This is the second interview I did along my neighbourhood “gauntlet”. Danny was the first.
“Is McDonald’s ok for you?” Ken asks.
“Sure,” I say. Secretly quite happy I have an excuse to indulge in their french fries.
We park Jersey Cow outside with Ken’s backpack. Jersey Cow is a black and white Pitt Bull/Staffordshire cross. She looks just like a dairy cow, probably more Holstein though. She is docile, but protective. She loves Ken and cinnamon melts. We order her some. Ken gets the usual, a double cheeseburger, the cashier clearly knows him. I get a chocolate milk shake to go with my fries. Yummy.
Ken is dressed in a black jacket appliqued with skulls and Canadian flags, cargo pants and high lace up black leather boots. He has tattoos on his arms and on his shaved head. We sit outside to keep Jersey company, well actually, to keep her from mooching off the other diners.
Ken is 37 years old. Born in Ontario, he was kicked out by his parents at 14 when he came home with a Mohawk after an all night party. After that he lived sometimes with extended family, sometimes on the street. He got heavily into drinking and drugging. He came to Vancouver in 1992 to stop drinking. He is mostly clean now, although admits to slipping sometimes.
“It’s harder when you live on the downtown eastside,” he said. “It’s crazy you know, people go through detoxes and recovery programs and then they get released back onto the downtown eastside.”
He lives in one of the infamous SRO (single room occupancy) hotels. He has two rooms, a couple of hot plates and a fridge. He makes himself a good breakfast every morning. Jersey gets dry dog food every day and the wet stuff every few days. Then he heads up to Kits where he sits in front of the drug store with Jersey, an upturned cap in front of him. He says he makes between $100 and $200 a day.
“That’s more than I make,” I say, shocked. He is also on welfare, so his housing is covered plus $500 for living expenses.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to work. He has worked for several different companies. He took a 16 week construction training course back when the government offered that kind of thing to welfare recipients.
“I was doing great. Getting $15 bucks an hour after taxes. I bought myself a new TV, and this is going to sound childish, but a bunk bed. I loved it. Jersey and I had the top bunk. My desk was underneath. But then I got laid off.”
He got depressed and hasn’t been able to get another job. Plus he’s pissed off at the government and doesn’t want to give them his money anymore.
“No one really wants to pay you under the table,” he said.
I tell him I’ve seen him sweeping outside of the drugstore and doing the windows.
“Yeah, I got that job because I was always picking up garbage outside the butcher shop. The new manager isn’t so keen. But I like this neighbourhood,” he says. “I respect it, people respect me.”
While we’re talking, he leaps up to open the door of the restaurant for a mother struggling with a stroller.
“I come here to hang out, to read.” He’s always got his nose in a book. Inside the restaurant, he’d grabbed the customer copy of the daily paper. “I like to read the newspaper too, even though it makes me mad,” he says.
I ask him where he shops. “Safeway,” he says.
“Not Capers?” I joke.
“No I hate organic food,” he says. Like Danny, he does not use food banks or any of the meal services either.
“Single moms need it more than I do,” he says. He tells me he battles depression.
“I don’t have any friends,” he says.
He had a girlfriend for 10 years though. Tabitha. Jersey Cow was her dog. Ken had its mate, which he recently had to put down. And Tabitha? He points across the street to a young woman I pass every day. Her face full of scabs. Twitching. Volatile. Unpredictable.
“We had a baby together,” he said.
“Where’s the baby now?” I ask.
“Adopted,” he says. Then looks across at Tabitha. “She doesn’t eat. Only does drugs. Crack mostly. She’s beyond hope,” he says.
And because I want him not to lose hope, I ask about his drawing. He says he likes to draw skulls and dogs.
“From what I’ve seen just walking by, you have talent,” I tell him.
“I have thought about going into graphic design,” he says, “but I have no computer skills.”
“Well, you’re a smart guy, you just have to take a course,” I say.
“Yeah, but I’ve never really seen myself as a guy who sits at a desk job all day.”
I ask if he will bring me some of his drawings so I can see them. I tell him I’m in advertising sort of and sometimes need artists. I think I do this maybe more for me than for him. Because I am addicted to happy endings. As they turn away, Jersey is reluctant to leave me. I like to think we made a connection, but realize it’s probably just for the cinnamon melt potential.