Brandon Manitoba, mid September, around one in the morning. If you are coming out of the bars then the night is illuminated with prospects of getting lucky or dropping into one of a few 24 hour truck stops for a late night meal or coffee before going home. For the homeless traveler it is a dark lonely night. For the thousands of Canada’s homeless the Trans Canada Highway is a corridor that is paved with despair, loneliness and faint hope. It is a dark, for boding place! Not for the weak hearted.
This is where my story begins yet the actual journey began nine years earlier, in Toronto. It was November 22, 1971. I was just turning 15 and was fed up with life as I knew it. I had dreams. My life was now totally under my command, I was the author of my destiny. Too bad my pen was leaking. Sure we are the authors of our lives but it is prudent of any aspiring author to check their supplies before putting the proverbial pen to paper.
Nine years later all my dreams were crushed with the reality that only the homeless vagrant can understand. Now before you get the idea that this will be a tale of woe, let me say this, all of us, no matter what battles we face, deep down, we have the strength to overcome.
This is the true and amazing story of my battle to find my way back from the abyss of the streets. It’s a a true accounting of my triumph over tragedy life. Although there are times and events that are dark and ugly, I feel that all aspects of this journey through hell must be shared. Only by honestly sharing the good as well as the bad can I offer you, the reader, the a true insight of what thousands nnnnof Canadians face daily. Not all will find their way. Many will die on the streets from both natural and unnatural causes. This is our sad reality.
I am writing this as a celebration of the human spirit. I am also exposing my life in the hopes that we as a nation will find a way to end or at least drastically reduce the number of Canadians forced to sleep Me Today on
heating grates, in shelters, on friends couches, in cars, bus shelters etc. Maybe by reading my first hand accounting, someone will step up and pick up the ball that so many of our politicians have dropped. You see, I have a dream! I am now 58 years old and have an amazing life. No, I’m not rich or famous, just blessed with a family, home, car and motorcycle. Doesn’t sound like much, as we tend to take these for granted, but to me these are the things I dreamed of while experiencing the blackest night, so long ago in Manitoba.
Standing on the soft shoulder of the Trans Canada, just past the western most city limit, I looked around and realized one thing, and one thing only, it was going to be a long, long night!
What the hell, I told myself, been here before. May have been a different town, but still the same old same old. Few cars or semis will pass my way this late at night. Maybe I’ll get picked up or maybe not. Either way there are no options. The local hostel is full and my pockets are as empty as my stomach. Really empty. Yup, going to be a long night.
Was thinking that if I did get a ride, maybe my benefactor would splurge some and cop me a meal, or some cash to help me on my way. All depends on lady luck and a good line or two on my part. Same old, same old. At least I only had to deal with the dark for about five freaking hours. Always felt better when morning broke.
There truly is not a hell of a lot to do on the side of any road. Lucky for me I had my life line to the world. My connection to humanity. My best friend! A red, nine volt, transistor radio.
You know the one. About the size of a bale of Daily Mail tobacco, with two dials an the side. One for the on/off,and volume and one to try and tune in an AM radio station. With luck you can get some weak signal while standing in the middle if nowhere. The comfort of hearing a human voice that ain’t telling you to “fuck off” or “get a job” is something to cherish. My radio was my prize possession as well as my saving grace.
Sadly, this night was different. Sure I found a station but no comfort. This evening was full of demons. I could not find my comfort zone. Oh I tried like a son of a bitch, using all of my best “who gives a shit” lines, yet none rang true this night. Loneliness, hopelessness, and self pity had me by the balls.
Let me attempt to paint you a picture of the prairie while standing alone on the Trans Canada on a chilly September morning. Firstly there is the many shades of gray. No, not the sexually charged book. They main focus point is the black stretch of asphalt that flows before you until it disappears into the cold abyss of an unforgiving night horizon. On the prairies it appears that the horizon is a million miles away. An illusion caused by the expanse of the flat terrain.
At times you can see headlights far off in the distance. Minute in size, like far away stars delivering the faint hope of deliverance from the hell you are enduring. Faint, but its better than nothing. Looking across the road is of no comfort. In the distance, across the fields you can see dark shapes, trees, maybe a house or barn, but to you they are just reminders that they belong to a world that you are not welcome in. You do not belong! Seeing lights in a house simply reminds you that you have no home. No warm bed to retire to. No place to find sanctuary.
So now you turn around and gaze down the highway to see how far the next town is. As you look up at the pitch black sky you do not see any reflection of town lights. You know that warm orangy glow reflecting from town lights. That beacon of salvation. Well, tonight it ain’t there. No sign of salvation in sight. This sends a wave of reality through your soul. You are alone! Turning back and scanning the area you have left you can see the glow of Brandon yet it offers no comfort. Sure the lights in the distance may be beautiful to other travellers but not you. There is nothing there for a broke tramp. You are alone!
Looking to your left there is a ditch just a few feet away from the gravel shoulder. At least you have some cover to sleep in. Town cops and the RCMP don’t like hitch hikers and if they see you, life becomes complicated. Not all cops where asses back in the day but then sensibility training was not on a cops agenda! Ditches played a big part in avoiding a shit kicking from the “serve and protect” society.
So as I was saying, it is a dark and lonely place. Can you visualize it? Can you feel it? Like I said before, if you haven’t lived it it is hard to feel it. Its hard to emphasize with the marginalized when there is no understanding of the reality of those who fall through the cracks. Politicians going on “sleep outs” enjoying the photo ops, knowing that in a few hours they will enjoy hot food, showers and all the comforts of home, does nothing!
Look at these pictures. It’s a camp out. Not really a true experience is it?
Hiring consultants to study, over and over again, is a waste of capital resources that could best be used to feed and house the homeless. Every year, the same old, same old.
After so many years the picture haunts me to the core.
Shades of black to the eye and shades of black to the spirit. It’s a dark place. Even now, as I type this on my tablet, I am looking out my car window. We are in a blackout and the shades of black and gray are smacking me in the face. A cold reminder of a past life and a warm embrace of how far I have come.
Chapter 2. Vancouver 1971
I remember my first night of sleeping on the streets. I had just spent five days in a Ford van with four hippies. Yes, I know, some of you may remember the hippy generation. For the younger readers I will simply send you to Uncle Google. Simple to say hippies were the renegades of times past. Some will say better days and others will say, not so much. For me it was just a daze. Free pot does lots to the inexperienced mind of the young wayfarer.
Well so by now you may have noticed I have reached Vancouver. The trip was quite amazing, to say the least. Only six days prior I was sitting on the edge of my bed in suburban Toronto. I had just finished writing my “See Y”all Later” letter. It was short and sweet. OK, maybe not that sweet, but brief it was.
I knew I was at my whit’s end and had to “discover myself” as the cool hippy types kept professing on TV and such. Now I had heard that the modern day saviour of all things liberal, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, had opened up the country for adventurous folks, such as yours truly. Who was I to question the likes of this fairly new Prime Minister? Mom thought he was cool, so he couldn’t be wrong. Go west young man and I will pay your way.
Youth hostels were popping up across the country like popcorn. Just about every city or town slightly worth checking out had a hostel. Some cost fifty cents to a dollar and others were free. If you lacked even the minimal financial whereabouts, the good old welfare system covered you. Simply fill in a pink form and off you go to free grub, showers and late night jam sessions by the fire. Well in the big cities there was no fire. So As it turned out my rides were few. One from Toronto Ontario to Barrie Ontario and one from Barrie to Vancouver British Columbia.
Night one on the streets of Gastown was interesting. Rainy, damp and chilly. No these are not the names of hippies I met, just the conditions laid out by good old Mother Nature. No doesn’t she have a bad sense of ha-ha?
Well off I trudged, through the rain comforted by a fresh “Sportsman ” cigarette. As I turned the corner I noticed cobblestone. It was kind of like a traffic circle minus the traffic. I did see lots of Far out looking shops and each one seemed to have its own hippy sitting by the doorway. Many were making all kinds of cool trinkets and the like. Everything from roach clips to bracelets made from old forks.
The smell of incense seemed to cover all other smells. I could see what appeared to be ocean behind some seedy looking buildings. No dead fish smell or seagull crap could beat the power of good incense. This place called Gastown was a wonder to behold. People moving about, checking out this and that. Long haired freaky people, as the song says, need not apply. They freaking owned the place!
Well as I said it was pissing out. I’m not talking rain here, I am talking about the kind of rain that might convince someone to build another ark. I got up enough gumption to ask this cool looking guy where “Smileys” was. Smileys was a hostel my brother John had told me about, and a dry bed and free grub was just the ticket to paradise.
This guy was sitting on an old wooden chair, beside a table with some strange looking beaded stuff on it. As I looked at whatever these weird things were I couldn’t help noticing that this guy had this heavy duty looking cane. Well more like a walking stick but at the time “walking stick” was not in my limited vocabulary, so cane it is. I went to pick up one of the beaded widgets when a voice carved through the air. “Hey man, you want that?” This guy had never looked my way! All the time I was browsing the table he had been making more of the trinkets and was constantly looking to his work. Now I had been checking his action out. This guy was twisting cotter pins into swirls and had beads place here and there. he would twist three pins and about twelve beads into a contraption that appeared like it was a pinching tool.
Well after I got my nerves under control I squeaked out a feeble, “Smileys Place?” This guy, long hair down past his shoulder and a full beard to boot, replied, yeah, what about it/?
Now let me describe this dude a bit more for y’all. I guessed he was about five feet, seven inches in height. Remember that he was sitting down, slightly hunched as he worked his magic with his needle nose pliers. His hair was raven black, wavy and probably longer than Lady Godiva’s. OK, slight exaggeration, but just slight. His round head appeared gigantic. He had the kind of dark eyes that appear capable of burning through brick. Very piercing to say the least. His pocked complexion and bulbous nasal extremity were softened by a smile that overpowered every other feature of a face that should by all means be scary to gaze upon.
His attire was reminiscent of just what you would expect. Jeans, tie-dye pull over blouse type shirt, bandana headband and sandals. No socks!
He began to tell me how far this hostel was and as he did my heart sank quicker than a lead balloon. He, in his wisdom tuned into my mindset and in a softer voice inquired as to why his directions” were such a bummer man?” I told him I was strapped and couldn’t afford the bus fair to get there. He simply smiled and told me to watch what he was doing. I obeyed as I was curious.
This cool fellow taught me how to twist up roach-clips in about two hours. After I perfected the concept he offered me a job. Didn’t pay a lot but it covered my nights stay at the “Butler Hotel” and left me a small amount of folding money. Things were looking up.
Tomorrow is another day in this Wonderland called Vancouver, or Gastown to be specific.
Day One. Learning the Ropes.
The morning brought out a smell I have, for some ungodly reason, grown to love. The ocean. A cool, fresh salty smell. Not strong enough to be annoying, but just there to greet me in the morning . Seagulls swooping to and fro appeared to be welcoming me into a new day. As I sparked up a “Sportsman” I gingerly made my way into China Town.
So now my first morning in Vancouver was about to begin. It’ was about 7:30 and daylight revealed sights and sounds that were new to me. The smells of the waterfront and the sounds of seagulls reminded me that I had started a new chapter in my life. I realized at this point that all I had grown to know was about two thousand miles behind me. Mom and Dad, siblings and Nanny were not there. I was a free bird.
A slight tinge of home sickness tapped me on the shoulder as if to say, “well what’s next bucko?”.
All these memories came back to me as I stood on the shoulder of highway 1 , outside of Brandon. Something brought me back to reality, but for a brief moment my mind pulled a blank.
Just then a beer bottle exploded just in front of me. This, as a pickup truck flew by with its passenger laughing, as he lobbed another empty in my direction.
Shit I wasn’t in China Town anymore! This was Manitoba during the “we hate hippies era”. Now by this time hippies were not really in existence as this was 1980. As it was back then, the hicks on the prairies still had major issues with hitch hikers and they felt that it was their civic duty to be assclowns.
This was when I came to figure out that using the cover of the ditch was my best option. The concept of getting stomped by any Howdy Doody wannabe was not on my bucket list. Hell I didn’t even have a bucket list,but the ditch was my final answer.
I crawled into the ditch and opened up my green canvas, wood framed, old trappers backpack.
This was a thing of beauty. Heavy as all get out but reliable. The frame was constructed of wooden slats and the bag was heavy army type,olive green canvas.
I pulled out my harvest blanket and covered up, using the pack for a pillow. Now mid September in Brandon can be a tad on the chilly side. As I drifted off to sleep my mind took me back to China Town.
China Town,in any city,is like a different world situated in the midst of the world you know. The sights, sounds, and atmosphere, to a kid fresh from home, can be overpowering. The dirt, open air fruit and vegetable stands, restaurants, and the general bustle are exciting to any explorer.
Now I was looking for a place to eat cheaply. The White Lunch Cafe, at least I think that’s what it was called, seemed just the place. It was what nowadays would be called a dive. Seriously, I’m sure many a poor soul ended up with the trots or something worse, as the reward for patronizing this dump!
Once inside I looked around and decided the counter would do. This place was rough to say the least. As you entered the first thing to hit you was the smell of burning grease, stale tobacco, and coffee. The walls were off white. Not by design, but from years of grease and tobacco smoke. Tables lined the right side and the counter welcomed you on the left. The place was fairly busy. Workers getting coffee to go, some eating greasy eggs and bacon at the tables and counter. Thick white cups, with green pinstripes around the brim, lined the counter, in front of tired looking men who sipped vigorously. Every one smoked.
Once I claimed my seat a gruffy looking, middle aged man asked me what I wanted. His Chinese accent was strong enough to confuse this kid. I think I replied, “huh?”. Hop Sing then appeared to get pissed as he barked, “what you want ?” Feeling a bit exposed I ordered. This ambassador of good will then demanded, “you pay now!” Guess he didn’t trust that I had the cash to pay. In all fairness dine and dashes were common place and he most likely had been the recipient of such in the past.
Well I paid and got my grub. I would have called it food but that may be considered an embellished fact. Two eggs over hard, three shriveled rashers of mystery meat, soggy spuds, toast, and the freaking worst coffee ever served in the free world. Not bad for around a buck twenty five.
As I was sitting at the counter I saw something truly inspirational. This long haired fellow paid for his meal with one of three white slips of paper. Very weird!
This guy saw me looking and inquired as to what my problem was. I told him I was interested in the slips of paper he had. To my surprise he told me they were meal tickets. I asked him, ” what the hell is a meal ticket?” As it turned out there was a mission up off of Cambie Street that gave out voucher daily to those in need. You got, if my memory serves me right, three vouchers, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each had an amount value. Well let me tell you this, I was stoked!
Eventually I reached my destination, and to my amazement and glee, scored the prize meal tickets. Chalk one up for the new kid in town!
A plan came into my devious mind. I had noticed that my teacher of the freebie vouchers had paid for a pack of “Export A” smokes, with a voucher! I was down to about five butts and that wouldn’t suffice. It was a gamble but what the hell. My Uncle Doug always told me that nothing tried, nothing gains, or something like that
I reached Hop Sings dive, slid inside, and reclaimed my counter stool. I, for some unknown reason, ordered another breakfast, and paid in advance with my new found breakfast voucher. So far so good.
Eventually, after playing out my strategy in my mind, I blurted out my simple request. “Smokes?”. My remaining vouchers were on the counter and Hop Sing grabbed the higher priced one faster than a hooker latching onto a twenty spot. Next thing I knew a large pack of “Black Cat” cigarettes magically appeared on the counter where my voucher had been.
Holy shit, this is great was all I could think. I did however, as has become a lifelong habit, press my luck. I asked if I could exchange the Black Cats for Sportsman’s. “You go now!”. Oh well, the day was still young and I had a new world to explore, so off I went.
Well I found Pidgeon Park. Alfred Hitchcock used this spot as a casting for “The Birds”.
Loves Skillet for food and fun. Granville Street. The place to go. Neon, drugs, cheap rooms and cops galore. A night time fantasy.
Day one on the streets and I had learned how to scam free food and smokes, make roach clips, and that Hop Sing was not someone to piss off. Tomorrow I would learn that yelling “Muka Hiya Ding Ding, or something sounding like that, will get you chased out of the White Lunch Cafe by a crazy cook wielding a very large meat cleaver. Yup I had a lot to learn, but that’s another story!
Busted in Chilliwack.
Now I knew that cops can be a serious problem. John, my brother, had warned me of this. He had had a few run ins with them in Canada and south of the border. He had actually got jailed and deported from Portland Oregon.
Just prior to me flying that coop he had spun yarns about his travels. These yarns included some valuable advice. One piece of needed knowledge was to avoid cops at all costs. Apparently Calgary and Vancouver cops loved tuning up hippies and hitch hikers. Something I would learn soon enough!
Trans Canada. Chilliwack British Columbia
Bored after three weeks in Vancouver I got the bug. It was time to explore the areas I had only seen through a hash induced, looking out the Ford van window stupor. After three weeks scamming food vouchers, dealing weed, sleeping in a 24 hour bowling alley, panhandling and living the good life, it was time to move out.
Let me explain something right off the bat. Its a hell of a long walk, on a Sunday morning, to the Trans Canada highway. Low on cash, public transit was out of the question. I had enough green for a pouch of Daily Mail tobacco and a pack of Vogue rolling papers. Priorities first eh?
The hike to the necessary ramp was brutal. Only having a general idea of where I needed to go, yet no idea of just how freaking far I would have to walk made the trip a real bummer. Thank God it was a dry, sunny,and warm December morning. Really nice, spring like compared to a Toronto winter. I even saw flowers, and no, I wasn’t stoned!
Well eventually I found my departure point, rolled a smoke, and began sticking my thumb out. Traffic was sparse at best. It took about two hours of thumbing and slinging swearwords at the cars passing by.
At Last a sedan hit the breaks and offered me a ride to Chilliwack British Columbia. I took it! I didn’t bother to ask where it was because it sounded Indian and I thought I would get to see real Canadian Indians .
Well I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer back then. Just adventurous by nature . What healthy fifteen year old boy isn’t. I was the modern day Tom freaking Sawyer.
Now as we headed eastbound, out of Vancouver, the scenery was green and flat. We passed farms and fields with some cattle and horses thrown in, just to create an awesome vista. My driver was a middle aged guy, casually dressed in Kakis and a beige spring jacket. He wasn’t all that talkative. He did offer me a can of Pepsi, to which I gladly accepted.
We drove on in relative silence, smoking and listening to country music on eight track player. It was nice to be moving.
Chilliwack appeared up ahead. Well a sign claiming that this Indian settlement was just ahead. We drove into town and I remember thinking that this didn’t look like an Indian settlement. No teepees, no people wearing feathers or moccasins. Yeah, back then I was as green as green can get. Fifteen and freaking clueless.
Overlooking a jewel of a town. Chilliwack.
After my ride drove off I decided to find the local youth hostel. I knew, from talking to John, that there should be one close by. By asking a few passers by I learned that there sure enough was one right in town.
Feeling wise and confident I ambled on over to the Chilkiwack hostel and went inside. Should have just kept going. This was about to take a serious dump on my plans to see the world. Now remember I was not exactly the brightest bulb on the tree, so laugh if you want because I’m about to show you a prime example of stupidity.
I climbed the three or four steps that lead into a brown building and proceeded to ask for a bed. The good looking blonde lovechild sweetly informed me that everyone must sign up through the local RCMP. Luck would have it that they were only a two minute walk away. I thanked the sexy blonde and headed out. I thought that if I played my cards right I could see more if her later. I had dreams you know. Most virgins do, if you know what I mean?
I reached the cop shop and boldly went where I had never gone before. This was a start to a brand new trend. I approached the desk and proceeded to dig my own grave. The copper behind the desk asked me for ID and I broke out in a guilty as shit sweat. ” Man I lost my wallet in Van dude.”.
See where this is going eh? Too bad I didn’t cause I was heading into a major cluster fuck. The cop knew it but I was oblivious!
I did my best to convince Mr. Officer that I was 26 and simply having the need of a bed for the night. He obliged by giving me my own cell . Well thanks a lot.
After about two hours the cell door opened and Dudley Doright beckoned me to come hither. He again asked me my age and explained that if I said 26 then the cell was to be my new digs. I lost that battle and copped out. I told him my tender age of 15, and supplied my folks phone number. I was busted. I only lasted just over three weeks.
well I was given a room overnight at the Royal Hotel, some really good hot food, breakfast in the morning, followed by a ride back to Vancouver. Not to Gastown, but to the airport. My escort was a hot, young Chinese lady in a micro mini. Not bad!
The flight took four hours. Then shit hit the fan ! I was at the Toronto airport and Mom and Dad were walking towards me.