None of us ever saw him eating from cans of spinach
, but he was, none the less, known to most of the world as Popeye. He was neither strong nor brave and he had no Olive Oyl to call his wife. All he had in this world was a shopping cart full of his stuff and his dog
, Georgie-girl. There was no place for him other than the streets of Vancouver
, where he had wandered collecting cans for over a decade and only the life of a street wanderer would suit him.
Popeye became a part of my life one summer that I was living in the city. Sometimes I would run into him walking along the cheerful, tree lined streets, and he would stop and tell me strange tales of strange people doing unimaginably strange things. Once I saw him with a group of other homeless near the train tracks, and he invited me over to join them. His presence made it safe for me to do so. More often, however, I saw Popeye at home, at a place we half jokingly, half mockingly called The Compound.
We were a motley crew. There was Boris, the Russian filmmaker, Bran the coke snorting pot grower, Matt the pot smoking coke dealer, Brycken, mural painter and sculptor, smarmy Constantine, who worked for a German logging company, Steve the gentle tree planter, and me, the aspiring world traveler and writer. We occupied three run down houses in an otherwise completely gentrified neighbourhood and were most fortunate to share between us almost an acre of backyard.
Popeye fit in and became a part of our temporary and eclectic family. He came by nearly everyday to say hello and although we often offered him food from our communal pot, he always refused. He wanted our friendship, not our handouts. He never came into the backyard without an invitation to do so, and would holler out his gruff greetings from the street until we asked him to join us. That summer we spent a lot of time in the backyard, tending to gardens, playing scrabble and badminton and, of course, conducting late night parties. These yielded a huge quantity of cans and bottles, which Popeye returned for the deposit.
Once, he bought us a case of beer as thanks.
Popeye lived on the streets, dependent on government checks for his keep. He never begged. In fact, he was an aspiring entrepreneur. One summer he devised a plan to help out himself and others living on the streets. Popeye collected hundreds of cans every week from people who didn't feel like returning them to the liquor store themselves or would rather pass on the deposit to someone like him. His plan was to make it even easier to donate cans and bottles by setting up special bins around the neighbourhood. A local grocer donated three Rubbermaid bins for the pilot project. Popeye did some cleaning for a sign maker who professionally labeled the bins, "Popeye's Can And Bottle Collection Service." Somehow he got a pager and put signs up around the neighbourhood. One of his bins proudly stood in front of the compound.
Things were looking up for him; the business, even though still in its infancy, seemed to give him a new sense of hope. Popeye was no longer just a street guy, he was a businessman. Talking to him about the project, you could immediately sense his excitement. He spoke with such enthusiasm, not only about the possibility of his own success, but the chance that others might follow suit and improve their lives as well.
Like some street people with mental illness, Popeye preferred to live on the streets. They were his home and offered him a freedom and independence that he didn't feel he would have living in a shelter. He had friends under the bridge and near the train tracks all in the same situation, men and women that just didn't fit into society. He could go where he wanted, when he wanted. The business might get him a bit of the respect that was otherwise lacking from his chosen lifestyle.
Unfortunately, things didn't pan out for our Popeye. His brother in Ontario died in a car accident and the welfare office arranged for him to fly home for the funeral. When he returned, he was a changed man. He didn't stop in as often, didn't tell us his usual jokes and the collection bin remained neglected and unused. He started drinkin' and fightin'. We would see Popeye with black eyes and cuts and bruises, more often than we would find him in a cheerful and talkative mood.
Popeye never completely became his old self again, maybe because of the failure of his venture, or for reasons that we will never know about. He remained, despite this, an important part of our lives and a reminder that hope belongs to us all, regardless of what happens to it or what we choose to do with it.
Inspired by this