This is a really long post I put up in 2004 on vortext.net
Who knows maybe when I get my act in gear I’ll get that domain again and ressurect Vortext in name as well as philosophy.
For some reason I don’t think I’ll ever forget the second half of 2000. I had gone to Ottawa from Vancouver, where I’d been living for a few years after my entire family moved there independently of each other. The weather was just plain messed up. Summer conditions lasted easily until Halloween, when the temperature dipped no more than two or three degrees Celsius below freezing. It didn’t get really cold until Christmas Eve, when the temperature dropped to a bone chilling –25 degrees Celsius. I remember the weather so clearly because I was living with no fixed address and by no fixed address I mean I was homeless.
In late July I had tried to move back there (it’s my hometown) only to discover a serious lack of any affordable housing. There would be one or two affordable apartments listed a month and those were rented by 9:15 am the day the newspaper showed new listings. So I was forced to live in the homeless shelters, or, better yet sleep outside. So, I slept outside most of the time, choosing the blissful solitude of sleeping under the stars, or an overpass when it was raining. To me it was much more attractive than the shelters, so I accepted it.
The first week there was hell. I couldn’t find any of my old friends to ask if I could stay on any of their couches, so, after a week of sleeping in parks I swallowed my pride and went to the “Sally Anne”. The Sally Anne or “Sal” is what people call the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter downtown. It is in an old and dipladated building that I’m pretty sure would be condemned if anyone but the homeless lived there. After talking to the person behind the counter and finding out that yes I could sleep in the shelter; but no I couldn’t have a room, I’d have to sleep in the chapel on the floor with about 60 other people. The men in the shelter ran the gamut from people who were simply experiencing hard times, one guy I talked to had been kicked out of his house by his wife over an affair, to the totally insane career vagrant sort. Not everyone there was unemployed either, a few of the people I talked to had jobs and had just moved to Ottawa for their careers and looked at the Sal as a good place to stay while they looked for a place to live. There really was a severe housing shortage that year and everybody was hurting. After sleeping on the chapel floor for four days I was given a bed, which I tried to sleep in for one night. I was in a room with five other homeless men. Two of which talked to themselves almost all night saying really crazy things. The freaky shit coming out of their mouths made it really hard for me to sleep. The next morning, with about two hours of sleep in me, I talked to a guy I’d met a couple of days before. He told me the story of how he was raped in the bathroom by a scary homeless guy. That really put some fear into me. I’m a pretty small guy who doesn’t fight, so if I were attacked I wouldn’t have been able to defend myself. Suffice it to say, after that I used the shelter only as a last resort.
While I was sleeping in the chapel I met a young kid with Cerebral Palsy named “Twitch” (not his real name) who hung out with me for a few days. Twitch was one of the unfortunate people I’d met who’d fallen completely out of society. He’d been living in the Sal for over a year and was completely incapable of finding an apartment. I tried to get him to look for an apartment for himself but he would always find an excuse for not looking. Instead, him and I went to a bunch of CD shops and listened to music while I wasn’t looking for a place to live. One day I took him to my favorite outdoor art gallery, which was simply known as the Wall. It never disappointed.
The Wall is across the street from Ottawa Technical High School and is the first wall the city allowed graffiti on. Before it was allowed people painted the wall in clandestine midnight “piece” sessions and the city would usually paint over them within a couple of weeks. Every time the wall was covered, the artists would paint new pieces. Eventually the art on the wall got really good. I believe that graffiti art is the most relevant form of modern art today and the graffiti artists that were putting pieces up were amazing. A friend of mine whose graffiti name is “Clever” did a bunch of pieces there, which was how I found out about it. One time, when I lived in Ottawa eight years before, the city painted over the graffiti and over 80% of the neighborhood’s residents complained about the city painting over the magnificent art. Afterwards the city never painted over it again. Since then the Wall has become in my opinion the best gallery space for new art in the city.
While I was on the street I met several people; a few were in pot dealer gangs, most notably this one girl who apparently led one of the three gangs that did business downtown. She was about 5’7 with shoulder length dyed red hair, and bright blue eyes. She was absolutely stunning and she seemed to like me, often giving me free dime bags of pot. I think she meant for me to sell the dime bags, but I won’t sell drugs. If marijuana were ever legalized I’d consider it, although I don’t think that will ever happen. For the life of me I can’t remember her street name (maybe it was the pot, I’ll call her “Caitlyn”), I can only remember that her psychotic boyfriend’s name on the street was “L.A.”.
One afternoon I was walking with Twitch down Rideau St. and we bumped into Caitlyn. Twitch started talking to her and then L.A. came out of nowhere and started beating on him screaming, “You’re never to talk to her again freak!” over and over.
I grabbed L.A. and freaked on him saying, “What the fuck is wrong with you can’t you see he’s got palsy! He’s a cripple; beating on cripples isn’t fucking cool!”
Then L.A. looked at me and said “He isn’t to talk to her! But you’re OK…”
It’s funny because Twitch really had no chance of wooing Caitlyn and he was just talking to her. On the other hand I really did have a chance and hit on her just about every time we talked. I was the real threat and L.A. was cool with me. I was still a little afraid of L.A. though, he was really aggro.
I also met a guy who called himself “Frenchie” who made a point of introducing himself to me one day under the pedestrian overpass at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive. I was begging for change (ugh, I hated doing that) and he started talking to me and gave me a bit of weed which I rolled into a skinny joint. When I offered Frenchie a toke he politely refused saying that it was too early in the morning, it must have been about 10 am. Frenchie was about 25, 5’6, with brown hair, and about four days beard growth. After I’d smoked the joint Frenchie proceeded to tell me how to beg for money telling me that my little “spare change” thing wouldn’t get me any cash, he sat around with me for the rest of the day panhandling. While we sat there he told me a lot of things about living on the street, like not to use my real name, and where to get free food.
My street name was “Vynce”, which was a graffiti name given to me by Clever in 1993. The reason Frenchie called me Vynce was because I was signing my artwork that way then and he’d looked through my sketchbook. For the next several months no one used my real name and I was simply known as Vynce.
The next couple of weeks involved a lot of pan handling in different spots in downtown Ottawa. One of my favorite spots sit and wait for the day to end was across from the New RO television station on the stairs of a condemned building. It was shelter when it rained and all of the little gang kids would smoke pot with me as well as bum me countless cigarettes. There was a community of people on the street in downtown Ottawa, and they had accepted me as one of their own.
One young French girl who couldn’t have been more than 13 years old would often sit with me and talk to me in French while getting me really high on her gangs weed. One day she gave me a black bandana and told me to wear it in broken English. Without speaking the same language I had become a part of her gang and she was OK with me talking to the other gangs too. There were three gangs selling pot in downtown, one was the Black Hoodies (L.A.s gang), another, the Black Bandits (the French girls gang) and there was a third gang that was run by a 14 year old Egyptian kid (he was a funny guy, I liked him). Now I know gangs are supposed to be scary, but these gangs were just a bunch of kids selling pot. They didn’t have guns and pretty much only beat each other up. L.A. even liked to brag about being in a “fight club”. The bottom line was pretty much that no one was going to get killed by these kids and I was in the unique position of being friends with major players from all three gangs. To them I was a lovable pothead having some hard times that nobody would mess with. I really was just a lovable little pothead.
In the beginning of October I noticed something odd. I’m a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails and think Michael Trent Reznor is a genius, so imagine my surprise when I saw a sign at the Saw Gallery which read “Interpretive Dance Workshop with Michael Reznor”. It didn’t have a date listed so I had no idea when the secret show would happen (and it was a NIN secret show…). Because I had no way of attending the show I put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to torture myself about not having money.
It was around this time that my friend Frenchie introduced me to this young girl named May. May lived in a group home and was dating one of the buskers downtown. She was kind of hyper, and always talked about really inane things; but not a bad person at all. After that I was either hanging out with Frenchie or May pretty much all of the time.
One day after some successful stemming, Frenchie and I went to an art store to spend our ill-gotten money (soliciting strangers for money/change is illegal in Ottawa). I needed a new sketchbook and wanted to get some colour medium because I had little practice with colour; most of my drawings were pencil or ink. I settled on some chalk pastels while Frenchie went on and on about how talented an artist I was. I spent most of the day drawing while Frenchie stemmed. Because he liked my art he was nice enough to share the take with me. After a couple of days practice, I started drawing with chalk on cement under the pedestrian overpass where I met Frenchie. The first piece I did was a silly little comic about aliens looking for weed. The aliens land their spaceship on top of a taco hut and ask the Cashier to take them to his dealer and then they pick up some girls and impregnate them with alien babies using their alien joints. I watched a few people have a chuckle over that one. The next day I reproduced the picture of Beth Gibbons on the back of Portishead’s album “Dummy” and while drawing it people gave me a total of 57 dollars. From that day on I signed all of my street pieces with “Vynce, I need a job”. The money was a godsend; I bought my first pack of smokes in weeks, some more art supplies, and a couple of pitchers of beer for Frenchie and I at the Eager Beaver. The Eager Beaver is a small little bar in the Byward Market and the only time I’ve ever gone there was with Frenchie. It’s alright, just not my kind of bar.
The next day I reproduced the cover of Limp Bizkits album “Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water”, I’m not a fan. I just liked the album art. The reproduction was photo realistic. I’m really proud of that piece. Unfortunately I only made 23 dollars drawing it. The next day Frenchie and I hiked over to Bank Street where I reproduced some of the conceptual art for the Spider-Man movie, which was still in production, and got some pizza out of it. Since I didn’t really make any money off of that piece I couldn’t get any more art supplies for a few days and only had a bit of chalk left. So I went back to drawing in my sketchbook while either May or Frenchie were hanging out with me.
The months on the street were taking their toll on me. I’d fallen completely out of society and was all the more stranger for it. I started writing all the things I really wanted in my sketchbook. One day I wrote that all I really wanted was a good meal, a shower (I hadn’t had one in over two months), a clean change of clothes, a joint to myself and a gun with a single bullet. I wasn’t exactly suicidal; I just wanted to have the option of an exit to see if I was really that desperate. Three days after writing that I was begging in front of a McDonalds on Bank St. and a guy pulled up in a car and told me to get in. At this point I really didn’t care about anything so I got in. The guy was tall, about 6’2, and he drove me around the city for 20 minutes until we got to his apartment. He brought me into his apartment and proceeded to give me some homemade beer, a good meal, and a joint to myself. Him and his friend talked to me for about an hour and a half when he asked me if I wanted to have a shower, I jumped at the chance and went right to the bathroom. I locked the door and got undressed and then noticed that there was a standard issue R.C.M.P. revolver sitting on the toilet tank with a single bullet in it. I looked down the revolving chamber to see that. I took a shower and when I got out didn’t mention the gun. The guy, who never said his name, then gave me a blanket and some new clothes. While he and his friend were watching the hockey game I drew a chalk pastel picture on his closet door, it was something of a collage from a memory of a sketchbook from the early 90’s, which I signed with the obligatory Vynce. When I was done he drove me downtown to where I slept and told me to stay safe. You don’t know how liberating not blowing my head off was. I’d had the chance and realized that I was actually a lot happier than I’d been in a while, but it was still one of the freakiest experiences I’ve ever had.
For the next week I pretty much just tried to get enough money to buy some chalk and do more drawings. Stealing from an art store was out of the question. I wasn’t a thief and I know that art supply stores made little money. Halloween was coming up and I really wanted to do a picture for All Hallow’s Eve. Luckily one day an army corporal (Frenchie knew what the stripes on his shoulder meant) gave me twenty bucks, which I spent on much coveted art supplies. I’d finally be able to get some drawing done again. First I went in front of the coolest bar in Canada, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and reproduced an image of Invader Zim, letting people know it was on in the States.
Later on that evening, at around 9:00pm, I chose a piece of black asphalt near the main entrance to the Byward Market and did a white chalk sketch of my next piece. I’d decided to do an original illustration inspired by Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books, and while I was drawing it I met a pleasant young girl named Amanda who went to my old High School, Canterbury. She borrowed some of my chalks and we drew for a couple of hours. While we were drawing she mentioned that her dad was a general in the military, which I found a little bit freaky. After the drawing session, she took me for a cup of coffee at a café called Coffee Revolution, which is right beside the fountain at the main entrance to the Market. I don’t know what it was but the coffee there was simply delicious! Maybe it was because my situation had forced me to smoke less and my sense of taste was coming back, or maybe it was the pretty young girl smiling at me from across the table. Whatever it was, the coffee was delectable. I hung out with Amanda until after 1:00am. All we did was talk, which was nice. Talking to only street people got a little bit old and strange after a while. Being able to have a conversation with someone who hadn’t fallen out of society was nice. After I walked her to her bus stop I realized that she’d forgotten her hoodie and decided to hold on to it for her. If I were about 8 years younger, I would have made a move on her. She was really pretty. Afterwards I trekked to Parliament Hill and set my blanket up on the warm grate I slept under.
I’d been sleeping on Parliament Hill for about a week having discovered a warm vent next to the M.P.s parking lot which I could tie a blanket to and create a warm tent. Sleeping on cement wasn’t really all that comfortable, but at least it was warm. The reason I mention this is that because of it I’d come under the attention of the R.C.M.P. They would let me sleep there but only after I answered a lot of personal questions and let them take a picture of me. I’m curious to see what’s written in my file…
The next day I went back to the market and drew my colour Necroscope image. I think it turned out really well and kind of hope that someone out there took a picture of it. While I was drawing it I talked to some of the Merchants who had carts set up on either side of me. To my right was a nice Russian woman selling expensive camel hair sweaters who I spoke about art with for a while. She was really nice and bought me a sandwich from the Budapest Deli (there’s one in every town…). I told her that the reason I liked chalk on cement was that the more people who notice and like it, the longer the piece will last, and alternately the less they liked it, the more they’d walk on it, making it fade faster. I really did like how temporary those pieces were. The Necroscope image was the last piece I drew on the street. I wrote a little thing about Halloween and kids with candy around the piece. Afterwards I went to Chapters and sat and read for the rest of the day, and found out they were showing “the Bride of Frankenstein” on the second floor at 8: pm, which I stayed for. Terry Pratchett’s “The Last Continent” filled the day up nicely. Outside the temperature had finally dipped below zero, if only by a couple of degrees. On Halloween eve while I was watching the Bride of Frankenstein in Chapters about an inch of snow fell to the ground. It was during the movie that I met another interesting girl who never told me her name, but she took me for coffee and poutine at Nickel’s while we talked about books and religion. I wish I could remember the exact conversation but I only remember the gist and that it was interesting. At about 2:00am I wandered back to the Hill setup and passed out.
It was November 1st, there was snow on the ground, and I was still homeless.
I started spending more and more time hanging out across from the New RO (it’s owned by the CHUM/City group) on the stairs and less and less time stemming. One night I was smoking a joint with Frenchie when I noticed that he didn’t really inhale any of the smoke, it looked like he inhaled; but, he just blew the smoke out his nose without it ever entering his lungs. It was at that moment that I realized that my street friend was most likely an undercover cop. I let him know by mentioning that he couldn’t possibly be getting stoned the way he smoked pot. His response was to give me what I can only describe as a very sad look, and he immediately changed the subject. After that we went and listened to a very talented busker for a while and he took off to where ever it is he went at night.
I only saw him once over the next three weeks, so I ended up hanging out with May most of the time. One night in mid-November when it was about – 15 degrees (it was the coldest day yet) I bumped into May and a couple of people she knew, a guy named Andre and a girl named Miriam. They offered to share their motel room with me. Nothing really happened beyond me having a hot shower for the first time in a while. We left at about 7:30 am and went downtown where Andre and I played PlayStation in the basement of the Bay for the morning.
The one time I saw Frenchie during those three weeks he told me that he’d been looking at a place at the YMCA. I’d actually seen him walking down there when I was looking at a room in a rooming house that was rented to someone else who could pay more rent. The YMCA is right beside the Police Station and is a woman’s shelter; they don’t allow men to stay there at all. I knew this because years before a female friend of mine lived there for a while, and I’d recently asked if they had any rooms available. I didn’t mention to Frenchie that I knew he was lying. After thinking about it, even his French accent was fake.
After that I avoided people for a while, and chose to hang out in different places mostly in the Glebe. I needed some space while I dealt with the shock of Frenchie being a cop. I liked Frenchie; he was a good guy who’d helped me out a lot, and I still think of him as a good friend. I really didn’t want to be responsible for him getting killed or anything so I kept his secret.
It was just after that when I met this really arrogant guy who claimed to be the greatest writer in the world. I recommended a book to him and he just went off about how great a writer he was and how because of it he didn’t read. I took me a couple of minutes but I eventually recognized him. It was none other than my favorite superhero comic book writer Todd McFarlane. He did tell me his name was Todd. The worst part is, all I really did was tell him increasingly twisted things that don’t bear repeating. My time outside was making me more than a little strange. I think that the reason he was there was that he was originally from Ottawa and visiting family. It turned out that as a way of getting inspiration for Spawn he liked to talk to homeless people, Spawn is after all a homeless superhero. The experience was strangely surreal; but, when I thought I was completely over the bend a friend told me that he saw me talking to him, I was relieved that I hadn’t gone totally mad.
One night after wandering around to all of my old haunts all day I decided to sleep under the overpass beside the Saw Gallery. There was another bum (at that point I’d accepted my bumminess) there who told me his name was David and he shared a bottle of surprisingly good wine with me. I was shivering so he gave me his overcoat, which smelled like expensive cologne (yeah, I think that’s a bit weird too). Once we finished the bottle I fell asleep under a sheet, which I’d wrapped tightly around myself hoping to get as much warmth as possible. I woke to the sound of someone coming up the embankment and sat bolt upright. One thing about sleeping on the street is that your senses are hyper aware of any perceived danger. Only to see a guy with long black hair and a Frank Zappa moustache and soul patch walking right towards me. He looked really freaked out and came over and shook my hand and then ran back across the street to a parked tour bus.
While the Zappa guy was crossing the street towards the bus David said, “You think too much man.”
To which I answered “I know, I can’t help it.”
It took a couple of minutes for what happened to register; but eventually I realized that I’d just freaked out Trent Reznor enough that after he shook my hand he ran away and I mean ran. Maybe he thought I was a corpse or something. I was pretty dazed for the rest of the day. I’d shaken the hand of my favorite rock star all because I’d gotten drunk under a bridge with a bum… Go figure… I still laugh about that.
A few days later, near the end of November, I was sitting under the pedestrian overpass drawing. I had made a sign asking for a small pittance as reward for my silent sketching, which attracted the attention of a friendly man who asked me what I wanted the money for. I told him I wanted to get myself some new pencils, some coffee and hopefully a pack of smokes. He said that he’d buy them for me if I showed him my sketchbook over the cup of coffee. That kind of made the hair on my neck stand up so I asked him if he was gay and told him that I don’t go there. He told me that no he wasn’t gay and that he was actually just trying to do the good Christian thing and help out as best he could. So, I agreed.
He asked me where I’d like to go for coffee, and I told him that I’d like to go to Coffee Revolution. On the way to the Café he picked up a couple of Bic mechanicals and started telling me about Jesus. Something everyone who has ever known me knows is, I hate Jesus. I’ve read the New Testament front to back and walked away thinking it was the most contradictory thing I’ve ever read. Give me the Tanakh any day. God isn’t nice and loving, he’s vengeful and jealous and liked to torture his followers like Job. Well, anyway, we found a table on the patio (it was freaky warm out) and he told me about Jesus for two hours, saying at one point that God had made him schizophrenic to test him. I listened intently and made mental notes. When he was done I looked him in the eyes and countered everything he had said to me about Jesus by pointing out contradictions in his logic. I also mentioned a passage in the book of Mathew, which read something like, “thou shalt not preach to the heathens and the hypocrites on the street, thou shalt pray quietly to thine own self in thy own home.” I also asked him what he thought about the Crusades, he thought they were justified, and then I asked him about the Witch burnings, he actually believed those women deserved the pyre… Then I lost it… I just started spewing out everything I thought was wrong with Christianity and its history of genocide (there were countless pagan cultures that were obliterated by Christians loving their neighbors…). When I was done he got up and tried to perform an exorcism on me, believing me to be demonically possessed. My retort was to tell him that his ritual was useless and that now a days a pre-frontal lobotomy did the trick and that he look into it. For this, I am definitely going to Hell. Even though my argument against Christ is entirely based on the hypocrisy of his followers. I also found it really funny.
About a week later I was under the overpass again and this nice African man sat down beside me and asked if I could get him some weed, he had a thick accent, and said he was a diplomat from a small African country. I didn’t really believe him about the diplomatic thing, but I still got him four grams of Marijuana that he smoked with me. While he was smoking he told me a bunch of things about international politics, and pointed out the room that Gorbachev had stayed in on his visits to Ottawa at the Westin Hotel across from where we were sitting. At the end of our conversation I really believed that he was in fact a diplomat from a small African country. Above that he was a genuinely kind man. He gave me half a pack of John Player Special cigarettes and went back to his car.
Nothing much happened after that until one night in mid-December when May found me on the stairs and started asking me all these really leading questions about crime (which I didn’t do beyond panning and smoking pot). After grilling me for a while she asked if she could see where I slept, so I told her it was on Parliament Hill and we started walking. As we were walking in front of the Chateau Laurier she mentioned that her back was really itchy and asked me to scratch it. I said sure and started scratching. She asked me to scratch lower, and then lower again, then to the left where my finger hit a microphone. She was wearing a wire; I traced the line off the mic down her back and felt the medical tape holding it in place. I felt lower still until I found the transmitter tucked into the back of her pants. I didn’t say anything about it and continued with some small talk until we got to my vent. We both fell asleep under the vent and in the morning she was gone. In this essay I’ve mentioned several reasons for the surveillance, knowing several gang members for one, and sleeping beside the Members of Parliament parking lot on the Hill for another.
I was freaking out in ways I’d only experienced once before so I called my family and pleaded for money to go back to Vancouver. My Mom said she’d try. I spent the next couple of weeks waiting for my brother to deposit enough money into my account so that I could get the Hell away from all the freakiness. After a couple of days waiting my mother deposited a hundred dollars into my account so I could get some food and the like. Once I had a bit of money I escaped the cold by hanging out at The Royal Oak in the Glebe drinking coffee, until on December 27th 2000, my brother came through with some money and I left Ottawa. I didn’t want to leave; I loved it there. But I realized that if I stayed I’d be up to my elbows in freakiness and possibly homeless forever, or worse yet, in jail. I was more than a little crazy from the experience already and completely paranoid over the surveillance. I’d been under surveillance before and it cracked me then too. The other experience actually involved N.A.T.O. and I refuse to say anything else about it. I like being free.
So, that’s the last time I was in Ottawa… I edited out some things, didn’t mention some people, and changed real names; but, I swear that this is nothing but the truth.
Kevin M (2004)
Addendum: Over the last few years I’ve become more tolerant of Christians, I still hate their conversion attempts, but if a little belief gets them through the day, then all the more power to them.
I should really add in that around that time when he was on an official visit I flipped off then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. You know Pope Benedict… I had some punk rock swagger and he blessed me in the sign of a swastika so I mega flipped him off, danced a jig, and then mock hung myself. On a potentially unrelated topic I haven’t had a girlfriend since. I’m probably the only perons in the world that ever flipped that guy off and I’d do it a dozen more times if I could. He’s an old Nazi. The Panzer Pope.