On the sideline of the criminal life


By: JD

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Image source: Flickr

I can proudly say my family has never been to an elegant dinner party. We've been invited to a couple, but nothing takes away elegance like a high-pitched fart coming from my father's desperate attempt to hide gas by clenching his butt cheeks, or my mother falling while trying to bust a move on the dance floor. It's not that my family never had thoughts of being sophisticated. We were never given the choice. Instead of trying to fit into a world that didn't want us, we shared our time with people who accepted us for what we were, most of the time they were outcasts themselves, an island of lost toys consisting of handicaps, bad habits, and bad pasts.

I've spent the majority of my life on the sideline of the criminal life. Through most of it I've kept my head down and my nose clean. My regrets, if I have any, would lie with the weight that comes with knowing their secrets, not because of some of the negative outcomes these secrets had on their lives, this was their own doing, but because the more I learned about who they were, the less they became someone to fear or judge, and the more I understood that we are all criminals. Why this feels like regret is because if the borders between the bad guys and good guys doesn't exist, what are we left with? But I digress; this is a story I need to start from the beginning, with a simple story of two small-town kids who fell in love.

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My father stands at six four with the width of a linebacker, and if it weren't for his severe hearing impairment he probably would have been one. When I explain my father's handicap to others I always explain that he is deaf, though this isn't entirely true. My father has a very small amount of hearing in one ear. It was once explained to me that for my father to hear at the same volume as the majority hears a hushed speaking voice, a 747 would have to fly inches above his head.

My mother was born with cerebral palsy. For those who don't know what cerebral palsy is, and without going into too many details, I can assure you it is something that can catch a few eyes from time to time, and it isn't something that can go away with a simple cough drop. How these two met is still a mystery to me, no matter how many times I hear the story. But they met, fell in love, and created a type of pact. A pact that included speaking for those who were unable to speak for themselves. I've thought if I could meet them at this point in their lives, and tell them where their lives would end up, would they believe me? They've both guaranteed me, there'd be no chance in hell.

It's not that we were dangerous, we just looked or acted in a way different enough for mothers to hide their children when they saw us. For instance, my father's best friend, whom I called uncle Brian, was a man with a similar size to my father but with broader shoulders. I used to grab his forearm with all my might while he lifted me up and down with little strain, a game we continued to play when I weighted over 90 pounds. As a boy I once lost my mother in a shopping mall. When I couldn't find her, I went to the closest thing to safety I could find, this happened to be a large longhaired biker who, my mother would tell me later on, had always been regarded as dangerous looking and was touched to meet a boy who saw him as otherwise. She assured him that most men who looked like him were big teddy bears, and then she most likely invited him to dinner, I'm not sure if she would even remember if she did.

Our family's life changed one day when in church, my father asked why God only spoke to preachers and not someone like him. After reading Matthew 6:13, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you", my father decided to do just that. He had no job, we had very little money in the bank, and my father decided to fast for forty days and nights and pray until he heard God's voice. When I told people at school about my father's fast, I was put into detention. I learned then that these subjects aren't well received. After his fast my father felt God tell him that he was to go into prison ministry. And down the rabbit hole we went.


I'm sure there were others, but Don is the first to come to mind, probably because he was our first success. There are many gaps when it comes to the prison system, this is one of them: Get caught. Do time. Go free. And never find good employment or housing again. I don't know why this is okay in a society as "advanced" as ours. I think it has something to do with how people view ex-convicts, unless it's Paris Hilton or Martha Stewart, for some reason they're still A-OK if they do time in the clink. Are people scared of ex-cons because they got caught or because they did the crime? If it is a fear about the crime, than wouldn't someone who got caught for his or her crime be more likely not to do the crime again? I'll put this in other words: If one day I thought, "I'm sick of paying for shit, I'm going to just take things", and I was arrested for this, than put into a small cement hole with a bunch of other stinky guys for a while, unable to hug or see my family while I'm in there. Once I'm finally out of that hole, I'm more likely to start paying for shit. I know it seems like a simple concept, but a lot of guys start doing crime again cause nobody will hire them for anything else. There are other factors, many that my family has had to deal with, but this one cannot be overlooked. My family is part of the few in this country that try to help. And according to the amount of dinner guests my family has had, I think the prison system they want looks like this: Get caught. Do time. Go free. And have dinner with JD's family. I remember Don being one of our earliest dinner guests.

Don was a criminal. He was not a person who did a crime. There's a difference. And his story is unfortunately not uncommon. His mother died in a mental institution and his father was a drunk. He was moved into foster care where he was severely abused for years. He did what he was taught to, which meant being in and out of prison a lot. With help he was able to get a job once he got out of prison. My family learned a valuable lesson with Don. One day when he was at our house, my mother brought him some homemade muffins and some coffee in a red speckled camping cup. Don started yelling and threw the cup and muffins on the ground. To Don, a tin cup meant prison, and muffins meant a food lineup for the homeless. Symbols have power. And helping someone doesn't mean giving them your spare change.

I don't remember these events at all. What I remember are the conversations my parents had about the incident, and made sure that I remembered it. When I remember Don, I think of his El Camino. The roar of it coming up to our house was what I always imagined lions to sound like. I had to stare at it for most of a day to gather up the strength to walk up to it. I remember standing in front of it and looking into the right headlamp, hoping the beast wouldn't wake up, wink at me and say, "Thought I was asleep eh? Well too bad, now I'm going to gobble you up!" All that power just stayed asleep under the hood while I watched. My curiosity got the best of me, and I wondered what would happen if I touched it. As soon as I put my hand up to touch it, Don came walking towards the car saying, "You like El Caminos?" I had no idea that's what you called the thing in front of me, but he went on, "Lots of people don't like the El Camino anymore. They're selling them for dirt." He rubbed his hands across the hood, "I still think they're a classic", than he smacked it twice with his first, "And you can't get anymore dependable than this old gal." He jumped into the driver's seat and said, "Here, listen to this." He turned the key, and with that, the car was alive. He revved the engine and I could hear the entire growl of it. It scared me, but I never wanted cars to sound any other way.
The joy of owning a muscle car is not the final product. If someone has enough money they can buy a restored muscle car and enjoy the thrill of its power, but they will never respect it. A real gear-head understands the joy of finding the broken shell of car, picking it up, and spending years under its hood. You rebuild a muscle car piece by piece. You learn its simple mechanics. You polish and clean each body part, and figure out exactly where everything goes. There is not much better in this world than a group a buddies sitting around in a garage fixing a muscle car. From what I've seen, that's the entire reason for having one. By the time someone fixes a muscle car, if they buy the shell in their 20s, they are usually at the age of retirement.

If you ever get the chance to meet an older gear-head, ask them their favorite memory of building a muscle car. More often than not, they will tell you a memory of a bunch of boys sitting around, drinking beer, and trying to get the damn thing started. I can't think of a better metaphor than that for Don. Don saw his life as a rusted old Al Camino, and instead of giving up on it he worked it piece by piece. Something similar was said by Camus when he said, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart." And though I find Camus a bit flowery with his language, I do think that most gear-heads would understand the gist of what he's trying to say.

Truly, Madly, and Deeply

Not all the stories turned out as nicely as Don. In fact, looking back I think he was the nicest. I guess that's why I started with him. Jean's story is exactly that, he's a story. He lied about most everything, so it's hard to say who Jean really is. I've come to understand people like Jean as black holes. No matter how much you give, it's never enough. What he wanted was simple: A nice home, a family, and a son. And he had all the tools to have that. Jean was tall, good-looking, and incredibly charismatic. If that's not enough, he was also very smart. What got in his way was he wasn't able to like himself. So anyone who actually cared for him was unable to, cause in his mind, the only reason someone would seem like they cared was out of pity.

There was a lot of drama surrounding Jean, but as a kid you don't really notice these things. I remember being told that Jean had a tendency for picking up women, and then becoming insanely jealous. I hadn't noticed anything, so it never bothered me too much.

On one of my birthdays I got some money, and I noticed a couple days later that the money was gone. I was sad that the money was gone, and I knew my parent's weren't that hard up. Even to a kid it was obvious where the money had gone, but Jean liked me, and he liked to buy me gifts. The reason for this was that his recent girlfriend had aborted her child. He felt he knew it was a boy, and saw me as a memory of that. In the excitement of a new Star Wars movie coming out, restaurants were giving away commemorative cups where you could suck your cola out of the heads of your favorite characters. Jean gave me these cups. I wasn't the biggest Star Wars fan, I would have much preferred to get the meal that came along with it, but I thought to myself, "at least he's using my money to eat."

I think with a Christian upbringing, and my parents giving spirit, it helped me see things a different way.

Jean always had a persona with people, I knew that even then. If it was just he and I, he never felt the need to impress me. He would drop his character, and put on his real face. I got to see this when he drove me home from church one day when he said, "You ever want to get married?"

Of course I had never really thought about it, but I knew I liked girls, so my response sounded something like, 'Um, ya ... sure I think.' But Jean wasn't really talking to me. He was talking at me. He went into his leather jacket and pulled out a Savage Garden CD and said, "There's a song on this CD I want to get married to." I wasn't a fan of Savage Garden. At that point I had never met a man who not only liked Savage Garden, but would also admit to liking it. My judgment stopped when I saw Jean was crying. He was not a man to cry, so I listened to what the song had to say. The song "Truly Madly Deeply" came on. His right hand rested on the wheel, and his head nodding in agreement to the words. He wiped the tears running down his face while the lyrics spoke of a love that was so deep it made you crazy. When the song ended, he pulled to the side of the road and broke down.

This scared the shit out of me. I knew that Jean was showing me his real self, and I didn't like it. I saw the sadness that drove him to do what he did and part of me understood it. He wanted to be loved, but anger drove his passion. He started to pound the steering wheel with fists as I watched tears drip off his nose. He started yelling and cursing God for making the world the way it was. He was angry and primal. I couldn't recognize him. It was as if a switch had gone off inside of him. During this Hyde period I closed my eyes as I waited for him to finish. When I opened them again, he was Dr. Jekyll putting the truck back into drive. We didn't speak for the rest of the ride home.

Later on, my mother had to go to court to testify against Jean with five other women. In a fit of rage Jean had threatened my mother, and accused her of trying to separate him from his newly pregnant girlfriend. He felt he needed to assert his point with a hand around my mother's throat. When I heard this, I could only think of the drive home from church. It was the first time I understood where his actions came from. I knew that in time he would hurt other women. He spent five years in Bowden and was found not to be a dangerous offender. I remember my mother's words much clearer on the subject:

"The officer I had the privilege of working with believes there will be a body someday floating down a river somewhere. It will probably be female. At that time, we will all be asked to sit on those wooden benches again. I wonder will he be considered dangerous then?"

I remember after the trial the police thought it would be best to protect my family. My sister and I would wave to them from our front window. They were supposed to be undercover, but no matter who you are when all your windows are tinted, you're and idiot drawing attention to yourself. I was annoyed that they wouldn't drive me to school. It seemed like a waste of time for them to follow me all the way there without helping out a little.

I found out more details about Jean later on. It's obvious to me that he wasn't getting the help that he needed. Prison wasn't going to change him. It was only going to make him worse. I know he would be pissed if he ever read this. He got angry if anyone ever saw him as weak. But, most likely he's just an old man sitting alone in some room, wishing someone loved him.

The King of the Park

Despite what many think, the human spirit can be broken. A life can be so altered and manipulated that it is beyond repair. It's our ego that tells us otherwise. When meeting a broken shell of a person, you want to ask questions like: Are you able to feel happiness? Do you even know what it is? What do you dream? Are you able to dream? Do your memories feel like your own? Do you feel like you are alive? Everything you would ask a ghost. And though they might be surrounded by flesh and bone, it's the best way to describe them.

I call him the king of the park because he has no other name, not one that he knows anymore. We found him raking leaves in a public park. His face never changed. The more the leaves dropped, the more he raked. He might have been homeless, we never knew.

He ate when he could, and slept where he could. Where or what he ate didn't matter to him. What mattered to him, when we found him, was the park. When we moved him away from it and into our home, he didn't object. It was as if the park never existed when we moved him. All those hours of labor and care meant nothing. Almost as if he had forgotten he was in a park at all. He never said a word while we drove him. He just kept looking at his shoes.

I would come home after school and find him raking our leaves. When I went to help him with his pile, he would start another one. We had heard some things about his past. We heard that he had murdered a lot of people, but not in hate or in contempt, but because someone gave him a gun and told him, "In this country you either kill or get killed." I wondered then if he had the same blank expression when he killed people as when he raked leaves. He was too old for prison, so they let him into the world. We wanted to give him a life, but it was obvious that the ability to live was stolen from him long ago.

The first time I heard him speak was when we were giving a dog a bath. By this time we had grown more comfortable with him silently following us. We assumed he liked dogs because he would care for them. But, we also assumed he liked the park. I assumed he felt the same way about dogs as he did leaves. When he spoke I was surprised to hear his European accent, "They drown them . . . they drown them in front of us. We were children. Too much . . . too much." Tears went down his face, but his countenance didn't change. I watched his body rebel against his hollow. Watching him was like watching a mistake in nature, as if birds one day flew their V toward a cold winter. Without thought or understanding, his basic nature had changed.

In bits and pieces we heard his story, not in coherent sentences, but fragments of speech spoken to no one in particular. We heard of Christian leaders running an orphanage in St. Johns Newfoundland, and the physical and sexual abuse he went through. We researched and found tragedy and corruption in places like Mount Cashel. We read books depicting similar stories to what he told us. There was no way to prove or disprove what he had said, and to this day there is no way of knowing what happened. His broken words and phrases could have been lies. It was easier to believe that. It was easier to help him if we felt he wasn't damaged to the point of no return. But, we never knew. He could have been anyone.

When thinking back, I can only think of a void of a person. Someone who had lost, or experienced, so much that his body was the only thing that was left. A mind so pushed beyond its capacity, that murder and a handshake were both equally foreign and comfortable. We got him a job walking dogs. It was the best we could think of. I remember thinking his life didn't seem to change, and that he would have been just as comfortable in the park. After that, I viewed everyone more fragile than before, as desperate creatures clinging to something we call humanity, something I once thought we could never lose, to something that I no longer understood. A concept echoed in Melville's "Bartlby", where a character much like the king of the park dies in a prison. Melville's closing lines of the story are, "Ah Bartlby, Ah humanity."

We taught the king of the park such things as buying food and what money was. He was able to live fine enough on his own. It made no difference to him. He didn't seem like he wanted to commit crimes anymore, but he didn't seem like he wanted to do anything. It is hard to say if we helped him, or if he could be helped. We moved onto other people without knowing if he would remember us, unaware if he knew how he ended up walking dogs. I assume now that he has died, but that might not be the case.

Maybe one day while walking dogs he never returned home. Maybe he returned to the park. I like these thoughts, they're hopeful and easy to digest, but I can't help thinking what a man like him is capable of. Without remorse or a fear of punishment, I view him like a shell-shocked soldier taking orders from foggy memories of rape and torture. Humans are fragile, and in the base form, they're the same. And though most of us say we wouldn't murder or steal, we've been doing it since we came into existence. It would be nice to think that at our core we are good people, though I'm not sure if that's true. If raised to believe we had to kill to survive, would we view people as nothing more than walking mounds of flesh? Without a social contract or imprisonment, are we all dormant criminals in wait of a situation that breaks our moral code?

Hells Angels

Everyone knew the rumor, if you worked your way up the union ladder, maybe one day you could work at Vancouver Shipyard, more commonly known as the Drydocks. I had also heard the rumors surrounding the Drydocks, mostly that members of the Hells Angels East Charter worked there cause of the fast hard pay, giving the government a viable reason for how they got their money.

But, when it came to the lower Eastside, all I heard were rumors, I started to think the local hippies and artists were spreading them in order to get cheaper rent. Some of the rumors were true though, there were a lot of junkies and whores, but when you're in your twenties, so are you. If you're telling everyone you're not; you're either lying, stuck-up, or a brag. Despite what you may hear, there is nothing dangerous about the Eastside. I wouldn't suggest making a crack necklace and start walking around, unless you wanted to reignite the athletic prowess of the 2010 Olympics and start a million man run-for-your-life, but given the amount of coffee shops and young loving parents with strollers, I would say life was pretty safe.

In the Eastside, nobody paid attention to the Angels, everyone knew what they did, but nobody cared. Up the stairs of the Amsterdam café, turn left, you'll find an angel to sell you drugs. First thing you learned about the eastside besides avoid Hastings and Main at night. If a cop car drove by everyone paid attention to what they were doing, and there is a reason for that. Both angels and cops wore uniforms. Both were either a protection or a threat, depending on what you were doing. Yet, if you want to cut the population of Vancouver in half, pry away the glass blown bubblers from the brown teeth of its regular citizens and see what happens. People will put up with a lot shit for good bud.

I was thrilled when my union representative told me I got the job at the Drydocks. It encompassed the North Vancouver coastline and faced the lights downtown. The sunrise alone was worth it. The men who worked there hadn't changed in forty years. They would complain about their families at work, and complain about work to their families. They led peaceful lives. The rumors were wrong of course, there weren't fights or hard heartedness, just men who worked hard and played hard.

Every once in a while after meeting one of the members, I would be introduced to another member wearing a Hells Angels patch, but never in front of anyone it would offend and never on the Drydocks. In the winter, I would drive some of the boys to and from work when it was too cold for motorcycles. They were always thankful and would offer to buy me beer or a dance at the bar. During lunch one day, I was warned against hanging out with them because they were dangerous. At the time, I didn't find the advice fitting. Then, eventually, without realizing it at first, I found myself being avoided by anyone without a motorcycle. One time, while we were drinking beer after work, some of the members found out I liked to read and write, so they told me their stories. I found out the different levels taken to acquire a full Hells Angels patch: first being a hang-around, than an associate, than a prospect, then finally a full patch. Patch members became distant after hearing what I was being told; they became comfortable with me after that day in the hulls.

When working in the hulls of a large metal boat, you wear an oxygen mask because rust eats oxygen. It's recommended that you have two different flashlights, a two-way radio, a full body suit, and all other standard safety equipment. Many ships have only one entrance into the hulls, so to travel from hull to hull, you have to crawl on your stomach through the small metal openings that connect each one. Some more modern ships, like the one we worked on that day, are designed with even smaller hulls that will fit a regular sized man if he is crunched into a fetal position. I've never had an imposing figure, or a fear or small spaces, so working in the hulls never bothered me.

That day I needed help, so one of the members came in with me. Not long after crawling through the hulls, he started to behave and breathe erratically, ripping open his body suit and trying to take off his oxygen mask. I radioed the surface, trying my best to keep his mask on in fear he might breathe in too much of the low oxygen air. He calmed down enough to stop grabbing at his mask, but felt unable to move. The rescue team was coming, but we were too deep into the hulls to use the crane to lift him out. My radio cracked that a harness had been lowered and we needed to crawl over so they could put it on him. An odd silence took over the hull as we sat together. He closed his eyes as the pace of his breathing slowed. And as suddenly as it had started, it was over. He looked at me and slowly nodded his head, indicating he was ready to follow me out of the hulls. When we reached the end, a member of the rescue team attached the harness, and then signaled the crane to lift him out. Once everything was over, the story became rumor, the rumor became myth, and that myth followed me until the day I quit the docks and left Vancouver.

Not long after getting settled into a new city, I read about the death and arrests of some of the Hells Angels East Charter. A book came out, recalling the events called, "Hell To Pay: Hells Angels vs. The Million-Dollar Rat" where it explains the events of a member ratting out to the cops. Even though I wasn't there anymore, I knew everything had changed. I knew that my friendship would now be seen as a threat. I knew they would no longer work at the Drydocks. They're probably still in charge of the drugs in the Vancouver Eastside, but they wouldn't have the same friendliness they once had. I'm sure the only time my name was brought up again was in asking amongst them if I had anything to use against them. The only information I have about them is information that nobody would want to hear. Stories of who snores loudest when they're hung over, about their time on the open road, and the story of one member in particular, that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, is claustrophobic.

Final Thoughts

My family still works in prison and not much has changed. Whenever I go to my folks house, the table is still filled with all different sorts of people: Judges, Lawyers, Ex-Mafia, Convicts, Policemen, and who can forget the lovely members of my mother's sewing circle.

It's a place where anyone can sit and feel accepted. These are only a few stories of convicts that have been to my house or my experience of knowing some who are on the "bad" side of the tracks, there are many more not included here. Most of these stories exist because my parents wanted to help people in need. A lot of people have asked them how they continue. I know both my parents would say it is because of God and leave it at that, which is a great answer, but it doesn't explain enough to those who don't know where they're coming from.

There are people who talk about Christianity with a whole holier-than-thou type of air, and there are people who rebel against this in a similar fashion. And to these people I want to say, "Who the fuck are you to judge?" Both my parents (sorry guys) have put this in much more eloquent terms. My father would quote the bible saying, "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged" (Matthew 7:1), or ,"He that without sin among you, let him first cast a stone" (John 8:7). My mother would say, "Hell was made for sinners, and everyone is a sinner", or ,"There is no grading system for sin, they are all the same, so we are all the same." The point is, my family has been accepted and forgiven for whom they are and all the stuff they've done, so they have no problem accepting others the same way. My mother, who is much more poetic than me in her daily life, even wrote a poem about it called "The Smell of Sheep." If it were my poem I probably would have called it "So We All Smell Like Sheep Shit . . . Now What?" But again, I digress.

If everyone were caught for the wrongs they've done, and put into prison for it, there wouldn't be a need for any walls because our entire planet would be convicted. Shakespeare's thoughts were similar on the subject:

Guildenstern: Prison, my lord?
Hamlet: Denmark's a prison
Rosencrantz: Then the world is one.
Hamlet: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why, then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
(Act II, Scene II)

I've never been to Denmark, but I'm sure everyone has felt like his or her hometown sucked, but that's not the point. Hamlet's description of the world being is a prison makes sense. Everyone is in the same boat. We've all made mistakes. We've all done some good. And I'm not as depressed, or arguably as insane as Hamlet, but the choice he gives is important. There is no such thing as "good" or "bad", but as Hamlet puts it "thinking makes it so." In my own words, I think Hamlet summing up what most of us do. Each person has an idea of what's a good or a bad person, and then we distinguish ourselves in those categories. In Hamlet's mind we all are bad people, so then the world is a prison. What keeps my family helping those in need is this idea. In their eyes they are the same as the criminals they help. I like this idea. It's helped a lot of people. It seems like a better way of approaching things than what Hamlet does, where he tries to get rid of those who are guilty and everyone ends up dead.

To answer the question asked at the beginning, if we no longer had the borders between good and bad guys, we're left with people. My life may have been on the border of the criminal life, but it never felt like that.

The motto for the Hells Angels goes like this, "When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets."

I'm not advocating the actions of the Hells Angels, or trying to say there isn't injustice in this world. There is nobody that can be lumped together as single type of person. Most biker gangs just want to hit the open road on their choppers, most criminals just want to be free, and when it comes down to it, if there are any real rights left, I would say this was God given, but has been taken away by our notions of what's good, what's bad, and has left us with the ugly.

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