Truly one of the best summers of my life.

 

Once again, I moved back to Vancouver, my fifth time making this wonderful city my home. I was working for a technology company, in retail. I spent a couple of years learning to train staff and facilitate training workshops. Over the years I've given up alcohol, cigarettes, and smoking pot. Tomorrow marks my not having eaten a potato chip in four years - now that’s an achievement!

 

When you peel away the layers, new things come to the surface. I knew something was still not right. I took some time off work last year. I started talking with my doctor about how I constantly felt ‘grey.’ 

 

Everything was becoming a chore, nothing made me happy, or held my interest. I wasn’t sleeping well. I only felt somewhat okay when I was at home, by myself. I was declining invitations from friends and to social events. If I could get out of doing anything, I ditched it. As a sober alcoholic, I had worked hard to rebuild my life. I recognized that I needed to do more work. I was diagnosed with major clinical depression. 

 

Part of starting The Stranger Project was a way to ensure that I would leave my house, every single day. For most people, that's not easy to understand. For me, living with depression, leaving the house can be a completely debilitating concept. Meeting a stranger every day ensures I leave the house, whether I want to or not. I had made a declaration to my friends that I was going to do this project every day. There was no going back. 

 

The Stranger Project isn’t my only tool in working through depression. I see my doctor on a regular basis. I’m also seeing a counsellor, to walk through some issues. Who ever knew talking to people would help one feel so much better? I’m still working on all this, and have a long way to go. But the work is well and truly underway. 

 

I have always enjoyed telling and sharing stories. This project has helped me to grow in ways that I could never have imagined. The connections I’ve made with complete strangers. The stories I’ve heard from people I’ve literally just met. Laughing with strangers, having people cry as they share their stories with me. I’m entrusted with secrets, and have learned a lot of things, about a lot of things. I research many of the random facts that I hear from day to day, and learn something from every single person I chat with. 

 

I feel that it’s only reasonable that I should now be willing to share my story. After all, if it hadn’t been for three hundred and sixty four others being willing to, I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

 

The Stranger Project has become a work of passion. There’s a chance to connect and build community. The power of reaching out to someone, listening and hearing. The opportunity to find out about somebody we might not otherwise know about. A reminder that we really can’t make judgements based solely on just the person we think we see. Everybody has a story. Everybody wants to be heard, to feel connected and to feel a sense of belonging. 

 

The Stranger Project 2014 ends tonight, with my story. Tomorrow is a new day, and the New Year sees the start of the next chapter, The Stranger Project. The same but different. I hope you’ll stick around and join me in the new year. Be the friendly you want to meet, so that you can be #notastranger.

Happy New Year!
be well
Colin

Day 364 - Randy

Day 364 - Randy (1st person I approached)
December 30, 2014 - I’ve been asked if when I go out, do I target or choose selectively, the people I approach. My answer is no, other than I only approach people who are by themselves, and if it’s dark outside, only on busy streets with other people around. Other than that, it’s whoever, wherever, whenever. Of course, I don’t even know until I’ve chatted with someone if they’ll agree to chat, let me write about their story and take a picture of them. All that considered, the story I get to hear and write about, is really a lucky draw.

 

I went out early this afternoon, bundled up against the cold, or so I thought. I have no idea how long I might be out looking for the day’s story. I was coming out of the bank, and spotted Randy across the street, sitting on a low concrete wall. I crossed the street and asked him if he would chat with me. I went through all the things on my check list, to ensure he knew what was involved. Randy told me he was just sitting there taking a little break, enjoying the view of the snow capped mountains, and that he’d be happy to chat. I sat next to Randy on that low concrete wall, and we chatted for close to an hour. He was wearing all outdoor adventure-type clothing. I thought he was perhaps a bicycle courier, taking his break. He had on a cycling warm-weather hat, racing glasses, a fleece jacket, running track pants, and runners. He had thermal cycling gloves on as well. And a nice backpack. He told me he had thermal long johns on, and I, did not. Concrete is cold at 2°C.

 

Randy was born in Aberdeen, Washington (USA).

“I have one brother. There’s only a years difference in age. We’ve always gotten along, and we’ve been good friends all of our lives,” he said of his older brother.

“We lived in the projects of Seattle. Where it was pretty rough. I remember we had someone that my parents paid to walk us to school. I was a pretty small kid, but my brother was a big guy. It seemed he was always getting picked on. A couple of older kids wanted to beat him up, so this much older kid walked us to school and then home after school,” Randy said.

“My parents split up when I was seven. My father was from the states and my mother was from here in Vancouver, so we came here with her. My father stayed in Seattle.”

 

School wasn’t easy for Randy.

“I didn’t have any problems with the move. At that age it’s more exciting than anything else. By the age of about ten or eleven, I was hanging out with what you’d call the ‘bad kids’ I guess, even though we were all young. We lived in the Raymur Projects, another rough part of town. I started skipping classes, and smoking cigarettes. By the age of twelve I was drinking and trying pot,” he said.

“There wasn’t a hard set of rules at home, not much discipline and no father figure. My uncles, they were all into sports and active. They kinda did what they could to guide me. I got into playing Little League Baseball when I was twelve. That kept me outta trouble for a couple of years. I really liked the game, and the team and what have you. I was still skipping school, but I wasn’t spending so much time with the ‘bad kids’ anymore,” he said.

“I stopped playing after Junior Little league.”

 

With no sport focus, Randy found himself getting into trouble again.

“I was skipping a lot of school, back hanging with the wrong kids again, and started getting into street fights. I did my first B&E (break and enter) when I was fourteen. We broke into my school. There was a window open, so we didn’t technically break in, but we did enter. All the other kids grabbed whatever they were taking. I stole an eraser and two pen refills. When we climbed out the window, the cops were there waiting for us,” he said. That would be the first of many run in’s with the police for Randy.

 

“My mother really didn’t like the fact that I was getting into street fights. I figure she saw where it was going, and that wasn’t a good place. So she took my brother and I to a local boxing club and enrolled us in boxing. She redirected that energy. Apparently I was a natural at it,” he said. By the time he was fifteen years old, Randy was a national champion in his age and weight category.

“I was one of the fastest to work up to champion. I won that on my twentieth fight.” The street fighting stopped, but Randy continued with petty crimes.

“I quit school in Grade ten. I did some B&E’s, but mostly I was shoplifting. I got caught a number of times, and the police were involved. I was starting to get a record,” he said.

“I didn’t know this but my probation officer was a former boxer. Jack Duke, he’s pretty well known in the Vancouver boxing scene. He was a partner at the Astoria Boxing Club. Jack took me under his wing and helped me with the training,” he told me. 

 

At seventeen, during a fight, Randy took a particularly hard hit to his left eye.

“I was still standing but I got real wobbly. I told my corner guy, the coach, that I was seeing double and asked what I should do. He said ‘Hit both guys’ and the fight continued. I had to give up boxing after that, I had a damaged muscle in my eye and my vision has been off ever since then,” he said.

“I went through Youth Training Program, and they asked what I wanted to do. I said I was interested in auto mechanics. I got an introduction to auto-body work, and really liked that. I went to a community college and got my Grade ten classes upgraded. That allowed me to take an auto-body course. It was about three months long. Even with that, something I wanted, I still missed some classes, got drunk and then didn’t go because I was hung-over. I was also using crack cocaine by then,” he said.

“I was what I’d say a functioning drug user. I was getting high, but still managing to sort of keep things going.” Randy tried going back to boxing a number of times over the next five years.

"I had issues staying in my weight category, so I'd starve myself to meet weigh-in, but I'd have no energy to fight."

 

Randy got work in a good auto-body shop and held that job for three years.

“I was doing ok, and holding it together alright,” he said. Eventually though, the drugs took over.

“It came to making a decision. I was spending all of my money on drugs, and missing work. I was living with my brother and was letting him down. I had to decide between working or drugs. I chose drugs, and quit my job,” he said.

“I spent the next ten years, practically every day in the alleys and streets of the downtown Eastside," he told me. The DTES is an area noted for a high incidence of poverty, drug use and addiction. There's  a higher than average percentage of mental health issues amongst the housed and homeless residents of the DTES. 

 

"I’d go back to trying to work every now and again. That same shop that I worked at for three years, he took me back five times. But the drugs always came first,” he said. Randy told me that the reason the guy took him back was because he was so good at what he did. We talked about it more likely being because the guy believed in and cared for Randy. I mentioned that I didn’t think any boss would put up with that kind of strife just because someone was good at the job. “I’ve always tried to be a nice person. I might live a life of crime, but I’ve never hurt anyone. I don’t break into people's homes, or steal things from people, like wallets or bags or anything. I shoplift booze. That’s what almost every charge against me has been for. Other charges are for breach of conditions or probation, drinking and using. I wouldn’t hurt anyone, ever. I’m good enough at hurting myself, I don’t need to hurt anyone else,” he said. 

 

“I just got out of jail. Three weeks ago today as a matter of fact,” he said. Randy had accumulated a number of charges against him. It wasn’t the first time he’s been in jail, but it was the longest. “I was in for three-and-a-half months. I could have gotten a year-and-a-half. There’s been other times where I’ve gone through the drug court. In lieu of jail time, you go to a treatment centre, or a detox. I’ve done that a few times. But I never seem to be able to stay clean. Four months is the longest I’ve been clean in the last twenty years,” he told me. 

 

Randy spends as much as $200 in a day on crack cocaine.

“I used this morning already,” he told me. For Randy, as someone who has used hard drugs for that long, if he doesn’t use daily, he’s not able to function. Nor does that first hit get him high. It’s maintenance. The entire time we chatted, he was funny, polite, and made good eye contact. He was very engaging and laughed a lot. There was nothing about his behaviour that told me Randy was using any drugs, other than the coffee he was drinking. I was more jumped up on caffeine than he was.

 

“I’m gonna try to make changes now. After doing this stretch for almost four months in jail. It’s time. I just have to make the leap. I need to find a job, and of course right now, since coming out of jail, no one is hiring in December. I just need to find a place that I can get consistent with. And work at getting off the drugs,” he said. There was so much that we talked about in that hour. He's living with his brother again. 

Randy told me about one auto-body shop he had worked in.

"They let a few things slide, because I am good at what I do. I have a system and I produce very high quality work. Then one day, the woman who ran the office told me she was really sorry, but that they would have to let me go. I understood. She told me ‘the quality isn’t there anymore,’ and that’s all she said. I knew that she didn’t mean the quality of my work. It was my own personal quality that was gone. I still have hope. I’m a true fighter. If you’re not a real fighter, you give up. I’m not giving up. I’ve got hope that I can beat this.” #notastranger

Day 363 - Martin

Day 363 - Martin (3rd person I approached)
December 29, 2014 - Is anything ever really random? I believe in serendipity, and at the same time, balance it with being open to the school of everything happens for a reason. As I left my house today, on the lookout for this story, I found myself wondering who I would meet. Where is that person now? I turn left onto another street, heading somewhere, as yet unknown to meet the person that will share their story with me, today. The first person I approached just flat out said ‘no thank you.’ The second person apologized, saying he didn’t have much time for anything, and offered an email address to send him questions. I explained that’s not how this works, it’s about the here and now. He wished me good luck and on I went. Searching, and knowing the person is out there.

 

I turned right, heading towards the grocery store, and there was someone with his back to me, also about to head into the grocery store. I got in front of him, explained all the details of my project, showed him my blog and pictures of others, and asked if he would chat with me. Martin agreed to chat and we found a place just inside the store to sit while we chatted. 

 

Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Martin is the youngest of fifteen children. There are seventeen years between himself and the oldest child.

“It wasn't like living with fourteen siblings really. They had their own lives, even though they all stayed living in the house. I never understood that. As soon as I could, I was out of there,” he said, chuckling to himself. Martin told me it was a house of chaos and alcoholism.

“My parents separated when I was twelve, and my father kept me. His mother, my granny, told him to. She was his boss,” he said. Martin's mother moved to Medicine Hat, and Martin only saw her about once a month.

“My father was a hardcore alcoholic and was mean. I grew up surrounded by drugs and alcohol. I knew that I didn’t want that for myself. I was scared by what I saw,” he told me calmly. When he was fifteen years old, Martin went to live with his Granny, his father’s mother.

“She was the only one in my family that didn’t drink or do drugs. She taught me about Christianity,” he told me. 

 

His Granny lived on a First Nations reserve.

“It was a rough ride to school then. I had to be ready at 6:00am to go meet the bus that took me to school, and then it brought me home again at 5:00pm. I had gone to a regular school when I lived with my parents. This was a residential day school. The other kids teased me relentlessly. They called my ‘whitey’ because they knew I had gone to a regular school beforehand. Racism exists within and inside all communities. But my Granny always taught me not to take any grief from anyone, and to stand up for myself. They teased me, but nothing physical ever happened, not even with the older kids. I wouldn’t let them, and they didn’t try anything,” he said.

“I almost graduated, but my birthday fell at the wrong time of year, so once I turned eighteen, I just left.”

 

Martin had been at a bus stop one day when a woman pulled over and offered him a ride. “She was really nice and we just seemed to hit it off. I was ten years younger than her, but it didn’t matter. She was a big German woman. We dated and my Granny didn’t like that. She thought the age difference was too much. Granny told me that as long as I lived under her roof, I would do things by her rules. I left and moved in with the German woman,” he said. She had a daughter from a previous relationship, and then they had a daughter together.

“She was definitely the boss in our house,” he said, with a mischievous grin. Martin started working in construction, learning to frame and pour concrete.

“That was the only time I drank. My common-law wife told me to grow up and be a man. She said I wasn’t living with my Granny anymore and that I should drink if I wanted to. She wanted a drinking partner. So I started drinking with her,” he said. Four years after they met, she had a heart attack and died.

“I raised her daughter and my daughter, both of them, as my own.” He quit drinking.

 

“Me and the kids moved to Medicine Hat. I wanted to be nearer my mother and four of my sisters lived there as well. They all helped me with the kids,” he said. While applying for his (First Nations) Status Card, Martin needed to gather some paperwork.

“I had been in Medicine Hat for a few years, and I got a copy of my father’s papers. It said he was born in Prairie Ridge, South Dakota. I figured it would be good to see where my roots were from. My Granny said that it didn’t matter what reserve I was at, I’d be welcomed. So me and the girls went to South Dakota. I drove to Prairie Ridge and tracked down the band Chief. When I showed him my father’s papers, he seemed surprised. He did some checking and then told me that I was the great great grandson of Chief Sitting Bull. I was in shock,” he said (*Fact Check - see links below). Martin ended up staying at Prairie Ridge for two years.

“I got work on the reserve, and got housed there too. Once people found out who I was related to, they treated me a little differently. I felt like I had won a prize that I didn’t deserve to win. It was kinda strange, I thought,” he said.

 

After making his way back to Medicine Hat with the girls, Martin started working in construction again.

“I was working in roofing. I didn’t have much roofing experience, but I managed to tell them what they needed to hear to get the work, and learned on the job,” he said.

“At this one job, I noticed a beautiful young blonde laying out by the pool. It was her parents house we were working on. I just felt I wanted to get to know her. I went home and spoke to the girls first. I asked them how they’d feel if I was to maybe date someone,” Martin said.

“My daughters thought it was a good idea. They said they'd be happy to have a new mother one day, instead of being stuck with just me all the time,” he said, smiling.

“Well, I started talking to this beauty and after some time, asked her out and she said yes!” Four years later, they were married. 

 

“Everyone got along really well. Eventually my girls started to call her ‘Mom.’ Her and I had three kids of our own. Two boys and then another girl,” Martin told me. His Granny passed away when he was thirty two.

“It was tough, and I’m glad I had my family with me. My Granny told me that if I lived a good life, that I wasn’t to worry, we’d meet again,” he said. His wife was from Vancouver, and they decided to move out west. Martin continued working in the roofing business.

“I had a heart attack while I was up on a roof one day. I fell right off the roof, but the harness saved me. I was off work for some time. The Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs was making me jump through all kinds of hoops with paperwork and claims. I got tired of all that, so I went back to work,” he said. Martin had another heart attack.

“My doctor told me I couldn’t work anymore, and his office helped me to get on a disability pension,” Martin said.

 

Their children are all grown up and living in their own relationships now. “I’m not a grandfather, yet,” he says sheepishly.

“I don’t know if I’m ready for that!” He has had medical complications due to his heart condition, and now requires dialysis four times a week.

“I spend thirty hours a week in dialysis. I volunteer five hours a week with my church. And I volunteer about ten hours a week with a non-profit organization called ‘Quest,’” he said. Quest is British Columbia’s largest not-for-profit food exchange program. (**Fact Check - see links below.)

 

Martin and his wife have been married for twenty-three years now. “We’re currently homeless,” he says.

“We’re living in a SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel. It’s the only way we can be together. If we went to a shelter, even though we’re married, they would separate us, and we can’t have that. The hotel isn’t a nice place. It’s loud, and dirty. We have cockroaches in our room. People always ask ‘How come you’re living there? You’re not a drug addict or alcoholic.’ But it’s the only way to stay with my wife. She has scoliosis, and we need each other. We’ve been living there for two years now,” he says. They’re patiently waiting on a list, for housing. 

 

“I’m just coming to get some food. I have dialysis at 5:00pm, and need to eat before that. My wife is waiting at the hospital for me,” he explains. We step outside so I can take his photograph. I tell him that I think he and his wife are lucky to have each other.

“I try to live a good life. I believe I’ll see my grandmother one day.” #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://to.pbs.org/13PHTCY
**Fact Check - http://www.questoutreach.org

Day 362 - Gina-Mae

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

Day 361 - Janice

Day 361 - Janice (2nd person I approached)

December 27, 2014 - Some things are worth waiting for. Whether it's opportunities, people, jobs or any number of situations. Some of them are worth the wait. I saw Janice sitting comfortably on a couch near one of the coffee shops I frequent. I made a beeline to chat with her, and just as I got about five feet away, she lifted her phone to her ear. She was making a telephone call. Without even thinking about it, I sat down in a chair next to where she was. She looked at me, I smiled and said ‘I have a question for you, but it can wait.’ 

 

As she continued her call, I wondered what was going through her head. I imagined her saying 'some guy just sat down next to me, he's waiting for me to finish this call.' It wasn’t long before I was able to explain to Janice all about The Stranger Project, and ask if we could chat. Once I showed her my website, Janice agreed.

 

“It’s spelled J-A-N-I-C-E. I always wanted it to be J-A-N-I-S like Janis Joplin, but it’s not,” she said with a smile, shrugging her shoulders. 

“I was born here in Vancouver. When I was five years old, we moved to Burnaby. I have one brother who is four years younger than I am. We had some conflict between us growing up. Typical sibling rivalry stuff. We were competitive. Each of us thought we should be the one in charge,” she said. 

“We get along okay now. I was just at the gym, and he was there.”

 

When Janice was six years old, her mother insisted that she try taking piano lessons. 

“She told me I could stop if I didn’t like it, but that she wanted me to try. I stopped after six months. I did start playing the flute though, and was in the school band. I still play flute,” said Janice. 

“Band and English were my two favourite subjects," she said. 

 

"I knew I wanted to be a therapist. I remember talking with a guidance counsellor at school. She told me that if I wanted to be a Psychiatrist, I’d have to go to medical school. She said she didn’t think I’d be able to go through with that, and that I didn’t have the marks either,” Janice told me.

 

After graduating from high-school, Janice started working. 

“I waited six months before going to UBC (University of British Columbia). I knew what I wanted to do. Why did I wait? Oh, I know. Money! I needed some money for school. In those days, a semester, with a full course load, was $149 dollars,” she recalled. 

“I went to UBC part-time. Studying psychology. It was wonderful the first year, because I was doing entry level courses in everything, so I was only in class about fifteen hours a week. It was great! I took my time getting my degree as well. I would take time off and go travelling. I went to Europe for the first time when I was twenty-one. I think my parents would have preferred I didn’t go. Not just because of missing school, I think they were concerned in general abut me travelling. But they would never stop me from doing what I wanted to do by then. It would take two weeks for a letter from me in Europe to arrive, the news was always late,” said Janice. On her first trip, she knew some people on the charter flight she took, but travelled alone. 

“I did Europe a few times and Mexico as well. It was either Europe of Mexico when I travelled.”

 

“Although I had my undergrad degree in Psychology, that wasn’t going to get me a job in counselling. I did a few different things including working at an out of school daycare. At least I was working with little people,” she said. Janice moved to central BC (British Columbia). 

“I went and got married. My husband wanted to go live off the grid. I continued working and in time, started back at school, to get my Master’s degree,” she said. 

 

Simon Fraser University (SFU) had summer intensives, offering condensed courses, in a shorter span of time. 

“I would come down and go to school for a summer. I had both of my children while getting my degree. I was pregnant twice while in classes, and had my daughter, who at that time was a toddler, with me during a semester. I stayed with my parents, and they helped out,” she said. Janice remembers another student reminding her that she was doing a lot of school work, was away from home and raising two children. 

“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I am taking on a lot’ but I knew it was what I wanted to do,” she said.

 

Seven years after moving to central BC, Janice decided it was time for her to head back to the city, permanently. We talked about how long it took to get her degree. 

“Well, it took me eleven years to get my undergrad degree. Because I kept taking time off to travel. I also worked for a while and didn't go to school again for a few years. Then it took me seven years to get my Master’s degree, in Counselling Psychology. I said I was going part-time,” she said with a laugh. 

 

Janice has worked as an addictions counsellor for several years. 

“I love what I do. I consider myself blessed to be doing something that I love, as my job. So many people don’t have that," she says. 

 

"Sometimes a client will tell me that they feel they're too old to start something new, at say, forty years old. I can tell them I didn’t have a real job until later in life. And it’s true! I’m sixty-five now, just turned last month, and I have no intention of stopping work. I would only ever consider it, in order to do something else. My work is very satisfying,” she told me.

 

In her down time, Janice plays the flute in a regimental band. 

“We play all kinds of music; jazz, swing, contemporary. There’s some marching tunes, and yes, we march in formation. That’s not my favourite. I’m there for the music. not the marching,” she tells me, with a slight shake of her head. 

 

She has been in her second relationship for twenty-five years. Her partner has a daughter, the same age as her own daughter. 

“The three kids all consider each other to be brother and sisters. We are a blended family,” she says. 

 

When we were talking about Janice’s piano lessons as a child, I mentioned that when I was a child, we had an electronic organ in our living room. I mentioned that I wished my parents had been a bit more structured in getting me to take music lessons. I would like to have learned to play the piano. 

“It’s never to late to learn, or start to play an instrument. You can start anything you want, at any time,” she said. Janice knows what she’s talking about too. #notastranger

Day 360 - Brian

Day 360 - Brian (1st person I approached)
December 26, 2014 - It can be challenging enough some days to get someone, a stranger, to chat with me. It’s all the more difficult when there’s a television camera off in the distance recording the experience. Or at least, that’s been the anticipated experience. I guess it’s all in the pitch, and having done this for almost a full year now, I think I’m close to perfecting it!

 

Steve, the cameraman was shooting some footage (it’s called B roll in the world of television and film) of me walking around looking for today’s story. Steve suggested I walk towards ‘the guy with the black coat there’ as we both spotted Brian walking towards us. Steve added ‘if you want to talk to him, don’t let me stop you, I’ll just keep rolling,’ and that’s exactly what happened. Of course the pitch is a unique one in this situation. First thing is to find someone who will take the time to chat with me for the project. Then they have to let me ask them questions, be filmed while we chat, and let me take a photograph of them. It ends after they're interviewed by Alex, the reporter covering the story for the news. Once I explained all of that to Brian, he simply said

“Sure, okay.” A most pleasant surprise!

 

Brian was born here in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC).

“I was born at Grace Hospital, which is Women’s and Children’s Hospital now,” said Brian. He has one brother, four years older.

“We got along as kids, and still get along. We’re pretty close, still good friends, yeah.” The family lived in East Vancouver until Brian was nine years old.

"We moved to Surrey. I don’t know why, other than it was my parent's decision. I don’t remember having any difficulty making the transition. At nine years old, I was still young enough to not be bothered by moving. I don’t know about my brother. I imagine he didn’t have any problems with the move either. He wasn’t in high-school yet. That might have made it more difficult,” said Brian.

 

“My favourite subject in school? Well, that would have to be PE (physical education). I loved hockey. I played a lot of street hockey as a kid. You don’t see so much of that anymore. Kids are indoors playing video games. And parents are too afraid to let the kids be outside for too long,” he said. We spoke about how as a kid, it used to be you went out and knew to come home when the street lights came on. Times are changing.

 

“I graduated from high-school in Surrey. Then I went straight to BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology) at seventeen,” he said.

“I went into the Power and Process Engineering Program. It’s how to manage the day to day running of industrial plants. Operating the systems that keep everything going, like the heating and air-conditioning,” said Brian. He was at BCIT for two years, getting his Certified Power Engineer diploma. He started working immediately after graduating.

 

“I started my job right away. I got hired on with a mining company. The diploma got me in the door, but I learned so much more actually doing the job. I did some more courses along the way, like Excel courses and things. But I learned more by being hands-on, in the job. I was with that company for seven years,” he told me.

“I got laid off. I didn’t see that coming at all. They laid-off almost seventy percent of the employees. There was a down turn in the industry. I had about two months notice.” 

 

Brian used that time to his advantage, applying for other jobs.

“I was actually on vacation when my last day with (the mining company) happened. I had to use up my time-off owing, so took the last week off. I finished work on the Friday and started my new job on the Monday. I had no down time at all. I was very fortunate,” he said, with a content smile.

 

Brian works at a large public venue downtown, looking after the heating and cooling systems.

“I’ve been there for six years now,” he told me. Brian considers himself fortunate to have only had two jobs since graduating from college.

"I’ve been lucky, only having two jobs. And I like what I’m doing as well.”

 

“A coworker volunteered to work my shift on Christmas day which was great. I spent the day with my wife and daughter,” he said, again smiling.

“We’ve been married for two years. We met through online dating.” Brian and his wife Antonietta, just had their first child, a daughter, Juliana one month ago.

“We went to my wife’s family, my in-law’s, for Christmas Eve and had a nice evening there. And we spent time on Christmas Day with my parent’s and our family. There must have been fifty people at the house,” he said. I asked if it seemed like a nice break to be back at work, after all the family time.

“No not really. I like time off, and especially time with my family.”

 

“Christmas is all about family for me, spending time together. It’s not about the presents,” he said. This year was particularly special, with a new daughter to celebrate as well.

“Next year will be different, she’ll be walking!” he exclaimed. As for plans for the new year?

“I’m going to spend some time getting used to the idea of being a father,” said Brian. I laughed and suggested that could take maybe fifteen or twenty years. #notastranger

Day 359 - Mike

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 

Day 358 - Tom

Day 358 - Tom (1st person I approached)
December 24, 2014 - I was walking along West Broadway early this afternoon and I noticed a couple of things. It was less busy than usual; I’m guessing many people had the day off. Or everyone was downtown, deep in the crowds of folk getting their last minute shopping done. The people I was seeing on the street seemed to all be on a mission. Everyone seemed to be hurrying from point A to point B - I wondered if it would be more challenging to find today’s story. 

 

Be careful who you smile at on the street. Tom was removing the lock from his bicycle at the edge of the sidewalk. He looked up and his eye caught mine and he gave me a cheery smile. I smiled back, then made my move. I said hello and told him about my project, and asked if he would chat with me. With another big smile, and chuckling to himself, Tom agreed to chat. 

 

Born in Kamloops, Tom grew up in Barriere, a small town about 65kms north of Kamloops, in central British Columbia (BC).

“I’m the middle child. I have two older brothers, a younger sister and two younger brothers. I made sure to never be the invisible middle child though,” he said assuredly.

“I fought against that, although my two older brothers did the hunting and fishing thing. I never did any of that.” There's twelve years between the oldest and youngest sibling.

“We grew up almost in pods. My two older brothers. My sister and I, and then my two younger brothers. But it fluctuated. I got along well with my brother who is just older than I am, and my sister got along with one of the younger brothers. I mean, it wasn’t a hard rule, we all got along. We just had our groupings,” said Tom. 

 

“I went to elementary school in Barriere, and did my first two years of high school there as well. Then the high school burned down, and I moved to high school in Kamloops, taking the bus to school,” he said.

“That was quite a transition. Going from a small town to ‘the big city’ of Kamloops. There were all the cliques and older kids. And it seemed like all the kids from Kamloops stuck together and I felt like an outsider.” Tom told me he was good at Math in school.

“It just made sense to me. I wasn’t the best speller and finding the right words to express myself didn’t come naturally to me. I understood math.”

 

The adjustment from small town high-school to the bigger city school, helped Tom when he went to university.

“It was easier then, because I had learned how to cope with that in high-school. I didn’t go to university right away though. I failed a couple of classes so I had to go to night school in Kamloops to upgrade,” he said. Tom went to the University of Victoria (UVic).

“I started in general arts, and had thoughts of going into commerce. But I didn’t seem to be able to avoid getting into conversations about children, education and teaching. I did my first year of university at UVic and then transferred to UBC (University of British Columbia),” he told me. It was at UBC that Tom made the change to pursue Education. He spent a year at UBC, then went back to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and completed his degree in Education at UVic.

 

“I spent five years getting my undergrad degree. Then I went back to Barriere to teach. I had too, teachers usually started in smaller towns. I taught there for three years and then took a year off. I went to England and lived in London, working in a bar there,” he said.

“I just needed a break and wanted to do some travelling.” Tom told me that his sister had come to visit him while he was living in London.

“She was amazed that as we walked around in all different parts of town, that I was saying hello to people, everywhere we went. They were all people that I knew from the bar I worked in,” he said, laughing.

“My kid brother, the youngest one, came to visit and he never left. He and his partner moved out to the English countryside, and have been together for thirty-five years.” Ironically, just as Tom was telling me about his brother’s home in the countryside, a man walked by us, and turned to say

“Hi Tom!” Tom smiled and said hello back to the man, who kept walking. It seems Tom knows people everywhere he goes.  

 

“I went back to teaching as soon as I came home. I had really missed it,” Tom said. He spent the next twenty five years teaching.

“I went back to UBC and got my Master’s degree, in Counselling Education. I moved into becoming a counsellor for children with behavioural problems. There’s always been counsellors in school. They’re not able to spend much time with the students, building relationships,” said Tom.

"I’m not that interested in how little Johnny learns to read. What I am interested in, is how little Johnny feels about learning to read. It’s important to have a connection with these kids. I get as much from them as they get from me. They’re helping me to learn.”

 

Tom was offered a position with Simon Fraser University (SFU).

“I was asked to work with student teachers who wanted to integrate Aboriginal lessons into education. I did that for half a year at the Kamloops SFU campus. Then I came down here to Vancouver. It was time, and I was ready for the change,” he said.

 

As we chatted, I asked Tom a couple of questions to make sure I had the timeline correct. He causally mentioned another life event.

“Yeah, then I had this thing with cancer, and after that was done, I went back to SFU as an adjunct teacher. The actual title is Faculty Associate, working with student teachers. If there was a class with an overflow of students, I’d go in from time to time, and teach however many extra students there were,” he said. 

 

I told Tom that I always want to be respectful of what people are comfortable talking about. I asked if we could go back and talk about his mention of cancer.

“Yeah, that’s fine. I had cancer of the gall bladder. It started out as something else, and they removed my gall bladder, and it tested cancerous. So they went back in and removed part of my liver as well. I was fortunate, I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy. One of the doctors said he had good news and bad news. The good news was I didn’t need chemo, and the bad news was it wouldn’t work on the type of cancer I had anyway,” Tom laughed. His energy shone it’s brightest as he talked about this. 

 

“I went to this wonderful organization called ‘Inspire Health.’ I talk about them whenever I can. I had a great support network of family and friends around me. The people at Inspire Health all had cancer. We’d gather together and do yoga and talk and laugh and no one talked about cancer. It’s such a loving, supportive, network. They integrate traditional healing with an emphasis on healthy exercise, a balanced diet and emotional well-being,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about them.” Tom recently had his three-and-a-half year check up and everything looks good. (*Fact Check - see link below) 

 

“I’m pretty much retired now, after seven years with SFU. I still have a home in Kamloops, and rent here in Vancouver. I’ve rented out my house in Kamloops to a good friend, and we have an agreement that I can still pass through town, and spend time there. I was just there for a week recently. My fruit trees and garden and friends are all still there. I guess part of me just doesn’t want to let go. And that’s ok,” he said. Tom rides his bicycle everywhere.

 

Christmas for Tom means having dinner tonight with

"a group of good friends. Spending time together, eating great food, and enjoying the people in my life. I’m very fortunate to have incredible relationships with many wonderful people. Tomorrow, there’s a smaller group of us that get together for what we call ‘Our Jewish Christmas.’ So Chinese food and going to see a movie,” he said, laughing. We shook hands and wished each other well. Our conversation ended just as it started. With a big, warm smile. #notastranger 

*Fact Check - http://www.inspirehealth.ca/what-we-do

Day 357 - Dawn

Day 357 - Dawn (4th person I approached)
December 23, 2014 - Sometimes when I ignore my ‘gut’ feeling, I’ll find myself later wondering why I ever did that. It was dark by the time I went out to find today’s story. I noticed a woman sitting outside a coffee shop, smoking a cigarette, and having a coffee. It flashed through my mind to ask if she’d chat with me. My immediate internal response was to discount the idea because it was dark, it was cold and she likely wouldn’t want to sit outside and chat with me. So I didn’t bother asking her. I had to go inside and find three people that all said they didn’t care to chat first. Then as I headed outside again, some ten minutes later, she was still sitting exactly where I had first spotted her.

 

I approached this lady and asked if she would chat with me, explaining what I was doing. She responded with a healthy burst of laughter. I couldn’t tell if she was laughing at me, or the suggestion that she might want to chat with me. I soon recognized that her laugh was full of joy, and amazement. It was also infectious. I laughed along with her, asking why we were laughing.

“How long would it take, Sir?” she inquired. I said perhaps five minutes. She turned her head away from me and exhaled the smoke from her cigarette.

“I’m sorry, I’m just always mindful of my cigarette smoke around others,” she said.

“Sure I’ll talk with you,” she said. Even in the dim light from the nearby street lamps, I could see the sparkle in her eyes.

 

Dawn was born in the interior of British Columbia (BC), near Salmo.

“My father was a customs agent and worked at a border crossing. The town I was born in was so tiny you’d be lucky to gather twenty people together from within a four mile radius,” she said.

“I am the middle child of three. I always felt invisible because of being the middle child. I invented a world of imagination and fantasy for myself. I was an introverted child, and definitely enjoyed my own company,” Dawn told me. 

 

Travelling to school in nearby Salmo, meant catching a big, yellow bus to and from school every day.

“I loved the bus ride. I would invent games to amuse myself. I would close my eyes and imagine where I was, based on the twists and turns of the road. I’d open my eyes to see if I had guessed correctly. I travelled that road so frequently and knew that road so well, I could tell where we were with my eyes closed,” she said laughing. 

 

“School wasn't the place for me, because of the population,” Dawn said. She pondered her response when I asked what it was she didn’t like about school.

“Too many people, ideas of grandeur, hierarchy. Thinking at sixteen that I knew everything, when really I knew nothing. Idealism,” she said.

“I left school. I was only short a few classes, French twelve and a couple of others, but I didn’t stay to graduate.”

 

“I met my sweetie, my man, and we got married very early. I was nineteen when we married. Then we spent the next ten years playing. We travelled all over, and enjoyed, and learned and we just played for ten years,” she said, with a fondness in her voice.

“We would go to work for the winter season in the oil patch. It was the 1970’s and in Alberta there were two resources, oil or lumber. My sweetie worked in the oil patch and I tended bars in town. We made excellent money and that paid for our travels during the rest of the year,” Dawn explained. 

 

I asked Dawn to tell me one of her greatest memories of those years travelling. There was no hesitation, or stopping to consider her answer.

“I think about her often. We were travelling over land to Katmandu (Nepal). There was a young girl, maybe about five years old. She was making cow patties at the side of the road, and flattening them down into small round shapes. She was sticking them onto a wall to dry out, to be used as fuel. I’ve thought about her often over the years, like one of those photographs you might see in a National Geographic magazine. Wondering whatever became of her. Where she might be now, what she's doing. It was a moment that has stayed with me all these years,” said Dawn, describing the scene as if she’d seen it only yesterday.

“Driving into New Delhi. We germinated, and were inspired. I’ve always had a connection with spirituality, but it was more than that. It was the culture, the people and the humanity of it. It was where we grew,” she said.

 

“After all of our travelling and playing, we settled in Vancouver. I went back to school, and just did an undergrad,” she said casually. Dawn studied general arts at UBC (University of British Columbia), and her husband attended SFU (Simon Fraser University) studying business.

“I got a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Psychology. My husband continued on with his schooling and got his Master’s in business at UBC. I worked in social services, for about ten years. We moved around a fair bit, all over BC, Edmonton and twice lived in the eastern Arctic. I worked at a Women’s Resource centre on a First Nation’s reserve near Nelson (BC) as well,” she said. Dawn went back to UBC and got her Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology. 

 

“I’m a registered therapist now,” said Dawn. We chatted about how more people are seeing the value in counselling and therapy. The stigma and barriers around mental health issues are finally starting to crumble.

“Not everybody is broken, and not everybody needs to be fixed. We can always polish and refine,” said Dawn, with her ever present smile. 

 

“We’ve been married for over forty years now. He’s still my sweetie. We have a very good life. I’ve enjoyed the journey, and the way things have turned out. I love my life,” Dawn told me.

“I just finished work and I needed to have a coffee, and a cigarette, so that’s why I’m sitting here outside. I’m waiting to meet some dear friends. We’re getting together to go out and have an evening of celebration.” I asked if the gathering was in honour of Christmas.

“No, it’s not particularly for the holidays. It’s to celebrate each other.” #notastranger

Day 356 - Fido

Day 356 - Fido (1st person I approached)
December 22, 2014 - I’m very much a morning person. I love getting up really early and enjoying the prospect of the whole day stretched out in front of me. Today I was out the door early, packed in a few event’s, and was back home before noon. 

 

I met with the film crew for the documentary ‘Not A Stranger,’ and we filmed a radio interview I did first thing this morning. After that, I went out and met a stranger for today’s story, which was also filmed. 

 

I had walked downtown and home again as well. A productive morning like that makes coming home and napping all the more enjoyable. Even if the nap was involuntary and unintended.

 

I spotted Fido across the courtyard of the Public Library, in downtown Vancouver. Usually the courtyard is a busy gathering place. People sitting drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, eating snacks. There's often tourists taking photographs and looking at maps. Today, Fido was the only person there. He was sitting off to the side, in front of what looked like a large air vent that might contain the warm air exhaust for the building. A good spot to huddle on a chilly, first full day of winter. I approached Fido and told him about my project. I also explained about the documentary, which meant asking his permission to film the chat as well. He laughed, telling me

“I’m not in a witness protection plan or anything, so sure, why not?” His voice was very deep, rich and gravelly. 

 

He was born in Calgary, Alberta.

“I have one older sister, a younger brother and a younger sister. We were all born in Calgary, and got along pretty well. I’m still in contact with them all,” he said.

“I played a lot of hockey when I was younger. I didn’t really care that much about school. I was so tuned into hockey. I was playing triple A hockey (elite competition) in my teens. That’s all I cared about," he said. 

 

"When I was about fourteen, my family moved from Calgary to the Mission (British Columbia) area (about an hour east of Vancouver). We moved because of my father relocating for work. I was told, or ‘persuaded’ that it would be good to make the move. I had been  getting into trouble at school, and my parents thought the move might do me some good,” he said.

“School just wasn’t for me. I had gotten a job at a lumber mill out by our house and worked there weekends. I left school in Grade eleven to work full time. It was hard work, for sure. But my mother had a degree and I was making more money than she was.”

 

Fido worked in the lumber mill for about five years.

“I met a woman and we decided that we wanted to live somewhere there was sunshine, and warmth. We ended up down in Florida (USA). I knew a few tricks that allowed us to be able to stay in the States. It was different back then as well. In those days it was easier to stay once you were there. That all changed after 9/11. My girlfriend became my common-law wife, and we started a company. Doing marketing, producing materials for other companies. Flyers, brochures, rack cards, that sort of thing. I ended up getting involved with the sales side of the business,” he said.  

 

After a number of years in Florida, his common-law wife decided she wanted to come home to Vancouver. Fido wasn’t ready to do that.

“She left and I moved on. I tried Texas for a little while. I got some work in construction. If you were willing to do hard labour, it was easy to find decent paying jobs. But I didn’t care much for Texas. I wasn’t there for that long. I moved on to Louisiana. A guy I knew from Florida was looking for someone to doing some metal work and welding. I had always worked hard, said I’d do it, and basically learned what I needed to, on the job," he told me. 

 

"There’s not the same 'ticket' system down there like in Canada. You get certified in one particular aspect of a job there. In Canada, you get your ticket for a broader approach to all areas of that job. Plus, I was moving from job site to job site,” Fido said.

“I’m definitely a bona fide ironworker now.” He moved around from state to state, spending close to thirty years in the USA.

“I spent some time in New Orleans after (hurricane) Katrina, working there. I was in Georgia, Arkansas, New Mexico, California. I travelled all around,” he said. 

 

Fido returned to Canada a year ago.

“I went to Calgary first to see some family. I heard there were lots of jobs going there, with the oil. But there’s no housing, and what is available is so expensive. And it was too cold, after all those years in the sunshine,” he said, with a shiver. 

 

“I had last been here in Vancouver, I guess around the time of Expo (1986). I kept in touch with my family, but my parents are getting older now, and I wanted to see them, so I moved back to Vancouver,” he told me. His parents still live out in Mission.

"I spoke to both of them just yesterday," he said. He had gotten work in construction here in Vancouver. 

 

“Then I did this,” he said, nodding his head toward his left leg, which was in a boot cast. I asked him what happened.

“Oh we won’t go into details about that. Let’s just say it involved alcohol, a woman and me falling thirty feet off a fire escape,” Fido said, with a self-deprecating laugh. He went on to tell me that when he fell, there wasn’t anyone around to help him. He was “self-medicated” enough that even though he was in a lot of pain, he went back to his night of drinking.

“It was a few hours later that I figured I should get it checked out. It was hurting so bad. Turns out, I shattered my heel. The doctor doesn't think I’m going to need surgery, but we won’t know for sure for about another six weeks,” he said, shaking his head.

 

“I’m an alcoholic," he said when I asked if alcohol or drugs had ever been an issue for him.

“I’m a functioning alcoholic. I can get up and drink three or four beers for breakfast. Or I can skip it if I’m working. When I’m working, I don't drink before, or on the job. But with this foot, what else is there to do? I can drink beer for breakfast and not even really get a buzz on, where others might get intoxicated. Some days I drink just because if I don’t, I get pretty sick without it. I’ve drank for years, and you become dependent on it,” he said, honestly. “I tried drugs, years ago. I’ve done everything, but I grew out of that.”

 

“I’m homeless right now. I’m not working. I’ve got a claim going in for disability because I can’t work with this cast on, but the paperwork isn’t going through as fast as I needed it to. I could get a place, but they’re like four hundred dollars a week downtown. When I’m working I can afford a place, right now I can’t,” he told me. 

 

Fido has been staying in a men’s hostel run by the Catholic Church.

“They do the best they can, and try to make it decent and comfortable enough so you can get a good night’s sleep,” he said.

"There’s so many of the guys at these shelters that need more than a place to sleep though. There’s so much more that needs to be done for people with mental health and addiction issues. They need care and attention,” he said. The shelter requires persons staying there to be in by eleven at night, and out again by seven in the morning.

“I just sit around, have a few beers and pass the time away. What else can I do?”

 

"I’ve travelled all around the US, and I’m telling you, I’m kind of disappointed with Vancouver. I mean, this is my home town, I grew up here. But I’ve never seen any place as bad as this, for drugs, anywhere. In the States you’d get arrested for the things I see on the streets here, every day. These people who are wondering around smoking crack pipes out in the open. Turning a blind eye isn’t working. There needs to be so much more done to help people. Housing is just one part of it,” said Fido.

 

He had told me when we first started talking, that his name was Mike, but that people called him Fido. I asked where the name ‘Fido’ came from.

“Oh,” he said, laughing.

“It’s been a nickname that friends have called me for years. My second common-law wife had three kids. I helped raise them for many years. Some of the guys at work would call me Mr Mike. I'd tell them they could just call me Mike. The kids got me a teeshirt, and it had a drawing of a dog and a doghouse on it. Above the door of the doghouse, it had the name ‘Fido’ written over it. The guys joked around and started calling me Fido, and it just stuck,” he said. Even his laughter had a deep, husky rasp to it. 

 

I took Fido’s picture and thanked him for chatting with me, and for his honesty.

“No, thank you for asking me. That was great, I enjoyed our talk. You know, you’re right, people don’t take enough time to talk to one another. Everyone is so busy looking at their phones or have headphones plugged in. It was nice to just have a conversation. Thank you for that.” #notastranger

Day 355 - Margit

Day 355 - Margit (1st person I approached)
December 21, 2014 - A friend asked me today if there was a common thread that I saw in the strangers I’ve spoken with this year. He was looking for a succinct, sound-bite type answer, one that describes the general essence. That’s the sixty-four million dollar question. Easy to ask, a monumental task to answer. After giving a five minute, multifaceted, stream of conscious, meandering, long-winded, not succinct answer, I stopped talking. He waited, knowing I was collecting my thoughts.

‘Human,’ I said.

‘We’re all human beings who need, and crave, connection.’ 

 

I met Margit shortly after having this conversation with my friend. She was sitting in a quiet corner of the mall, away from the busy throng of shoppers. She was reading a newspaper, drinking some tea and eating a bagel. When I asked her if she’d chat with me, she told me it was an unusual request. I explained that at least 354 people before her, had likely thought the same thing. There was a slight hesitation, and as I always do, I let Margit know there was no obligation, that it would be fine if she didn't want to chat.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“I’ll talk with you.” She rolled her eyes when I said I’d want a photograph as well, but still agreed.

 

“I was born in Schöneberg, in west Berlin, Germany. We came to Canada when I was just three years old, so I have no memories of childhood there,” said Margit. Her parents were both German.

“My father’s parents were murdered during the war. When my father was ten years old, he, like many boys and young men, was taken away from the family and made to join the Hitler Youth Army. I don’t know much about this as he never liked to talk about it much. I know that when he was fifteen years old, he was sent to the front, but ran away. He was too frightened. My father drank all his life, I think to hide away the horrors of his youth,” she said. When her parents immigrated to Canada, they ended up in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island.

“My father was a baker, and he found work there. My mother’s parents came to Canada as well,” she said. 

 

“My parents separated when I was about seven years old. I lived with my mother, and my father remarried. My mother was having some emotional difficulties around the time I was about thirteen. I went to live with my father and his wife, my stepmother. It was tough. I never finished high-school. My stepmother felt that I had done all I was going to do in school, and that I was only suited to be a waitress all my life. I had aspirations to become a nurse. I left school in Grade ten,” Margit told me. She moved out on her own at sixteen.

“It wasn’t a healthy environment. It was toxic.”

 

Margit got a job working in a fast food restaurant.

“I wanted to join the Army. I heard that you could complete your education while in the military. But, I met a man and got married instead. I was nineteen and married,” she said. The marriage didn’t last long.

“We were too young. I had two wonderful children and was a single parent. It was difficult raising two young children. Fortunately my grandparents where nearby. They had such a calm and balanced relationship. It was so wonderful to be around them. There was such a contrast between their marriage and that of my parents,” she said, speaking with a fondness in her voice. Margit had a friend in high-school that introduced her to the Salvation Army.

“I’ve always had my faith. My belief in God. I carry it with me everywhere and going to church is where I connect with my faith. The Salvation Army helped to anchor me, to keep me stable and manage my way through the difficulties. I am so grateful for the support I received,” she told me.

 

A few years after getting divorced, Margit was preparing to go back to school.

“I still wanted to become a nurse. And then I met a man. I know, I know, it’s always a man. He was kind and lovely and we got married. He had three children, so I had step-children. Then he and I had our daughter. There were six children in our blended family, but we didn't all live together. We moved to Burlington, Ontario to work with our church. Neither of us were ordained, we were the Minister's support. We helped with the congregation and did what we could to minister our faith. We didn’t give sermon’s though. Becoming ordained would have been the next step,” she said. 

 

wo of her husband’s children had A-T (Ataxia telangiectasia), a rare, neurodegenerative disease, causing severe disability.

“It causes difficulty with coordination. There’s difficulty walking, because they can fall and injure themselves. One of the more common illnesses that develops is cancer. We had been in Ontario for about six months, when my step-son became ill. We came back to BC (British Columbia). He passed away when he was just sixteen years old. He was such a dear, sweet angel. We decided to go back to Ontario after he passed away. We were loving the work we were doing with our church. I’m not a teacher, but I have spent many years teaching in church. Soon after returning to Ontario, my husband made the decision to move back to BC. He wanted to be nearer to his (other) son who had A-T,” said Margit.

“I liked living in Ontario, but it was the right thing to do.” That step-son lived to be forty-four years old.

“He lived longer than anyone else with A-T had, at that time, in North America. He passed away earlier this year.” (*Fact Check - see link below)

 

They settled in the Fraser Valley, and started a small company, run by the family.

“We work with electrical generators, supplying and offering preventative maintenance. We do oil changes, tune-up, repairs. We’re a small company, but we’ve got some large clients and have been very successful. I was working in the office, and our daughter came on board to help as well,” said Margit.

“I’m waiting for my husband to finish work," she said. Her husband was out on a repair job nearby; that’s what had brought Margit to the mall. 

 

"We went to church this morning, and then had a lovely Christmas luncheon. We have plans for this afternoon as well,” she said.

"We're going to spend the rest of the day at the (German) Christmas Market, downtown." They have fourteen grandchildren and one great granddaughter.

“She’s four years old. It’s so wonderful to have the children around. Our children are all adults now. But it’s nice to still be young enough to see the grandchildren growing up. To be around to see the next generations that will carry on,” she said, smiling with pride.

 

“I was raised connected to my German roots. When my father passed away, my brother and I took his ashes home to Berlin. That's what he wanted. I got to meet family that I hadn’t met before. To see the similarities and likenesses. To learn a little bit more about my family. I’d like to learn as much as I can,” she told me. 

 

I asked Margit if her children followed in her faith.

“They certainly know about it. I wouldn’t say that they actively practise it. They respect my faith. We talk about it, and when we‘re together, I’ll say prayers with them. It’s a conversation we have from time to time. They’re adults. They have to make their own decisions, while respecting mine,” she said. 

 

We talked about different family members having different views on religion in many families. We discussed how some parents can be more assertive in their beliefs where their children are concerned.

“At the end of the day, I believe we are all from one God. The one we believe in. We are all humans, brothers and sisters.” #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://www.atcp.org/WhatIsAT

Day 354 - Mark

Day 354 - Mark (1st person I approached)
December 20, 2014 - Habits. Some can be good, and others, not so much. I seem to have developed a bit of a habit of staying up late, and writing into the wee hours. I don’t mind the staying up late so much. But when it’s one o'clock in the morning, and I’m just starting to write the story to be posted before I go to bed, then it’s late. Today, I wanted to change things up a bit. So I left the house before 11am, and went out on my daily mission to meet a stranger. Success! I’m even sitting in a coffee shop before noon, writing. It still remains to be seen what time I finish… I am fluid, after all.

 

Mark was sitting drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Such a civilized start to the day. I asked if he would be interested in chatting, after explaining what I’m working on. He replied “Sure, take a seat.”

 

His father was from Ireland, and his mother from Glasgow, in Scotland.

“They both immigrated to Vancouver, and met here. I think they met at a Valentine’s Day dance. My father was a chartered accountant. My mother had been a flight attendant with Trans-Canada Air Lines, which became Air Canada. She was a nurse and in the 1950’s you needed to have a medical background to become a flight attendant. She worked the Montreal/Vancouver route,” he said.

“I was born in Vancouver, and have one brother who is two years younger than me. We got along as kids. I wouldn’t say we were best buddies, but we weren’t mortal enemies, either. My parents built a house in West Vancouver which was a great place to grow up back then. It was all trees and I could walk through the forest all the way to school,” he said.

 

As soon as he graduated from high-school, Mark went to university.

“I went to UBC (University of British Columbia) to study business. I had always had a head for business and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My marks were pretty poor, and I didn’t do so well. I flunked out in my second year,” he told me.

“I was still living at home and my parents suggested that I should move out and find my own way if I wasn’t going to go to school. I got a job working at The Keg (a national chain of steakhouse restaurants). I was spending a lot of my time partying and just having fun. Looking back, perhaps if I had applied myself a bit more, worked harder and not had so much fun, I might have done better,” he said. 

 

Mark got another job working in a bar in North Vancouver, near where he was living.

“While I was working at the bar, I was offered a job at a hotel in White Rock, which I took. I continued living in North Vancouver and working at the bar as well. I commuted a lot. I did that for four or five years,” he said.

“I was dating a woman that lived in White Rock and I moved out there and we got a place together. We lived together for abut six years and then we got married. She started going to school to become a makeup artist. I went to school to become involved in the stock market. We moved downtown to the set end (Vancouver). It made things easier. My wife became a makeup artist and I didn’t work in the stock market,” he said, smiling. 

 

“I ended up quitting my jobs and going back to school. I got serious about it, going to Langara (College) for three semesters upgrading my marks. I took a bunch of courses all over again so that I could hit a better grade average to go to university. I went to UBC again, and studied economics. I was there for three years; my two years before and my grades from Langara helped,” he said.  

 

Once he graduated from university, he went to work at the family business.

“My father had bought a components firm with some partners. He eventually bought them out. I worked there one summer during the first two years in university. The company handled furnace and heating switches. After university, I went in and worked in receiving and in sales, to learn the  business all round. It was a great opportunity to become good friends with my father as well,” he said. 

 

Mark’s mother passed away when he was forty-two.

“I had never seen her sick a day in her life, and then she was diagnosed with advanced cancer. She went quite quickly after that,” said Mark.

“My father was in his early seventies when I joined the company. He had been forty when I was born, and was older than my mother as well. He wasn’t used to cooking for himself, and had to get a live-in housekeeper after my mother passed away. He retired when he was around seventy-seven. Then I took over the company,” he said. His father passed away aged eighty-eight.

 

Mark and his wife divorced and he remarried.

“My (second) wife is from Singapore. She has three grown children, so I became a step-father. One of the children just had a baby, so I’m a step-grandfather as well,” he said, with a big grin.

“We’re going on a family trip next year. My step-son is getting married, and his fiancé is from Japan. We’re travelling there to meet her family. My wife and I have been doing a fair bit of travelling.”

 

In 2011, Mark and his wife were visiting his wife’s family in Singapore.

“Japan is almost the half way spot, so we went there for a while on vacation. We were travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo on the bullet train, when it came to a stop. It took hours longer than it was scheduled, to reach Tokyo. We found out of course, that there had been the massive earthquake and then tsunami in Fukushima. The train had to keep stopping to make sure the tracks were okay. We finally made it into Tokyo which was a feat unto itself. There were millions of people all over, no one had anyway to get out of Tokyo with transportation being shut down. Fortunately we had a reservation at a hotel in Tokyo station. The hotel was a skyscraper and our room was on the fortieth floor. With all the aftershocks you could feel the building swaying. I was definitely scared and didn’t get much sleep that night,” said Mark. 

 

The next day they managed to find a taxi driver that was willing to drive them to Chiba (50kms southeast of Tokyo).

“I pointed to Chiba on the map, because the driver didn’t speak any English. I knew we could get a train in Chiba to go to the airport in Narita, where flights would be departing from. It took seven hours to get to Chiba. Flights still weren’t leaving from Narita. The cab driver was wonderful and found us a hotel. He was going in and speaking for us, and after stopping at a few different hotels, we got a room while we waited to go to the airport. That taxi ride cost four hundred dollars; three hundred for the fare, and a hundred dollar tip for the driver. He was amazing,” said Mark.

 

“I have a really good life. I’m starting to think about my own retirement down the road. I’ve been trying to take better care of myself; I just came from a workout at the gym. I play golf with my brother. He kicks my ass every time. I used to be a better golfer, but over the years, I think my swing has deteriorated. I might take some lessons next spring to work on my swing. Being in the heating and furnace business, this is our busy time. Things get quieter for us in the spring,” he said.

“My brother is married and he has two young children. He lives out in Mission (about an hour east of Vancouver). The family come to the city near the holidays, and do some shopping and ride the holiday train at Stanley Park, that kind of thing. I’m meeting them for lunch today," Mark told me. 

 

"Tonight I’m having dinner with my ex-wife. We’ve remained friends all these years. We just drifted apart as a couple. You know, you’re a very different person in your forties, than who you were in your twenties. But we’ve remained friends. My wife is coming to dinner with us, along with a few other friends,” he said. Mark and his former co-workers from The Keg restaurant still keep in touch as well.

“There’s about eight or nine of us that are still in contact and have remained friends. We have a reunion dinner every year. We’ve been doing that for twenty-nine years now.” Some habits are worth keeping. #notastranger

Day 353 - Tracey & Belinda

Day 353 - Tracey (3rd person I approached) & Belinda
December 19, 2014 - There's just twelve days left in The Stranger Project 2014. Yet, I still managed to find a way to break another of my self-imposed rules - sort of. This is the first time more than one person has been in the picture that I’ve posted with the story. All shall be revealed. 

 

I had been out doing some errands and spotted Tracey (blonde hair, on the right in the photo), reading what looked like a text book, and looking at her phone. It was her bright pink coat and scarf that caught my attention. About thirty minutes later, with my errands completed, I saw Tracey was still sitting in the same spot, by herself, reading the text book. I walked to where was sitting and asked if she would chat with me. I showed her my Facebook page, which she took a picture of for future reference. She smiled, and said she’d be happy to do anything, that would take her away from studying. I sat down and we chatted.

 

“I was born in Lincolnshire, England. I was three years old when we moved to Canada, so I don’t remember being there. My parents are English. I think they were just looking for a better life and that’s why we moved. My mother had relatives that lived in Canada, which was, I think how they choose to come here,” she said. Tracey is the youngest of three children.

“My sister is the oldest. She’s four years and fifty-one weeks older than I am. And my brother is in the middle. We got along as young kids, and then not as much when we were teenagers. I was closer to my brother then, because he and I were closer in age,” said Tracey.

 

“We lived in Richmond when we first arrived in Canada. Then my parents bought a house in White Rock. I went to elementary school there. When I was ten we moved to Vancouver Island. First to Qualicum Beach and then Nanoose Bay. We built a house there. That first summer, everyone helped out, all the family, and we built the house. I took a bus to high-school, which was in Parksville. All the other kids who lived around where we did took the bus as well, so it didn’t seem odd. It’s just how we got to school,” she said.

“To be honest, I didn’t like school. Not high-school anyway,” Tracey said quietly, almost in a whisper.

“I left when I was in Grade ten. I was definitely that rebel child. It was mutual between me and the school. It didn’t have anything to do with drugs or alcohol, or anything like that. Some of the people I was hanging out with weren’t the best influences. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.” 

 

Her parents had separated when Tracey was thirteen.

“I went to live with my father a little while after I left school. I only stayed with him for three months and then went back home to my mother. But I decided that I needed to finish school, but I wanted to do it my way. I also changed the people I was hanging around with. I finished school through Open Learning,” she said. The Open Learning courses consisted of English, Math and Sciences. It was the same curriculum that was taught in school, but without the school setting and environment. 

 

“My cousin was living here in Vancouver and she had just had a baby boy. I moved over to help her take care of him,” she said, pausing to finish her sentence. I could sense, and then see that Tracey was holding back her emotions. Her face was flushed and tears were welling in her eyes.

“My father got sick and passed away. It was a difficult time. My cousin and I had some trouble between us with that,” she said, still visibly upset, yet holding back. 

 

I said that it wasn’t my intention to trigger upsetting emotions. I also let Tracey know that I was there for her. I waited.

“Thank you," she said.

"We had a falling out because my cousin didn’t know how to handle my father’s death, or how to deal with me, during that time.” I could see Tracey working to maintain her composure.

“We lost Dallas. He died in a plane crash. Her son, that I had moved to help her with, Dallas. He was like my own child. It’s hard because I think about him every single day, but when you don’t talk about it so often, it’s upsetting.”

 

Tracey moved out on her own after that.

“I worked in a restaurant. But not as a server, because if people were going to upset me, I’d want to accidentally spill food on them. Then I worked in a bakery. I got a job at Safeway (a nation-wide grocery store) and did that for a few years,” she said.

“My sister was moving to Victoria (Vancouver Island), and I wasn't really happy at Safeway any more. She suggested I go live with her in Victoria, and stay there while I figured out what I wanted to do,” said Tracey.

“I took a course at a college, for like a medical office assistant. And then I got a job in an insurance office. Nothing to do with anything medical, at all. But the course helped with my confidence and learning to work in an office and improve my typing skills.”

 

“My sister Belinda was working in insurance and I started working for the same company as she did. I didn’t get the job through her though. I started with selling insurance. Eventually I moved into underwriting, which I’m still doing, all these years later,” she said.

“We got an opportunity to transfer to the Vancouver office, and so we moved here," Tracey said, referring to her and Belinda.

"We’ve lived together ever since Victoria. Actually we’ve lived together all of our lives, apart from the four years when I lived with my cousin and then on my own,” said Tracey.

 

“Ah, here’s my sister now,” she said, introducing me to Belinda. She had been at an appointment nearby. I explained to Tracey’s sister about The Stranger Project, and what we were chatting about. I asked if it would be okay if we continued chatting. Belinda offered to go for a walk, but both Tracey and I said it would be fine for her to stay with us. “I was just telling Colin about us moving over from Victoria,” said Tracey to Belinda.

“I'm happy to talk with him so then I don’t have to continue studying,” she said, patting her text book and smiling. Tracey is studying for another certification for her insurance job. 

 

“Where were we?” asked Tracey.

"Oh yeah, then I suggested to Belinda that we should buy our own place,” she said. “Thank god for that too,” added Belinda. They both laughed.

“So we bought a place out in Coquitlam. That worked out for a while. Then Belinda was getting involved with PADS (Pacific Assistance Dogs Society). She was training a puppy to become an assistance dog. The condo we lived in was too small. We needed a place that had some green space, so we moved out to Pitt Meadows (40kms east of Vancouver),” she said. (*Fact Check - see link below.)

 

Tracey showed me a picture of the dog, on the screensaver of her phone.

“He’s a black Lab named Percy. It takes fourteen months to train them. And then after about another fourteen months, he was retired from service,” she said.

“He was just too stubborn,” said Belinda.

“He didn’t want to work.” Tracey said that you could see him pull away and lower his head whenever his work apron came out. We talked about some of the specifics of assistance dogs.

“The signal that his work day is over is when the work apron comes off. And then he was a completely different dog. You could see a difference in him immediately,” said Tracey. 

 

They were given an opportunity to adopt Percy and decided to keep him.

"We take the West Coast Express into town every day to come to the office here in Vancouver. He’s the office dog. It is without a doubt, the absolute best thing to have him in the office. Everyone benefits. When he was training for work, our colleagues were mindful of the difference with n assistance dog. Being aware of not petting him and that. Although, I was the probably the worst, laying on the floor with him to cuddle,” said Tracey, smiling a huge dog-loving smile. Belinda isn’t planning on taking anymore puppies for training at this time.

“It was an incredible experience though,” she said. Tracey and Belinda now puppy-sit for others who are fostering dogs in training.

“If you’re fostering a working dog, you can't put them in any doggie daycare or kennel. They can only stay with certified, trained handlers. That way the training and discipline is maintained,” said Tracey.

 

I asked the sisters why living together, all of their lives, worked for them. Belinda spoke first

“Well, I know this isn’t about me. There was that four years we didn’t live together.” I was interested in hearing from both of them. Belinda continued.

“We have the same dentist, the same doctor, the same hair stylist even. We know each other and have for our entire lives.” 

 

Tracey added, “We even have the same friends, for the most part. It just works for us. And because we know each other so well, if I’m not in a good mood and need my own space, Belinda knows to just leave me alone. Plus, my boyfriend is American, so that works really well,” she said. I asked if by 'works really well,' she meant because he's not in town all the time.

“Yes,” they both answered, laughing at each other.

 

I had been thinking about the picture that I wanted to take for this story, while we chatted about dogs and training. I decided I would let Tracey and Belinda say what they wanted to do. I’ve only ever taken a picture of the one person I was talking to. Even in the few situations where a wife, or boyfriend had later joined the conversation. I mentioned that as they had such a special friendship and were sisters, I would be delighted if they both wanted to be in the photo. I told Belinda that it would get posted on social media. As I was saying this, they were already rearranging the seats so they could get their picture taken. Together. Just as they’ve been all of their lives. Breaking the rules. #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://bit.ly/1AEi7wi

Day 352 - Anne-Marie

Day 352 - Anne-Marie (1st person I approached)
December 18, 2014 - It’s been a long time since I walked out of my apartment building, and saw someone on my street, that I wanted to approach. Anne-Marie was standing at the corner, looking at her phone. I was drawn to her brightly coloured scarf and jacket. She stepped off the curb just as I approached her, so then I became this fool walking back and forth across the intersection. I told her what I was doing, and asked if she would chat with me, as she walked down the street. I suggested we could sit at a nearby bus-stop to stay out of the drizzle.

“Sure, I’m just heading down here to the mall to grab some wrapping paper,” she said. I asked if I could walk to the mall with her, and Anne-Marie seemed fine with that. I mentioned that her scarf and jacket had caught my attention. She smiled, telling me she’s an artist and likes colour.

 

“I was born in Smithers (British Columbia). My father was a prospector. He worked panning for gold, and in the mines. We moved all over in those parts, and lived all up and down the Skeena River. My mother was an artist and teacher,” she said. Anne-Marie is the third of seven children, all born within a thirteen year period.

“We’ve always loved one another and got along extremely well. We were our own community," she said.

 

"The family moved around to accommodate my father’s prospecting and work in the, mines. With my mother being a teacher, there was always a school nearby. The places we lived in were often rural. That meant the schools were sometimes a single classroom,” said Anne-Marie.

“My parents loved the outdoors. My father would go off on long walks, he never took gun and he’d just go out climbing and walking. My mother was the first white woman to teach in the school on the Fort Babine Reserve,” she said, with well-deserved pride.

“Many of the places we lived in were so small, we went to the school our mother was teaching at. She spent time home-schooling us as well, but we attended school regularly.”

 

“I always knew I wanted to be an artist. From my earliest memories I was drawing and painting. My mother was an artist as well. She was such a wonderful women. We truly cherished her. Her greatest gift was her kindness. My mother came from a well-to-do family in Victoria (Vancouver Island), and was well educated. She left to go to Smithers to teach, and that’s where she met my father,” said Anne-Marie. 

 

“My mother and I were going to be artist’s together. After I graduated from high-school, she went to UBC (University of British Columbia), for summer school. I went along with her, and took some courses there. In the fall I went to UVic (University of Victoria) and started studying to become a teacher. I went there because Victoria is where my mother was from. I was going to become a teacher as tribute to her.”

 

During Anne-Marie's second year in university, her mother had a stroke.

“She was only forty-five. The youngest in the family was only nine years old. When the Doctor came to tell us she had passed away, that night, I decided I was going to become an artist. And be an artist for both of us,” she told me. Anne-Marie left UVic after completing her second year.

“It just wasn’t for me. I didn’t care for the structure of school. I went back to Smithers to be an artist.” 

 

“My husband and I ended up selling all of our belongings and we bought a canoe. We moved up to the Takla River area. We loaded the canoe with as many supplies as we could fit, and went into the forest for the winter. It was isolated, and we painted and enjoyed the quiet of nature. In the spring, we’d put our paintings into the canoe, go into a nearby town, and sell them. We made enough money to buy more supplies and then we went back into the forest,” said Anne-Marie. For the next twenty-three years, Anne-Marie lived in remote locations in Northern BC, the Yukon and the Arctic.

“We lived in places that were only fly-in and fly-out. There some very remote locations,” she said.

 

“It was time. After twenty-three years, it was just time to make change in my life. I needed to start integrating with people again. I wanted to change things. My husband, who I’ve known since childhood, he and I moved to a house-boat at Granville Island (Vancouver). It was definitely difficult adjusting. After so many years of living in such remote places, and deep in nature, it took quite a while to adjust. It was very hard,” she said, shaking her head slowly.

 

In 1986, a friend invited Anne-Marie to take part in a dragon boat race.

“During Expo ’86 (the World’s Fair, held in Vancouver, BC), China had brought four or five traditional Dragon Boats with them, as part of their display. Until that time, there had only ever been men’s dragon boat teams here. My friend and I decided to put together a women’s team. We held a meeting to get things going. I was part of the organization of what would go on to become the Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival." said Anne-Marie. 

 

"We were good too! We qualified for the World Championships. We beat China in a qualifying heat, which completely spooked us, we never expected to beat China, of all teams. We won Silver. And then for the next ten years, we went on to win many, many gold medals,” said Anne-Marie. Early in our chat, she had mentioned that as a child, one of the mining claims the family lived on was called the 'Golden Eagle' site. She told me that there has been a lot of gold in her life.

“It’s the name of my art studio now. I just seem to have always attracted gold,” she said. Now I understood what she meant.

 

The Dragon Boat team would usually go to Singapore, Hong Kong or Macao to acclimate before racing.

"It was much hotter there and we would practise and get used to the heat. One day, I was heading back to the hotel, in Hong Kong. I think I had been out for a jog, because we had to keep very fit. There was this small circular concrete garden that I noticed, and I went to sit in it. There’s so little space given over to nature in Hong Kong. As I sat in this tiny little garden, I noticed a small blue butterfly. It was resting quite close to me and I watched it for what seemed like a long time. It’s funny, in the middle of Hong Kong, in this massive city of concrete, I was transfixed by this blue butterfly. I decided to listen to the voice of the artist inside me, that was going ‘What about me? What about me?’ I gave up racing and went back to painting again. There comes a point in the life of an artist where all you want to do, is be that artist, and paint,” she said.

 

In 1999, Anne-Marie starting painting portraits for the Vancouver Law Society’s publication, 'The Advocate.’

“I would do a cover every two months, so six a year. They were commissions, really. But I never wanted to paint just what I saw of a person. I would call the person who was the subject, and make arrangements to meet, and take some photographs of them. I told each person during that phone call, 'When we meet, I want to know, what makes your soul sing.’ There often ensued the most long, drawn out, awkward silence. But I didn’t want to paint the lawyer or the judge. I wanted to paint the person inside, as they saw themselves,” she said.

“I would ask them where their favourite places are. If they liked surfing, then I’d paint them on a surfboard,” she said, chuckling. 

 

“For the last cover that I was going to do, after twelve years of painting these covers, they asked me to do a self-portrait. There was a presentation, and they surprised me. They had prepared a collection of all the covers I had a painted over the twelve years. The covers were assembled together, just as they would put together the magazine. Except they called it ‘The Artist’ and had my portrait on the cover,” Anne-Marie said, her voice soft, and emotional. (*Fact Check - see links below.)

 

Anne-Marie is retired now, but of course, still painting.

“We have seven sons and twelve grandchildren. Maybe it’s eleven. We just built a beautiful house on the Naramata Bench (BC interior). I made hand-painted tiles and rammed earth walls. And I have the loveliest studio to paint in. The house really is a piece of art in itself,” she said.

“We spend the winters there and then we have a place on Savary Island as well," she said. 

 

"I’ve been so fortunate in my life. I’ve had so many remarkable experiences. We became good friends with the Factor (the person responsible for a Hudson’s Bay trading post) at a reserve in the far north. I’ve walked on land that no white person had ever set foot on. I’ve been making a living as an artist for fifty years now. I have wonderful friendships with people from all over. It’s really been remarkable” she said.

 

“I teach painting as well now. Just like I’d ask the subjects of the portraits I painted, I tell students ‘Don’t just paint a tree as you see it.’ Close your eyes and see if you can connect with that tree, listen to it.  Let it tell you how it see’s itself, and paint that,” she told me.

"What makes your soul sing? That’s the key to life. That’s what it’s all about.”

 

We had taken a seat in the mall as soon as we got inside, and hadn’t moved for about twenty minutes. I remembered that Anne-Marie was going to buy wrapping paper. We finished our chat and she started to walk out of the mall. I asked about the paper.

"Oh, I don’t have time to get it now, I have an appointment to go to. I was just trying to fit in an errand, before the appointment. That's okay, I’ll get it later,” she said. Anne-Marie had spent her errand time talking to me. That made my soul sing. #notastranger

*Fact Check - www.anne-marieharvey.com
**Fact Check - Advocate magazine - http://bit.ly/1CaeRd3

Day 351 - Richard

Day 351 - Richard (2nd person I approached)
December 17, 2014 - As the year draws to a close, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this project. The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard and shared. The friendships that have grown out my seemingly random, chance encounters. I’ve connected not only with people I’ve met in person. I’ve formed some wonderful online friendships, with people who have followed along, offered encouragement and supported this project. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put into words what this experience has meant to me, nor to qualify what it has done for me. 

 

Today’s story has two parts. I saw Don this afternoon. I met him way back in June on Day 165, almost at the halfway point of this project. I see Don in various parts of town, from time to time. Some days we’ll sit and chat, and some days we wave and keep going on our separate ways. This afternoon I was heading to my favourite coffee shop to meet a friend. I saw Don sitting on a bench at the side of the road. I smiled, waved, and said hello. I intended to keep going, so that I wouldn’t keep my friend waiting. Don didn’t wave, but he did say something which I didn’t quite hear. I casually asked him to repeat it, while I was waiting for a traffic light to change, some fifteen feet away from where he was sitting. 

 

He looked distressed. I turned around and walked over toward him. He mumbled something, and again I had to ask him to repeat what he had said.

“My brother died on December first,” he said.

“I just got a phone today and I called my sister. She said she was trying to track me down, but didn’t know how to find me. He died on December the first, and I didn’t even know he was sick.” He was Don’s older brother. His sister lives in Edmonton, where his brother had been. He died from a form of cancer. I sat down next to Don, not caring that the bench was wet. We sat quietly. 

 

“I didn’t even know he was sick. December first," he shook his head slowly.

"I had a dream a few nights ago about my sister. When I woke up and remembered the dream, I felt odd. Like something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was,” he told me, wiping tears from his eyes. I gave him a hug. Don hugged back, tightly. I asked him if he was sleeping on the streets this week, and mentioned a connection I might have to get him some shelter.

“No, I don’t want to go indoors. I’m going to wait and go see my friend who is just over there. At the church up the road,” he said, pointing eastwards. His friend is a pastor in a church that has helped Don out before. She wasn’t going to be available for another thirty minutes. I was glad he had somewhere to go. 

 

Don has no family here that he is in contact with. He reached over and hugged me. I offered to sit with him while he waited until it was time to go see his friend.

“No man, I’ll be okay. It’s just a shitty way to be going into Christmas. And the shock. I just got this phone today. I misdialled a few times too and kept getting the wrong number. Then I got my sister.” His eyes filled with tears. He pulled a tissue out his pocket and wiped them away. We sat quietly, until Don looked at me and said

“Thanks for being here, Colin. I’ll be alright. You go off and see your friend.” I told him he would be in my thoughts, and asked if it would be alright if I wrote about seeing him today. I said I’d ask people to keep him in their thoughts. He responded with another hug. Sometimes there are no words. There’s always a good hug. (*Fact Check - see link below.) 

 

Later in the afternoon, I saw Richard sitting near a coffee shop, in a local mall that I frequent. He was reading a book that appeared to be written with Asian characters. He was using a highlighter to mark certain passages. I approached him and started to tell him what I’m doing. As I spoke, he put down his highlighter, closed the book, and gestured for me to take a seat opposite him. 

 

“I was born in Hong Kong. It was during time when all Chinese families very large. I am one of ten children,” he said, with a big smile.

“It’s not like that nowadays. Maybe one or two childrens only.” He is very soft spoken, and while he had a strong accent and his diction faltered a bit, I knew that language was not a barrier to our conversation. I asked how many years there were between the oldest and the youngest child. He closed his eyes and his lips moved as if he was reciting the names of each child.

“Oh, you make me do math now,” he said, opening his eyes.

“About twenty year.” I said that his mother had spent many years with small children all around.

“I had three mother’s. That's the way it was done in those time. My father marry three women, all together,” said Richard.

“When I growing up, I had to look after the three youngest ones. The other ones not my responsibility.” When I asked why just they three youngest, again he smiled, and told me

“They born to the same mother as me. She was wife number one,” he said while using his finger to make a ‘number one’ sign. He laughed quite loudly when I asked if wife number one was the most important wife.

“That all depend who you ask!”

 

Richard liked geography and physics in school.

“I played all the sports I could as well. Basketball, badminton, soccer. I went to school until I graduated at age nineteen. I like to think I was smart guy. After high-school, no more. I follow my father into his business. He was buying property, the land and building houses and selling them unit by unit. Like apartments,” he said.

“I never used a hammer. I learned the business of building and selling. Once I learned enough, I stop to working for him. I start work for my name. My business,” he said, proudly. Richard tells me he learned English in school.

“They teach in English at school, from an early age. That’s where I learned from.” I mentioned that I thought his English was very good, and that he seemed like he had kept practising. He looked at me with surprise.

“I live in Canada, you have to speak English!”

 

“My brother came to Winnipeg in Canada to go to university. He ask me to come and visit him, and I liked it here. Well, not Winnipeg because it to cold and the snow, but Vancouver is really nice. My brother asked me if I want to move here. So I go back to China and applied. My wife and children moved here to Vancouver. Forty years ago,” he said. Richard has five children.

“I’ve been married fifty something years. I never remember the date. Fifty plus.” He and his wife have five grandchildren. Two of their children still live here and the other three live in various parts of the world.

“We go to see them all. I go back to Hong Kong every year too.” Richard retired when he moved to Vancouver, forty years ago. He tells me, much to my surprise, that he is eighty-three. I asked him what he does with his spare time.

“What you mean? I have five children, I don’t have spare time!”

 

He tells me that the book he is reading was written by his Pastor in Hong Kong.

“It is about spirituality and how to live a good life. I am learning always. I teach Sunday school in my church, but not to children, to adults. I spend time helping at my church, doing the volunteer work. They help me, I help them,” he says.

“My parents were not go to Church when I was a young child. I am a Christian. I used to walk past the church on my way to and from school everyday. Maybe when I was eight years old. One day, they invite us in and give us something to eat and drink. That is when I started church. I go for many years, then stop,” he says.

“About forty-five years ago, I started to wonder questions about life, and what it means and why. I started going to church again. Now I’m still learning.” His parents eventually started to go to church as well, at Richard’s request. 

 

We shook hands and I ask if I may take his picture. He adjusts his hat and smooths down his jacket

“Ok, I’m ready.” I take a picture and show it to him.

“No, that's not a good face. Can you take another one, please?” I took another one, it was exactly the same. I show it to him.

“Yes, that’s good,” he says, and smiles. 

 

I ask what he is doing, sitting there at the coffee shop.

“I’m waiting. My wife is getting her hair fixed,” he says fluttering his hands at the brim of his hat.

“Always waiting.” Two parts, one story. Balance. I am so fortunate. #notastranger

*Fact Check - Day 165 Don -  http://on.fb.me/16uQ8WK

Day 350 - Matthew

Day 350 - Matthew (2nd person I approached)

December 16, 2014 - Yesterday’s chat with Sid had me chilling, literally as we sat on the cold metal of an outdoor bench. Today, I was able to take bit more comfort from my experience of yesterday. 

 

I saw Matthew sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against a tree. He had a medium sized duffle bag, two notebooks and a hat on the ground in front of him. I crouched down to talk to him about my project. I told him that I didn’t have any money to give, and wondered if he’d be willing to chat with me. He said the cash didn’t matter and that he’d be happy to chat. Matthew was sitting on a plastic bag. I went to sit on the cold concrete sidewalk to chat with Matthew, but this time, I sat on my leather gloves. Necessity IS the mother of invention; the ground was wet, and I didn’t want to be.

 

Matthew was born in Pembroke, Ontario. He has two younger half brothers, and a younger half sister. 

“Both of my parents got remarried and had other kids. They were all a part of my life. Over the years, I definitely babysat, and helped look after them. When my parents separated, I stayed with my mother. We moved almost every year,” he said. 

“I went to live with my father when I was six years old. It was difficult for my mother being a single parent. I knew then and I know now, that it was tough for her to make that decision. I cried and didn’t want to go. My father lived in Alberta, and was in the military. It was a completely different environment. He was the stricter of the two,” Matthew said 

“My father had remarried and had two more kids. We moved around a bit, but settled in Calgary, (Alberta),” he said. 

 

“I was very quiet kid. I went to a Roman Catholic high-school, where they tried to indoctrinate me with religion. All that did was send me in the other direction. It pushed me more toward the darkness. I had been a spiritual kind of person, but that shut down for the most part. I had lots of friends and did okay in school, but I was mostly a quiet kid. I had my own ideas about things,” he said. 

“I graduated from high-school. My father helped me to understand the importance of education. I knew that I might not use everything I learned in school, later in life. It was important to my father that I graduate, and through him, it became important to me as well. I worked really hard to make sure I would graduate,” he said.

 

Matthew started working when he was fourteen years old. 

“I had a part-time job in a pizza place. I was building pies, answering the phone, dealing with cash, and serving customers. It was a good way to learn. After graduation, I worked in a few kitchens and got promoted in every one that I worked in. That allowed me to move on to other restaurants,” he said.

 

A woman approached us as we chatted. She had her wallet in her hand. She smiled and apologized for interrupting our conversation. 

“I don’t know if your hat is out there for collecting or if the hat is just there, but I wanted to give you some change,” she said. 

“Is that okay?” Matthew smiled and said thank you. The lady bent down and placed some money in his hat. Matthew said thank you again. 

“Have a nice day,” she said, and walked away. We both smiled at her, and then at each other.

 

“In 2011, the Occupy movement came into being. I read about it in Adbusters Magazine. I was becoming interested in activism. I got involved in the Calgary Occupy camp. I went to the camp practically everyday. I had an apartment, but I slept there at the camp most nights,” he told me. Matthew spent most of his time either working or at the Occupy camp. 

“I met some incredible people, and learned a lot about others, and about myself.” He started to rediscover his own spirituality. 

“There were some amazing people involved in Occupy. The connection, the unity and the spirit of oneness in the people that were there, inspired me. It reignited me,” he said. 

“My boss was starting to get upset with me, though. He felt I was spending too much time with other interests and Occupy.” 

 

The Calgary Occupy camp was in full effect until mid December of 2011. Matthew, along with a few of his friends that he met during the three-month-long protest, planned to join another group. There was a plan to re-create the ‘On to Ottawa Trek’ of the 1930’s. (*Fact Check - see links below.) 

“People from all across Canada were going to join in a walk to Ottawa as a way of protest. The first group left from Victoria (British Columbia, Canada). I sold almost everything I owned, and met up with them in Osoyoos (BC). We would pick up people as we went along, and some would drop out as well. Some preferred to hitch-hike and would meet us in the next town. The idea was to walk there. We spent about three months on the road getting to Ottawa. We’d sleep in tents, or in forests. We’d be given food and meals sometimes, other times we’d panhandle for funds,” he told me. Matthew stayed in Ottawa for about a month. 

 

“My hometown of Pembroke wasn’t that far away, so I went back to see friends and family. I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle. It was good to catch up with some people that I hadn’t seen in almost ten years. When it was time for me to head back to Calgary, my Grandfather bought me a bus ticket. My aunt made me some food for the bus ride, and they came to see me off,” he said. His family all supported what Matthew was doing, for himself. 

“My father understood and was proud of me, for standing up for what I believe in. Even though we have different approaches. It was like the military, all together, but without the violence.”

 

The next winter he spent in Edmonton, with his mother and sister. 

“My mother was dealing with some family difficulties. I worked part-time that winter in a restaurant kitchen. It was good to be able to be there for my mother, to give her support through that time,” Matthew said.

 

As we sat on the sidewalk, at the edge of the busy street, a group of five teenagers, maybe seventeen or there about, were walking toward us. One of them stopped, some twenty feet away. He lifted a camera that was around his neck, and took a picture of Matthew and I sitting on the sidewalk. I watched as he continued walking towards us, and then, as he walked by. He made no eye contact and looked right past Matthew and me. My experience was that somehow, we were worthy of taking a picture, but not worthy of acknowledging.

 

We continued chatting. The following spring, Matthew made his way to Victoria, on Vancouver Island. 

“I reconnected with a few of the people I had met through Occupy. I travelled between Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island (one of the Gulf Islands located between mainland BC and Vancouver Island). I built a shelter in the forest, and I also did some Wwoofing on Salt Spring,” he said. (**Fact Check - see links below). 

"It was easier to sleep in the forest than on the street in Victoria. I got harassed a lot by the police. They were always moving me along. They’d say you can’t sleep here, and then they’d watch were I went to next and follow me, only to move me along from there. Some nights they’d stand nearby just to see if I fell asleep, to then wake me up and tell me I wasn’t allowed to sleep on the street. I was never any trouble and didn’t bother other people,” he said, slightly exasperated.

 

Matthew has been in Vancouver now for two weeks. 

“It’s my first time being in the city. I’ve got some friends here, and I hooked-up with them. I’ve found a place that’s under some shelter to sleep at, it’s protected from the rain. I’m just glad that it’s not minus thirty outside, like it can be in Edmonton,” he said, smiling. We talked about Matthew’s decision to not work. 

“I could get a job anytime I wanted. With ten years working in kitchens, it would be easy. But I don’t want to work for someone else. I don’t want to make someone rich. The life I’m living right now, is the life I choose to live. I don’t need material possessions. It can be rough. Some days, I don’t have a single human being speak to me,” he said. I truly understood that Matthew is living by his own convictions. 

 

I thanked Matthew for sharing his story with me, and took his picture. As I gathered my gloves and my bag, Matthew asked me why I was doing what I’m doing. I told him it was about connection for me. I explained a little bit about my motivation, and my interest in other people’s stories, and how I had learned that everyone wants to be heard. 

“It’s funny,” he said. 

“I was sitting here before you came over to talk, and I was wondering if anyone would speak to me, or even look at me today. Or if I’d be completely ignored all day long. You made my day, thank you for sitting down with me and talking. It’s helped me to be focussed on what it is that I’m doing. Thank you very much, brother.” #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://bit.ly/1AlReNt

**Fact Check - http://www.wwoof.net/

Day 349 - Sid

Day 349 - Sid (2nd person I approached)
December 15, 2014 - It doesn’t matter how warm you’re dressed, sitting on a metal bench when it’s only 7C outside, gets you cold to the very core. At least it wasn’t raining. Sid told me he was waiting for his car, which, to tell the truth, I never did find out what that meant. Whether that meant it was being repaired, or someone had borrowed it, I do not know. Once Sid agreed to chat with me, we just got into it.

 

Sid was born in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

“That’s where my parents are from. We moved to Canada when I was two years old. My father had left the military as an engineer. They saw coming to Canada as an opportunity to create a better life for the family,” he said. Sid is the oldest of four children, all born within four years of each other.

“As the oldest, I didn’t really have any extra responsibility. We were all so close in age. My mother was a full-time housewife, so she was always there,” he told me. 

 

The family moved around Canada. A lot. I don’t take notes when I’m chatting with the people I meet. Once I heard the eighth, ninth and then tenth city that Sid’s family had lived in, I resigned myself to not remembering them all. Suffice to say, he well and truly grew up all across Canada.

“It was hard moving around so much. I was always the new kid, at a new school. It never got any easier. Finally when I was starting high school, my parents realized that I needed to stay in one place for a while. So I did get to do all of my high-school grades in Edmonton. I probably wouldn’t have made it through another move,” said Sid.

 

In high-school, he became involved in sports.

“I volunteered with the local Police Cadets. I was in the Air Cadets as well, and I coached basketball and volleyball with youth teams. I wanted to be a police officer when I was older, but because of my eyesight, I wouldn't have made it through the selection process. They had different requirements back then,” he said. Sid was also involved in theatre and drama throughout high-school as well. Sid told me that he had gone to university right after high-school. We never got into what he studied though, our conversation just moved right along. We chatted about the difference between going to university right after high-school, versus getting some life experience in, and then going back to schooling later. 

 

“My most favourite city that I lived in was right here in Vancouver. I wish we had stayed here, when I was younger. I was getting into acting and finding my way here, It felt good. I got married and my wife was from Winnipeg, so we moved there. I always knew that one day I’d come back,” he said.

“My marriage lasted seven years. We had three kids, so I stayed in Winnipeg. I didn't want to be moving around and uprooting the kids. I wanted them to have stability.” 

 

Sid spent years working in casino’s.

“I started in security. Then I became a (card) dealer. After that I became the pit boss,” he said. The pit boss is one who oversees a number of areas. Staff, customer requests, payouts and administrative paperwork, as well as ensuring the local regulations are adhered to.

“I eventually became casino manager. I did that until it no longer felt safe to be there. I received a few threats,” Sid told me. Some regulations weren’t being adhered to, and it seemed that Sid wasn’t getting the support from his bosses to make the changes necessary.

“I sold everything and left,” he said.

 

“I always knew I would come back to Vancouver. I just didn’t plan on it taking twenty-five years. I wasn’t enjoying the job at the casino anymore. My kids were grown up and had their own life. I was single and wanted to pursue acting. It was like a second chance, a new beginning at life,” he said.

“I gave myself a year. I even managed to move back into the same building I lived in when I was here all those years ago. I’m living in the suite next door.”

 

"I turn fifty on Christmas Day. This is a significant milestone year for me. I’m not quite where I want to be, but I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. This feels like home, and I'm happy. I’m doing what I can to get acting work. I’d love to do theatre but there’s just no money in it, so I’m pursuing film work. I’ve been entirely focused on the acting,” he said. 

 

We chatted for a while about Sid’s three children.

“I have one daughter, one son and a child who is transitioning from male to female. So two daughters and one son,” he said proudly. Sid told me that he has a good relationship with each of his kids.

“I wouldn’t say we noticed a difference in my then son, as a young child. Not at first. As a boy, she was always more sensitive, and got picked on and bullied in school for being sensitive. As a young man, she got married and had a child. Then she started transitioning,” said Sid. 

 

“She made a YouTube channel where she documented her transition. My son found it and at the time, wasn’t so understanding of what this was all about. My son called and told me about the videos, thinking it was some kind of joke. That’s when she told me about being a woman,” said Sid, calmly, with all the love of a father in his voice.

“She lives in a shelter right now. She has become an activist, and lives in Toronto. Which is good. She has a healthy network of supportive and caring people around her.”

 

“This time of year is a bit difficult to find film work. It seems that most productions are shutting down for the holidays. I turn fifty this month and then, come the new year, it’s a new start. Fifty, and pursuing what I want to do, acting. I feel like I’m in the right spot, at the right time. I knew that this might be a year of eating Kraft dinner, and I’ve been willing to do that,” said Sid. 

 

“My children are very supportive of what I’m doing. They love it. They’re proud of me. They know that you have to keep chasing your dreams. I know if I wasn’t pursuing this, it would always be one of those ‘what if I had tried that?’ situations. It’s important to go after your dreams.” #notastranger

Day 348 - Alannah

Day 348 - Alannah (1st person I approached)
December 14, 2014 - Sometimes, the story simply unfolds. All I have to do is find it, and listen. Occasionally, listening means not asking many questions either. I had gone to meet a friend for coffee and afterwards I wandered. I didn’t really think about where I was going, I just headed east. I stepped into an old neighbourhood mall, more or less just to see what was happening there. It had been many years since I had last been inside this mall. And I needed to use the gents room. 

 

As I headed back outside, I spotted Alannah sitting on one of the benches that were in the centre of the straight and narrow walkway, running the length of the mall. Leaning against the bench was a pair of exercise walking poles. I told Alannah about my project and asked if she would talk to me. I showed her the Facebook page, and she agreed. I made sure she’d be okay to let me take her picture as well.

“Oh. I’ll probably break your camera, but sure, ok,” she said. 

 

Alannah was born at Vancouver General Hospital, as she said “during the depression.” She has one younger sister who brought some added responsibility.

“But she never really listened to me anyway,” Alannah said.

“I went to school during the war. I think that the teacher I had was brought out of retirement. Most of the men were away fighting, or farming and doing things for the war effort. This teacher had us learning how to dance a minuet. I mean, really? Why on earth would we need to be learning an eighteenth century dance? We had to form lines and swing these sticks that were shaped like bowling pins. It was so obscure,” she said.

“I never liked school. Except for art. I’ve always liked art.”

 

Despite not liking school, Alannah graduated and went to UBC (University of British Columbia).

“I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do. As a girl, I was to either become a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. It always infuriated me. I wanted to study art. But I went to university and studied education. I had to drop Spanish and took a sewing class. I desperately needed something that I was able to use hand eye coordination. It drove me crazy to not be using my hands. The sewing class at least let me have that,” she said, rubbing her fingers together.

“After a year of university, I left to go to art school. I went to The Vancouver School of Art, which is now Emily Carr (University of Art and Design). It was a very good school, even back then,” she said.

"I used all kinds of mediums. Oil Painting mostly, but I tried everything. I was there for two years, and then I went back to university to finish my Bachelor’s degree. I was able to apply the two years of art school towards my degree. I only had to go to university for another year and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Education,” said Alannah.

 

“I tried my hand at teaching, but I just wasn’t any good at it. I’m an introvert and to be a teacher is like being on stage for six or seven hours a day. It was bloody exhausting. I soon gave that up. I went to work in a library. It was calm and quiet and the people were nice. And the people who came into the library were interesting,” she said.

 

“I had worked at a library during my time in university. It was a way to make some money during the summer to pay for my tuition. That bothered me as well. The boys could do what they wanted, and got jobs that paid much more than the same job being done by a girl. The newspapers had two columns of jobs. Men’s jobs. And women's jobs. The men would work all summer and make enough to support themselves, and pay for their tuition for the school year. I barely made enough to cover my tuition. And tuition was cheap back then. It wasn’t fair at all.” Alannah spent four years working in the library.

 

“By the time my daughter was nine, I was a single parent. That’s when I changed my name. I chose the name Alannah. It was an inexpensive way to exercise a neurosis,” she said as a matter-of-fact, then laughed.

“It’s tough being a single parent. Working to provide for the child. Having kittens so she had someone there for her when she got home and I was still at work. You do whatever you can to make sure they’re ok,” she told me.

“I had gone back to working in the libraries. Not as a librarian, no, but I did spend the rest of my working life in libraries.” 

 

“I still created art, but there were times when it was a choice between doing a painting, or buying shoes for my daughter. She needed the shoes. I took up fibre art. Weaving and the like. It was easier too. When you’re doing a painting, you have to think about every single square inch of the canvas. It can be intense. With fibre art, you have an overall view to what you're going to create, and then you just start. It takes it’s own form. It was good to have that outlet, creatively and as a way to release stress and tension,” she said.

“As soon as I retired, I started painting again and haven’t stopped. Trouble now is, what do I do with all of the pairings I have? My daughter thinks I should show them on Facebook. I don’t know, That’s just another, uh, well it’s another gadget I’d have to learn. I don’t even have a cell phone. I’ve thought about it. But I don’t even call that many people. I have a cell phone. It’s a book with paper I carry with me everywhere and it has all my numbers and notes and a calendar and everything I need in it. I make a new one every year, and I have a holder for it so the pages don’t get creased.”

 

“I talk to my daughter regularly. She’s wonderful. And I have a grandson. He’s fourteen and has Aspergers syndrome. He loves to play the saxophone and he’s pretty good at it too,” she says. It is clear her daughter and grandson mean the world to her. Her eyes widen, she sits right up, and there is a lilt in her voice when she’s talking about them.

“They don’t live in town, but you know, long distance calling, fortunately, isn’t as expensive as it once was.” I ask if she’s considered using an online camera so she can see her daughter or grandson while chatting with them.

“No, I haven’t used those things,” she smiles at me.

“I like to use my imagination. And I don’t want to have them see me in my pyjamas either. I don’t want to get dressed up to make phone call!” She laughs when telling me this.

 

We talked about dying with dignity. Alannah had recently listened to a man on the radio, who said once he reached seventy-five, he was no longer going to do anything that prolonged his life.

“Does that mean no more fun? No more cups of tea or food? No dancing? Look at (Henri) Matisse. He produced some amazing work in the last five years of his life, aged eighty. Those wonderful cut outs. He was bed-ridden. Imagine if he had lived by that theory,” said Alannah.

“I’ve talked about this with my daughter. I said as long as I’m not bored I’m doing ok. She asked how she’d know that I wasn't bored if I wasn’t able to communicate. We laughed.”

 

As we continued chatting, Alannah mentions a table she just finished building.

“It’s very crude, and simple. But there’s so much space to use on it. The trouble with a drop-leaf table it that you can’t store anything underneath it. The leaf and the legs underneath get in the way. So I built a table where the leaf goes up the way. As I said it’s very crude, but it works beautifully,” said Alannah.

“I’ve never liked anyone telling me I couldn’t have something. So if I can't afford it, I’ll make it myself,” she said with self-assured pride. 

 

I asked Alannah what she was in the mall for.

“I had to buy new batteries for the remote control thing,” this time making the universal channel-changing gesture with her thumb.

“And I sat down to rearrange my purse. I bought this book.” She pulls out a large book called ‘Gardens by Design,’ and then wrestles it back into her purse.

“I was tying to figure out how I’d get that home without carrying it, and using my poles. I bought it at a sale down the way there, at the book store. I’m a lazy gardener. My garden is what’s called a Xerispace garden. I don’t want a garden that I've to spend all my time watering. I looked at a forest and thought ‘they can grow without someone standing there with a hose,’ so I use low-water need plants. I spend a lot of time weeding, that’s for sure. But very little time watering. Grass and lawns are fine for children playing, but otherwise they are so b-o-r-ing,” she said, drawing out the sound of the word ‘boring.’

 

I thanked Alannah for sharing her wonderful story with me, and asked if I could take her photograph.

“Oh alright, if you must,” she said. I waited a minute until there was no one getting in the way in the background.

“Can’t you just photoshop them out,” she asked. Without waiting for a reply, she says

“I guess that's  just a lot of bothersome work, isn’t it?” I showed Alannah the photo I took. “Oh goodness, can you take another one? I look like I’m in pain.” Listening is enchanting. #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://bit.ly/1wvsEdq

Day 347 - Amy

Day 347 - Amy (6th person I approached)
December 13, 2014 - I felt like I was on a mission today. I went out with the intention of going off the beaten track a bit, and finding today’s story. That was the sole purpose of my walk. I saw the first person I approached from across the street, and for whatever reason, I hoped he’d talk to me. He told me politely that he wasn’t into chatting for this project. But we did chat a bit. His name was Bruce and he was in his sixties. He had a great big bushy beard. He looked like a modern day sailor. Bruce told me that he appreciated me asking his permission to chat. He said that he often has people just taking his picture without asking. Which naturally, would be annoying. But he did cut quite the figure.

 

Another gent told me he wasn’t feeling well, and needed to get going home. He thanked me for asking him though. Then he called after me, by name, and asked if he could call me later. Told me he had some great stories to share with me about all the government conspiracies happening in the downtown core. I said perhaps we’d chat another day.

 

When I first saw Amy, I thought she was a lost tourist. We were both waiting at a traffic light to cross the street. She as looking at her phone and looking around, as if looking for a street sign, or perhaps to get some sense of direction. I asked if she needed some help with directions, and she smiled and told me that she lived a block away and was fine. 

 

We started talking as we crossed the street. I mentioned that I try to always offer help to people that appear lost, or look like they are tourists. She told me she didn’t think enough people actually spoke to each other on the street and that it seemed to be some weird social awkwardness. I laughed, and explained my project to her. 

 

Amy was heading off to meet a friend, who was going to be late, so she was going to grab a coffee while she waited. I asked if I could walk and talk with her, and take her picture, to use for my project. She was happy to chat.

 

I told Amy that I thought today was going to be day where I met an older gentleman with a beard. Four of the five people I had approached before her, fit that description. She asked if I wanted to continue on to find that person. Again, I laughed and said I was more than happy to chat with her. We got to the coffee shop and Amy realized that she didn’t have her wallet with her. I had no cash on me either, so it meant no morning coffee for Amy. She was still into chatting. We stood outside the coffee shop and waited for her friend.

 

“I was born in Edmonton, but grew up in Langley. We moved there when I was about three years old, because of my father being relocated for his work,” she said. Amy grew up with her grandparents owning a farm nearby.

“We were constantly surrounded by cows and sheep, and chickens, dogs and cats. We’d pick our own berries, and fruit in my grandparents orchard. It was great to have such wide open space as a child,” she said. Amy has one brother, with just thirteen months between them.

 

“In high school, there was a film production class that we were able to take. It had all the equipment and was set up in a studio. We learned about how to make TV shows, production, and editing. We’d write scripts and produced a weekly show. It was all provided by Shaw (a national cable network provider),” said Amy.

“I got involved because it was there, it wasn’t something I had thought about doing. But it did influence my post-secondary education.” Amy graduated as her class Valedictorian.

“There were two of us, so I was co-Valedictorian. The other student was a really great musician. We wrote our speech together, and delivered it together as well. It was wonderful to share that with him,” she said. 

 

As if to calm me, Amy explained that she was listening to me, but was looking around to see if her friend that she was meeting, was approaching. I hadn't even noticed that she might seem distracted.

“I just want to make sure you don't think I’m not paying attention,” she said. Moments later her friend showed up. I had a nano-second of internal panic, and quickly switched into ‘go with it' mode. 

It seemed Amy wasn’t intending to sit and have coffee with her friend, she just had to give him some keys. As they were talking, Amy looked at me and said “I feel like maybe you met me because you were supposed to meet my friend here?” He was about my age, but didn’t have a beard. I smiled and said that I was enjoying my conversation with her, and I was fine to wait if she still wanted to continue chatting. 

 

When her friend left, she explained that she thought he would be an interesting person for The Stranger Project.

"I also really believe in serendipity. If he was the person you were meant to talk to, I didn’t want to get in the way,” she said. He did sound interesting and perhaps one day I’ll run into him again. I was meant to be chatting with Amy.

 

“I went to UBC (University of British Columbia) and did a double major in Film Production and Theatre. It was very intense and a lot of work!” said Amy. It was her first time moving away from home as well.

“That wasn’t really a problem for me. I’ve been travelling all of my life. We have relatives that live in Europe. I took my first trip alone when I was fourteen. I spent lots of my summers travelling. I’d go to Finland, Sweden and Germany and stay with family," she said.

"I couldn’t live on campus though. The thought of living with another person that I didn’t know, just two feet away from me didn’t appeal. I mean, I’m a night person and what if they’re not? I’m definitely not a morning person. What if they are? It was just easier for me to not live on campus,” she said, resolutely. 

 

Amy took time off school for an exchange program through UBC.

“I went to Australia and did a semester in a school there. I liked it there so much I stayed for a while longer and just hung out. When I came home, I went back to UBC and completed my degree,” she told me.

 

“After I graduated, I stayed in Vancouver and worked for the next five years or so. I got work on independent films and projects, doing all kinds of things. I wrote and produced some of my own material as well. I was fortunate to be working as soon as I finished school. I travelled for work a fair bit as well, working on projects in Korea and Haiti,” she said. 

 

“I moved to LA (Los Angles) so I could go to the AFI (American Film Institute) where I did my Master’s degree in Cinematography. I lived there for about six years. I still have a place down there and travel between here (Vancouver) and LA. I worked hard to get to where I am now, and I don’t regret it for a moment. It’s all been worth it. There was a time when I said yes to everything. I was working fourteen hour days for very little money. Once you’ve paid your transport costs and rent, it was like working for free. Then I reached a point where I just had to start saying no to things. It scared me, but that’s when it actually changed for me. Saying no to some things, made room for other things to happen, and it all worked out,” she said. 

 

One of the projects Amy worked on recently was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

“That was exciting. TIFF is one of the more important film festivals,” said Amy, with a heap of modesty. She produced and was Director of Cinematography for the feature called “Songs She Wrote About People She Knows.” (*Fact Check - see link below.)

 

We had walked back to near Amy’s home, and were going in our different directions. I asked if I could take Amy’s picture.

“I don’t even have any makeup on. We’re having about sixty people over this afternoon for a gigantic Christmas get together. I have to go home and get ready. Today’s a huge cleaning day.” 

 

Amy is currently producing and Director of Photography on a new film called 'Wisteria.'

“I did the years of hard living and having no money. It’s all so worth it,” she said. It didn’t go unnoticed by me that this was the second person in as many days, that was working in a creative field that they were passionate about, successfully.

“It’s been wonderful talking with you,” Amy said. Serendipity indeed. #notastranger

*Fact Check - http://songsshewrote.com

Day 346 - Dave

Day 346 - Dave (4th person I approached)
December 12, 2014 - My secret weapon of hitting up busy lunch spots has, on occasion, worked against me. Everyone tells me they are too busy eating before heading back to work. One gent told me he only had ten minutes to finish his lunch. I suggested that we could chat in about five minutes. He replied,

“And that doesn’t include having a smoke.” Still, everyone who declined chatting, said my project sounded interesting and wished me good luck.

 

I caught Dave literally finishing his lunch. I said ‘hello’ just as he put the last piece of his sandwich into his mouth. He explained he was grabbing a bite to eat before heading to a meeting, and said he’d be happy to chat as long as it didn't take too long. Today was his last day working before breaking for his Christmas holidays. We joked about how this can seem like the longest day of the week, the one before vacation.

 

Dave was born in South Porcupine, on the eastern shore of Porcupine Lake. It was originally founded as an independent townsite for mining prospectors. It's now a suburb of Timmins, in Ontario. He has one younger sister.

“My father was a mining engineer. We moved around to several smaller mining towns for his work,” Dave told me. As a child, Dave spent time in various provinces, the Northwest Territories, and the high arctic (Nunavut). The family also spent two years living in Greenland. 

 

“We were home schooled when we were in Greenland,” he told me.

“I was eight years old when we lived there. Greenland at the time was under the rule of Denmark. With living in a fly in and fly out location, we made a number of trips to Copenhagen.” The rest of his schooling, both elementary and high-school, was spent between Trail and Kimberley, in BC (British Columbia, Canada).

“I did well in school, but I never really liked it. I participated in the sports activities that were offered. Once you were pigeon-holed into a particular group or type, that was it. You could never break out of it,” he said.

 

“I graduated and then went straight to UBC (University of British Columbia). I wanted to be an Engineer, or so I thought. I headed to school with that intention, going directly into the Engineering faculty,” he said. Dave told me it was a culture shock.

“It was my first time living away from home. It’s not like today, back then, there was no method of introduction or orientation. My son is in post-secondary education right now, and he has had a much better experience than I had when I started at university. The school itself was larger than my home town. It was overwhelming.” Dave left UBC after his first year. 

 

“I left Engineering and quit school. I decided it just wasn’t for me. I headed to Australia, and went travelling for a while.” One summer, Dave had a job in a mining project located at the magnetic north pole, in the Canadian Arctic.

“My father was the mine boss, and I was underground, working in the mine. It was an incredibly well-paying job. I made a lot of money that summer. I made enough money to be able to live in Vancouver for a year,” he said.

“I took some courses at Capilano (then still a college). Mostly business and business administration courses." 

 

"I went to BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology) and took an Occupational Health course. I’ve been working in that field pretty much for the rest of my working life,” he said. Dave works for a large regional health authority, ensuring delivery of services to thousands of regional employees. His job involves planning and preparedness.

“In Occupational Health, you need to be ready at all times. You can’t be reactionary, it requires a proactive approach,” he said.

 

Dave and his wife have been married for twenty-four years.

“My wife is a nurse. That’s purely by coincidence. We have one son, who as I said, is in his post-secondary education right now,” Dave told me. I asked what his son was pursuing in school. Dave told me he's studying film and television production at BCIT.

“He’s looking at getting into a behind the camera position. I think he’ll be going into post-production, editing film.” 

 

I had mentioned to Dave about my presentation in October at TEDxRenfrewCollingwood.

“My son was there. He was one of the camera people, filming,” Dave said. I asked him what his son thought of TEDx.

“He said it was okay. But there was no one famous there.” #notastranger