At 66 years old, Les has already defied the odds. On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, those who make it to the age of 40 are considered seniors and eligible for discount cards issued from Carnegie Centre. Yet, as Les told us late this afternoon, he just doesn’t feel old. With sparkling eyes and a youthful spirit, he feels alive. Les has survived the dark days on East Hastings and has lived to tell about it. He has learned some hard lessons in life, and paid the price, serving time behind bars in Maple Ridge just a few years ago for drug trafficking. He doesn’t make excuses – he admits he was on the wrong path, and prison was what he needed to make the choice to never go back to old habits. He lives without regret, and wouldn’t change his past, as it has shaped who he is today. With a toothless smile and laugh lines in all the right places, Les demonstrates an admirable sense of resilience. Living in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood has not dampened his spirit.
In month four of Beyond HELLO, Les joined my principal Sean Nosek and I for a late lunch today at the Lost and Found Café. In exchange for a warm meal, Les agreed to let us share his story. Les reflected on his life with appreciation for the good times, even finding the positive lessons that emerged from his time behind bars.
Les grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, attending local Vancouver schools – Strathcona, Britannia and Van Tech. He was never really that good at school, and at the age of 18 he had only achieved a grade 8 education. With a need for adventure and curious spirit, Les joined the army. In his four years of service he traveled the world, serving our country. His favourite adventures include the warm Mediterranean water in Cyprus and training days jumping from planes at the Army Airborne School in Alberta.
After four years of service, Les returned to BC and took a job in Prince George. Initially he worked in the kitchen for Northwood Pulp and shortly after took a physical job in the mill. He hated the manual labour of the mill and decided to explore his love of the kitchen. Les reminisced about days when the ‘Keg & Cleaver’ and ‘Hindquarter’ were the top restaurants in town. He worked his way up from kitchen help to 2nd cook and eventually head cook. The hours were long, the lifestyle was draining and the split shifts consumed all of his time. Facing exhaustion, he decided to make a change and venture to Toronto to live near his brother. It was in Toronto that he found the balance he was looking for. He fell in love and married his wife, and secured a job as a baker for Loblaws; a job he kept for over two decades. Unlike most I have talked to, Les preferred to skim over the details of the triggers and turning points that sent him back to the DTES. Yet, unlike most, who live with the pain, Les appeared to be free from his past. He let us know his marriage fell apart, his brother died, his parents both died and he turned to drug trafficking as his means for survival. The streets of Vancouver became his home. Unlike most whose eyes search for approval or understanding when telling of their past, Les is different. He is matter of fact about the wrong turns in his life, and seems to have forgiven himself for the pain and mistakes in his life. Perhaps this is why Les has survived to 66 in Canada’s roughest neighbourhood. His lightness is perhaps his best survival skill.
Today Les lives month to month relying on his old age security cheque. He receives $1400 / month to cover his rent, food and expenses. He lives in modest, low income housing yet he takes pride in his home, where he has his own kitchen, his own television and room for his roommate, Smoky the cat.
Through our conversation, we took some time to tell Les a little about our lives. When we mentioned we were high school administrators, he smiled back at us, saying “that’s ok”, with an understanding that many who have failed at school do not have the fondest memories of the principal’s office. Les was surprised that we had driven from Maple Ridge to take someone for lunch. I let him know a little about Beyond HELLO, sharing my goal of taking one person for lunch each month. I explained my own view, that the neighborhood is plagued by unnecessary judgment and that each person on the streets has a story worth hearing. He smiled in agreement.
When I asked Les what he would want others to know, he paused momentarily, and then explained how the neighbourhood works. Everyone knows everyone. He may not know all the names, but he knows the faces. It is a community, yet everyone living on the streets has their own means for survival. In the words of Les, “everybody has their own thing – their own way to survive.” I suspect Les’s positive disposition may just be his strongest armor. His smile spreads ear to ear as he lets us know that even the police walking the streets of Hastings like him now. They know he is drug free and only sells cigarettes for extra income.
Knowing that Les knows the faces of the DTES, I decided to ask him if he knew some of the people who have shared their stories with me in the past. We spoke of Cynthia, Garth, and Cindy. While he didn’t know their names, he recognized Cynthia and Garth enough for us to have casual confirmation about their whereabouts. Next, I asked him if he knew Sandra, otherwise known as ‘Little Momma’. I described her in detail, as the first woman I had met on the DTES back in 2009. I spoke of her slender build, her mobility struggles and her kind heart. Within seconds, Les knew exactly who I was talking about and with excitement, as if he had big news to share, he blurted out rather loudly – “HEY – did you know she found her daughter!” With equal excitement, and perhaps less humility I blurted back “I found her daughter!” Sandra, and her daughter Samantha from Alberta, are the first two people we reconnected through Project HELLO in 2009. Our students were so moved by this mother daughter connection and the human need for family to find each other that they fundraised and paid for Samantha to fly to Vancouver for a reunion. We drove Sandra to the airport to greet her daughter and arranged a full weekend including hotel accommodations, hair cuts, meals, etc. The experience will always be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It was the springboard for Project HELLO and the inspiration for my students and I to turn our one-day fieldtrip into a lifelong project. To have someone living on the Downtown Eastside quote this story back to me almost four years later, someone whom had no idea that I had anything to do with the reunion in the first place, was magical. In a simple second something changed. Les knew he had made our day, just as much as we had made his. We ended with handshakes, some photos and a commitment to stay in touch by saying hi next time we are in his neighbourhood. After paying the bill we ventured back out to Hastings in hopes of touching base with Sandra. With a genuine eagerness to help, Les called out behind us – “I hope you find her”. The sound of his voice said more than his words. In the time it took to eat a meal, Les had another significant moment in a life worth living. Another reason to smile, and feel very alive.