Light: Inside Beyond Hello

Any other day and I probably would have walked right past Les.  But today was not any other day; today I was taking part in “Beyond Hello”  - a project started by my friend and colleague, Kristi Blakeway.   Its premise is actually pretty simple.  If you bother to look for it, there is a treasure inside most anyone.   Most of us don’t look. Sure, we exchange pleasantries, but how often do we really get beneath the surface? How often do we experience the joy of a human encounter so pure and real and deep that we cannot help but be moved?  Today, we would be attempting to go “beyond hello” with the hope of accessing that unique humanness that lies underneath.  The logistics of Beyond Hello are rather simple.  Strike up a conversation with a stranger, and offer to buy him or her lunch. The catch?  In exchange for lunch, the stranger must agree to share his or her story. That is it.

OK.  That’s not it. You see, Kristi is a person determined to find light where there is darkness.  Although theoretically the Beyond Hello Project could happen anywhere, we would go specifically to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, perhaps Canada’s most desolate and destitute community.  In this part of the world, which is really not more than a few city blocks, the homeless and the addicted eke out an existence.  It is a ragged place that seems to collect the dejected and the downtrodden.  Alleyways teem with filth, and a sour, pungent smell wafts occasionally through the air. You don’t have to look far to spot a prostitute or an addict.  Doorways of broken down buildings show remnants of a night’s sleep.

We find Les standing on a corner, looking disheveled, trying to hawk packs of smokes at a discounted price.  His long hair is thick and wild. He looks like he could be Chinese, but it is hard to be sure.  He is unshaven, and his whiskers, though long, are rather sparse.  He appears to be a man in his sixties, and looks like he could use a shower and meal.  We decide to make our move and chat with him briefly.  We want to make sure he is not dangerous or high, though perhaps he is and we just don’t know.  After a brief and friendly exchange of words, Kristi makes the pitch, and tells him we will buy him lunch in exchange for his story. He agrees with enthusiasm.  I think to myself, “this is actually going to happen.”

Minutes later we are seated at small cafĂ© on East Hastings.  Les orders a sandwich and soup and coffee.  We are pleased when the restaurant wants to buy Les’s coffee. It feels like a good sign.  Before long, as we hoped, a story unfolds.  Les’s eyes light up as he recounts the warm Mediterranean waters off Cypress where he was stationed with the army back in the day.  He makes it sound like a paradise and I cannot help but note the stark contrast to where he is now.  Turns out, Les was Canadian Airborne, and used to jump out of airplanes for his country– “five times in one day, once,” he told us.   He spent time in the Canadian North, we learn, worked in a Pulp Mill, moved to Toronto to escape the grind, met a woman and got married.  The narrative is not smooth and the chronology takes some deciphering, but it is certainly very compelling. Les has lived.  Has seen things.  Been places.  He had a stint as a grillman, and worked many years as a baker.  But there were bumps.  Somewhere along the way, his marriage fell apart.  Hard times followed. A downward spiral. He took to selling drugs. Got caught.  Spent time in jail.  And now, at 66 years old, spends his days surviving on the DTES.

As you might imagine, Les has very little in a material sense.  He has no house. No car. Very few possessions at all. No designer labels. No fancy clothes. And yet, in a strange way, this was his appeal.  Les was simply Les.  It would be impossible to define him the way we define so many others.  You couldn’t say about Les, like you might about somebody else, that he’s a teacher or an accountant.  You couldn’t say that he drives a Suburau.  Or that he wears Pierre Cardin, or uses a Mac computer, or has funny Facebook posts.  He is nobody’s husband.  He is nobody’s father.  He has no degree.  No title.  The conventional approaches to describing or defining a person do not apply.  He is just Les.

This is not entirely true either.  Les is also an example of humanity in its truest form.  Any fancy packaging that might have existed at one time is gone; what remains is raw. Real.  I suspect Les is long past caring about the packaging.  A man can lose everything, even have it taken away from him, but his stories remain. Kristi and I both noticed that Les’s eyes sparkled as he told us his stories.  And we received them like a gift, knowing full well that what he was sharing was nothing less than his own self.  This is what we came for.  This was “Beyond Hello.”

Today, most people will walk right by Les, as he stands on his corner hoping to sell a few smokes. Today, we could have walked right past him too.   But we didn’t.  And now I have something I will never forget -  the experience of light where there is dark.

Special thanks to Kristi Blakeway for inviting me on the journey.  Check out her amazing blog, including the story of Les, here: Hopeful Learning: Beyond Hello: Feeling Alive

Postscript: I took this photo as we were making our way through the DTES.  I found it to be strangely symbolic.  it is simultaneously broken and beautiful, like so many of the people I see on the streets here.  A delicate thing in a hard world.


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